Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Stork Club

     The Stork Club was owned and operated by Sherman Billingsley (1896–1966) an ex-bootlegger who came to New York from Enid, Oklahoma.  From the end of Prohibition in 1933 until the early 1960s, the club was the symbol of café society. Movie stars, celebrities, the wealthy, showgirls, and aristocrats all mixed here. Other New York City clubs had the sophistication (El Morocco) and drew the sporting crowd (Toots Shor's Restaurant), but the Stork Club mixed power, money and glamour. Unlike its competitors, the Stork stayed open on Sunday nights and during the summer months.
     The Stork Club first opened in 1929.  Billingsley's hand-written recollections of the early days recount his working in his New York real estate office when two gamblers he knew from Oklahoma came to him, saying they wanted to open a restaurant. Billingsley went into partnership with them. This was the beginning of the Stork Club, but he could not remember how the club's name was chosen.
     One of the first Stork Club customers was writer Heywood Broun, who was also a neighborhood resident. But Broun's first visit to the Stork was actually made by mistake; he believed it to be a funeral home. Billingsley wrote, "Broun walked in quietly, put his hat down on a table and went back in the rear room to pay his respect to the body but instead of a body he found a bar. He walked over to the bar, had several drinks, liked the place and came back very often, bringing his celebrity friends." Before long, Billingsley's Oklahoma partners sold their shares to a man named Thomas Healy.
     Eventually Mr. Healy revealed that he was a "front" for three New York mobsters. While now aware of the situation and uncomfortable with it, Billingsley was kidnapped and held for ransom by Mad Dog Coll, who was a rival of his mob partners. Before the ransom money could be collected by Coll, Billingsley's gangster partners put a bounty on his head; Coll was lured to a telephone booth where he was shot to death. The secret gangster partners reluctantly allowed Billingsley to buy them out for $30,000 after the incident.
     Prohibition agents closed the club on December 22, 1931. In 1934, the Stork Club moved to 3 East 53rd Street, where it remained until it closed on October 4, 1965. When the Stork Club became a tenant in 1934, the building was known as the Physicians and Surgeons Building. Many of the medical tenants were unhappy about the night club moving in. Billingsley purchased the seven story building in February 1946 for $300,000 cash, evicting the doctors to expand the club. By 1936, the Stork was doing well enough to have a million dollar gross for the first time. From the physical layout of the club, as described by Ed Sullivan in a 1939 column, the Stork should have been doomed to failure, since it was strangely shaped and far from roomy in places. Billingsley's hospitality with food, drink, and gifts overcame the structural deficits to keep his patrons returning time after time. When the East 53rd Street building came down to make way for Paley Park, one of the artifacts found in it was a still. Today the ornamental bar of the Stork Club is to be found in Jim Brady's Bar in Maiden Lane.
     Another New York nightclub owner named Tex Guinan (Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan) introduced Billingsley to her friend, the entertainment and gossip columnist Walter Winchell in 1930. In Winchell's column in the New York Daily Mirror, he once called the Stork Club "New York's New Yorkiest place on W. 58th". Winchell was a regular at the Stork Club; what he saw and heard there at his private Table 50 was the basis of his newspaper columns and radio broadcasts. Billingsley also kept professionals on his staff whose job was to listen to the chatter, determine fact from rumor, and then report the factual news to local columnists. The practice was seen as protective of the patrons by shielding them from unfounded reports, and also a continual source of publicity for the club. Billingsley's long-standing relationship with Ethel Merman brought the theater crowd to the Stork. A feature of the club was a solid 14 karat gold chain at its entrance; patrons were allowed entry through it by the doorman. The dining room featured live bands for dancing; Billingsley kept control of the action through a series of hand signals to his help.