THE MOST FAMOUS NIGHTCLUB ON EARTH
Bartenders would receive brand-new Cadillacs as tips. Maitre d’s were slipped 20k for entrance. Exotic rubies, French perfumes, cases of champagne & fresh Cuban cigars were bartering items. Balloons stuffed with $100 bills rained from the ceilings. And the world’s most powerful gossip columnist dubbed it “New York’s New Yorkiest Place.” It was, of course, the Stork Club. As private and elite supper clubs become en vogue again, TREATS! looks back at the glamour, sophistication and luxe exclusivity of the birthplace of supper club cafe society that held sway over the world’s most celebrated, syndicated, notorious & lionized group of 20th century patrons ever assembled to dine, drink, fight & flirt in fashionable excess.
by Sarah Hassan
Ernest Hemingway had been drinking scotch-and-waters while mashing on Cuban cigarillos all night at his regular table, 55. It was a cold Gotham night, fresh snow was falling outside on 53rd St. and 5th Avenue, but the heat inside the Stork Club was sweltering. As usual, Hemingway’s table was a hive of activity and revelry: drinks were bought and spilled; women fluttered like haute couture butterflies; black-tie waiters hovered like bumblebees, quick to refill a half-empty glass or light a stogie. It was 1940, and the writer was in a celebratory mood; his masterpiece, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was a smash success, and he was just embarking on what some have called the greatest romance of the 20th century with Martha Gellhorn. Drinks always flowed fast and furious at table 55—but tonight there was something different. Sherman Billingsley, the affable ex-Oklahoma rumrunner and founder/owner of the Stork Club, orbited around the table like a well-tuned satellite, making sure his prized literary patron was happy and content. As the proprietor of the “world’s most famous nightspot,” Billingsley was a mercurial man with a real talent for client relations and glitzy PR; he routinely lavished gifts of champagne, cigars, neckties, and even cars on his most coveted clients. Although he oozed a laidback charm with his impeccable double-breasted suits, immaculately parted hair, and an ever-present light of a fresh cigarette, Billingsley was a ruthless proprietor. If need be, he’d bribe, cajole, and seduce Western Union clerks for the addresses of movie stars, five-star generals, sultans, corporate titans, and femme-fatale starlets to personally send them hand-written invites to Stork. He lived his life by the M.O. of “anyone you ever heard of comes to the Stork Club.” But even he, the man behind the “center of the nightclub world,” the man who could make anything happen, grant any wish, desire, or quixotic whim, was in for a first this night.
It was closing time and Hemingway, always the last to leave, asked for his bill. When the hard-fisted writer looked at the bill, a slow smile stretched across his face as he reached for his jacket pocket. He called Billingsley over and handed him the bill and a piece of paper. Billingsley looked at the piece of paper in awe; it was a $100,000 royalty check for the screen rights to For Whom the Bell Tolls. (The sum was roughly the equivalent of $1.2 million today.) Billingsley shook his head and began to think as he popped open his fifth or sixth Coca-Cola of the night: On average the take for a good night at the club is $3,500-4,000. Where am I gonna get the cash? He asked Papa to give him 10 minutes; he disappeared behind the bar and through a door. As Hemingway was finishing his goodbye’s moments later, Billingsley reappeared at his table looking fresh as a cold mojito and patiently counted out $100,000 in $100 bills. The man who grew up the poorest of the poor on the dusty badlands of 19th century America, who had, literally, awoken on Christmas morning as a 10-year-old boy to lumps of coal in his stocking, had found $100,000 at 2AM for America’s most celebrated writer without breaking a sweat. The tip that Papa left was reportedly more than three month’s rent for Billingsley and his family.
“THE GREATEST NIGHTCLUB ON EARTH”
After America took her sweet time to catch up to big-sister Europe’s flair for putting on a show and throwing a good party, the nightclub culture of Manhattan, which started as wet revolt against going dry with Prohibition and lasted well into the mid-1950s, spawned a plethora of tempting and exotic options to suit any chic insomniac’s palate. If you wanted to see dazzling ice skaters costumed in feathers, there was the International Casino in Times Square, with its seven-foot-tall marquee of electric letters attempting to lure customers from its City of Light-infused rival, the French Casino, only five blocks away. Nostalgic for your old Kentucky home? Head up to Harlem, where the Cotton Club catered to an all-white audience with an all-black revue, from the most well-trained chorus line of “sepia beauties” to hot jazz bands that kept patrons dancing with every hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-ho. If the turn of the century had been the best of times, the Diamond Horseshoe certainly agreed, where a then-unknown choreographer named Gene Kelly got his start staging numbers with titles like “The Silver Screen” and “Mrs. Astor’s Pet Horse.” South-of-the-border sex appeal ruled East 60th Street at the Copacabana, where baseball greats rubbed elbows with The Rat Pack to the sounds of salsa and rumba, and on the opposite side of town, The Latin Quarter attempted to outdo itself night after night with sequins and spangles found on handpicked showgirls who demanded the last word in loveliness. A “civilized” Middle East could be found amidst the signature blue-and-white zebra-print upholstery of El Morocco, whose candlelit Champagne Room appealed to the more traditional nighthawk, with its mirrored wall sconces and strolling violinists. But all paled in comparison to the Stork Club.
