Stork Club’s Cub Room, November 1944. From left-Orson Welles (with cigar), Margaret Sullavan with husband, owner Sherman Billingsley (center table at far right), Morton Downey (at right). Photo by Life Magazine, in public domain via Wikimedia Commons.–
On any given night at the swanky Stork Club in New York City, you could see the Vanderbilts mingling with the Kennedys, Lucille Ball dancing with her husband Desi Arnaz, or Ernest Hemingway doing ‘cheers’ with fellow novelist and paramour, Martha Gellhorn. Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Frank Sinatra were among the regulars and even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor made multiple appearances. Owner Sherman Billingsley was a pro at filling a room, and even kept an empty table for military men who often made a reservation for their expected night of return. It was the place where actors, novelists, government figures, directors, American troops, American culture-creators, and New York’s fanciest and wealthiest gathered.
In 1929 during Prohibition, Billingsley, an Oklahoma-native and ex-bootlegger, started the joint as a speakeasy on West 58th Street. Two years later, Prohibition agents came knocking on the door and shut the joint down. Billingsley, refusing to let the agents stop him from running a lucrative business, relocated to East 51st Street. In 1934, when booze was legal again, Billingsley moved his club to East 53rd Street to a space with plenty of room for dancing. The Stork Club, then legal, remained there until it closed its doors in 1965.
The Stork Club became the most sophisticated and glamorous night spot in New York City, if not in all America. It became popular because Billingsley gave the club an air of exclusivity with his four step formula. First, Billingsley gave the club’s exterior a posh appearance by having a door man stand outside and admit the well-to-do by unhooking a golden chain. Secondly, he pampered the most famous celebrities by buying them booze and thirdly, he created a private room, named the Cub Room, in the already exclusive club for the most famous. Most importantly, he employed a photographer to document every night and give the photos to the tabloids. Walter Winchell, a gossip columnist, could often be spotted in the Cub Room mingling with the ‘in’ crowd. Winchell usually got material for his column from his nights at the club.
Sherman Billingsley spent his nights at his Stork Club schmoozing, playing cards with his famous clientele, and drinking a glass of Coca Cola. He even had a myriad of hand signals that discreetly gave instructions to his 200 employees. When he cupped his left hand around his left ear, he was telling one of his staff members, “Call me to the phone, I want to get away from this table.” When Billingsley pretended to be adjusting his tie with his left hand, he meant, “No check for this table. I got it.” Billingsley had a hand signal to tell his staff that a group of patrons were unimportant and there was no need to pay attention to them. He had one signal calling a server to bring a bottle of champagne to the table and another one telling a server to bring a round of drinks to the table.
The club was most successful during World War II because New Yorkers weren’t tight on cash anymore, like they were during the Great Depression. Despite wartime rationing, Billingsley always had plenty of food stocked because of his connections, an important one being Frank Costello who was in charge of the mob.
The Stork Club began its demise in the 1950s when Billingsley encountered Josephine Baker, an African American singer and dancer, in his club. Josephine was married to a Jewish Frenchman, and the anti-Semitic Billingsley stopped service to the table for an hour. Since the club’s happenings were always well-documented by columnists and photographers, word of the fiasco spread quickly to the rest of America. Six years later, Billingsley got in another large spat with unions who wanted to organize the club. During the strike, Billingsley often water-bombed picketers and ultimately lost a majority of his staff, friends, and customers. With Billingsley’s classy reputation ruined and all of his money gone, the end of an era came to the Stork Club on October 4, 1965.
It would be nice if New Yorkers could still visit East 53rd St and get a glimpse of the city’s nightlife at its finest, but two years after its closing the building was demolished and the fabulous Paley Park was put in its place. The only remnants of the once-hopping address are souvenirs with the Stork Club insignia that anyone can buy online and mentions of the club in books of the era from Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edith Wharton.
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