Stork Club's Main Dining Room, November 1944.
|Address||132 West 58th Street, New York City
(1929 to 1931)
531⁄2 East 51st Street, New York City
(1931 to 1934)
3 East 53rd Street, New York City
(1934 to 1965)
|Closed||4 October 1965|
The Stork Club was a nightclub in New York City from 1929 to 1965. From 1934 onwards, it was located at 3 East 53rd Street, just east of Fifth Avenue. The building was demolished in 1966 and the site is now the location of Paley Park, a small vest-pocket park.
The Stork Club was owned and operated by Sherman Billingsley (1896–1966) an ex-bootlegger who came to New York from Enid, Oklahoma. (In later years, Billingsley claimed to have been born in 1900, but this is refuted by both the 1930 census and the Social Security Death Index.) 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 at 132 West 58th Street, just down the block from Billingsley's apartment at 152 West 58th Street. 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, saying, "Don't ask me how or why I picked the name, because I just don't remember."
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, and it moved to East 51st Street for three years. 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. The New York Historical Society displayed that along with other Stork Club items and memorabilia in an exhibit in 2000. 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. Merman had a waiter assigned to her whose job was just to light her cigarettes. 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.
The activities of the "boldface" celebrities at the Stork Club were chronicled by the "orchidaceous oracle of cafe society", Lucius Beebe, in his syndicated column "This New York". Notable guests through the years included:
- Lucille Ball
- Tallulah Bankhead
- Charlie Chaplin
- Frank Costello
- Bing Crosby
- the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (once given the cold shoulder there by Winchell)
- Brenda Frazier
- Dorothy Frooks
- Carmen Miranda
- Dana Andrews
- Michael O'Shea
- Judy Garland
- the Harrimans
- Ernest Hemingway
- Judy Holliday
- J. Edgar Hoover
- Grace Kelly
- the Kennedys
- Dorothy Kilgallen
- Dorothy Lamour (who was turned down as a club singer by Billingsley early in her career)
- Robert M. McBride
- Marilyn Monroe
- the Nordstrom Sisters
- Erik Rhodes
- the Roosevelts
- Ramón Rivero (Diplo)
- J. D. Salinger
- Frank Sinatra
- Elizabeth Taylor
- Gene Tierney
- Gloria Vanderbilt
The news of Grace Kelly's engagement to Prince Rainier of Monaco broke at the Stork. The couple was at the club on Tuesday, January 3, 1956, as the rumors flew. Veteran columnist Jack O'Brian passed Kelly a note, saying that reliable sources indicated she was about to become engaged to the Prince. Kelly replied she could not answer the question posed by O'Brian until Friday.
Those who were snubbed did not always depart quietly. When Jack Benny invited long-time friend, writer and performer Goodman Ace to lunch with him at the Stork, Ace arrived at the club first and received the "cold shoulder" because he was not recognized by the staff. When Benny arrived and asked for Ace, he was told that he "became tired of waiting and left". Soon Ace's mailbox was full of messages from the Stork, which he proceeded to answer. Their message about the club's wonderful air conditioning brought a response from Ace that after having received an icy reception there, he was well aware of the climate. Billingsley responded with a gift of some bow ties; Ace answered that he needed some socks to match so he might be turned down there again in style.
The Cub Room and Stork Club gifts
The sanctum sanctorum, the Cub Room ("the snub room"), was guarded by a captain called "Saint Peter" (for the saint who guards the gates of Heaven). The most famous of them was John "Jack" Spooner; he was well known to many celebrities from his previous duties at LaHiff's. Billingsley recruited him in 1934 after the death of Billy Lahiff and the subsequent closure of his club. Spooner began an autograph book for his daughter, Amelia, while working at LaHiff's. Billingsley encouraged him to bring "The Book" to the Stork Club, where stars continued to sign it. Some who were famous illustrators or cartoonists such as E. C. Segar (Popeye), Chic Young (Blondie), and Theodor Geisel ("Dr. Seuss") would add personalized doodles or drawings for Spooner's young daughter. Billingsley's rule of thumb for his help, "If you know them...they don't belong in here," did not apply to Spooner. It was Spooner's knowing the patrons and socializing with them away from the job that helped make the Stork Club so successful with attracting celebrity clients. At Christmas, Spooner dressed as Santa Claus, posing for photos with old and young alike. Billingsley's original plan for the Cub Room was for it to be a private place for playing gin rummy with his friends. The room was added to the club during World War II.
