A comprehensive, anecdote-laden history of the rise and fall of a man and his gin-mill-cum-glamour-machine.
The youngest son of an Oklahoma pioneer, Sherman Billingsley grew up on the frontier of American civilization at the turn
of the 20th century. Introduced to the bootlegging trade during his adolescence by a renegade older brother, Billingsley made
several attempts at assorted legitimate and illegitimate businesses in cities around the country before coming to New York in 1920.
Struggling to stay one step ahead of the municipal and federal authorities, the unions, and even Dutch Schultz and his henchmen,
Billingsley started the Stork Club as a Manhattan speakeasy a few years later; it gradually became his life. With Prohibition’s repeal at the end of 1933, Billingsley moved his business into its most famous (or infamous, depending upon your point of view)
address—3 East 53rd Street, where it flourished during the years of wartime and television’s infancy. Utilizing every possible
source from the archival to the apocryphal, veteran New York Times reporter Blumenthal (Once Through the Heart, 1992)
chronicles the complicated and interwoven stories of a place, its patrons, its night-to-night operation, and its difficult, omnipotent
owner. Microphones installed in the flower arrangements on the tables for eavesdropping, Sortilege perfume and orchids showered
on the celebrated, gold chains and doormen holding back the banished—Billingsley ran the Stork with a monomaniac’s combined
sense and senselessness. The accounts of the celebrated—Winchell, Runyon, Grable, Sinatra, Merman, Kennedy, and many, many
major and minor others—have a bubbly, gossipy frenzied quality, but the nature of the material eventually overwhelms
Blumenthal’s grasp on the narrative and—more important—on the character of Billingsley himself.
The Stork Club thrived based on the rule of more rather than less, yet the secret of Billingsley’s success eludes Blumenthal
in the end. (75 b&w photos) (TV/radio satellite tour)