As the crème de la crème of after-hours gathering and birthplace of American café society, where celebrities, socialites, politicians, favored policemen, gossip columnists, former bootleggers, and a few lucky rubes went to see and be seen, the Stork Club was “the greatest nightclub on earth.” The brainchild of the aforementioned Sherman Billingsley, who came to New York City to cool his heels after a federal arrest, the Stork Club endured the better end of Prohibition, three location changes, the Depression, and the war years. What started out as a crack venture between Billingsley and two gamblers in 1929 became the center-cut diamond in the crown of New York City nightlife for the bulk of the 20th century. Not merely a nightclub, the Stork Club was the club—famous all over the country from routine mentioning in syndicated gossip columns and comic strips that ran from the Main Line to the Pacific and through the heartland. When one speaks about the Stork Club, one is speaking of Billingsley and the American obsession with social status that supported his sparkling dream of exclusivity.
French high society had taught Billingsley well that there was no room more tempting than one behind a closed door: Once you had ventured under the Stork’s green canopy, made it past the 14-karat gold chain manned by a burly Greek tough guy named Gregory Pavlides, through the heavy bronze door with cigarette girls smiling along a flank of phone booths, quaint checkrooms, and perfume-scented powder rooms, then into the L-shaped 70-foot-long by 30-foot-wide bar, an orchestra of popping champagne corks and cocktail shakers, with its long mirror above it (Billingsley would keep an eye on the patrons by discreetly gazing at it)and into the cobalt blue velvet, chandelier-clad, mirror-walled main room punctuated by yellow and gray satin tables adorned with Napoleon brandy goblets, where mink coats, silk hats, ankle-length dresses, black ties, dark suits, and shiny shoes shuffled to society bands, you had “arrived” in every sense of the word.
“To millions and millions of people all over the world,” wrote Lucius Beebee, a journalist and noted gourmand of the day, “the Stork symbolizes and epitomizes the de luxe upholstery of quintessentially urban existence. It means fame; it means wealth; it means an elegant way of life among celebrated folk. The Stork is the shrine of sophistication in the minds of countless thousands who have never seen it, the fabric and pattern of legend.”
But how did the legend start, and where does it stand today?
SWANKY BUT NOT SNOOTY
There is no modern equivalent of the Stork Club, no epic watering hole where, if everybody knows your name, you have a name worth knowing, no internationally known standby where celebrities could go and relax in quarters built exclusively for them—the Stork’s ultra-exclusive Cub Room, (aka the “Snub Room”) being such a place—and certainly no night club that validates the sophistication of its heavily screened patrons with free gifts, live music, and the promise of seeing a star or two or three or 10 amidst the flashbulbs of in-house photographers. Yet as indelible a mark it made on popular culture from its inception to eventual close, the Stork now exists as a neglected, wrinkled ghost of New York City’s past.
From the beginning, the Stork embodied all that was fresh, young, and fabulous, and towards the end it began to rapidly lose its looks—weathered from the stress of Billingsley’s own ludicrous paranoia of labor unions, irrational temper that lost him friends and supporters, and clingy desperation to keep up an operation that would not, and could not, stand the passing of time. It is the quintessential American dream of a small-town nobody who made good—relatively speaking—in the Big Apple and became ringmaster of his own domain over the rich and famous he came to call his regulars—and a story that speaks to the common desire of the high-paying public: to fit in and feel at home.
New York City was a good place to be thirsty during the early days of Prohibition. Speakeasy after speakeasy opened up with secret cellars and trap doors in retaliation against the Volstead Act, which had bartenders at Maxim’s dressed as pallbearers, and gave birth to the mob which supplied much-needed liquor to the city’s dried-up watering holes. Going out on the town had a sort of exciting, unpredictable danger to it; any evening could end either with a starlet in your lap sipping gin or, unfortunately, in the slammer downtown. Billingsley smelled riches, fame, and a life of unimaginable glamour and gossip.
