I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Columnist Walter Winchell called the location “New York’s New Yorkiest place.” From 1929 to 1965 it was the place to be seen for the glamourous and wealthy. Behind the glitz, there were shady goings on before the club's closing amid rancour over racism and union-busting.
Prohibition in the United States opened a money spigot for all sorts of disreputable characters; one of these was Sherman Billingsley. As a teenager, he was recruited by his older brother, Logan, into the bootlegging business in the upper Mid-West.
Selling illicit hooch put the brothers into the company of organized crime. Logan, already with a rap sheet that included murder, stiffed the mob on a shipment of liquor and found it necessary to move to New York City and disappear. Sherman quickly followed him.
Opening the Stork Club
Billingsley began buying up drug stores, which gave him the right to sell liquor for medicinal purposes. It seems a staggeringly high number of New Yorkers were in need of medicine.
In 1929, he opened his first Stork Club in Manhattan, a block away from Carnegie Hall. It was a speakeasy that agents closed down in 1931.
Billingsley moved his operation to East 53rd Street between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue. Later, it emerged that the club was a front for some of the Jazz Age’s most notorious gangsters. Owney Madden, who went by the ominous nickname of “The Killer,” and a couple of his colleagues, Big Bill Dwyer and George “Frenchy” DeMange, owned a piece of the action.
Other mobsters such as Dutch Schultz and Jack (Legs) Diamond tried to muscle their way into the business. When Billingsley refused to play along he was kidnapped and held for ransom. He said he was able to buy his freedom.
On another occasion, Billingsley found a skull and crossed bones in his office, a room to which he alone had a key. He wrote “I don’t mean pictures or sketches of skulls and crossbones, but real ones. We kept these incidents quiet.”
There’s likely much more to this intimidation than is known, because these were not the type of men who took to being thwarted lightly.
The Stork Club 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.”
The Rich and Famous
Without any formal training, Billingsley was a marketing genius. Although in theory open to the public, only the most affluent and famous celebrities got past the doorman and his golden rope.
Through payments to Western Union clerks, he got the addresses of Broadway and Hollywood stars. He enticed them to his club with offers of free drinks and gifts and they showed up in droves.
The top talent from stage and screen became a draw for others―writers, politicians, business magnates, and royalty.
The list of regulars includes Frank Sinatra, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ethel Merman, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, J. Paul Getty, Jimmy Durante, and on and on.
Billingsley wrote that his guests included “all of the Roosevelt boys, all of the Kennedy boys, their father, mother, and sisters, Margaret Truman, Al Smith, Herbert Lehman, Averell Harriman, and Governor Dewey, Barry Goldwater, Dick Nixon, and Edgar Hoover.”
And, there would often be a sprinkling of Mafia dons and other racketeers.
Stork Club Stories
In the late 1990s, New York Times columnist Ralph Blumenthal was granted access to Sherman Billingsley’s private papers. The result was a book about the club that is rich with anecdotes about the people and events.
Billingsley wrote “I have seen mothers steal their daughters’ boyfriends and marry them. I have seen girls steal their sisters’ boyfriends and marry them . . . I know one father that was familiar with his son’s wife. These were all high-society folks.”
On one evening, Ernest Hemingway sold the film rights to his book For Whom the Bell Tolls for $100,000. At the end of the night’s festivities, there was enough money in the till to cash the writer’s cheque, minus his bar bill.
And, money flowed to the staff. Victor Crottor, a headwaiter, was given a $20,000 tip. A doorman, didn’t do so well, his gratuity was just $1,000. The tipper asked if it was the biggest hand-out he’d ever received. Billingsley wrote that “The doorman said no, I received a $2,000 tip about a year ago. The customer asked who gave it to him. The doorman said you gave it to me.”
Billingsley had a series of hand signals he gave staff. If he put his hand on his tie he meant “No bill for this table.” Interlocked hands with the thumbs pointing up was an instruction to get this group of people out and not to let them in again. If his hand was resting on a table with the palm upward he was calling for champagne.
Decline and Fall of the Stork Club
After the conflict with Germany and Japan, the world changed dramatically but Billingsley was not able to change with it. Nightclubs such as his began to fall out of favour. The leisure class, whose only occupation was dressing up and having a party, was in decline.
In 1951, the black dancer Josephine Baker went to the Stork Club and claimed her requests for service were ignored. She made a dramatic and tempestuous exit and the story of the club’s apparently racist attitudes was spread throughout the media. This did not sit well with New York’s generally liberal upper crust and faithful customers started to drift away.
Then, Billingsley got into a nasty spat with unions when they tried to organize the club’s staff. Acts of sabotage started to occur: salt appeared in sugar bowls, upholstery was slashed, and small fires broke out.
By 1957, the Stork Club was the only such place that was not unionized and some good members of staff started to move to competitors where they got union protection. Unionized band members refused to cross picket lines to perform at the club.
Many of the actors and singers stopped going to the Stork Club in solidarity with the union drive. The place started to bleed money and Sherman Billingsley closed it down on October 4, 1965. A year later to the day, Billingsley succumbed to a heart attack; he was 66.
The building that housed the Stork Club was sold to the Columbia Broadcasting System, which demolished it and replaced it with a small park, named after the media giant’s founder William S. Paley (below).
- Some notable people were banned from the Stork Club. Comedian Milton Berle was kicked out for overly boisterous behaviour although Merle said it was because he had made satirical comments about the club on television. Humphrey Bogart got into a long shouting match with Billingsley and was told “No Stork Club for you.” And, Billingsley asked Jackie Gleason to leave because he claimed his conversation was too loud and salty.
- Billingsley insisted on “proper” attire meaning evening gowns for the ladies and evening suits for the men. And, there was to be no fighting or drunken behaviour, although Ernest Hemingway did once get into a minor brawl with the warden of Sing Sing Prison.
- Billingsley said he could not remember how he came up with the name Stork Club.
- “Inside ‘New York’s New Yorkiest’ Joint: The Legendary Stork Club.” Jen Carlson, Gothamist.com, June 5, 2012.
- “Look Who Dropped in at the Stork.” Ralph Blumenthal, New York Times, July 1, 1996
- “The Stork Club -- and its Lost World.” Dan Rodricks, The Baltimore Sun, May 14, 2000.
- “The Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society.” Ralph Blumenthal, Little Brown and Company, 2000.
- “Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany.” Ben Schott, Bloomsbury, 2011.
- “STORK CLUB SPECIAL DELIVERY Exhibit at the New York Historical Society Recalls a Glamour Gone with the Wind.” Howard Kissel, New York Daily News, May 3, 2000.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on October 04, 2020:
You're welcome John.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 03, 2020:
I find articles like this quite intriguing. Thank you for sharing this small slice of history, Rupert.