WHEN Prohibition cast its clammy shadow over our pleasure-loving city, it wiped out nearly all of the great restaurants and cafes for which New York was justly famousBustanoby’s, Delmonico’s, Reisenweber’s, Rector’s, Maxim’s, Churchill’s, etc. Tradition-ally, the sale of food alone is not sufficient to maintain such lush establishments so, deprived of income from legal liquor, most of them folded immediately. A few lingered on but were shortly closed for violation of the Volstead Act or went into bankruptcy.
Prohibition spawned a new type of racketeer in the bootlegger but, paradoxically, also brought into being a new set of restaurateurs who were to create some of New York’s finest restaurants. Chefs maintained that they couldn’t produce fine foods without alcoholic ingredients so joined the speakeasies, which became the best places to dine. Since the whole operation was beyond the law, prices were as high as the traffic would bear, and from the standpoint of profits many a restaurateur regretted the return to normalcy with the repeal of the 18th Amendment.
In an attempt to get around the law, speakeasies adopted the label “night club” and issued membership cards, though even with these pseudo credentials the best way to get in was to “ring three times and ask for Joe.” These cards are now a collector’s item and it is amusing to list a few:
Silver Ball, 78 E. 56th St.; The Furnace Club (Hot-test Place in Town), 131 W. 52nd St.; Chesterfield Inn (endorsed by Jack), 133 W. 49th St.; Finn Mc-Cool Club (no address); The Don Juan, 38 E. 53rd St.; Mona Lisa, 36 W. 56th St.; The Tavern, bearing a John Held cartoon, on 7th Ave. South; The Merry-Go-Round, 146-8 E. 56th St.; Tony (Tony Gardella), 42 E. 53rd St., etc., etc. There are at least fifty more. Chez Desert, somewhat off the beat at 53 W. 24th St., was operated by Dottie, who assures her guests of entertainment by her “gang of entertainers and hostesses (blondes, brunettes and redheads).”
Within the confines of four blocks in the East Fifties there were at least two dozen speakeasies and it is interesting to check the locations and see what occupies those addresses now.
Maison Royale, 6 E. 52nd St., now freight entrance to Best & Co.
Biarritz (Charles Lucas, prop.), 38 E. 52nd St., now Pompadour Coffee Shop.
Epicure, 40 E. 52nd St., now Abel Tailors, men’s suits.
Don Juan, 38 E. 53rd St., now MICHEL’S, an excellent French restaurant.
Tony’s, 42 E. 53rd St., now the HOUR GLASS restaurant.
Louis & Armand’s, 46 E. 53rd St., now Thibault Wallpaper Co. (A new LoUis & ARMAND is at 42 E. 52nd St.)
Jimmy’s and the Park View Club, 54 E. 53rd St., now an art and frame shop.
Jimmy’s, 53 E. 54th St., now DANIEL’S, an excellent French restaurant.
Pierre’s Restaurant and Le Caveau, 133 E. 54th St., now a new apartment building.
The Tree Club, 119 E. 55th St., now a private residence.
Pierre Gregori’s, 73 E. 56th St., now Helen Guttman’s dress shop.
Silver Ball, 78 E. 56th St., now Lily Daches and Lucien LeLong’s.
The Excelsior, 149 E. 56th St., building being torn down for new apartment house.
The Merry-Go-Round (one of the more famous speaks) 146-8 E. 56th St., one of the handsomest town houses in New York, now interior decorating shop of Maslow Freen.
Club Napoleon, 33 E. 56th St., see PLACE ELEGANTE. Mona Lisa, Petit Palais and the Europa, in that
order, at 36 E. 56th St., now Laura’s Dress Shop.
Sennett’s Long Cabin, 107 E. 56th St., now a garage. Back Stage Club, 110 E. 56th St., now a garage.
Dizzy Club, 146 E. 56th St., now Mirelle’s dress shop.
Hi Hat, 150 E. 56th St., now a tobacco shop.
More germane to our story is a simple and tasteful credential reading Perona takes pleasure in sending you the enclosed membership card at the request of said card bearing the autograph of the host, John Perona, and two others which tell quite a storyThe Stork Club, Inc., at 132 W. 58th St., and The New Stork Club at 51 1/2 E. 51st St., bearing a 1933 date with a replica of Sherman Billingsley’s signature. Also a pale blue “honorary membership” card marked Club Napoleon, with an embossed likeness of the Little Corporal.
New Yorkers loved their speakeasies and even today many restaurateurs are trying to retain or recapture their gemutlich atmosphere. The prohibition law was so violently unpopular that there was no onus to being a bootlegger then, nor has there been since.
Directly stemming from this speakeasy period are at least four of our most celebrated current institutions: Jack and Charlie’s “21,” Sherman Billingsley’s STORK, John Perona’s EL MOROCCO, and Gene Cavallero’s COLONY.
