Book Review: Stork Club by Ralph Blumenthal

Unpacking New York City’s Golden Age

For pure nostalgia, Stork Club (Little, Brown 2000; reviewed Back Bay Books paperback edition, 2001) by Ralph Blumenthal amuses and enthralls. Packed with interesting modern cultural and historical tales, this brisk, captivating book about one of New York City’s iconic establishments offers revealing snapshots of America and New York. Tucked into its short chapters are enticing tidbits about nearly every aspect of popular American culture. An afterword, index, photographs, party tips and cocktailƒ recipes are also included.

Blumenthal begins with a heyday glimpse which he spins into a flashback, gradually grinding the club’s story to a halt. In between, Blumenthal loads Stork Club with essential facts and lets the reader make his own judgment about what it all means. At the outset, Blumenthal provides a backgrounder for the club’s pugnacious owner, Sherman Billingsley, a self-made Okie with Indian blood who was once a boy bootlegger. He later trafficked in illegal booze in the Midwest and initially ran the Stork as a speakeasy. Billingsley later hired an architect from the same firm designing the Empire State Building to re-establish the Manhattan club as legitimate. He then branded the Stork in a TV show, which he hosted, for several years.

Yul Brynner, who once briefly hosted the TV show, too, ordered scrambled eggs, caviar and a raw hamburger in the dining room, reflecting the depth of research. Stories range from hilarious to curious, eventually foreshadowing America’s decline. Nazi sympathizer and Democrat Joe Kennedy and his U.S. senator son John (who sympathized with Hitler and became the American president) brought many sexual conquests to the Stork. Sinatra came, too. After South Pacific opened on Broadway in 1949, Ezio Pinza often dined on a bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce after the show. Other Stork guests include Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Claudette Colbert and also John O’Hara, Sinclair Lewis and James Michener. Humphrey Bogart came in drunk one night and assaulted Billingsley. Ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, founder of Eastern Airlines, was a guest. Damon Runyon was writing his final book, a profile of Billingsley which became a cover story for Cosmopolitan, when he died. Ernest Hemingway frequently showed up until his 1961 suicide by shotgun marked the beginning of the Stork’s end. 

Blumenthal chronicles that Josephine Baker smeared the Stork, accusing Billingsley and regular patron Walter Winchell, New York’s top columnist, of racism without evidence or cause. Baker, whose crusade enlisted Ed Sullivan, President Truman and New York City’s mayor, who would sic the state liquor board on the Stork Club, as much as admitted that the racism charge was a ploy. Seeking more publicity and Winchell’s press coverage years later, she invited Winchell to her performance at Carnegie Hall, messaging him through an intermediary that “[s]he holds no animosity; hopes you don’t either, and feels that perhaps her past views were premature.” 

Attacks on the Stork pre-date today’s Me, Too-ism as Billingsley became what FBI files describe as shorthand for a “victim of extortion”. A letter postmarked Crosby, Minnesota came “from a woman who claimed that he was the father of her daughter” and demanded “$4,500 for an unspecified operation for the child.” The accuser, Blumenthal writes, “proved to be a demented soul whose closest contact with Billingsley was reading an article about him in Life magazine.” 

Running the Stork left him open to death threats from union and mob thugs and, on one occasion, while hosting the live TV show, “Billingsley was sitting with Bette Davis … when the phone near him rang long and loud. He grimaced. The Stork operators knew not to put calls through during the show. He mumbled a garbled apology and snatched up the receiver. ‘What the hell are you ringing the phone here for when we’re broadcasting?’ ‘Mr. Billingsley,’ said the operator nervously, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m leaving right now. I just got a call. A man said a bomb was going off here in 10 minutes and would blow the whole building up.’”

Another time, husband and father Billingsley double dated with his lover Ethel Merman—Billingsley bought her a yacht as well as a diamond and ruby bracelet spelling out from Sherm to Merm—with John Edgar Hoover and his mate Clyde Tolleson. Merman makes repeat, memorable appearances. “Sometimes upon passing Albino, the doorman, she would flip up her skirt, revealing nothing on underneath. Albino found the gesture crude. He would have preferred a tip of more tangible currency,” Blumenthal writes. “I can’t put food on the table with that,” he scoffed.”

The reader comes to appreciate hotheaded Sherman Billingsley despite his flaws. Having been enlisted in his older brother’s bootleg operations as a poor Oklahoma farm boy, pulling his red wagon until the older sibling took him to the barn, uncovered a barrel of beer bottles, lining the wagon bottom with the beer and laying a blanket on top, then plopping his baby son on the blanket and telling Sherman to sell the beer to the Indians who lived in the woods and were forbidden access to liquor. The Billingsley boys had grown up with a father who came to the Sooner state when there were still Conestoga wagons. In fact, Blumenthal reports, Billingsley’s father had:

cleared his own roads into the land. He cut down trees and hauled the logs by mule to a sawmill to be cut into planks for a simple L-shaped house. Having acquired enough training to consider himself an engineer, he dug a well and a storm cellar for refuge from cyclones. To keep out wolves, coyotes, and foxes, he strung barbed wire around the house and poultry pens, grain sheds and fields but snakes, possums, squirrels, and rabbits overran the farm, which he grandly named Gracemont. Soon he was raising horses, mules, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys, and chickens, butchering for himself the meat his family needed for the table. The Billingsley house itself was primitive without running water electricity or gas. 

Tallulah Bankhead, who owned a Westchester County country estate, later introduced Billingsley to her neighbor, Benny Goodman. Goodman and Billingsley made a trade to sell Goodman’s 40-acre farm to Billingsley for $100,000, which the entrepreneur aimed to use to supply the club with fresh milk, eggs and produce from his farm.

Author Blumenthal, who writes that he stumbled onto covering the Stork when he was assigned to write about it for the New York Times, makes key points as he lays out the book’s raucous, self-made theme. And, while reading Stork Club is mostly good for mild to uproarious entertainment, and I spent an entire chapter wiping tears from laughing out loud, he nails its demise, too. When, in the middle Sixties, demand for a classy joint waned and stars were replaced by celebrities, the end finally came. “Tommy helped clear out the club. Billingsley told him to offer Oscar Tucci of Delmonico’s a chance to buy the furnishings. Tucci wanted to know how much Billingsley was asking. ‘Tell him,’ Billingsley said, ‘to make out a check for whatever he thinks is fair.’”

Blumenthal observes that, by the Sixties, “[i]t was suffocating in the city. The streets looked desolate and forlorn. This club was empty, deserted by customers repelled by the air of neglect…his familiar world continued to crumble.” In the words of Sally, a real Stork Club dame who worked there for decades including in its prime, and had moved to Texas, when she learned that Billingsley, who’d been “drinking more coffee…up to 20 strong cups a day and smoking two packs of cigarettes daily” had died: 

I believe this is the most difficult letter I will ever have to write. As you know, through the years, Mr. B was truly my friend — I should say my very good friend — and I like to think I was his good friend. Through all the channels of business we had a relationship which was bound in loyalty and friendship and when I heard the Today Show yesterday and learned of his death, my heart simply sank to the lowest possible depth. Suddenly all of the good times and hard times flashed through my mind. I know there is not one thing that I can say or do, but I just had to let you all know that, although we have lost a husband, father and friend, I really believe that his final reward will be that of a very special kind. Perhaps he didn’t always do exactly the right thing, but one thing for sure, he certainly did many more good things than bad. He was a far better person underneath that hard crust than most of us will ever be and whatever follows this life on earth — if it is based on our lives on earth — I believe we can all know that he has a happiness and peace which he really never didn’t know here…My best love to you all, Sally.

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