Books logo


The Stork Club

America's Most Famous Nightspot

and the Lost World of Café Society

by Ralph Blumenthal

Little, Brown & Company, 2000, pp. 296, $25.95

Book cover

Cover of book with OrsonWelles at left with cigar

By Michele Leight

Sherman Billingsley was an unlikely proprietor for a club that was called the "New Yorkiest spot in town" by the legendary gossip writer for the Daily Mirror, Walter Winchell.

From the roaring Twenties to the 1960s, the one-time bootlegger from Oklahoma ruled the premises of the Stork Club, the favorite watering hole of New York's sophisticated high society, glitterati, heads of state, famous Hollywood and Broadway stars and anyone who was anyone.

The club once stood in an elegant brownstone on a site that has now been transformed by a waterfall and a cobble-stoned sanctuary for al fresco diners seeking an escape from the high towers that have risen like megaliths on East 53rd Street, a site created by CBS head William Paley as a memorial to his father after he bought the property from Sherman Billingsley.

In the old days, none of the office towers existed, and elegant, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces, Bentleys and Cadillacs pulled up at the awning of the Stork Club at 3 East 53rd Street, and the liveried doorman opened the car doors with a flourish and inimitable, old world style. Great and not-yet-famous beauties, debutantes and society madams all waited with tuxedo-clad escorts behind the solid gold chain at the inside entrance to the club, before being given the once over by Sherman Billinglsey himself, or whoever he had posted at the door as sentinel.

Like the "21" Club, there was no need for brutish bouncers at the front door - the hoi-polloi in those pre-disco days did not need to be publicly intimidated.

Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell and Sherman Billingsley

Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell and Sherman Billingsley at the Stork Club, photograph from the private collection of the Billinsgley family, courtesy of Shermane Billingsley

Walter Winchell once said:

"The Stork discriminates against everybody. White, black and pink. The Stork bars all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. But if your skin is green and you're rich and famous or you're syndicated, you'll be welcome at the club."

Syndicated had a special allure for the astute Mr. Billingsley. He may have come from Oklahoma, but he was as street-smart and worldly-wise as the greatest entrepreneurs. Walter Winchell gave the Stork Club a plug in his famous nationally syndicated column in the Daily Mirror at a critical point in the club's career, which Mr. Billingsley referred to as "the blessed event."

From then on, the high-profile clientele that flocked to the Stork Club looked for their names in Winchell's column, and he never disappointed them. Mr. Billingsley treated Mr. Winchell like a god when he came in, almost nightly, and the success of the club could largely be placed at the columnist's door.

Winchell was so famous that when he enlisted to join the army at America's entry into World War II he was deemed "too valuable" and beloved and not allowed to do so by the President of the United States himself. Ah, those were the days, when the written word had so much grace and power that the leader in the most powerful nation in the world admitted he could not lose an American writer in a war.

The most feared and highest-paid journalist in America was a regular at the Stork Club for his own ends: and the intrigues and goings-on of the rich and famous and infamous provided him with endless raw material for his writing through the club's successful and turbulent years. They do not make clubs like this anymore. The Stork Club had some competition from El Morocco and the Harwyn, but they were really not in the same league. Today, of course, Elaine's has the same legendary status and fame but a very different ambiance. Winchell helped define an era and a way of life by giving the establishment the thumbs-up. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mr. Billingsley and Winchell connected at the right time in the right place, and the rest is history.

The sepia tinged dust-cover photograph of Ralph Blumenthal's book shows a young, trim Orson Welles, lips wrapped around a Havana cigar, long before excessive weight and the toll of adult life had taken over. He looks so fresh and idealistic it is easy to imagine him preparing his script for the Oscar Award winning Citizen Kane after an inspiring night of star-studded glamour and dancing at the Stork Club. In time, he brought his lovely bride Rita Hayworth along, and they were seated prominently in The Cub Room, for all to gawk at. Billingsley maximized on star power when he had it in his grasp. Now one understood the dazzling effect great beauties had on the Stork Club clientele, no matter how important they were, than Mr. Billingsley.

