For an entire generation, when Cafe Society was at its pinnacle, New York’s Stork Club was the world’s most storied night spot. It’s walls housed glamour and celebrities waited in line for the chance to be seen. Americans from all over the country, and soldiers fighting overseas, dreamed of visiting New York and being among the witnesses to the Stork Club’s elegant culture.
From its inception in the Roaring Twenties as a speakeasy for Jazz Age gangsters to its heyday in the 50’s when Jack wooed Jackie there, and headwaiters reaped $20,000 tips, everyone from Marilyn Monroe to J. Edgar Hoover gathered at the Stork Club. In Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society, and in our exclusive interview, New York Times journalist Ralph Blumenthal retells the story of this most emminent place to be.
Interview hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.
Sherman Billingsley, owner of The Stork Club
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
RB I guess I grew up, like most boys my age, with sports and war heroes. My sports heroes were Joe Dimaggio, Mickey Mantle. The Dodgers were my first favorite team until the disastrous 1953 pennant race.
JJM You stopped liking them then?
RB I was a fair weather fan. I immediately deserted the Dodgers and gave up and went to the Yankees. I was born in 1941, and I grew up sensing the war all around me. Even though I was little, I had heroes like MacArthur, Patton, Roosevelt – people who were doing great things for the country. Those were the people I looked up to when I was young.
JJM When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
RB I guess in college. I went to City College of New York. I wandered into the newspaper office one day, and joined the paper, The Campus. That was it. I was smitten. I just loved the idea of knowing things before other people, getting under the skin of the administration, and being looked up to. It was fun feeling the power of a writer, of a journalist. Before that I had been an English major and always liked writing, but once I joined the paper that was it for me.
JJM When was that?
RB That would have been 1959.
JJM When did you join the New York Times?
RB In 1964. After graduation I went to Columbia University Journalism School one year on a Masters program. I then joined the Times as a copy boy. I did a lot of writing on my own. It was a good time at the Times, a time of a lot of change. Abe Rosenthal had just come in. He was shaking things up amid a new administration. The city was being shaken up as well. It was the 1960’s, a time of great liberation and experimentation and young people being promoted at the paper.
JJM So you came in just as the Stork Club was going out …
RB As a matter of fact, it’s funny, because in my research I came across an article I did on the sale of the Stork Club property to William Paley, just as it was being ripped down. I had forgotten all about that until I did my research some 30 years later.
JJM What was that made you write the story?
RB I always loved history and I love New York and the era of elegance and glamour. I never made it to the Stork Club – it was a little beyond me – but I went to a lot of jazz places. I love to recall that era of elegance and the time when the city really was the center of the social and entertainment world.
JJM Damon Runyon started writing a book that he called “The Saga of Mr. B of the Stork Club.” Was any of his work ever published, or were there any other books about the Stork Club prior to yours?
RB Yes, there were a few. Runyon’s piece ran in Cosmopolitan, after he died. He never got far with it, producing only a 17 page manuscript. A former maitre d’ wrote a book called Welcome to the Stork Club, which I don’t much care for, but contained a lot of reportedly verbatim conversations with the Stork Club’s owner, Sherman Billingsley. That was basically it. There have not been other memoirs. Billingsley tried to write his own book many times. He collaborated with a few people, but any time anyone got too close to his real story, he backed off because he couldn’t face the fact he had been in Leavenworth, or that he had a bootlegging background. He did have some skeletons in his closet, so he didn’t take too kindly to the notion of a book.
JJM Sherman Billingsley and his brothers were considered by Michigan authorities, in fact, to be the largest whiskey runners in the country. How did he get out of bootlegging and settle in New York?
RB It’s an interesting story. He came to New York looking for his brother Logan, who was really the head of the bootlegging operation. Logan was on the lam from a syndicate who were wondering what happened to money he had been entrusted with. Billingsley came to New York looking for Logan and liked it here, He decided to open up a few drug stores, which was the classic way to bootleg liquor during prohibition. You would open up a drug store and get a permit from the government to sell alcohol because it was considered “medicinal.” By altering the certificate it would enable you to buy a large supply of medicinal alcohol, and suddenly you were in the alcohol business. Billingsley did very well with that, but then the big boys started moving in – Dutch Schultz and Owney Madden – and it got too dangerous. So, he opened up a restaurant with two partners and that is what became the Stork Club. Of course, he got moved in by the gangsters as well.