“Twenty-one” has been rated by sophisticated European travelers as the world’s greatest restaurant operation, which it could be. Yet “21″ had its beginnings in a humble little basement speakeasy called the Red Head on lower 6th Ave. That was in 1922. The operators were two youthful cousins named Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns who had but recently graduated from operating concessionsthe soft drink and pony ride concessions, if memory servesat one of the flamboyant Catskill resorts. Associated with them then was a cousin, Bill Hardy, who was later to operate his own highly successful BILL’S GAY NINETIES CLUB and their cashier was another young man destined for fame along another lineMark Hellinger. They were all so hard up at the time that they had to whip up their own slip covers for the club on a rented sewing ma-chine. When fire gutted the place they had no insurance, so had to start all over again. Their next speak-easy was the Club Fronton, also in the Village. Then came the Puncheon Grotto on West 49th St., supposedly popularized by such then collegiate under-graduates (1926) as Lucius Beebe, Peter Arno and Jock Whitney.
Realizing that Prohibition couldn’t last forever, Jack and Charlie burned the midnight oil studying about fine wines and liquors and soon moved their base of operations to the basement of an elegant old brown-stone residence at 21 W. 52nd St. It was the first speakeasy to invade that formerly exclusive residential block. In the basement of the original building occupied by “21″ may still be seen the wine cellars provided with secret doors for quick getaways in case of raids by prohibition agents.
“21″ prospered and expanded and, flushed with success, Jack and Charlie let it be known that they could afford to get along without two types of customersactors and newspapermen.
The resultant clamor to get in by these gentry helped to make the place, of course, and actors (celebrated actors, that is) became highly desirable patrons. Newsmenmore specifically gossip columnists and press photographersare still unwelcome, since “21″ feels that the privacy of their patrons is of prime consideration.
Viennese-born Jack (John Carl) Kriendler, for professional reasons, was a snob, whose style and elegant manners gained him the nickname of “the Baron.” (He made his title legal, the wags said, by later marrying a bona-fide Belgian baroness.) To address Jack by his first name was a privilege; for him to ad-dress you by your first name became a definite mark of distinction. Jack’s worldly sophistication was some-what belied by his rather juvenile taste in silver-mounted saddles and the fancy get-ups affected at his dude ranch out West, which got him another nickname”Two-trigger Jack.” The ranch was one of the several elaborate establishments maintained by him which included a five-room apartment above the restaurant. When Jack died in 1947, his personal estate was valued at well over a million dollars. The large and well-executed portrait of him which hangs in the stair well at “21″ conveys some idea of his urbanity, good looks and personal charm.
“21″ is still a family operation. Jack’s three brothers Mack, Bob and Peteare now in charge. Charlie Berns, now retired from the restaurant, operates an affiliate, “21 Brands.” A breakdown of the operation in 1949 indicated that the restaurant now occupies the five floors and basements of three brownstone buildings. There are three regular dining rooms, another special one (the Hunt Room) for parties; three bars and two service bars. The restaurant employs about 250captains, waiters, busboys, bartenders, cooks and helpersand one of its best features is the superb service by scarlet-jacketed waiters, under the direction of veteran headwaiter Pierre Pastre.
“21″ might be called New York’s favorite “town tavern.” It is internationally known and patronized by businessmen and society figures alike. Prices are high but not so high as a number of other restaurants that have sprung up since. The oak-paneled rooms, hunting prints and other tasteful decor give the restaurant the atmosphere of a private London club. This is truly a far cry from the Red Head on 6th Ave.!
The Stork Club’s owner and operator, John Sherman Billingsley, is even more closely identified with the speakeasy era and his story is that of a Horatio Alger with a twist. As sometimes happens, the owner is far more colorful than the club itself.
Sherm, as his intimates know him, was born in the back room of a grocery store at a former whistle stop called Enid, Oklahoma (“Dine” spelled backwards, he explains)one of a family of nine children. He has been identified with the liquor business, one way or another, since (the story goes) he started selling booze to the Indians at the age of 7.
This future arbiter of New York’s cafe society quit school at the fifth grade and started on an adventurous career that brought him via Detroit to New York in the middle of the Prohibition period. He sold Bronx real estate, operated a drugstore and dispensed liquor (on prescription). Until he opened his first speakeasy in 1926 his nearest approach to being a restaurateur was as a sandwich counterman. His first Stork Club (he still can’t remember just what suggested the name) at 152 W. 58th St. was demolished by prohibition agents. The one next was the New Stork Club at 51 1/2 E. 51st St. The third and current club of that name was started in 1934, about a year after repeal, at 3 E. 53rd St.
Originally popular only with theatrical and professional people, the STORK was taken up by the debutantes and youthful collegiate set largely because of a class magazine article by then society columnist Inez Robb. The youngsters, most of them from our “better” families, lent glamor to the place and they in turn loved it because “good, old Sherm” never let them pay a check. And the STORK CLUB’S vast popularity with newspaper people, it must be confessed, has been due mostly to Sherm’s largesse.