The paneled room on the cover is filled to bursting with celebrities and sophisticates, and it was not unusual to find the Stork Club's banquettes and café tables crowded with the likes of the Hearsts, Mary Martin, Lord Beaverbrook, Fred Astaire, Alexander Korda and his exquisite wife Merle Oberon, George Burns and Gracie Allen, the Bing Crosbys, Red Skelton, Betty Grable and Harry James and George Balanchine.

John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, at the Stork Club

John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, at his 39th birthday party at the Stork Club, photograph from the private collection of the Billinsgley family, courtesy of Shermane Billingsley

Before escorting young Jackie Bouvier to the Stork during their engagement, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy was seen there with Flo Pritchett. When, after they were married, Jackie arrived unexpectedly one evening, Marilyn was tactfully secreted out the back door of the club to avoid an embarrassing scene. Marilyn returned often with husband Joe DiMaggio, so the slate was equal.

Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio at the Stork Club

Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio at the Stork Club, photograph from the private collection of the Billinsgley family, courtesy of Shermane Billingsley

Ernest Hemingway was a regular and lent great literary cache to the club through his patronage. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of Mr. Billingsley with many celebraties at the Stork Club, and most are from the private collection of the Billingsley family, courtesy of Shermane Billingsley.

Ernest Hemingway, Sherman Billinsgley and John O'Hara at the Stork Club

Ernest Hemingway, Sherman Billingsley and John O'Hara at the Stork Club, photograph from the private collection of the Billinsgley family, courtesy of Shermane Billingsley

Mr. Blumenthal wrote:

"One night in 1940, back in New York, Hemingway had grandiosely tried to pay his bar bill at the Stork with a $100,000 royalty check he had gotten for the screen rights to For Whom the Bell Tolls. (A hundred thousand dollars in 1940 would be $1.2 million today.) Billingsley shook his head, no way he could cash that check, not then. But if Hemingway could wait till closing time. Then, amazingly, Billingsley did cash it, although it is hard to imagine how, with the club then grossing officially anyway by Billingsley's account, $3,500 a night."

The book by New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal reads like a American fairytale, replete with movie stars, politicians, mobsters and intellectuals, writers and critics, debutantes and heiresses, blended together in a Gatsby-esque extravaganza that will never pass this way again. As a Brit, one can only admire and gawk at such raw American power and energy. The rest of the world seems asleep - and deadly dull - when one reads a book like this. Gangsters running amok in New York coupled with elegance as crystalline as a polished diamond do not seem to go together at all, but there was a time when it did.

Mr. Blumenthal was granted access to Sherman Billingsley's private papers, and he laces the book with anecdotes as credible as if the cast of characters were present in the same room as the reader. What unfolds is as real a slice of American history as it gets shaken, not stirred, as James Bond liked to demand.

It would be hard to imagine a group of individuals as diverse as were to be found together at the Stork Club on a nightly basis, or a harder drinking crowd anywhere during Prohibition. The magic of this genuine, lusty, effervescent, life-affirming diversity makes our feeble, politically correct attempts at it in the 21st century pale in comparison. It would not have been polite to ask anyone at the Stork Club to put out cigars or cigarettes because the smoke was offensive. The curling smoke was part of the scenery, like a set in a Dashiell Hammett "film noir;" eradicating it would have destroyed the patina, naughtiness and danger required of all things back then.

The book is well illustrated with photographs taken at the Stork Club by photographers cannily kept on hand by the proprietor; Mr. Blumenthal was also given access to archives of newspapers associated with the Stork Club over the years. Glamorous leading ladies, debs and dancers from the Ziegfield Follies balance elegant cigarette holders between immaculately manicured fingers à la Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and, to a man, the gentlemen smoke, most often cigars.

"All About Eve" starring Bette Davis, and Alfred Hitchcock's "The Wrong Man" starring Henry Fonda contained scenes filmed at the Stork Club, and for many years the Stork Club had its own program on CBS, featuring interviews with famous patrons, with Billingsley frozen and wooden before the cameras; but the audience was spellbound for many years. Sherman's friends advised him to stick to his club and leave the TV program alone, but he plugged on, sometimes helped by Yul Brynner, who was as fluid in front of the cameras as Billingsley was robot-like. When Brynner got his big break in "The Kind and I" he left for Broadway and Billingsley had to bumble woodenly along on his own.

