The Stork Club -- and its lost world

May 14, 2000|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,Sun Staff

"Stork Club, America's Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society," by Ralph Blumenthal. Little, Brown & Co. 336 pages. $25.

One of the great ironies of the life of Sherman Billingsley, the ex-bootlegger who ran Manhattan's Stork Club with an iron fist in a velvet glove, was his dalliance with the then-new medium of television. For a few years in the early 1950s, long after he had established the Stork Club as a glamorous celebrity mecca in the city that never sleeps, Billingsley had his own 15-minute show on CBS, a celebrity-interview program, telecast live from his posh club on Saturday nights. Billingsley saw it as great publicity, of course, something that today might be considered an infomerical. What he could not have seen was how dramatically television would change America and undercut the very things Billingsley and the Stork Club represented.

The Stork Club, which had its origins in the age of the speakeasy, was an exclusive club open to the public -- at least the white aristocracy that could afford it. Princes and princesses, movie stars, Broadway headliners, famous writers, politicians and captains of industry checked their coats there. It was a destination for tourists; even if they couldn't get in, they could stand under the Stork's famous awning on East 53rd Street and gawk at those who did.

But, as Ralph Blumenthal describes it in this superbly detailed book, the Stork Club represented a kind of life that no longer exists, not even in New York City. It was a form of entertainment -- dining, dancing, drinking, smoking, chatting, in high style, among celebrities -- that even today's affluent class does not experience on a regular basis. It was a gathering place loaded with regulars, people who considered Billingsley a friend. Today, in the age of sprawling suburbs and home entertainment, a place such as the Stork Club would be considered a nostalgic theme park. Once, it existed for real.

Billingsley's genius for promotion -- and his friendship with the influential syndicated columnist Walter Winchell -- made the Stork Club the place to be seen in New York City. If an Ordinary Joe and his date could get past the gold chain at the club's entrance, they might see Winchell, Ernest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Gloria Vanderbilt and a couple of guys who looked suspiciously like mobsters.

When television came along and CBS offered him a chance for a show, Billingsley grabbed it. His awkward performances as the show's host, his verbal gaffes and dumb questions became the stuff of early-television legend, and, Blumenthal reports, might have contributed to the show's appeal. Viewers tuned in to see a movie star, but also maybe a Stork Club waiter spilling a tray of dishes.

Those viewers might well have been potential customers, too. People who could afford television sets in the early days presumably could afford a big night out at the Stork Club. Now, they didn't have to.

The advent of television in the increasingly suburbanized, stay-at-home America explains only in part the demise of Stork Club. A lot of it was due to Billingsley himself -- his insecurity bordering on paranoia, his temper, his fights with unions, his legal problems, his club's discriminatory practices. All of that finally caught up with him, and his dynasty tottered in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Blumenthal marks the beginning of the end as October 1951, when Broadway star Roger Rico brought the sensuous black singer and dancer Josephine Baker to the club for a late after-show dinner. Rico, his wife and Baker were seated in the Stork's Cub Room, served a round of drinks, then ignored by the staff.

Baker eventually stormed out of the place, alerting the press to her treatment. The incident received extensive news coverage and led to a war of words as Winchell, Billingsley's pal and apologist, attacked Baker as un-American. New York's liberal establishment was appalled, and the Stork Club lost a considerable part of its glitter.

Billingsley could not seem to adapt to the changing world about him, and this book, written with the assistance of one of his daughters, vividly reveals how the man and his once exquisitely snobby club came to be anachronisms by the early 1960s. The club was sold, and the man who bought it tore it down and turned it into a pocket park. That man, ironically, was television pioneer William Paley of CBS.

Dan Rodricks, a Sun columnist, has hosted radio and television talk shows.

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