Billingsley’s giveawaysa surefire bid for patronage have included raffles; gay “balloon nites,” with many balloons containing $100 bills; free champagne and perfume (N.B. Sherm owns the perfume company)and cost as high as $250,000 a year. Sherm’s generosity with his clientele included gifts of suspenders and neckties to the gentlemen, gold compacts for the ladies and even diamond-studded bracelets to certain of his favorites. All this paid off in free publicity (Sherm 34 frowns on conventional advertising) and started the STORK CLUB on the road to success.
The STORK expanded many times within the 8-story building owned by Billingsley and is now a series of rooms on several floors. The famous Cub Room, of limited capacity, is the hardest to get into and that could be its chief attraction. The main room lost some of its popularity with dancers because Sherm, who doesn’t dance, insists on the bands playing his choice of tempo instead of that preferred by them.
Sherm himself is something of a paradox. His blue eyes, ruddy cheeks, sandy hair, shy, soft-spoken manner and conservative dress suggest an English country squire. But his placid appearance is misleading. Actually, Sherm is more temperamental than a grand opera tenor, with a flamboyant imagination and a positively Machiavellian gift for intrigue, with the imbalance of a total lack of humor.
Barring customers from his club for real or fancied grievancessometimes for nothing more offensive than having been photographed in a rival restaurant or carrying matches other than the STORK CLUB’Sis part of his stock in trade. (Some suspect it is another way of milking the press for publicity.) His written memoranda to his employees are collector’s items and the stories about the alleged espionage and counter-espionage that goes on behind the scenes at the STORK-tapped telephones, hidden tape recorders, etc.are hilarious, though to some extent fictional. Actually,only the important areascheck room, entrance way to the Cub Room, main room, kitchen, etc.were wired for sound, a push-button system enabling Billingsley to eavesdrop at any time from his office up-stairs.
Although not a restaurateur, per se, Billingsley does know the restaurant business. He is a perfectionist, as any employeeor former employeecan attest.
Firing help, for no apparent reason, seems to have been a favorite indoor sport of the STORK CLUB’S boss and many a rival restaurant, staffed by STORK-trained former employees, prospers because of it. Fired with-out notice, after a 24 years’ association with Billingsley, was Frank Harris, now manager of the highly successful EDEN Roc.
Other STORK CLUB alumni at EDEN Roc are Gregory (22 years with Sherm) ; Jack Spooner, Leo Spitzel, Jimmy Coulias, AndrewOle Anderson (20 years apiece), and Red Cronin (6.) Ed Wynne of the HARWYN CLUB served his apprenticeship at the STORK and so did Maurice D’Euphemia, who now has his own place, MAURICE. Scatti of the MONT D’oR was with Billingsley about a dozen years, and Jack Entratter, who later went from the COPACABANA to make a great name for himself at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
This is only a partial list; actually enough employees have been fired from the STORK to staff a half dozen other clubs. One waiter was summarily discharged for presenting gardenias to dames whom Sherm didn’t fancy; a bartender was dropped merely for getting his name in a Broadway column. However, none would deny the value of his training under the most unpredictable man in the restaurant business.
Several years ago Billingsley launched a television program from the STORK with himself as star, using his cafe society customers as window dressing. But close-ups revealed Sherm as something less than the polished personality that he had been reputed to be. In fact he pulled so many verbal boners that he became known as the “Sam Goldwyn of TV.” This type of public exposure for a club that had always played up its exclusiveness was probably a mistake in the first place. Many people who had watched the show on TV found they couldn’t get into the Club itself, so the publicity backfired.
For several years now there has been a picket line outside the STORK due to some union trouble and this, too, has somewhat dimmed the popularity of Billingsley’s boite. But those who know Sherm best predict eventual vindication and victory for his side of the argument. Anyone who could survive the gangster wars of the bootlegging era would have to be courageous, tenacious and tough. Sherman Billingsley is all three.
Prices are actually not too high and a visit to the STORK is indicated for out-of-town visitors, for the sake of curiosity if nothing more. They may get their feelings hurt to find the velvet rope up, but that should be considered part of the experience. Many of our best people enjoy the distinction of having been barred at the STORK.
Billingsley’s restaurant at 94 Park Ave. is operated by Fred Billingsley, one of Sham’s brothers, but is in no way connected with the STORK CLUB.
John Perona’s El Morocco, on E. 54th St. near Third Ave., is the undisputed queen of supper clubs and represents all that can be meant by the word “glamor” in New York nitelife. It draws its patronage from Lon-don, Paris, Madrid and Rome, as well as from the capitals of South America, and its name is as well known in Hong Kong as it is in Moscow. Its supremacy has never been seriously challenged except for a brief period in the 1940′s when Felix (Fefe) Ferry opened the Monte Carlo on 54th St. at Madison Ave.