John Sherman Billingsley, born in Enid, Oklahoma, in 1896, to a land-hungry Kentucky farmer, was the youngest of seven children, attending a one-room schoolhouse he traveled to on horseback. He came to New York City in 1922 after playing partner to his big brothers’ bootlegging businesses in Oklahoma City, a dry town dotted with beleaguered brothels, opium dens, and gambling houses. Upon his arrival, he bought a Bronx drugstore as a front for selling illegal booze, successfully paid off the cops, and swiftly built a chain of similar stores. But at just 18-years-old, he had been arrested on federal charges in Detroit and sentenced to 15 months at Leavenworth in Kansas. It was a sentence he served for only a few months thanks to a cunning habeas corpus appeal, which overturned his conviction and allowed him to hightail it back to New York and re-enter the now-dangerous world of bootlegging.
Peddling real estate in the fashionable Bronx proved to be a safer racket, and Billingsley began to bear the trappings of big-city success, able to sell off the grocery and candy-store fronts he had back in Detroit and enter the exciting world of New York City nightlife. Leaving his wife, Dee Dee, to tend their growing nest in the Bronx, Sherman would spend nights on the town, attending Broadway shows, visiting cafés and cabarets in jazzy Harlem and the speakeasies of the West 50s. He was a regular at hot spots such as Billy La Hiff’s Tavern (where he would later find his most valuable staff member for the Stork), the Plantation Club, and the Follies at the New Amsterdam, where he satisfied his craving for plumed Ziegfeld beauties. He soon became a backstage Don Juan, spending big and tipping even bigger, eventually falling for the dancer-cum-actress Hazel Donnelly, an ivory-skinned gamine with a shock of red hair. They were married in 1925, after Sherman supplied Dee Dee with a hasty Mexican divorce, and the “wealthy Bronx builder” would go on to have three daughters, Jacqueline, Barbara, and baby Shermane, with his showgirl bride. After multiple successes in the touch-and-go real estate market that had him selling property as quick as he could snatch it up, Billingsley was approached by two gamblers who had been acquaintances of his in Oklahoma, who told him they had come to New York with their wives to open a restaurant. The adage of location, location, location was prime in their minds: Did Billingsley have any ideas?
Down the block from the New York Athletic Club was 132 West 58th Street, where the first Stork Club was born after the gamblers surprised Billingsley at the signing of the lease by insisting he become their partner. However, 1929 wasn’t the best year to start a business, but somehow Billingsley saw himself invested in a three-story townhouse that bore a funny name of which he couldn’t remember the origin. Help came cheap, but his partners proved useless businessmen as the club bled money and Billingsley dug into his own pockets to make ends meet. Oklahoma was apparently a place worth pining for and the gamblers became restless, eager to be bought out of their shares. Their savior came in the form of a mysterious man named Thomas Healy, who let Sherman keep 70-percent ownership of the Stork while acquiring the partners’ interest for $10,000.
One of the first customers of the fledgling club was Heywood Broun, a liberal journalist for the World, who comically mistook the somber, empty Stork for a “funeral home.” Expecting to pay his respects for the body of a friend, Broun instead found himself at a bar, and all it took was a couple of drinks for him to take a shine to the place and return with his gaggle of celebrity pals. One of Billingsley’s own famous friends, the legendary speakeasy operator Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan, who had made her start in vaudeville and went on to open the 300 Club, where her trademark greeting of “hello, suckers!” could be heard as she fingered her gold necklace of padlocks, gave Billingsley the break of a lifetime. Guinan persuaded her good friend, the influential gossip columnist Walter Winchell, to visit Sherman’s little club and give “a country boy from Oklahoma” a chance.
THE GREEN CANOPY, MOBSTERS, MURDER & MARTINIS
Winchell, born Walter Weinschel, who dropped out of the sixth grade to become a vaudeville performer himself, was hired by the New York Daily Mirror to run their first syndicated column known as On-Broadway and ended up earning more than $800,000 a year during the Depression. Winchell took Guinan up on her tip and, after viewing the digs at 132 West 58th Street, brazenly proclaimed the Stork “New York’s New Yorkiest place.” The ultimate seal of approval, Winchell’s publicity had the celebrities rolling into the Stork, and Billingsley saw himself breaking even in a big way each week. The lasting marriage of well-connected writers and the Stork had been consummated.