And, most prestigious of all, there was syndicated columnist Walter Winchell, seated with Sherman Billingsley and someone famous, celebrating birthdays, or New Year's Eve, always on the lookout for material for his column, which was lapped up by a grateful nation. During the Depression, the public loved to see photographs of wealthy debs stirring their cocktails at the Stork Club with personalized gold swizzle sticks. Go figure.

Ducking stray bullets back in those days put life in perspective, like an unseen game of roulette; the chances of actually being shot when strangers appeared suddenly at the door to "settle scores" were extremely high in the treacherous days of Prohibition, even if you were simply a bystander.

The lawlessnes and lack of personal safety made the glamour all the more amazing: when Greer Garson, Dorothy Lamour or Betty Hutton showed up at the Stork Club, they were coiffed to perfection and decked out in minks or sables - and the largest diamonds money could buy. There was no question of hiding one's assets, tangible or personal, back then. Billingsley carried a handgun in his pocket and had several more at home "for his own protection," and he did not hesitate to pull them out. His Oklahoma roots ran deep.

Billingsley's Oklahoma background, unlikely as it was for someone who owned the swankiest, most sought-after joint in the most famous city in the world, was nevertheless a good training ground for the unglamorous mechanics of actually running a nightclub in a thriving metropolis - especially during Prohibition.

As a young boy, Sherman had helped his older brother Logan run rum in a wagon over to Native Americans under cover of night. Oklahoma was a dry state, but people found a way to get their booze and the Billingsley brothers were on hand to help.

Sherman and Logan did jail time long before they got to New York: Sherman in Leavenworth - but the conservatively attired, slicked back, polished gentleman in the photos could have passed for a preacher or a school teacher. Billingsley grew up without toys and hand-me-down clothes when fortune turned its back on his family, which made him meticulous about his attire. He loved luxurious clothes and accessories, which followed through in his attention to detail at his club. No expense was spared and it was only the best for the Stork Club patrons.

The exclusive Stork perfume Sortilege, created at the instigation of Billingsley (who loved to entice beautiful, rich debutantes to his club), became a "must have" accessory of the elite who drank and dined there. Luxurious gifts were sent as a token of appreciation to regular patrons as a sign of appreciation. Billingsley was known for his generosity: cases of fine wines and champagnes were sent to Eisenhower or Mr. Hearst during the festive season and the wives received perfume, for which he was sent beautifully hand-written thank-you notes.
Everyone wanted the Stork Club ashtrays, and when Billingsley found them disappearing nightly from the tables, (shamelessly stolen for the coffee tables back at home), he gallantly had a set of Stork ashtrays, cigarettes and matches beautifully packaged and distributed amongst his most favored clients when they came to dine.

Rumor had it that Sherman's brother Logan had killed a man before coming to New York. Mr. Blumenthal described the incident with humor. The father of the girl Logan wished to marry, and was being denied access to, raised a shotgun and pointed it in Logan's direction when he came courting one day, and the poor old guy ended up with a slug straight through the heart for his pains.

Amazingly, Logan and the young lady married, once he was released from jail. His young wife did not seem too perturbed that Logan had killed her father.

The Billingsley's never quite got over the incident and the disgrace of Logan's imprisonment for killing a man, however, and Sherman always took great care to put forward a genteel and respectable front in public, no matter what was going on in his private life. Ironically, Logan later divorced his first wife and went on to marry two more. He was a good looking man, with dark hair and blue eyes, who made a small fortune developing housing in the Bronx and later Westchester.

Frank Sinatra at the Stork Club

Frank Sinatra at the Stork Club, photograph from the private collection of the Billinsgley family, courtesy of Shermane Billingsley

While the front rooms of the Stork were lit up by the likes of Jack Kennedy and Prince Rainier wooing Jackie and Grace, or Frank Sinatra making the ladies swoon, movie moguls, corporate giants, politicians and elder statesmen coming and going with women who were not their wives, and the regular appearance of mobsters at the front door looking to settle scores, the back rooms were rife with waiter and staff troubles as unionization began its cranky and strife-ridden journey to fruition.