Fefe had the same feeling for elegance and style that Perona has, and was just as good a showman. Cafe society flocked to the new rendezvous and the competition forced Perona to bestir himself. He went so far as to completely do over EL MOROCCO as a Viennese ballroom, introducing waltz music. But when Fefe lost his nerve because of wartime restrictions and sold out, Perona went back to EL Morocco’s familiar Schiaparelli glass palm trees, blinking oriental stars against a midnite blue ceiling, and the zebra-striped banquettes which are the club’s renowned trade mark. They were designed by Vernon MacFarlane, an Australian who had decorated most of the clubs during the Prohibition era.
The term “cafe society” might have been created to describe EL Morocco’s patronage. No one can be quite sure who invented that term to describe those floaters who seem to live in nite clubs, doubtless hanging like bats from the ceiling by day, only waiting for night to fall. Lucius Beebe, then a columnist on the N. Y. Herald Tribune, claimed it and when a movie of that name was made in Hollywood, acted as technical adviser. But Maury Paul, for long society columnist (Cholly Knickerbocker) on the Hearst Journal-American, disputed this. Elsa Maxwell defined cafe society as “people who don’t get invited to homes.” The Broadway column of the N. Y. Daily News evaluated it as “one-third haut monde, one-third demimonde, and one-third pure exhibitionists.”
EL MOROCCO owes much of its success to its tiny dance floor, a perfect showcase for the exhibitionists. Perona has always made a specialty of good dance bands, and there are two constantly playing at Elmer’s, as the dance crowd calls it, from 10 P.M. until 4 in the morning, alternating between Latin-American mu-sic and American dance tunes. EL MoRocco is the favorite New York rendezvous for Latin-Americans (the rich ones) most of whom like to dance.
Reopening of Elmer’s after a summer closing is, and has been for 25 years, the unofficial opening of the season in New York. It is the only major New York supper club to have survived on the same location for a quarter century. (As of this writing, there is talk of moving it to a new location on First Ave.)
In 1937, five years after it opened, in an elaborately illustrated book Lucius Beebe wrote: “EL MOROCCO, John Perona and this book are all products of emergent evolution. It would have been impossible to fore-see the usurpation of the glitter scene of the most glittering city in the land by a single and not overly resplendent hideaway in an entirely anonymous side street.” The illustrations were by society photographer Jerome Zerbe, then a pal of Beebe’s, who did much to establish EL MOROCCO as cafe society’s favorite hangout.
The “emergent evolution” of John Perona from a 17-year-old immigrant farm boy speaking no English, to an arbiter of cafe society, is a familiar success-story pattern in America. Born in the village of Chiaverana, near Ivrea, in the Piedmont section of Italy, and christened Eriane Giovanni Perona, he worked his way to New York as a deckhand, via London and Buenos Aires, and later served the apprenticeship that most better restaurateurs do: busboy, waiter, head-waiter and captain at several of New York’s better hotels. Also at Bustanoby’s, a nite club as famous in its day as EL Morocco is now. During Prohibition years he was connected with several popular speak-easies, notably the Jungle Room and Bath Club.
Perona, now in the 60′s bracket, maintains the figure of a 40-year-old and is still one of the suavest and best-dressed men in the business. While in Italy in 1947, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of Sts. Victor and George by Pope Pius. He has a passion for sports cars and has had several narrow escapes on the winding roads of Italy, where there are no speed limits. He relaxes (when he relaxes) at a 125-acre farm in New Jersey near that of his brother Joe, who long since retired as EL Morocco’s chef. Perona’s private life is quite distinct from his business and, so far as anyone can recall, his wife has never set foot in his supper club. Son Edwin, now in his 30′S, plays host when his father is vacationing in Italy, South America, or elsewhere, and is being groomed eventually to take over.
Almost every night Perona may be found seated at his famous “round table,” facing the door, surrounded by a few of his cronies, mostly Italians or South Americans, whose humor frequently takes the form of Rabelaisian practical jokes. (Perona claims the rather dubious distinction of having invented the “hot foot.”) Unlike Billingsley, Perona doesn’t lure customers with giveaway programs. His one form of “on the house” entertaining is an annual New Year’s Day eggnog party for his regular customers, by invitation only, from 5 to 7 P.M.
EL MOROCCO is better known as a supper club rather than a dining establishment. Off the main room is the Champagne Room, which serves excellent food to the accompaniment of quiet piano and violin music.
There have been few changes in the personnel at Elmer’s in the 26 years of its existence. There has been a slight letting down since the death of Carino, probably the greatest headwaiter of his time, who knew the sheep from the goats and never made the mistake of seating the right type of customer on the wrong side of the house or vice versa. (Out-of-town patrons don’t know that the far side of EL Morocco’s dance floor is known, to local cafe society, as “Siberia,” and that steady patrons would die rather than be seated there.)
