By Michele Leight
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.