Billingsley epitomized the self-made man, and he hired and fired waiters and waitresses when he felt like it, and the unions could go to hell as far as he was concerned. As times changed and the unions grew in strength, with mobsters and gangsters thrown into the mix, running the club became downright dangerous, with dead bodies appearing regularly in the headlines directly linked to activities at the famous Stork Club. Any association with the underworld was flatly denied by Billingsley, and no one was more surprised than he when it turned out that three of his financial partners were in fact real gangsters.

In 1925, one in ten New Yorkers had a criminal record, and although Billingsley played the innocent, no one believed him when he seemed shocked at his partner's backgrounds. They came with "particularly heavy baggage," wrote Mr. Blumenthal.

When William "Big Bill" - Dwyer, gangster-partner number one, returned to New York from a "little vacation" in Atlanta's federal penitentiary for running the country's largest liquor-smuggling fleet, he somehow recovered from the severe illness that had gained him an early release; and importantly for Billingsley, it was rumored that he had held on to most of his fortune. Billingsley needed capital to run the most elegant club in town.

From the mid twenties, Dwyer had partnered with Owney Madden in the Phoenix Cereal Beverage Company, (also one of the owners of the Cotton Club in Harlem), that freely operated a block-long brewery on 10th Avenue, dispensing gallons of beer known as "Madden's Number One" to New York's illegal saloons and restaurants. Born in England, Madden emigrated at age eleven to Hell's Kitchen, where the child actor switched to heading the notorious Gopher Gang, which terrorized neighborhood saloonkeepers and merchants.

In 1912, Madden was nicknamed Clay Pigeon of the Underworld, a title reserved for a man who had taken a dozen bullets in a dance hall and survived. Madden was gangster partner number two, spoke like a gangster with lashings of "dese," "dems" and "doses," and had the look and attitude one would expect of a classic underworld character. One police sergeant called him "that little banty rooster out of hell."

The most colorful of the partners was "Frenchy," otherwise known as George Jean De Mange. When the three "partners" entered the premises for the first time, it was "Frenchy" who had the greatest impact upon Billinglsey:

"But it was the oversize Frenchy, topping six feet tall and easily two hundred pounds, who riveted his attention. He saw why the cops called him the Frog - his arms and legs seemed too long for his body," wrote Blumenthal.

"His hands were like steel claws, long fingers with dirty nails, and his head was huge with graying hair that grew out of the center of his forehead just over his long eyebrows. His black eyes were small and sunk deep in his head. He had a large, flat nose, big lips, and prominent cheekbones."

Frenchy sounds like Jaws in the James Bond movies: he was the official spokesperson for the unsavory trio and he somberly informed Sherman Billingsley that they did not want anything in writing and that they would "protect" him:

"You will have no trouble from any of the boys or anyone from now on, just call us if anyone bothers you, and from now on your liquor will cost you fifteen dollars a case less than you've been paying. We will tell you who to buy from."

Miraculously, Billingsley did nothing to raise the hackles of the trio for the duration of their partnership, but right from the start he decided that the safest bet would be not to handle any cash. The three partners had to put in their own money man, and Frenchy obligingly agreed.

Those who crossed swords with any one of the trio ended up stone cold dead always under mysterious circumstances. This had a terrible effect on Billingsley's nerves, till there finally came a time when he was free of them.

But untill then "Frenchy's menace was clear," wrote Mr. Blumenthal. "Whenever a bullet-ridden corpse turned up, Frenchy said "He must have done something wrong."

The only request made by Frenchy that was flatly denied by Billingsley was his desire to be invited to the exclusive Winged Foot Country Club in Westchester, of which Billingsley was a member. He had his limitations: there was no way he could explain away the likes of Frenchy to that crowd.

Rum-running was easier than tip-toeing around ruthless New York gangsters every day.

Ethel Merman and Irving Berlin at the Stork Club

Ethel Merman and Irving Berlin at the Stork Club, photograph from the private collection of the Billinsgley family, courtesy of Shermane Billingsley

Sherman Billingsley had plenty of beauty and glamour to counteract the hard-nosed thuggery in his life. One of the greatest bits of gossip in the book is that he was madly in love with Ethel Merman for quite a while, who came in regularly to dine after her performance in "Annie Get Your Gun."