By and large, Elmer’s has maintained a high standard in all departments and, as before stated, is unexcelled in its particular field.
The Colony was described by the late Iles Brody in a somewhat fulsome history (circa 1945) as “the most famous restaurant in the world.” Not the biggest or the most beautiful nor necessarily the best, he said, merely the most famous.
It would be more accurate to describe Gene Cavallero’s establishment as the world’s most fashionable restaurant. From the standpoint of cuisine the COLONY is no better and perhaps not as good as a half dozen others in the same bracket (LE PAVILLON, LE CHAUVERON, MAUD CHEZ-ELLE, CHEZ VITO and the QUo VADIS come to mind), but from the viewpoint of style there is nothing comparable. Women outnumber men six to one at the luncheon hour, which amounts to a fashion parade. Patronage is on a name-dropping and title-dropping basis and merely to be seen lunching in the company of the elite is considered news by some society editors. Even the COLONY’S press agent has a titleCount Lanfranco Rasponi, American-born son of a Florentine nobleman.
There is a reason for this. In the days when the COLONY had just no business at all, Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt “discovered” it, brought other Vanderbilts and thus set the pattern. Who called Mrs. Vanderbilt’s attention to the then obscure little restaurant at Madison Ave. and 61st St. isn’t of record. It could have been some member of the very exclusive gambling circle that used a room above the COLONY and patronized its bar. The group called themselves the Thanatopsis Inside Straight and Pleasure Club and included Raoul Fleischman, publisher of the New Yorker magazine; Herbert Bayard Swope, Dr. Giannini, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman and a dozen or so other prominent professionals who were among the COLONY’S earlier customers. These worthies eventually made such nuisances of themselves by asking for meals at unheard-of hoursbreakfast at 11 P.M., dinner at 2 in the morningthat Cavallero eventually froze them out, whereupon they moved their activities to the Algonquin Hotel, where they became famous as the Algonquin Round Table set.
Up to the time that Gene Cavallero took over, the COLONY had been an unsuccessful speakeasy operated by Joe Pani and patronized mostly by cheating husbands and free-lance bachelors who came there to meet girlsthe better Madison Ave. type girls. Iles Brody thus describes the building at 667 Madison Ave. as it was in the early 1920′s: “A disreputable little bistro occupied a portion of the ground floor and next to the bistro a gay old doctor (named Burke) had his office. On the second floor, above both bistro and doctor, was a little gambling joint and on the top floor was a very private maternity nursing home.”
Gene Cavallero and two other waiters who had worked for PaniErnest Cerutti and Alfred Hartman (who was also a chef)bought out the place, refurbished and otherwise cleaned it up and changed the entrance to a more fashionable East 61st St. address. They had a good stock of liquors and wines which they kept stored in an elevator. Whenever the Prohibition enforcement officers called, the elevator would be shunted upstairs or down to the basement.
Even before repeal, the COLONY was grossing nearly a million dollars a year. Gene’s two original partners eventually retired, rich, and Gene later bought out the partner who joined him in 1939, George Fiorentino.
Today Cavallero is the sole owner and operator of the COLONY, which is unquestionably one of the world’s most successful restaurant operations. There is nothing spectacular about it; in dignity and decor it suggests Claridge’s in London. Though owned by an Italian, the menus are invariably hand-printed entirely in French, a form of snobbery that seems to pay off.
It was through a streak of good luck that Cavallero was able to buy the COLONY in the first place. While working as a waiter-captain at the old Knickerbocker, then one of New York’s smartest hotels, a wealthy patron whom Gene had served faithfully for two years, without receiving a tip, handed him an envelope at Christmas.
“I don’t believe in tipping,” the patron stated, “but here is a Christmas present for you.”
The envelope contained two $1,000 bills. Gene took the money, quit the Knickerbocker next day and took over the COLONY.
There is nothing accidental, however, about Gene’s success as a restaurateur. He was trained from the ground up and except for two interludesone when he aspired to be a barber (aged 13), and another when he did become a highly successful bicycle racer (a bicycle race accident to his hands kept him out of the Italo-Turkish wars)he has been in the business all his life. He was born at Villimpenta, near Mantovea, Italy, where his father, Attillio Cavallero, owned a small bistro with a farm on the side. Gene’s real first name, incidentally, is Oswaldo.
‘While still in his young 20′s, Gene became a waiter captain at London’s famous Savoy Hotel and for a time worked at the equally swank Esplanade in Berlin. He came to the States in 1912, worked at the Copley-Plaza in Boston, the Ritz in Philadelphia, and the then brand-new Biltmore in New York. Except for a period when he owned and operated a hot dog stand, Gene has been associated mostly with smart restaurants and hotels, where he got his training.
