Barney Josephson (1902–1988) was the founder of Café Society in Greenwich Village, New York’s first integrated nightclub. It was opened in 1938 by, among others, Billie Holiday and it was here that the singer first publicly performed the song Strange Fruit in 1939.
Josephson was born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey, the youngest of seven children. His Jewish parents immigrated from Latvia in 1900. His mother was a seamstress and his father a cobbler, who died shortly after his birth in 1902. Two of his brothers, Leon and Louis, became lawyers. Josephson graduated from Trenton High School. He then went to work in his oldest brother David’s shoe shop. After the store went bankrupt during the Depression, Josephson got a job as a buyer, window trimmer and orthopedic fitter in an Atlantic City shoe store. Although he had no experience in entertainment or nightclubs, he moved to New York in the mid-1930s with a vague plan to open a club. He was a jazz fan and had visited Harlem’s Cotton Club. He had also become intrigued while holidaying in Europe by the political cabarets of Berlin and Prague.
Josephson opened Café Society in a basement room at 1 Sheridan Square, New York in December 1938. He set out to break the norm for nightclubs in the city by making it non-segregated both front of house and behind the scenes, and free of mob influence. I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front, he said. There wasn't, so far as I know, a place like it in New York or in the whole country. Few nightclubs permitted blacks and whites to mix in the audience. Even the famous Cotton Club in Harlem was segregated, admitting only occasional black celebrities to sit at obscure tables and limiting black customers to the back of the room behind the pillars and partitions. Clubs south of Harlem, like the Kit Kat Club, did not let African-Americans in at all. Josephson's Café Society was the first nightclub in a predominantly white neighbourhood to welcome customers of all races.
Using $6,000 borrowed from two friends of his brother Leon to start the club, he rented the basement of 1 Sheridan Square. He commissioned prominent Greenwich Village artists, including Sam Berman, Abe Birnbaum, Adolph Dehn, William Gropper, John Groth, Syd Hoff, Anton Refregier and Ad Reinhardt, to decorate the walls with murals. When he opened the club Josephson was in his mid-thirties with no experience in the nightclub or entertainment fields.
In October 1940 Josephson opened Cafe Society Uptown on East 58th Street, New York.
Café Society and Café Society Uptown were consistent nurturers of new talent, supporting and showcasing many singers, jazz musicians, dancers and comedians. Other singers who were featured include Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Nellie Lutcher, Rose Murphy, the Golden Gate Quartet, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Hazel Scott, Josh White and Susan Reed.
The blues singer Big Joe Turner appeared in Café Society's first show along with boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson and carried on there for four years. Other musicians who played there included Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams, Red Allen, Joe Sullivan, Edmond Hall and Eddie Heywood.
Dancers Pearl Primus and the Krafft Sisters performed at the two clubs.
Comedian Jack Gilford was the master of ceremonies in the opening show. He stayed on for two years in that role. He was succeeded by Zero Mostel, who made his professional debut at the club. Other comedians who performed there included Imogene Coca, Jimmy Savo and Carol Channing.
Billie Holiday sang in Café Society’s opening show in 1938 and performed there for the next nine months. Josephson set down certain rules around the performance of Strange Fruit at the club: it would close Holiday’s set; the waiters would stop serving just before it; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face; and there would be no encore.
After Café Society
In 1947 Josephson's brother Leon was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and found guilty of contempt when he refused to answer any questions. As a result, Josephson was attacked by columnists like Dorothy Kilgallen, Lee Mortimer, Westbrook Pegler and Walter Winchell. Within weeks of these attacks, business at the two clubs dropped by nearly half. In 1948 Josephson was losing money badly and forced to sell both clubs.
He subsequently opened a small chain of restaurants in New York, the Cookeries. By late 1969 he had reduced the chain to a single restaurant at University Place and 8th Street. He then began to feature live music in the restaurant, starting with the jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams who had played at Café Society. In her wake, many of those who had once performed at the club appeared at the Cookery, including the singer Alberta Hunter, Nellie Lutcher, Eddie Heywood, Teddy Wilson, Sammy Price, Susan Reed, Ellis Larkins, Jack Gilford and Helen Humes. Live music continued there until The Cookery closed down in 1984.
Josephson was married four times. His fourth wife was Terry Trilling-Josephson. He had two sons, Edward and Louis, and a step-daughter, Kathe Trilling.
2. Barney Josephson and Terry Trilling-Josephson, 'Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People', University of Illinois Press, 2009.