Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ralph Blumenthal, "Stork Club" (2000).

It's likely no coincidence that I thought a lot about social capital last weekend. I am often influenced (in sometimes subconscious ways) by whatever book I am currently working my way through. It just so happens that I was reading Ralph Blumenthal's Stork Club last week. Before I picked it up, I didn't know anything about the Manhattan club of the title. Apparently it was a major social institution in mid-Twentieth Century America. A list of its patrons would typically include actors, journalists, authors, singers, gangsters, socialites, dandies, debutantes, dancers and politicians. If you were recognized by its high-toned doorman, then you knew that you were somebody. A starstruck Midwesterner visiting the "Big Apple" could get his/her fill of celebrity at The Stork.

The origins of the club were not nearly so exclusive as one might expect from its eventual success and reputation. It was owned and operated by a man named Sherman Billingsley. Born in Kentucky, Billingley migrated with his family to Oklahoma when he was just a young child. His father was eager to claim a piece of Indian Territory, which was newly opened to settlement by the federal government. Sherman and his siblings were farm kids, and they learned to work hard and find money wherever they could. Logan (Sherman's eldest brother) decided to try his hand at bootlegging, and his younger brothers followed in his footsteps. When the 18th Amendment prohibited the sale of alcohol, it created a fortuitous niche in the economy for the Billingsley Boys. They made a heap of cash, and also ran afoul of the law.

Having made his pile in the underground liquor trade (and spent time in jail for his missteps), Sherman followed Logan to NYC, where a fortune was being made in real estate development. He opened up a string of corner pharmacies where he sold nostrums that were really just clandestine bottles of alcohol. He made money quickly, and was able to open up a speakeasy in midtown. It did well, and attracted the attention of some truly bad actors. Billingsley's ties to mobsters (like Frank Costello, Owney Madden, and "Dutch" Schultz) were a necessary evil in the nightclub industry. Proprietors had to pay off racketeers in order to stay in business. Billingsley claimed to resent their involvement, but seemed to ultimately benefit from their protection throughout his career.

Warding off the tough guys amounted to just another in a long line of hassles and expenses Billingsley confronted during his ascendancy. Later on, when much of the crime syndicate was pushed from Manhattan, it would be the service unions that prompted the greatest portion of Mr. B.'s grief. The Stork Club was picketed for years by disgruntled ex-employees. Billingsley was notoriously anti-labor. Perhaps he acquired his elitism from hanging out with the high company that patronized The Stork. Anyway, he would often use his contacts as a bludgeon against unions and other competitors. J. Edgar Hoover (the legendary FBI director) was notably useful for this purpose, as were Walter Winchell and other journalists who favored Billingsley's place.

For a couple of decades The Stork Club remained the preeminent place to see and be seen. Blumenthal's book includes photos with his luminous clientele, which featured the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, Marilyn Monroe, Earnest Hemingway, Damon Runyon, Frank Sinatra, Alfred Hitchcock, and Henry Fonda. The list of names mentioned in conjunction with The Stork is indeed amazing. It reads like a Who's Who of America from the 30's to the 50's. In fact (in this reader's opinion) Blumenthal seems a bit too starstruck in his account of the place. He could have given over more space to the many controversies Billingsley was involved in. He could have more closely examined the club owner's prejudices (he once had a famous feud with Josephine Baker), or provided more background information about the phenomena of unionization during the 50's.

Still, if you have an interest in the high-living antics of prominent people during this era, then you'll no doubt enjoy this book. It's also interesting to read about Billingsley's often troubled relationship with his staff. He was watchful to the point of paranoia- even going so far as to practice active wire surveillance over both his workers and customers. Blumenthal seems flippant about these spying tactics, but it's not too much of a leap to believe that Billingsley might have been paying for Hoover's favor with illegally-obtained information about the nation's elite. A chapter on that aspect of Sherman Billingsley's life would have drawn significant attention. Perhaps Blumenthal's research just didn't support that avenue of inquiry.

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Blogger jefg99 said...

Thanks for the book summary. Very interesting material, this slice of the "other" Americana, the elite. While I had heard of The Stork Club, I hadn't known what it was. It must have been an amazing place to hang out.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

It certainly would have been fascinating to have access to all of those folks. But I imagine that being on the outside looking in would have been simply frustrating.

2:26 PM  

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