JJMThe Stork Club was in fact a front for the mob
RB It was. He opened it himself with two guys, and it was presumably legitimate then. But the mob quickly moved in, as they did with almost all the nightclubs at that time. Nobody could run a nightclub without having a secret mob partner. They didn’t let anyone make money that they could be making. So, suddenly Billingsley found himself with Ownie Madden and two other guys – real leg breakers and scary characters – and they bankrolled him in some other ventures. Billingsley was their front in a number of other clubs for awhile, until, by his own account, he bought them out of the Stork Club and ended up running it himself. By the 1950’s, it was pretty clear he was running it by himself.
JJM What exactly was Café Society? How did it originate?
RB Café Society started in the years after the First World War, when the old prohibitions of class started breaking down. Instead of the wealthy society types entertaining at home, they started entertaining outside. They would hold dances and parties in public. That was considered quite a breakthrough. It became a great melting pot, not only of high society, but nobility, ordinary people, wealthy people. They all started mingling in these café’s. That is what became known as Café Society. People were going out, but it was still a refuge for the wealthy and the privileged.
JJM How did the Stork Club exemplify the Café Society?
RB The Stork Club drew an interesting clientele. It drew movie stars and celebrities, and the very wealthy, the captains of industry, showgirls, and aristocrats, as well as ordinary people and sightseers who managed to get in. So, it was also that kind of melting pot. But it became the one place to be seen in New York.
JJM But why was that? The famed journalist Walter Winchell’s support helped, but what was it that made all these stars want to go there?
RB A lot of things. First of all Billingsley was very generous to his friends, and he started off by putting a lot of people “on the cuff.” They ate and drank free, and these celebrities told their friends. Rich people like nothing better than getting stuff for free, so they started going there and that drew other people. Walter Winchell was the most famous and powerful journalist of his time. In 1940 he was making $800,000 a year, which was highest salary in the country. Imagine what $800,000 a year was like during the last years of the depression! He was so powerful that when he wrote in his column that “so-and-so” was seen at the Stork Club, it immediately made people want to go there. Plus, Billingsley was a master manipulator. He put his name on everything. The Stork logo was on everything. He produced his own perfume, suspenders, belts, jewelry, you name it. He had his own TV show for a while also. So, his fame spread wider and wider and people had to be seen there.
He was ahead of his time, for sure. You go to a place like the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard, they sell their own merchandise as well
RB I would say he pioneered that. He put the Stork logo on ties and on everything he possibly could. Then he gave them out to his friends as party favors. People loved that stuff and it became kind of a symbol of the elite, to have something from the Stork Club, especially the ash trays.
JJM So what came first? Winchell’s interest in the Stork Club or the stars beginning to appear there?
RB Well, when the Stork Club started in 1929, there was a lot of competition. It was still during prohibition, when there were a lot of speakeasies in New York. There were so many clubs in New York, they were killing each other. The new Stork Club was not doing well. But, Texas Guinan, who was a wonderfully colorful nightclub hostess from Texas, met Billingsley, and since he came from Oklahoma, she took a liking to him. Winchell was a friend of hers and suggested to him to stop by this club owned by this guy from Oklahoma, and he did. He and Billingsley hit it off, and they used each other. Billingsley needed the publicity and Winchell needed a place to hang out and meet his friends. As soon as he started writing up the Stork Club, celebrities would flock there, and he would get more material. So, despite the fact they had some falling-outs, Billingsley and Winchell became friends. Winchell gave him a big boost.
JJM You said that during the war, the Stork Club came to represent the home front normalcy and “why we fight.”