One important reason for the COLONY’S spectacular success is that Cavallero gives the business his undivided attention and is always on hand personally to greet patrons with warmth and dignity. He has never “gone social” nor let success go to his head. Though several times a millionaire and owner of a sumptuous estate on Long Island (the former home of the late realtor, Joseph P. Day, which has 20 rooms and 10 marble baths), he will tell you that he still regards himself as a headwaiter.
Gene, now in his 60′s, is grooming his son, Gene, Jr., eventually to take over.
The COLONY, it goes without saying, is expensive.
Armando’s, at 333 E. 61st St., is a successor to the cafe of that name which opened as a speakeasy on E. 55th St. during the bleak year of the ‘Wall St. crash (1929) and survived that and every other exigency until the house wreckers tore down the building in 1954.
The original ARMANDO’S was shaped like a Pullman car and wasn’t much bigger. It was particularly popular with cafe society and it was the innovation of presenting cafe society’s amateur singersBeverly Paterno, Martha Stevenson, Adelaide Moffet, Maggi Mc-Nellis, et al.for which the place will always be best remembered.
The new ARMANDO’S, formerly a dancing studio, is broken up into three rooms and doesn’t lend itself to entertainment. The maitre d’hotel, Philip Grell, goes with the lease for the good reason that he is part owner, having been with the restaurant since its beginning.
The Armando of the club’s title is Armando Bergo, a genial little Italian and a first cousin of John Perona, with whom he first came to America.
The Harwyn Club, 112 E. 52nd St., is in the same brackets with the STORK and EL MOROCCO, although it didn’t open until November, 1953. It is located where Tony’s Trouville used to be when that delightful little spot was a favorite of cafe society under the aegis of Tony Gardella and Angela Bertoldo. One of their reasons for giving up an extremely popular cafe operation was the increasingly high rent paid for what had been a century-old carriage house before sheltering two speakeasies (Gusses and the 112 Club). It was operated by another Tony, Tony Grandi, and renamed Tony’s Caprice, after Tony’s Trouville closed.
Frank Harris and Ed Wynne, both alumni of the STORK CLUB, took over the location and its title represents a fusion of their namesHarris and Wynne. Harris some time ago withdrew to start the EDEN Roc; Ed Wynne bought out his 16 financial backers and now is sole owner of the club.
The HARWYN got off to a slow start and owes its original success to two things: a birthday party for Joan Crawford staged there, and another party for Grace Kelly prior to her marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco. Through loyalty to her favorite club, Grace announced her engagement at the Harwyn. Since that time it has been a whopping success, particularly with the Hollywood people.
Ed Wynne, 6-foot, blond and “Irish all the way,” might be mistaken for one of the movie actors who frequent the place. His career as a restaurateur varies widely from any of the usual pattern. Baseball was and still is his hobby and he doubtless would have become a professional player but for an injury at the age of 14 (run over by an automobile while playing ball in a Bronx street) which laid him up for four years, and decided him to turn to umpiring.
Wynne had umpired the Dodgers during spring training in Florida and was passing through Penn Station when he stopped off at the Savarin Cafe for lunch. The girl cashier confided that the manager had just walked out and suggested that Wynne apply for the job. He took over and remained there three and a half years.
One day in 1948 he was passing the STORK CLUB and dropped in to see a friend, Maurice D’Eufemia, who was on the rope there. Maurice suggested that Wynne approach Billingsley for a job. He (lid, and in no time was manager, a position he held for five years. Wynne now has about 25 former members of the STORK CLUB staff working for him, several of whom he himself fired at the behest of Billingsley.
Ed Wynne’s regulars at the HARWYN during the baseball seasonwhen they are in New Yorkinclude Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, Don Larsen, Hank Bauer and Phil Rizzuto. Ed’s own idea of Sunday relaxation is to join his staff for amateur baseball games in Central Park.
Eden Roc, at 148 E. 48th St., is presided over by Frank Harris and Harry Tsakas, both of whom left the HARWYN CLUB to found EDEN Roc. Frank Harris was for 24 years maitre d’hotel at the STORK CLUB and Tsakas was associated with Billy Reed’s LITTLE CLUB for several years, starting as bartender.
EDEN Roc’s daytime maitre d’hotel is Andrew; its nitetime maitre d’ is Gregory, and its official host is Jack Spooner, all alumni of the STORK. Each of the men above named has a following of his own, so it is not surprising that EDEN Roc quickly took on and has be-come one of the city’s major restaurants and one of the few with no speakeasy antecedents.
Like the HARWYN, EDEN Roc features quiet orchestral music and dancing after 10 P.M.
Place Elegante, though not in the same class as a restaurant with the preceding places, is one of the more fascinating souvenirs of the speakeasy era. It is at 33 W. 56th St., located in a five-story, white-front mansion which was once the town house of the late James P. Donahue.
PLACE ELECANTE got its unusual name from the liquor licensing board in Albany, shortly after repeal.