However, times were about to get worse before they got better. Billingsley received the sour news that his partner was really a “front” for three of New York’s smarmiest mobsters: the grim-faced George Jean “Frenchy” de Mange; the oil-haired Owney Madden; and William V. “Big Bill” Dywer, who had run the country’s largest liquor-smuggling fleet. Hardly a saint himself, Billingsley was no less unnerved by the situation and found himself a pawn in a deadly game between the trio and one of their rivals, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. New York was ripe with corruption by the mob that controlled nightlife and kept it wet throughout Prohibition, with sawed-off tommy guns the instruments of persuasion. After dining with Guinan one night, Billingsley was kidnapped on Park Avenue and held for ransom by Coll. Billingsley’s gangsters put a bounty on his head, and Coll was lured into a drugstore telephone booth, shot to death in a glass-shattering storm of 15 bullets. Billingsley bought his uneasy freedom for $30,000 from the mobsters and, after successfully paying them out, Sherman once again experienced the inconveniences of Prohibition when agents closed down the club in December of 1931.
A second location at the catchy-sounding 51 ½ East 51st Street was the Stork’s home for the next three years, but the third and final move to 3 East 53rd Street would be the site of watershed success for Billingsley and his now-legitimate club large enough for dancing and housed in the Physicians & Surgeons building until 1965. With a shrewd eye for publicity, Billingsley ran ads in college papers for the Stork, acquired the addresses and names of celebrities to send circulars, and repeated the tactic with Broadway stars. John Powers began to send his models to the club and staff writers for the Post and Herald Tribune began to frequent the tables, composing witty copy about their new favorite proprietor. The green canopy was up, the gold chain affixed across the entranceway, and Billingsley’s rule of thumb given to his doormen was: “If you know them, they don’t belong in here.”
The gilded age of the Stork had indeed begun.
THE CULT OF CELEBRITY IS BORN
By setting the standard for modern-day club culture with his ingenious methods at the Stork—“make it difficult to get in, create a private room for the stars, then photograph the stars and sell the images to the press”—Billingsley attracted the clientele he so desired: the young, wealthy, powerful, lionized, beautiful, and famous. He, along with the steadfast gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who sat night after night at table 50 scribbling juicy hyperbole and sweet-sounding apocrypha for his column, created what is now known as “the cult of celebrity.” As most nightclubs came and went, much faster in New York than anywhere else, the Stork was able to endure thanks to Billingsley’s command of calculated exclusivity. It was a key social institution where the big names went to scheme, schmooze, lie, laugh, drink hard, and eat well, and the images from the war years, some of the Stork’s best, are as iconic as the celebrities captured:
Lucille Ball wrapped in white fur proudly displaying her gift of Sortilege perfume to a laughing Desi Arnaz; Ava Gardner seductively poking at Artie Shaw as he rests his cigarette on the Stork’s simple yet iconic ashtray (a souvenir often pocketed by patrons by the dozen each night); Frank Sinatra balancing his daughter on his knee at dinner; a dapper, young John F. Kennedy flanked by his fresh-faced date of WASP royalty, the future Mrs. Jackie Kennedy; Marilyn Monroe, her sensual mouth open mid-laugh and trademark décolleté on display for the grinning-from-ear-to-ear Joe DiMaggio; Orson Welles chomping on his trademark cigar; a scheming Claudette Colbert, her hands heavy with gold, gesticulating to Alfred Hitchcock; glamour gals Dorothy Lamour and Lana Turner sharing a giggle; a soulful Elizabeth Taylor bookended by her parents against the banquette; Judy Garland shimmering in a sequined jacket next to Vincente Minnelli; Ethel Merman swilling her imported champagne (a waiter was allegedly assigned to her specifically to light her cigarettes); Billingsley taking a call on one of the Stork’s squat black rotary phones as a dramatically veiled Greer Garson looks on; Al Jolson sharing a moment with Winchell and J. Edgar Hoover (whose presence warded off any predatory gangsters, save for Frank Costello, a Stork regular who was running the mob while Lucky Luciano sat in jail); and dozens of others whose money had been immune during the Depression or was booming thanks to their new celebrity status.
Billingsley was a born charmer and meticulous host. To cater to his “elect” and keep them coming back every night, Billingsley picked up their tabs, bought rounds of drinks and routinely presented them with hefty gifts: compacts studded with diamonds and rubies; rare liquor; the soon Stork-franchised Sortilege perfume made by Le Galion; and even a Rolls Royce or Bentley here and there. Billingsley daughter, Shermane, remembers these nights well.