Besides the Cub Room, the Main Dining Room, and the bar, the club contained a private room for parties, the "Blessed Event Room", a "Loner's Room", which was much like a men's club, and a private barber shop.
Owner Billingsley was well known for his extravagant gifts presented to his favorite patrons, spending an average of $100,000 a year on them. They included compacts studded with diamonds and rubies, French perfumes, champagne and other liquors, and even automobiles. Many of the gifts were specially made for the Stork club, with the club's name and logo on them. Some of the best known examples were the gifts of Sortilege perfume by Le Galion. Billingsley convinced Arthur Godfrey, Morton Downey, and his own assistant, Steve Hannigan, to form an investment group with him to obtain the United States distributorship of the fragrance. It was also Billingsley's standard practice to send every regular club patron a case of champagne at Christmas.
Sunday night was "Balloon Night". As is common with New Year's celebrations, balloons were held on the ceiling by a net and the net would open at the stroke of midnight. As the balloons came down, the ladies would begin frantically trying to catch them. Each contained a number and a drawing would be held for the prizes, which ranged from charms for bracelets to automobiles; there were also at least three $100 bills folded and placed randomly in the balloons.
His generosity was not confined to those who were always at the club. Billingsley received the following letter in 1955: "I am grateful to you for your thoughtful kindness in sending me such a generous selection of attractive neckties. At the same time may I once again thank you for the cigars that you regularly send to the White House?" It was signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower. During World War II, three bomber planes were christened with the name of the Stork Club. Billingsley commissioned Tiffany & Co. to produce sterling silver Stork club logo Victory pins as gifts for their crew members. Patrons were not always on the receiving end; Billingsley's writings claimed that one of his waiters received a $20,000 tip. A bartender received a new Cadillac from a grateful patron, and a headwaiter received a $10,000 tip from tennis star Fred Perry. The real purpose of the Stork Club was people watching other people, particularly non-celebrities watching celebrities. It was necessary for Billingsley to give the expensive gifts and to provide some to all of a celebrity's Stork Club services for free to bring the stars to the club and keep them coming back. The notables were what brought people from all over the country in all walks of life to visit the Stork Club.
In 1951, Josephine Baker made charges of racism against the Stork Club after she ordered a steak and was apparently still waiting for it an hour later. Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and stormed out with her entire party. Kelly apparently did not return until January 3, 1956 (when, as noted above, she appeared with Prince Rainier of Monaco).
The controversy grew when Baker accused Walter Winchell of being in the Cub Room at the time and not coming to her aid. Winchell was at the club and had, he said, greeted Baker and one of her friends as the two went to use the Stork Club's pay phone. He said he was not aware of there being any problem, and left for a late screening of the film The Desert Fox. The next morning, Winchell's rumored failure to assist Baker was big news, and he received countless telephone calls. Mrs. Rico, who was part of the Baker party with her husband, said that Baker's steak was waiting for her at the table after she returned from her phone call, but the entertainer chose to make a stormy exit from the Stork anyhow. News accounts show conflicting statements from the Ricos. Baker also filed suit against Winchell over the matter, but the suit was dismissed in 1955.
Along with that of Billingsley and the Stork Club, Walter Winchell's name was further tarnished by the incident. After leaving the Stork, the Baker party made contact with WMCA's Barry Gray, where the story was told as part of Gray's radio talk show. One of those who phoned Gray's program was television personality and columnist Ed Sullivan, a professional rival of Winchell's whose "home base" was the El Morocco nightclub. Sullivan's on-air remarks dealt mainly with Winchell's alleged part in the event, saying, "What Winchell has done is an insult to the United States and American newspaper men."
A New York police investigation of the matter followed the complaint made by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It found that the Stork Club did not discriminate against Josephine Baker. The NAACP went on to say that the results of the police investigation did not provide enough evidence for the organization to pursue the incident further in criminal court.
Because of Billingsley's long-standing friendship with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) head J. Edgar Hoover, rumors persisted that the Stork Club was bugged. During his work on the Stork Club book, author and New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal was contacted by Jean-Claude Baker, one of Josephine Baker's sons. Having read an article by Blumenthal about Leonard Bernstein's FBI file, he indicated that he had read his mother's FBI file and by comparing the file to the tapes, said he thought the Stork Club incident was overblown.
