August 21, 2000|
Interview with Author Ralph Blumenthal
Stork Club; America's Most Famous Nightspot And The Lost World Of Cafe Society.
By John William Tuohy
JWT: Ralph, the Stork Club's owner, Sherman Billingsley, started as a bootlegger. It seems like a long leap, from rum runner to the nation's best-known restaurateur, or was it?
R. Blumenthal: Yes and no. It was truly extraordinary that a onetime barefoot boy from Oklahoma and an exbootlegger whose parents and brothers and sisters migrated west in a covered wagon, would later stand astride the crossroads of the social world, policing the gold chain of his Stork Club. But then again, it was on the frontier that he mastered the people skills he needed to run the world's most famous nightclub and corral its sometimes incorrigible clientele.
JWT: You mention in The Stork Club, that Frank Costello once gave Sherman Billingsley, the club's owner, $100,000 to hold in trust while Costello left the country. Billingsley spent it all, Risky business wasn't it?
R. Blumenthal: I'll say. The Costello story was never confirmed, just one of the many loose ends I could never tie up. But it could well have happened. Billingsley lived close to the edge in those years and was not averse to taking big risks. Again, the Oklahoma mentality.
JWT: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia suspected that Costello was a secret owner in the Stock Club, which led to a full scale investigation by the city. To your knowledge, was Costello a secret owner in the club?
R. Blumenthal: Not surprisingly, there are no records to substantiate this. I myself don't think he was a secret owner, maybe a benefactor early on. Billingsley was pretty much his own man throughout, except when he was muscled in on by Madden, Frenchy and Big Bill Dwyer.
JWT: Yet when the unions virtually closed down the club, Costello was no help to him, was he?
R. Blumenthal: No, Costello had his own problems by that time. Like, say, prison.
JWT: In effect, Little Owney Madden and his partner Big Frenchy De Mange extorted the Club, didn't they?
R. Blumenthal: You could say that, although by Sherman's account they were partners in the club. Can you extort yourself? Anyway, they did take out a lot of cash from this cow.
JWT: One of my favorite underworld characters, Legs Diamond, tried to move in on the club and take a piece of it, but he backed off, what happened?
R. Blumenthal: By Sherman's account, the only information we have to go on, Frenchy and the boys probably dissuaded him and Legs went on to easier pickings.
JWT: Billingsley was a fairly tough customer himself, he also locked horns with Dutch Schultz as well, right?
R. Blumenthal: Again by Billingsley's account, Schultz and his Tammany henchman Jimmy Hines tried to move in on the young Stork shortly after it opened in 1929, offering labor peace for a payoff. Billingsley says he threw them out and that could be because he had labor troubles ever since.
JWT: Billingsley hired Bernard Shor, later known as the restaurateur Toots Shor. The line Billingsley used about Toots is wonderful: "I wish I had as much money as he owes."
R. Blumenthal: They never could stand each other, from the days Sherman bossed Shor in Madden's nightclubs. So when Billingsley got his own TV show on the Stork Club and had a chance to adlib one day in 1955, he went out of his way to defame Shor. It cost him big time: a libel suit that Billingsley's insurance company later settled for $50,000, big bucks in those days. It made Mr. B even angrier at Shor.
JWT: I love the story about the time Billingsley met Carl Sandburg, would you mind repeating it for us?
R. Blumenthal: New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons brought in the famous Sandburg one night. Billingsley had never heard of him. "What does he do?" Billingsley whispered to Lyons. Lyons said he writes books. Sherman digested that and then said, "Tell him to stick in 'Stork Club' once in a while."
JWT: To some extent, Billingsley seems to have been a way ahead of his time when it came to marketing the club, wouldn't you agree?
R. Blumenthal: And how. He was way ahead of the Nike swoosh. He put the Stork logo on everything -- belts and ties and nylons and perfume and dice and playing cards and automobile grille ornaments and of course ashtrays and whatever else he could imagine and so the Stork name and symbol became ubiquitous and synonymous with luxury.
JWT: And yet, he died broke, or near broke, didn't he?
R. Blumenthal: True. He lost all his millions trying to keep the club afloat in the early 60's. He even drained his three daughters' trust funds of what today would be about $50 million.
JWT: Is there anything in New York today that even vaguely resembles the Stork Club at its height?
R. Blumenthal: Not even close. "21" is a survivor of that era but it's just a restaurant now, not a celebrity mecca. Studio 54 was once THE place but it never scaled the glamorous heights of the Stork Club.
JWT: Ralph, you've been generous with your time. Thank you.
Mr. Tuohy can be reached at MobStudy@aol.com
Copyright © 2000 PLR International