As a speakeasy called Club Napoleon it had enjoyed a period of prosperity, but the official of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission refused to give it a license under that name. Upon reading a description of its deep-piled carpets, marble stairways, sumptuous mirrors, and tapestried walls, he remarked, “Sounds like a pretty elegant placewhy not just call it that?”
The new licensee couldn’t decide whether the ABC official was going fancy and trying to be French, so to be on the safe side he had two rubber doormats made, one reading ELEGANT PLACE, the other PLACE ELEGANTE, one for use outside, the other inside the door. (Both of its doormats now have identical spelling.)
The Club Napoleon had for a time been operated by Sherman Billingsley in association with Tommy Guinan, Texas Guinan’s brother. It was during this administration that novelist Louis Bromfield became a customer. While whiling away an afternoon in the lounge in company with a local newspaper columnist, a stranger, much the worse for wear, stalked up to the bar, ordered a drink, then dashed the liquor to the floor. Headwaiter Albert Berryman protested, where-upon the stranger stated in a loud voice that he had been born in this very house and resented its being turned into a speakeasy. Then he left without revealing his name.
Bromfield turned the episode into a short story and sold it to Hollywood for a movie called “Night After Night.” The picture featured George Raft and Con-stance Cummings but it is better remembered for having introduced Mae West to the screen.
(No one can forget the scene when Mac handed her fur coat to the hatcheck girl, revealing some spectacular jewelry.
“Goodness!” cried the girl. “Are them diamonds real?”
“Yes, dearie,” Miss West replied, “but goodness had nothing to do with ‘ern.”)
Another picture with a similar idea was “The House on 56th Street,” starring Kay Francis.
Legends rapidly grew up about the mansion, one being that the former owner, James Donahue, killed himself by taking poison in one of the upper rooms. This wasn’t true: Donahue did commit suicide but it happened in his newer home in the East 80′s. But he had suffered staggering gambling losses estimated at more than $7,000,000 in the old housespecifically on the third floorand this is supposed to have been the cause of his suicide.
It was in “the house on 56th Street” that Donahue married Jessie Woolworth, heiress with two sisters to the $70,000,00o fortune of the founder of the Wool-worth five-and-dime store chain. And it was there, in the room just above what became the bar, that their two sons, Woolworth and JamesWooly and Jimmy to the society editorswere born.
When Billingsley gave up the place to open one of his several Stork clubs, the house was deserted for a time. Larry Fay, one of the more notorious racketeers of the Prohibition era, then took over and reopened it as the Casa Blanca, a speakeasy with gambling. The late Vernon MacFarlane, the interior decorator, told me that he had done some work there and, after waiting a reasonable length of time for his money, went in and demanded to be paid. He was directed to go to the fourth floor and collect. There he was given $1,500 cash in exchange for a “paid in full” receipt. On the way downstairs he was held up on the second floor by party or parties unknown and relieved of the cash!
Souvenirs of the speakeasy days may still be found in the elaborate buzzer system and the secret doors which at the touch of a button opened in the crimson brocaded walls, and in the numerous backstairs alleyways which led to the cellar or the street.
The G-men were never successful in getting enough evidence on Fay to convict him for any of his numerous misdemeanors, but his end came about in an even more melodramatic way. A disgruntled employee called him down from the second floor and shot him as he was descending the winding marble stairway. Fay fell head-long into the lobby, his lifeblood spurting out onto the crimson velvet carpet. It was the first time he had ventured out without his bullet-proof vest.
After repeal Charles Buscaglia, who had also owned a speakeasy, took over and operated the place for several years.
Today the onetime Woolworth mansion is stripped of most of its former splendors. In the ornate music room a jazz musician bangs out tunes on a miniature piano. The gilded mirrors and marquetry floors still suggest the glamor of a former multi-millionaire’s residence but the tapestries have vanished and the paintings, many of them damaged beyond repair, are stored in the attic. Very few customers who gather around the miniature piano and indulge in community sings are aware of the background of the place. Several scenes of the speakeasy era in Warner’s movie “The Helen Morgan Story” were filmed in the second floor of PLACE ELEGANTE.
For the past 15 years PLACE ELEGANTE has been operated as a medium-priced restaurant by Jerry Lucci (Lucci Gennaro), who for 25 years has owned another restaurant, Jerry’s, at 59th and 6th Ave. His maitre d’hotel is Peter Boggio and his chef is Sal Sarnataro who for 32 years was with Jimmy Kelly. Bill Farrell is rounding out his 25th year at the pianohis seventh piano since he went to work there.
New Yorkers were so nostalgic over their speakeasies that for years after repeal bottle clubs and key clubs were springing up throughout the city. Most of them were so involved with what Variety called the “shoulder-holster boys,” that they eventually were closed by the police. One recent attempt to capture the charm of the speakeasy and still remain within the law is the GASLIGHT CLUB locatedas most good speakeasies were in a former elegant mansion, this one the town house of the Coudert family.