“I learned from the best by watching and listening to my father,” she recalls. “I was perched on the top of table 50 in the Cub Room as soon as I could sit up! My dad personally took charge of every detail involved in planning his fabulous events.”
And the rich and infamous took notice. Spectacular gifts came his way, too: wristwatches, $2,500 massage chairs, money clips, cuff links, shirts with gold buttons, cameras, luggage, TVs, hats, wallets, and a solid gold Tiffany’s clock. Glowing letters arrived by the dozens. On October 27th, 1955, Billingsley received this note on White House stationery:
Dear Mr. Billingsley,
You are always thoughtful, and have been especially so to think of us during this time of anxiety with such wonderful gifts. It pleases the President and me to be able to give presents to all the people who have taken such excellent care of us during our stay in the hospital, and we delighted in seeing how much all the nurses, doctors, and our friends appreciated receiving perfume and cologne. These beautifully wrapped bottles were welcomed by everyone, and I do want to join with the others who have been fortunate enough to benefit from your generosity in expressing warmest thanks for your kindness, and every good wish always.
Best, Mamie Eisenhower
Another note read:
You are an incredible man, a generous and considerate man. Last night…at 2am…by the time I had dropped Dolores Gray at her home and arrived back at the Plaza, you had already arranged delivery of a carton of perfume, and one of cologne. I am indebted to you for your thoughtfulness and for the happy supper spent in your company. At the moment I can only repay such kindness with these few words of gratitude and my friendliest thoughts. You have my warm affection, dear Sherman.
Best, Cary Grant
BALLOON NIGHT, NAZIS & OYSTER BABY ASPARAGUS
Sunday night was “Balloon Night” when, in New Year’s Eve fashion, a net of balloons pinned to the ceiling would drop at midnight and send patrons scrambling to find the ones filled with $100 bills or tickets for prizes ranging from charms for bracelets to, yes, new cars. Even those in power who were unable to frequent the Stork were lavished with generosity: Billingsley routinely sent cigars and a selection of neckties to Dwight D. Eisenhower at the White House; three bomber planes were christened with the name of the Stork Club during World War II; and Billingsley commissioned Tiffany & Co. to produce sterling silver Victory pins as gifts for the new crew members.
And, of course, along with the glittering celebrity parade came ripe excess and gossip—and that’s what really spread the seeds of Stork as an international star. Ralph Blumenthal, the author of Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Café Society, chronicled it better than anyone:
JFK would meet Marilyn Monroe there. Gregory the maître d’ would hustle Marilyn out of the kitchen whenever Jackie showed up. All the Kennedys liked the Stork Club. I think Joe went back to the bootlegging days with Sherman. But, Jack had his 39th birthday at the Stork Club, which was just before he ran for the first time for President. When he was torpedoed during World War II, he recovered in New York and went to the Stork Club as quickly as he could and started meeting his ladies there.
J. Edgar Hoover, and his companion, Clyde Tolson, came in all the time. Sherman loved the idea that Hoover came to his club and he used Hoover to squash many legal problems at the club. Hoover liked to party and he loved the social scene. But they had a falling out after Billingsley’s daughter mysteriously eloped and Billingsley wanted Hoover to find them and arrest her suitor. However, before that Billingsley literally handed over every threatening letter to the FBI to be vetted. It was always really penny-ante stuff.
One night Sidney Solomon, the pugnacious proprietor of the Central Park Casino, after a night of swilling gin and tonics, took on Broadway Scandals actor George White, with White eventually following Solomon to the entrance and delivering a punch that put him out cold, all witnessed by a wild-eyed Tallulah Bankhead.
In 1941, Walter Winchell boycotted the club when Ernst Hanfstaengl, one of Hitler’s earliest confidantes and former press secretary chief for the Nazis, began frequenting the club. Before breaking with Hitler in 1934, the six-foot-five Hanfstaengl would often played piano renditions of Wagner for the Fuhrer deep into the night in his apartment. Winchell also famously snubbed the Nazi sympathizers, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who had been shamefully exiled to the Bahamas and made frequent trips to New York, much to Billingsley’s amazement.
By 1943, although most Americans were rationed to three pairs of shoes a year and 28-ounces of meat a week, Stork Club guests could eat and drink their fill. Billingsley had his connections. The club’s fanciful menu, cooked in the basement kitchen and carried upstairs by the waiters, who did a delicate dance when they met someone else going down, was strictly a la carte, featuring crepes suzette, crabmeat cocktail, broiled royal squab Casanova, chicken hamburger a la Winchell, oyster baby asparagus, and café diable.
