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.