JJM Is there a club in New York today that symbolizes what the Stork Club symbolized then?
RB Not at all. 21 still exists, and that goes back to that era, but 21 is really a restaurant. There is no entertainment, no bands. You might say that Studio 54, in its heyday of disco in the 70’s approximated the popularity of the Stork Club, although its tenor was obviously very different. Studio 54 catered to wild misbehavior, drug taking, promiscuity – none of these things would have been permitted in the kind of pristine, austere setting of the Stork Club, where Billingsley policed behavior with an iron fist. But in terms of popularity, you have to pick a place like Studio 54 to approximate it. Because virtual reality has replaced so much of what going out in person used to represent, the era of where people go out to be seen is probably gone.
JJM Yes, it really feels that way. It is a complete turnaround from where Café Society was, where people left their homes to be seen. It seems as if we are going the other way now, where there is more status in having so much in your own home to entertain yourself with, so you don’t have to go anywhere.
RB Right, and you can be seen without leaving the house. There is teleconferencing, you are interviewed in your home. In that sense, you don’t have to be seen in person anymore, you can just have your image flashed around. But, this was a time, I like to say, that when you came in from California or Europe, the first place you would go to was the Stork Club because you wanted to let it be known that you were in town, and that is where all the important people would see you, and they would go to their friends and say “guess who I saw at the Stork Club?” That is how fame spread, but it was all in person.
JJM Before reading your book, when someone would mention the Stork Club, the first thing I would think about was that it was a mob place, and the second thing I would think about was that is where Kennedy got laid a lot
RB He did, and I tell the story of how he would meet Marilyn Monroe there. Gregory the maitre d’ would hustle Marilyn out of the kitchen whenever Jackie showed up. All the Kennedy’s 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.
JJM Billingsley was such a philanderer, if anyone knew how to protect a philanderer, it would be him.
RB You know, it was pretty discreet at the time, and that is something else we have to remember, that this was an era where a lot was concealed from the public. The newspapers didn’t cover these stories and people like Billingsley could have loving relationships with his family and his wife and still have plenty of girls on the side and nobody put their nose into it. It wasn’t written about, it was considered part of what people did. It was certainly a different world.
JJM The Stork Club was more than just a club, it was a centerpiece to American culture.
RB If it were just a nightclub, I wouldn’t have written about it. To me, it was just a way into the story of what was New York like in this most fascinating time. It was a very different time when the city really pulsated. Now, you might say that New York is the center of the entertainment universe, but that was a time when movies loomed larger because that was the only form of celluloid entertainment that existed and people just thrived on these images of Times Square and New York night clubs. New York was really a beacon, an icon, and writing this book was a wonderful chance to relive that period. I felt like I was back in the 30’s and 40’s when I was writing it.
America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society
Ralph Blumenthal products at Amazon.com
Interview took place on January 14, 2002
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Josephine Baker biographer Ean Wood.