HAND SIGNALS, FIGHT CLUB & GUINEA PIGS
It was not only the lionized clientele that made the Stork so iconic and alluring: It was also Billingsley’s groundbreaking and legendary hand signals. His discreet hand signals to his waiters, like that of a nightclub Yogi Berra, infamously captured in Life magazine, spoke to his continual need to impress: a hand at the knot of his tie meant “no check for this table”; a finger pointing downward demanded “bring a round of drinks”; a palm up with splayed fingers said “bring a bottle of champagne”; and tugging at his pocket square signaled “bring them a bottle of perfume.” Yet at the Stork, even the staff of 200, who could seat the 374 guests at any time, were on the receiving end: headwaiters pocketed $20,000 tips, friendly bartenders received new Cadillacs from grateful drinkers, and doormen often walked home after work with tightly wound nests of $100 bills stuffed deep into their jacket pockets. If dreams could come true, they came true at the Stork. Case in point: By the mid-40s, Billingsley was grossing $1.2 million a year, the equivalent of $12 million today.
Billingsley learned early on that a fight at the Stork Club was good for publicity—provided the heavyweights were big names. Ernest Hemingway got into fisticuffs with Lewis E. Laws, the warden of Sing Sing, which lives on in Stork legend as closely as Grace Kelly bending to Winchell about the rumors of her engagement to Prince Rainer of Monaco. But Billingsley also had his blacklist of heavyweights, who got a little too testy when intoxicated, such as Humphrey Bogart (who allegedly, after hours of swilling martinis, decided to send his lackeys out for two 22-lb. stuffed pandas to sit with him), Jackie Gleason (who supposedly slapped a woman in the powder room), and Milton Berle (allegedly something to do with his “big member” making a surprise appearance during dinner one night).
Billingsley’s love for animals was legendary, too. Shermane recalls that between lunch and dinner, when the club was not so busy, her dad would head up to his seventh-floor suite and return with live gifts.
“He would bring down the pets that my mother would not allow in the house. My guinea pig, parrot, and rhesus monkey.”
AMERICA’S MOST FAMOUS WAITER
If there was any staff member who could handle a scuffle and guard the Stork’s angels-in-residence it was the attendant of the Shangri-La of inner-inner VIP sanctums, the Cub Room, where special guests could play gin rummy, sip imported scotch, and get a shave and trim in the most exclusive barbershop in the city. Knighted with the title of “Saint Peter” (named after the overseer of heaven’s pearly gates), the most famous “Saint Peter” of all was the legendary captain John “Jack” Spooner, who was well known to dozens of celebrities from his lauded days at Billy La Hiff’s Tavern and was lovingly dubbed “America’s Most Famous Waiter” by the New York Times.
Jack, who endured a long hospitality career in New York City for 53 years, got his start in 1906 at the Waldorf Astoria after leaving the Marines, which he joined in 1901 as a runaway from Ohio. From there it was on to Billy La Hiff’s, “the place to be” during the 1920s, where he sealed his reputation as Broadway’s best-loved waiter, laughing, joking, and catering to a bevy of VIPs and notable personalities who followed him to the Stork upon Billingsley’s recruitment in 1934. Spooner brought in the exact clientele Billingsley had always been after, and unlike his fellow support staff members, who had admitted being familiar with thuggish company, if Jack knew your name, you belonged at the Stork.
From his home in Nashville, Tennessee, Ken Spooner carefully tends to and remembers his grandfather’s legacy—literally under a photo of him that hangs in his dining room. In the black-and-white photo, which is surrounded by Stork memorabilia like ashtrays, matchbooks, and stationery, Captain Jack is smiling over his shoulder as he pours over his famous “Autograph Book.” According to Ken, his grandfather was “soft spoken, had a very sharp and venomous wit, was always impeccably dressed, and was a tremendous presence anytime he entered a room.” Recounting the imposing Jack leaving for work in a tuxedo only to return by subway with thousands of dollars in his jacket pockets, Ken knew his grandfather could break up any dispute thanks to his stature and respect among the clientele. At La Hiff’s he had started “The Autograph Book” for his daughter Amelia, Ken’s mother, and celebrities such as Groucho Marx, Dr. Seuss, and E.C Segar of the comic strip Popeye scribbled personalized notes and signed their names. Soon the collection of impressive John Hancock’s reached in the thousands and included Babe Ruth, Bob Hope, Greta Garbo, Norman Rockwell, Jack Dempsey, FDR, Fay Wray, and Groucho Marx. Ed Sullivan dubbed the book one of the “Seven Wonders of the Street.”
