The Club That Spawned Celebrity Culture


America's Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society

By Ralph Blumenthal

Little, Brown -- 296pp -- $25.95

Nightclubs come and go with the evanescence of fireflies. But the Stork Club, in its day, was a phenomenon--and not just because of its astounding run of more than three decades, from 1929 to 1965. It was one of those rare locales that capture the nation's imagination and ignite its romantic fantasies. The Stork, which began as a speakeasy, came to typify the glamour of New York and the ineffable power of celebrity. It counted among its loyal clients the famous and the wannabes of show business, the underworld, sports, and politics, from Dorothy Lamour and Frank Sinatra to Joseph P. Kennedy and sons. They flocked there night after night, coaxed with a favorite table, drink, meal, free perfume, and a pleasing backdrop of debutantes and their preppy escorts.

Ralph Blumenthal, a veteran New York Times reporter, tells the colorful tale of the swanky midtown watering hole in Stork Club: America's Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society. Although it never rises above the anecdotal, it's an enjoyable popular history.

The Stork was the creation and cherished child of Sherman Billingsley, a general ne'er-do-well out of Oklahoma. Stork Club tells Billingsley's story, too. The arc of his life is the stuff of which movies, if not legends, are made. Humble beginnings, a rampantly opportunistic sensibility honed by lean times, a rather louche (to say the least) moral code, and a heavy dose of charm all combined to forge a character straight out of Damon Runyon (who was, incidentally, an admiring patron).

In his heyday, Billingsley cheated on his wife with rising star Ethel Merman and cadged favors from J. Edgar Hoover. He coddled the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and played nightly host to a cast of celebrities that caused gossip columnists to hyperventilate. At the same time, there was a dark side: Billingsley was himself an alumnus of Leavenworth Prison (sent there for bootlegging), and his original partners were gangsters. Throughout his Stork career, he was alternately considering deals with or defying the racketeers and extortionists who ran New York's restaurant labor unions. And over the years, his instinct to watch his back became so extreme, according to the author, that he listened in at the club's switchboard on private phone calls and had the tables bugged.

Union thugs weren't the only people that Billingsley was suspicious of. He wasn't crazy about Jews, though he made exceptions for the celebrities and columnists who made his club look good. And blacks were simply not welcome at the Stork. The club's discrimination policy was forced into the open after a public confrontation between Billingsley and the black chanteuse Josephine Baker.

Still, Billingsley put his mark on 20th century American culture by perfecting a formula that exploited exclusivity on one hand and media access on the other. If today we wonder how our culture of celebrity developed, we could do worse than look back at how Billingsley and his pals helped establish the rules of the game.

Just inside the front door of the Stork Club was a solid gold chain, and only petitioners deemed worthy were allowed past it. Inside the club was an inner sanctum, more exclusive yet, called the Cub Room. With powerful columnist Walter Winchell ensconced within, doling out glimpses of glamour to the masses via his syndicated dispatches, the Stork attained an unassailable aura, like the green light off the end of Jay Gatsby's dock. In a Depression-ridden, wartime, and postwar America, it must have been fascinating to imagine a gilded haven where the fortunate few could polish their fox-trot or rumba. Billingsley had a preternatural ability to burnish this aura.

To get an idea of how successful Billingsley was, consider which clubs enjoy national recognition today. Basically, post-Studio 54, there aren't any. Yet while his story is dramatic, Billingsley was hardly a man of towering achievement. It would have been tough to construct a book strictly about him or just about a nightclub, no matter how storied. The author has done his homework in the newspaper archives and in interviews. But the result is surprisingly two-dimensional. The lost world of cafe society referred to in the subtitle is an expression of the author's nostalgia but unfortunately does not herald a meaningful attempt to place this loss in sociohistorical context. Nor do we come to understand what made Billingsley tick. Nonetheless, Stork Club is a generally agreeable story, enlivened by interesting trivia (Runyon had his ashes scattered over Times Square), great black-and-white photos, and colorful anecdotes--not unlike a lengthy piece in People.

Ultimately, Blumenthal writes, changing times and Billingsley's refusal to do business with the unions combined to undo the club. In the 1950s, there was a futile attempt to modernize by beaming a TV show from the floor of the Stork, but as emcee, Billingsley was no Johnny Carson. Frantic to salvage the club as it was sinking, he bankrupted himself and his family. He had to shutter the Stork, in 1965, and sell the building. Billingsley lasted only a year longer. The Stork itself would shortly be demolished to make way for a so-called vest-pocket park. It's safe to say that the distinctly unglamorous group of lunchtime brown-baggers who crowd the space today would never have gotten past the golden chain.