The Stork Club. 28 ways to go from shady speakeasy to the “New Yorkiest” club

A few months ago I read the book Stork Club, by Ralph Blumenthal.

A great book on why and how the Stork club became the best club in NY, and some insight on his owner, Mr. Billingsley, a fascinating character. You can buy the book and read it yourself (300 pages) or read the following post (2 pages) and get some examples of what he did to go from a speakeasy with serial gangsters as partners to become the “New Yorkiest” club in NY.

The stork club existed between 1929 and 1965 and it was the source of the term Society Café. It was a busy place that demanded lots of attention (even when it was a speakeasy) so Mr. Billingsley licensed the checkroom to a concessionaire and used that freed time to focus on more influential duties.

Here are 28 examples of positive actions he did as the owner,

  1. Above the bar stretched a long mirror that allowed Billingsley to look up and keep an eye on everything and patrons to admire themselves and one another under softly flattering lights.
  2. The cash register rang to music, as Billingsley had long since discovered. The peppier the sound, the more customers drank and ate.
  3. The ladies room was furnished with well-cushioned chairs. A counter was set with powder and perfumes, and in the stalls the toilet seats were sterilized by ultraviolet-ray devices
  4. The men had a rest room downstairs by the bar, but it was urinals only. For stalls they had to take an elevator up to the third floor.
  5. Billingsley’s love letter to his loyal patrons memorialized their comings and goings. And he also published and annual magazine called Stork Club talk.
  6. Each year Mr. B and his intimates selected a dozen of debutantes for a kind of Stork Club fellowship who would make the club their headquarters and receive food and drinks gratis. He figured that they might be short of pocket money now but one day they’d be rich or famous, and as he often said “the finest decoration the Stork Club can have is a lot of beautiful girls”.
  7. There were fresh flowers everywhere, multiplied by the omnipresent mirrors, and the signature Stork club ashtrays.
  8. Expenses: he had 200 employees (earning more than union employers)  serving the 374 guests who could be seated at one time. He spent 50K a year on redecorating (around 500K on today’s money) and lost 25K on theft, bad checks and breakage.  7K a year on flowers, 12K on lights, 1500 a week for his 2 orchestras.
  9. His guests were all the celebrities of the era, like JFK, Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, Ann Sheridan, Orson wells, A. Hitchcock, Shirley temple, Henry Ford II, Helen Keller, Clark gable, Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, politicians and army lieutenants (who used to set up camps called The Stork club) together with other well to do guests from the highest level of society.  Most of these people had a Stork Club guest card. Hemmingway and Gelhorn at the stork club
  10. Everyone at the Stork Club had a story – especially the people who worked there (Note: Mr. B made sure that the staff he hired was not only well versed but also interesting)
  11. One fight a year was good publicity, he insisted, “providing the names of the fighters are big names” (Like E. Hemingway). One night Humphrey Bogart (who has been banned from Club 21 and El Morocco) showed up drunk and wanted to put up a fight with Mr. B.
  12. He hired a regular club photographer (who once was defended by Frank Sinatra against a furious Coca Cola executive who wasn’t drinking his product) , a young socialite and an ex model  for PR, and made friends with Journalist and advertisement agent Steve Hannagan.
  13. He lured pretty girls with champagne, pins, cosmetics and souvenir stocks. He also sent champagne bottles to the artist dressing rooms in Broadway, perfume to the ladies and shaving cream to the men. stork_club_box_w_perfume
  14. Mr. B was bullheaded, but he was also open to listen to sensible ideas and learn something from his staff, as he informed in one of his memos: “Any suggestions you can make for private parties or functions for the new private rooms you will be doing a lot of good for all of us. Don’t fail to give me any ideas you may have”
  15. He also was smart and used his staff’s skill on his favor, for example the doorman at his interview assured that he knew all the tough characters of the gangster era, Mr. B replied “you’ll be the doorman. Keep out everybody you know”
  16. Paramount had paid him 100k (1.2 million today) to call a new movie The Stork Club, to shoot some scenes at the club and to copy parts of the interior for its Hollywood set. The movie All About Eve also stages a scene at the Stork Club.
  17. He threw parties for his staff, with champagne, free drinks and ties as gifts.  In one occasion he handed them cash money or banknotes.  He also held family picnics for his employees. (also this were with the intention of blackmailing them against the union, which it worked out fine)
  18. He gave an interview to Good housekeeping, in which he counseled women on “how to behave in a nightclub” (At a time when women were starting to being accepted in clubs)

Don’t give reasons when going to the Ladies’ lounge. Omit the coy remarks. Simply excuse yourself.

Don’t become overfriendly with the musicians. It isn’t considered nice

Don’t talk to strangers at adjoining tables. And don’t be too friendly ever with people you know but who are not part of your party. Particularly, don’t flirt – it is embarrassing to your escort

Don’t table-hop, no matter how well you know the other guests. It often looks show-offy, and it’s always almost annoying

Don’t accept notes sent to your table by strangers, and never give your name, address or telephone number to anyone to whom you have not been properly introduced

Don’t engage in conversation with waiters. Don’t give your order to a waiter – give it to your escort; he, not you, is supposed to do the ordering

Don’t hold conversations with cab drivers while going to or from nightclubs

  1. He sent gifts to guests and tables like orchids, ties, suspenders or samples of his own perfume brand. He had silent signals identifying each present that he used to direct his maître d’ . Billingsley’s signals cleverly allowed the club to provide seamless good service to his favored patrons while also letting him be the bad guy with less favorable customers without them knowing it. stork-club-hand-signals billingsley
  2. On one occasion he sent pearls to of one of his customer’s new born baby.
  3. Mr. B was ahead of his time and he invested in a farm (today’s farm to table trend), willing to supply the Stork club with some produce, and had a truck marked Stork Club Farm. / He boasted in his menus his suppliers (such as Schweppes) stating “we buy the best to serve you best”
  4. He banned prostitutes, gamblers, and other undesirables. One time he removed the table of a madam who refused to leave, leaving her and her escort exposed.
  5. He selected a softer décor that he thought would appeal to ladies.
  6. When he opened he presented all the reports with a guest card numbered 353, as a reminder of the address (3 East 53rd st.).  One of them was Herald Tribune columnist Lucius Beebe, who later went on to write a book on the club.
  7. He hired private detectives to check out on other clubs (something usual at that time)
  8. He certainly was a hard- working man, being at the club 7 days a week for most of the day.
  9. He hold balloon parties with balloons containing prizes such as hundred dollar notes (u$1000 in today’s money) and other treasures.  Also eccentric parties were thrown, one in which the room was decorated with orange trees and stuffed birds.StorkClubDance
  10. And he cashed E. Hemingway a u$100K check at the end of the night.

As you can see, Mr. B. was fully passionate and dedicated to his club, some of his ideas were revolutionary at the time and still are today. I am sure this post will put you to think about what you can do for your place.

Be my guest, Lucas Ranzuglia.


About lucas Ranzuglia
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