RB Today, you might think that in wartime, people would resent rich people carrying on, eating all the food they wanted, and drinking all the liquor they could get their hands on, while in the rest of the country everything was rationed. But in a strange way, the fighting man looked back on the Stork Club as some fond icon of America. They painted the logo on bombers. They set up little Stork Clubs in the Pacific on these tiny Pacific islands they were fighting the Japanese for. In Europe and North Africa were little Stork Clubs. Guys would write in from the war zone, saying to hold a reservation at the Stork Club for me as soon as the war is over. So, it became a symbol of what we were fighting for. Billingsley, of course, fed into this by giving out victory pins and treating servicemen very well. They would get free drinks and their uniform would get them in the door.
JJM The image of the Stork Club carried over well beyond the citizens of New York. The whole country was well aware of its appeal
RB Yes, he had a show called The Stork Club Show that ran from 1950 – 1955. It eventually ran on all three networks. It wasn’t filmed in the Cub Room of the Stork Club, but in a specially built studio upstairs. The studio looked like the Stork Club, and he had his celebrity guests in the studio. He went around from table to table, chatting people up. That is what people around the country saw. Thus, it exemplified the glamour of New York, all these celebrities there together in the Stork Club. It started off with images of a gloved hand pouring champagne into a glass, which would sometimes slop over because it was live TV. But it seemed to echo the elegance the country was searching for.
JJM Who owns that material? The networks?
RB They have all disappeared. I think there was seven shows left, and I saw all seven. I am not aware of any others. CBS, as far as I know doesn’t have them. They might exist in the cache somewhere. Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, who were the host and hostess of the show, had some and they donated them to the museum of television and radio.
JJM The chapter on the TV show was absolutely hilarious
RB It was prone to a lot of gaffes, and Billingsley was kind of wooden, not the perfect host. He was a very charming man, but we forget what TV was like at its inception. It was a very innocent medium, and people would freeze in front of the camera. There was no tape – everything was live – so if something didn’t work, it would happen in front of millions of viewers. Things like that regularly happened. Dishes fell down, Billingsley fell down, he would get tongue-tied. Once Hayes and Healy were lip-synching a song and the record skipped. These things became kind of notorious.
JJMHe had a ton of labor trouble during his ownership. He repeatedly stood up to the unions who attempted to organize his workers, even the unions led by mobster such as Dutch Schultz. What was his relationship with his workers like?
RB It was very paternalistic. I think he felt he was very good to his workers. He was paying them more than a lot of other places paid. For that, I think he felt he should be given special consideration. He did not want his workers to join the union. He hated unions because he always identified them with gangsters, which is what the situation was when he started out. During prohibition and for a good time afterwards, the racketeers controlled the unions, and it was a shakedown scheme. You had to pay off the bosses in order to ensure you weren’t getting a labor action or strike called on you. So, he never forgot that. Even when the racketeering influence waned, he always thought of the unions as crooked. So, he couldn’t stand that and chose to pay his workers well. They did very well at the Stork Club, got great tips, and he expected that to give him their loyalty and not join the unions. Well, when some of them decided to join the union anyway, during the organizing wave of the 1950’s, he went nuts, and started retaliating, firing people. That is when the trouble started. But his labor problems went back to the 1930’s.
JJM He did some amazing things with his employees. Some of the memos he wrote in an effort to communicate with them indicated he was pretty paranoid. He even went so far as taping conversations of his key employees. What was the source of this paranoia?
RB Remember, he was a bootlegger from Oklahoma, in an illegal business. He was always on the boundaries of the law, if not on the far side of it, and he believed people were conspiring against him. He had a lot of tough opponents – the gangsters that moved in on him certainly gave him a lot of grief. A lot of people were “on the take” in New York, a lot of political corruption during the era of Jimmy Walker, Frank Costello So, he wasn’t that far off in terms of seeing plots all around him. But that was the way his mind worked. He was quite distrustful, and often he caught his employees cheating. I like to the story of how he used to stand at the exit and watch his employees try to sneak stuff out. Often he would spot a guy trying to smuggle out cheese in a napkin, and he would stop him and hand him a loaf of bread, and he would say, “Here, have some bread with your cheese, don’t come back!” The employees were always trying to pull some scam. It was said you could go through the employees’ locker room and you could smell the steaks in their lockers.
JJMHe had some pretty powerful allies, a significant one being J. Edgar Hoover.