Ethel obviously stirred Sherman's Oklahoma roots, and it would be hard to imagine a more unlikely couple than the strident, incomparable Ms. Merman and the immaculate Mr. Billingsey. Her rendition of "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun" has never been equalled.

The mesmerized Billingsley sent a chilled bottle of champagne from the Stork Club to her dressing room after each performance, and Merman spent many a night cosy-ing up with Sherman in his rooms at the Stork, much to the embarrassment of the staff who were ordered to bring in food and drink at rather intimate times.

Throughout their affair, Billinglsey took care to keep his wife Hazel in the dark about their relationship; Hazel was still a head-turner and her husband was reputed to get really angry at men who made passes at her.

Eventually, Merman could not take playing second fiddle to Sherman's infatuation with his wife, and suddenly married someone else. He had affairs and attachments after he divorced his first wife, which continued after he married Hazel, but he remained fiercely protective of her, the devastatingly beautiful young showgirl from the Follies with red hair, with whom he had fallen madly in love.

Three daughters, Jackie, Barbara and Shermane were born, and they lived in the family mansion situated conveniently nearby, so Sherman could walk home after the club closed in the early hours of the morning. There was also a homestead in Pound Ridge, where Sherman re-lived his Oklahoma roots with dogs and horses and farm animals as well as a stunning house.

Barbara was most protective of her parent's marital relationship, and was shocked at the way women threw themselves at her father at the Stork Club. She once removed Ethel Merman's familiar hand from her father's knee, leaving proprietary scratch marks:

"Years later Billingsley confirmed Barbara's fears, confiding: 'Ethel offered half a million just for me to leave mum. I was the one. I couldn't leave," wrote Mr. Blumenthal of Billingsley the family man. Ms. Merman certainly wanted her feller more than she let on. Half a million was a heck of a lot back then.

The Stork had a rule: no unescorted women were permitted to enter the premises after 6 pm. This avoided straining the hearts of male patrons who feared being surprised by their wives while they were with female friends. Nowadays the place would be filled with spying divorce attorneys looking to make a killing on grounds of infidelity. Back then they would have needed a notebook to list everyone.

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker, photograph courtesy of the Jean-Claude Baker Foundation

The ultimate demise of the Stork occurred because times were changing, and the unions became relentless in their picketing of the club due to labor disputes with Mr. Billingsley, who continued to hire and fire as he pleased when staff did not meet his expectations or stole things. When a racial scandal hit the headlines - a scandal that in fact involved Josephine Baker and Walter Winchell - inevitably Mr. Billingsley and the Stork Club were drawn into it. The negative attention hurt the club, and business fell off. But that is beside the point.

There are few establishments that cold boast a forty-year run of front-page glamour and popularity, a required stop for the most prestigious clients in every field from politics to Broadway on their nightly round of parties, the most sought-after tables in the city, the best dancing and dining, albeit conservative and always tasteful, and a legendary proprietor who hailed from Oklahoma, and brought with him generosity and a warm welcome once he had anointed you with the right to cross his famous threshold. And he always retained that right.

Walter Winchell should have the last word. He was in fact the last person to walk the empty rooms of the Stork before it changed hands. So much of his life and his success had been entwined with the place, it was impossible to imagine life without it.

In a way the Stork Club was Winchell's dream come true: a famous writer who had the great good fortune to cross paths with an enterpreneurial fellow from Oklahoma called Billingsley, who dreamt up the idea of the ultimate nightclub in New York at exactly the same time that Winchell wanted to write about one.

Now writing for William Randolph Hearst's Journal-American, Winchell delivered a personal and moving obituary when the Stork Club closed its doors on October 4th 1965:

"The Stork Club closing is no reason for sad songs. The Stork was dedicated to the excitement of the town....for the guests the Stork was the palace of nightclubs. For the 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 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."

Sherman Billingsley did it his way and the result was the finest nightclub in the world, and that is all that matters now.

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is at www.amazon.com and at www.ashraya-ny.org


Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

 


Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

 
Home Page of The City Review