Known for his natural ability to kid those who sat at his star-studded tables, Jack was also quite persuasive. He called Winchell “quite a talker” and was the only one to get the finicky columnist to change his dietary mind: “You don’t want that,” Jack would say after Winchell placed his order in the Cub Room. Ken recalls that his grandfather had so many friends that he began working on his Christmas card list in August.
“Granddad knew everyone,” Ken says. “He even had a sandwich named after him, The Spooner Sandwich, a steak number that had special sauce, English mustard, chopped olives, oregano, pickle relish, tomato, Tabasco, lemon juice, and thinly sliced onions served on lightly toasted white bread.”
The only person to leave the Stork Club twice—in Billingsley’s opinion, once you left, you had left for good—and be welcomed back each time, Jack inspired an unparalleled affection with his celebrity guests that even the generous yet wildly insecure proprietor couldn’t match. When he left for the first time, a startled Dorothy Lamour—whom Billingsley had written off as talentless during her early days a nightclub singer—demanded to know where her “favorite head waiter was.” When no one would give her a straight answer, the sultry starlet promptly called J. Edgar Hoover to get the scoop. Apparently, the Stork couldn’t reach such great heights without Jack to commandeer it.
“He was the only person Billingsley was ever afraid of,” Ken remembers.
Though they lived modestly in Queens, Ken recalls his mother being picked up in a Rolls Royce to get to her job as a secretary at a toy factory—and this was 1936, mind you—and Jack taking the occasional weekend to get away to Boston where he visited his mistress courtesy of his good friends, the Kennedys. (Ann, Ken’s grandmother, like so many wives of the period, never asked where he was going.) And if there was anyone who brought a sense of warm, familial hospitality to the Stork, it was Jack, who dressed up as Santa Claus during Christmastime and posed for photographs with patrons and their children, often doting on little Shermane Billingsley at Thanksgiving when her father would reserve the best table in the house for her sisters and mother. “Timing was what made the Stork Club work,” insists Ken, but Billingsley’s talent for branding, constant publicity from Winchell, and the ambiance of luxurious comfort Jack created made the Stork Club what is was. To have characters of a New York institution so ingrained in the popular American consciousness is unheard of today; headwaiters are no longer mentioned in comic strips syndicated in the Midwest, no one sings of a gossip columnist’s ability to wield power over society, and no nightclub owner is listed among the “Who’s Who in America.” Yet not even the Stork was immune to the troubles that would eventually lead to its downfall.
THE BIRD IS GROUNDED
The decade of the 1950s began with a bang for Billingsley and his club. In the spring of 1950, CBS green-lit the Stork Club TV show, building a mock Cub Room on the fourth floor of the club, hiding microphones in wine baskets and flower bowls. The show opened with a stiff-looking, toupee-wearing Billingsley, who is introduced as the “the world’s most fabulous host,” and then moves through an array of lip-synching guest hosts, Fatima cigarette product placement, cameos by Billingsley’s cute daughters, puppy and rabbit giveaways and bejeweled dining guests looking radiant and gregarious. The show, airing Saturday nights at 7:00, was, for a few years, despite Billingsley’s awkwardness on camera, a huge hit. (One night after a show, the actor Broderick Crawford summoned a stunned Billingsley into his dressing room and said, “Stick to saloon keeping. You’re not a very good actor.” Billingsley picked up a bottle of booze and chased Crawford out of the club.”) Ominous clouds were beginning to gather over the once untouchable club. (The show was unceremoniously canceled in 1955 after numerous gaffes, fights, dead air and embarrassing guests.)
Enter the dazzling Josephine Baker: In 1951, Jack’s alleged refusal to let the sultry black performer entrance into the Cub Room, was the first embarrassing chink in the Stork’s s gilded armor. The exact turn of events, however, is wildly disputed, but the aftershocks the incident created became infamous and inescapable. Depending on which version of the story you believe, it was either after Baker was reluctantly seated for dinner (upon which seeing the dark-skinned chanteuse in his club, Billingsley remarked “who the fuck let her in?”) and then made to wait an hour for her order of a well-done hamburger, before storming out of the club with a sympathetic Grace Kelly in tow, or was simply denied entrance to the club by Jack, the damage was done. Winchell, who had complimented Baker earlier on her cascading ponytail, mistook the incident and remarked to his dinner companion, “That’s nice, they’re going dancing.” In a rage, Baker made charges of racism against the Stork and accused Winchell for not intervening. What could have been an easily resolved dispute turned into nationwide humiliation for Winchell, who, after Baker had filed suit against him and urged the NAACP to investigate the club, was called out by Ed Sullivan, a syndicated rival and regular at El Morocco, who publicly denounced Winchell’s involvement as “an insult to the United States and American newspapermen.”