Union issues write the final chapter
Hard times began for the Stork Club in 1956, when it lost money for the first time. In 1957, unions tried once again to organize the club's employees. Their major effort ten years before had been unsuccessful; at that time, Sherman Billingsley was accused of attempting to influence his employees to stay out of the union with lavish staff parties and financial gifts. By 1957, all other similar New York clubs except the Stork Club were now unionized. This met with resistance from Billingsley and many dependable employees left the Stork Club over his refusal to allow them to be represented by a union. Picket lines were set up and marched in front of the club daily for years, including the club's last day of business. The club received many threats connected to his refusal to accept unions for his workers; some of the threats involved Billingsley's family. In 1957, he was arrested for displaying a gun when some painters who were working at the Austrian Consulate next to the family's home sat on his stoop for lunch. Billingsley admitted to acting rashly because of the threats. Three months before his arrest, his secretary was assaulted as she was entering the building where she lived; her assailants made references to the union issues at the Stork Club.
Many of his patrons no longer visited the night spot as a result of the union dispute, and many of Billingsley's friendships, including those of Walter Winchell and J. Edgar Hoover, were broken. He began firing staff without good cause. As the dispute dragged on, there was also no longer a live band in the dining room for music. In 1963, the club that had never needed to advertise offered a hamburger and French fries for $1.99 in the New York Times; when those in the know about the club saw it, they realized the Stork Club's days were coming to an end. In the last few months of its operation, at times there were only three customers for the entire evening.
When the Stork Club initially closed its doors, news stories indicated it was being shut because the building it occupied had been sold and a new location was being sought. The years of labor disputes had taken their toll on Billingsley financially. Trying to keep the Stork Club going took all of his assets and about $10 million from his three daughters' trust funds. While in the hospital recuperating from a serious illness in October 1965, Billingsley sold the building to Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), who turned the site into a park named after its founder's father. In a 1937 interview, Billingsley said, "I hope I'll be running a night club the last day I live." He fell just short of that mark. One year to the day after the closing of the Stork Club, Sherman Billingsley died of a heart attack at his Manhattan apartment, leaving a wife, Hazel, and three daughters, Jacqueline, Barbara, and Shermane.
Television and movies
The Stork Club was a television series hosted by Billingsley, who circulated among the tables interviewing guests at the club. Sponsored by Fatima cigarettes, the series ran from 1950 to 1955. The television show was directed by Yul Brynner, who was a TV director before he was a star of stage and screen. The program began on CBS Television with the network having built a replica of the Cub Room on the Stork Club's sixth floor to serve as the set for the show. Billingsley was paid $12,000 each week as its host. The television show moved to ABC by 1955.
During the broadcast of May 8, 1955, Billingsley made some remarks about fellow New York restaurateur Bernard "Toots" Shor financial solvency and honesty. Shor responded by suing for a million dollars. He collected just under $50,000 as a settlement in March 1959. The Stork Club television show ended in the same year the statements were made.
There was also a Philco Television Playhouse presentation, "Murder at the Stork Club", which was aired on NBC Television on January 15, 1950. Franchot Tone and Billingsley had cameo roles in the television drama. The television show was an adaptation of Vera Caspary's 1946 mystery novel, The Murder in the Stork Club, where the action took place in and around the famous nightclub, with Sherman Billingsley and other real-life characters appearing in the plot.
The Alfred Hitchcock film The Wrong Man (1957) starred Henry Fonda as real-life Stork Club bassist Christopher Emanuel Balestrero ("Manny"), who was falsely accused of committing robberies around New York City. Scenes involving Balestrero playing the bass were actually shot at the club. The film's screenplay, written by Maxwell Anderson, was based on a true story originally published in Life magazine.
The Stork Club was featured in the second season episode of AMC's dramatic television series Mad Men titled "The Golden Violin". The club provided the setting for a party attended by characters Don and Betty Draper in celebration of comedian Jimmy Barrett.
The Stork Club is mentioned in Captain America: The First Avenger. The titular character and his love interest agree to meet there for a date in one week.
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"My Life Behind Bars" by a bartender of the Stork Club, Johnny Brooks.