The Gaslight Club at 124 E. 56th St. came to us by way of Chicago and is the dream-up of a Chicago advertising man, Burton Browne, with the assistance of his wife, Jean Campbell Browne, who once sang in Shubert musicals. Browne conceived the idea of a private club in which business contacts could smoke, drink or converse during the interlude between dinner and a supper club show. Originally, it was only a room off his office, entered by way of a secret panel. But the Sundown Club, as he called it, outgrew its quarters and Browne took over an empty store, equipped it as an old-fashioned speakeasy and named it the GASLIGHT CLUB. From then on it operated on a strictly club basis for men only (although they could bring their wives). It started with 16 members; at last count, membership had grown to 4,000 in Chicago with a long waiting list.
Two years ago the Brownes rented the former Coudert mansion on East 56th St.across town from the Donahue mansion, which houses PLACE ELEGANTE and started fixing up each one of the five floors as an old-fashioned “gentlemen’s” saloon. Outside there is no name, nor anything else, to identify the club except an old-fashioned street gaslight, said to be the only one now operating in the city.
To join the club, recommendation by another member is required; he is then given a numbered gold key and from then on this is the only means of entrance. Keys are interchangeable between the Chicago and the New York GASLIGHT CLUBS.
The GASLIGHT’S menu is unique. There are seven different types of sandwiches available, at 5¢, although you make them yourself and pay on the honor system. But a steak sandwich is priced at $19.50 and with soup, $22.50. All drinks are a flat $1.35 eachsoft, hard or combined. The waitresses, all personally screened by Mrs. Browne, are dressed as flappers of the John Held, Jr. period.
Many of the lighting fixtures once graced the grand ballroom of the now vanished United States Hotel at Saratoga Springs. Among the decorations is a lifesize marble statue of a slightly exposed bathing beauty of a much earlier period. The original of “Theodora,” as she is called, is in the Chicago Museum of Art, which paid $35,000 for it. The beauty, whose costume was probably considered daring in its day, is a relic of the Everleigh Club, Chicago’s most fabulous bordello operated by the Everleigh sisters at the turn of the century.
A period three-piece jazz combo, comprised of banjo, clarinet and piano, furnishes music for those waitresses who double as torch singers or Charleston dancers.
The GASLIGHT, it hardly needs saying, is one of the more popular spots in townfor those who own a key or know someone who does. Replicas of the GASLIGHT CLUB are planned for Washington and other cities. In fact, the venture has proved so profitable for Burton Browne that his advertising business now takes second place. Originally, a key cost a member $1; today it costs $50.
P. J. Clarke’s, at 915 Third Ave., had no need to fake the accessories of an oldtime saloon. It was a saloon and still is, with the same pre-Civil War trappingsleaded stained glass windows, etched crystal glass doors, dingy mahogany panelingas when it was opened on this spot as an elegant drinking parlor by a man named Jennings in 1850. It is the first of three identical Third Ave. saloons built by the late beer baron George Ehret, the other two being Pete’s at 16th St. and Daley’s on 62nd St. And it has never ceased operating a single day in its 92-year history!
P. J. Clarke worked there as a waiter from 1902 to 1905 and then took over the place from Jennings and renamed it for himself. Clarke never married and when he died he left his nephew, Charles Clarke, $600,000 in cash and the bar-restaurant, but not the property itself; that is owned by Daniel Lavezzo, and Charles Clarke leases it from him. Lavezzo also owns the building which houses El Morocco. The present manager of P. J. CLARKE’S is former cafe society playboy Jack Sterling.
With three rooms upstairs (street level) and one downstairs in the cellar, CLARKE’S has a capacity of 225, and the joint is usually jumping. There are 47 employees, including 16 regular bartenders and four stand-ins. The saloon went unscathed through the Prohibition period (P. J. was reputed to have powerful political friends) and gained a certain immortality by being the locale of an episode described in Charles Jackson’s epic of alcoholism, The Lost Weekend. Many of the scenes in the screen version of the Jackson story were filmed “on location” there.
CLARKE’S has long been a favorite last port of call for Third Ave.’s rowdy fly-by-nite set and still is. More recently cafe society discovered the place and last year Mrs. Louis Lorillard, who sponsors the Newport (R.I.) Jazz Festival, picked CLARKE’S cellar for an ultraswank New Year’s Eve party. CLARKE’S has its own notion of ethics and several Broadway and Hollywood celebrities are barred from the place, as well as a couple of newspaper scribes. The saloon is open from 8 A.M. to 4 A.M. from Monday to Friday, with somewhat shorter hours on weekends, but in the 168-hour week is closed only 40 hours.
CLARKE’S has always served food but most people know it only as a hamburger hangout, so oversized, rather special hamburgers continue to be the specialty.