The rumor mill went into overdrive: J. Edgar Hoover had bugged the club; it was financed exclusively by murderers, gangsters and ruthless con men; there was half a million dollars in the safe to high tail it out of the country if need be.
For so long, just like the bird it is named after, the Stork Club soared, and flexed its wings above all the rest, but it was about to be run to ground.
“ARE YOU STILL HIDING JELLY BEANS UNDER THE BED?”
As the 50s blurred into the 60s and up-and-coming tourist destinations like Hollywood, Miami and Las Vegas all the rage, the carefully tended niche of café society now seemed like an anachronism. High rollers could demand big entertainment to go with their drinking and dining, and by 1956 the Stork was losing money. Billingsley became irrationally entangled in union disputes, paranoid over who amongst his staff was turning against him, and began firing at a whim those who had stood by him for years. Busboys, cooks, and waiters walked out over Billingsley’s refusal to let them join the union, and in turn they joined the picket lines, which Billingsley bombed with bags of water from the roof. The affair turned ugly when attempts at sabotage began to take place inside the club: salt was put in the sugar bowl and vice versa, telephone lines were cut, upholstery was sliced, drapes were torn, mirrors were cracked, and the water ran a dark, inky blue. Rumors of the kitchen being bugged prevailed and an increasingly psychotic Billingsley began carrying a gun after his secretary had been assaulted on her way home. Attempting to keep his kingdom running, which now consisted of a large, sad room with only a few curious customers listening to recorded music, Billingsley drained his daughters’ trust funds of nearly $10 million. He had lost his friends, his health was on the skids, and so was the Stork. In 1965, just two years after Jack Spooner had died of Parkinson’s, Billingsley closed his club. Walter Winchell’s obituary for the club, in Journal-American, read:
The Stork Club closing is no reason for sad songs…. The Stork Club was dedicated to the excitement of the town…. Fort its guests the Stork was the palace of nightclubs…. For its host Sherman Billingsley it was his home…. Sherman liked to believe that the people who came to his club were more than customers…. They were his guests and he was their friend…. The fact is Sherman liked nearly everybody and nearly everybody liked him…. His generosity and friendship are well known…. The mistake Sherman made—if you call it a mistake—was to believe that he could gain and retain friendship by giving it…. As we once observed about Jimmy Walker: He was always a friend to the many who were only a pal to him.
It was the end of an era, and New York City had barely just enough time to mourn the passing of one of its first beloved social hot spots when Billingsley, one year to the day after the death of the Stork, keeled over of a heart attack in his East Side apartment after asking his wife Hazel, “Are you still hiding jelly beans under the bed?” The Stork and its master were now gone for good, and there was no one place—or person—to reclaim the throne.
Today, the Stork Club exists as a gaping hole at 3 East 53rd Street; in its place the strange vest-pocket of Paley Park, named after the owner of CBS, the broadcasting company that Billingsley had sold the club to in 1965. It is hardly a fitting memorial to a place that gave birth to the frenzy of celebrity culture and became the dream of urban sophistication for small-town Americans. No plaque marks the spot where the green canopy stretched, no chalk-outlines commemorating all the double-parked cabs that waited to take patrons, dripping in diamonds and drunk on imported booze, home to their townhouses, no sacred ashtrays affixed to the park’s rickety tables. No, sadly, the last surviving remains of the Stork can be found in the ornamental mahogany bar at Jim Brady’s pub downtown, or in a scene from Mad Men where Don Draper takes Betty to a party there.
But whatever legacy the Stork left, despite the faded whiffs of Sortilege and cigarettes, and the celebrities long dead to recount their glory days in the Cub Room, one thing is for certain: With every line that snakes around a city block with bright young things dressed to the nines, eager to make it past the bouncer and his velvet rope, the Stork is there, reinventing the need to wait night after night for just one glimpse of the place, where once inside, everyone knows you have arrived at the most acclaimed supper club in the world.
Sarah Hassan is a New York City-based writer, editor and cultural critic. She wrote about the life and scandals of Colette for TREATS! issue 3, and regularly contributes to Artwrit and The Herald. She is also an accomplished dancer and performer, and serves on the guest faculty at Sarah Lawrence College.