Sherman Billingsley, The Stork Club, and the Right Way to Fill a Room

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With another semester in the books and my vacation not really starting until tomorrow, earlier this week I was lucky enough to have a few free days to simply do nothing.  I decided to spend my time checking in a few places I haven’t been able to get to over the past few months, and while visits to the Rhinelander Mansion and C.H.C.M. were as enjoyable as ever, as I moved through the rest of the muddled world of New York retail, something hit me that I hadn’t really pieced together until now.  Even before I moved to the city I recall reading about this new phenomenon of “bespoke barbers” and “faux-speakeasies” and I’ll admit I found the idea of a nostalgia based somewhat intriguing, but since I’ve been living here, I think the whole market has just turned a bit ridiculous.  There’s now countless places across the city where you can get a sixty dollar haircut from a guy in a waistcoat and an upturned moustache, or grab an old-fashioned for twenty bucks in a dimly lit hole in the wall lined with books that no one’s read in thirty years.  You walk in expecting that good ol’ gentleman’s club vibe, but it never really winds up being what you’re looking for anyway, and more often than not that only feeling you have walking out is regret over a freshly emptied wallet.

Sailor w. date having his reservation ch

Of course, our concept of a “gentleman’s club” these days is absurd on many levels, but what’s more absurd is that we seem to forget that the idea’s already been done.  While I doubt greatly the possibility that a such club could thrive nowadays, the thirties, forties, and fifties provided the perfect climate for such establishments and New York was rife with them.  Out of them all though, there was one place that reigned supreme, and one man who was the proverbial kingpin of New York social life-and that was Sherman Billingsley and his Stork Club.  Of course, some might say that The Stork was lacking in that it didn’t have a clothing store, but when you’ve got J. Press, Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart, and Chipp right around the corner, why would you look anywhere else.

Patrons enjoying bar & lounge at the Sto

From 1934 to 1965, Billingsley could be found nightly holding court at 3 East 53rd Street, commanding the floor, handing out gifts, and kissing cheeks, but the story of the Stork doesn’t start out so rosy, Billingsley first had to go through a tumultuous few decades before he received that crown.  Hi’s tale begins in 1914, when at the age of eighteen he was picked up for bootlegging in Detroit.  After serving fifteen months, the Oklahoma native decided it was time to get out of the business, so Billingsley followed his brother to New York City where he began buying up drug stores across town.  By the late twenties he’d amassed enough of a fortune to fullfil his dream of opening up a nightclub, and so in 1929 he founded the original Stork Club at 132 West 58th Street.

Sherman Billingsley Opening up his club

Sherman Billingsley Opening up his club

The early details behind the club are a bit hazy, Billingsley himself can’t even remember why he picked the name, but things picked up slowly and around the early thirties, the mob became interested in Billingsley’s business.  A man named Thomas Healy decided to buy out Billingsley’s other partners and for a while there things were just fine, but then it came out that Healy was actually just a front for three of the city’s biggest mobsters, and before Billingsley knew what hit him, he was kidnapped by rival hitman Mad Dog Coll.  Coll demanded thirty thousand in ransom, but before he could collect, Billingsley’s partners put a price on his head, and lo and behold it wasn’t long before Coll got assassinated in a telephone booth on 23rd and 8th.

Kennedys At Stork Club; Ted, John & Rob

The Kennedys at the Club

So, the early days of The Stork were admittedly rough, but once Billingsley bought out his mafia backers and moved the club to it’s permanent home just a block from the Museum of Modern Art, his little idea transformed into a goldmine.  Over the next fifteen or so years, The Stork was hottest spot in the whole city, celebrities flooded through the door nightly, food bills were racked up, drinks flowed freely in the wake of the freshly-repealed eighteenth amendment, hell the club even had Walter Winchell, a legendary gossip columnist, simply set up shop to report on the night’s events.  And right in the middle of it all was Billingsley, who could orchestra an evening like no one before, and like everyone has tried to duplicate since.

Sherman Billingsley and his famous hand gestures

Sherman Billingsley and his famous hand gestures

Using a series of hand gestures, Billingsley used to signal to his staff on who was worth paying attention to, who wasn’t worth a salt-shaker, and of course who was so important that they deserved something special.  Billingsley was a notorious gift giver, at times showering his guests with over a hundred thousand dollars worth of comped goods a year, everything from champagne, to a bottle of perfume, to ties, to jewelry.  This was Billingsley way of bringing his higher profile clientele back again and again, ensuring that each night there was always something or someone special to see.  He put a barber shop in the back-room, set aside private areas, hosted events, and watched the profits roll in.  During his prime Billingsley ran that room in a pinstriped suit, a fresh pressed shirt, a bold tie, and a welcoming grin to finish it all off.  The Stork was where the city’s most famous (and best dressed for that matter) spent their evenings, with everyone from JFK to Hemingway to Hitchcock to Berlin passing through those doors on any given night.

Sherman Billingsley

Unfortunately, in 1951 following the staff’s rumored racism towards Josephine Baker, things began to change for The Stork.  The incident made huge headlines and The Stork’s reputation began to falter.  As things slowed down, Billingsley was hit again by his staff’s demand to unionize throughout the fifties and sixties.  After continuously denying them, they took to protest, and picketed the club constantly, even right up to it’s last days.  With business dwindling down to just a few customers a day, The Stork Club finally shuttered in 1965 after a thirty-six year run.  Billingsley would die, heartbroken just a year later, and in ’67, CBS company, who had bought the club from Billingsley, tore it down and converted it into a park.  While nothing remains of The Stork Club anymore, it will still go down in history as the height of New York social life throughout the mid-century, with Billingsley as the lavish, methodical, and clever captain of the ship.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

Frank Sinatra and Family

Frank Sinatra and Family

Cary Grant and A.C. Blumenthal

Cary Grant and A.C. Blumenthal

Artie Shaw and Ava Gardner

Artie Shaw and Ava Gardner

John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy

John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy

Kennedys At Stork Club; Ted, John & Rob

Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn

Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn

Walter Winchell, J. Edgar Hoover (one of Billingsley's best friends) and Al Jolson

Walter Winchell, J. Edgar Hoover (one of Billingsley’s best friends) and Al Jolson

Claudette Colbert and Alfred Hitchcock

Claudette Colbert and Alfred Hitchcock

Mrs. and Mrs. Irving Berlin

Mrs. and Mrs. Irving Berlin

Patrons dining and dancing a rhumba to E

The Stork Club's table of giveaways

The Stork Club’s table of giveaways

Entrance of The Stork Club

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