RB Interesting story. He got to know Hoover through Ethel Merman, who was Billingsley’s mistress for some years in the late 30’s and early 40’s. Hoover and his companion Clyde Tolson, his deputy director, were great fans of Merman. They came to New York to see her, and they all met at the Stork Club. Billingsley loved the idea that Hoover was a regular at his club, and he came to use Hoover a lot to investigate problems at the Stork Club. Hoover liked to party and he liked the social world, so they got quite close until they had a falling out when Billingsley’s middle daughter eloped and Billingsley wanted Hoover to investigate where they had gone and arrest her suitor. The FBI didn’t really do that and didn’t want to get involved. Billingsley slammed down the phone on Hoover, which was not taken well.
JJM Hoover investigated a variety of fairly trivial complaints of Billingsley’s, the type of complaints you wouldn’t expect the director of the FBI to get involved with.
RB Yes, it was really penny-ante stuff. Every time Billingsley got a threatening note – which was very often – he turned it over to the FBI, and the FBI did a complete investigation. This was a day when there were plenty of other things that should have occupied the FBI’s attention. There was organized crime, there were a lot of security risks in the country, there was a lot of political agitation and corruption, yet Billingsley would get Hoover to assign his agents to find out who had sent this latest threatening note to him. Often it didn’t get very far.
JJM In fact, once or twice it was discovered these threatening notes were coming from inside the Club.
RB Yes, often threats came from a disgruntled employee and it got to be kind of buffoonish. On one occasion they were trying to figure out where a threatening note came from and they investigated an elementary school . They thought the paper had come from this one neighborhood where there was a school and they interviewed fifth and sixth graders to see if they had sent the note.
JJM There was a part of the story I would like to focus on for a couple of questions. Billingsley was described as “an equal opportunity bigot.” You spent a good part of the book on the circumstances around Josephine Baker’s claim of discrimination against Billingsley and the Stork Club. Can you explain what happened to incite this claim?
RB Yes. This remains one of the more enduring mysteries of the time. The popular conception is that Josephine Baker, who was a black singer and erotic dancer, and quite an imposing figure in her time, was denied service at the Stork Club. The Stork Club, like most institutions of its time, were not particularly hospitable to minorities, especially blacks. This was a fact in America in the 20’s and 30’s and 40’s. It was a segregated society, particularly when it came to nightclubs and country clubs, universities, law firms. Blacks were second-class citizens, there is no doubt about it. Some black celebrities were admitted to the Stork Club, but generally the bar was much higher for blacks. With that said, Josephine Baker came by one night with a party of friends and they were served drinks and admitted to the Cub Room, where they were seated. They ordered wine and food and it didn’t come for a long time. In my book I suggest that Billingsley ordered they not be served when he noticed them, and that may indeed be the explanation. But, for whatever reason the party stormed out after waiting and set in motion an apparently well prepared scenario of picketing and demonstrations against the Stork Club. It was a flash point, and it was really one of the first civil rights issues in American history. It really galvanized society. The New York Post jumped on it – a liberal paper with a black reporter – and clearly there was some justification for it, but it also seems from my research that Josephine Baker had been preparing to make this social statement. Whether or not she was really discriminated against that night, they were prepared to make an issue of something. They did, and the Stork Club never quite recovered.
JJM The person she attended the dinner with was hopeful that she and Baker and their male escort could perhaps create a scene?
RB Yes. Roger Rico, the French star of South Pacific, was her host that night at the table. His wife and Bessie Buchanan, who was Josephine’s friend and who later became the first black Assemblywoman in New York State, and her husband, Charles, who ran the Savoy Ballroom, were with them. Even Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, one of the great civil rights pioneers, realized later that Baker had gone there with an issue. So, it looked like it was something they cooked up together. But, as I say, the larger truth was that of course blacks were not given equal access .
JJM So many people got involved in this. The issue became less about discrimination and more about who was on which side of the argument.
RB Yes, the argument became much larger than the immediate issue of the argument. It became a metaphor stand-in for other fights of society. For example, the New York Post was very eager to get its mitts on Walter Winchell. They hated him, who had become quite conservative by then and was an ally of Joseph McCarthy and the red-baiters. So, the Post was trying to get at Winchell. He had been at the Stork Club the night all this occurred, but apparently not present at the time of the alleged incident. Still, the Post took out after Winchell. When Winchell was attacked, he lashed back and found out that Baker had supported Mussolini and Ethiopia and it became really quite ugly. This is why I found it so fascinating from today’s standpoint, that it became a metaphor for a lot of other things that were going on. It was really the first civil rights struggle before the Montgomery bus boycott. It sensitized the country to the inequities of what was going on.
JJM It was reported in all the major media. The newspapers were fighting over it, and Ed Sullivan got involved
RB That’s right. Sullivan hated Winchell, so he used this as a chance to pile on. Winchell, of course, fought back. It became a celebrated feud. This is one of the joys of writing history because you find out so much of the atmosphere and the tenor of the times. It’s like a window back into what New York was into the 50’s and you understand so much more about how the city and the country developed.
JJM You mentioned something about Louis Armstrong, and how he came out and decried what Baker had done.
RB Yes. Josephine had lost a lot of support, even among black leaders who would ostensibly be in her corner. Armstrong didn’t like her very much. He thought she was an opportunist. As I said, Adam Clayton Powell had supported her in a march in Harlem and then realized she was really just out for herself. She was a bit of a weirdo and a kind of a nut-job in many ways. Although she certainly had many admirable qualities, including serving in the resistance against the Vichy regime in France, she also had a dark side and this may have been it.
JJM Clearly, it affected her career.
RB Yes, years later she tried to make up with Winchell and he would have none of it. She said that maybe she had been mistaken. Well, of course, that is quite an admission after the uproar she caused.
JJM The Baker saga exposed Billingsley’s imperfections to the New York public, didn’t it?
RB Yes, it provided an opening wedge to go into his history, which is something he had always hidden.
JJM It even pitted his older brother against him.
RB Yes, that’s right, because his older brother, Logan, who was a real maverick under the guise of sticking up for Sherman, said some very racist things. That, of course, just poured more fuel on the fire. So, instead of calming things, Logan said he discriminated against blacks, and he used a very crude “n” word and that of course made everything much worse.
JJM What effect did all of this exposure have on the Stork Club’s business?
RB This, coupled with a lot of other things that were happening at the time really conspired to spell the doom of the Stork Club. In the 50’s it was still riding high, but there were various social forces under way that were going to destroy it. One was the move to the suburbs. People weren’t hanging around anymore at night, at least not in the same numbers. Instead of going to nightclubs, they were catching commuter buses and trains to get to their homes in the suburbs. Television came along and people liked to spend their evenings around the tube, watching their favorite programs. The privileged classes of society who made up the core of the Stork Club’s clientele was shifting too. Society didn’t have the same class distinctions as it had before. A great democratization had taken place after the Second World War, so the Club sort of lost the patronage of these affluent, aristocratic types. That, coming on top of the labor troubles that he started to get in the 50’s again, coming on top of the taint of racism, all put nails in the Stork Club’s coffin.
JJM Was there a club that cashed in during the time as a kind of “anti Stork Club?”
RB There was one, actually. It was very funny, even earlier than this, in the 30’s and 40’s there was a place called the Café Society, and they really became an anti-Stork Club. They had no dress code, the waiters were better dressed than the clientele, and they welcomed blacks. It was a left-wing communistic kind of place because the guys who ran it were clearly active members of the Communist Party, the Josephson brothers. But it was a pleasant counterpart, in a way, to the Stork Club because it was much more democratic, it would welcome ordinary people and encouraged, for example, Billie Holiday. She first performed “Strange Fruit,” the wonderful anti-lynching lament, there. You have to remember that the appetite of the public was for glamour, and the Stork Club was much more in tenor with its time in terms of what the people dreamed about and wished for and aspired to than these so-called democratic clubs. That was the image the country had before it, right or wrong. It filled a need, and it was that dream of glamour that drove places like the Stork Club to the heights they attained. This was through the Depression and World War II, when people needed something to dream about. As I said in the book, the Stork Club survived the Depression, survived World War II, and was finally brought down by prosperity.
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
Interview took place on January 14, 2002
photos used by permission
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Josephine Baker biographer Ean Wood.