For just over 30 years, New York’s hottest club was the Stork Club. Owned and operated by ex-bootlegger Sherman Billingsley, this place had everything: Live music, celebrities, a private barbershop, a weekly tv show directed by Yul Brynner, possible FBI bugging and if you went on the right night, you might have seen Ernest Hemmingway beating up the warden of Sing Sing Prison! The Stork Club truly was, as Walter Winchell called it, “New York’s New Yorkiest place on W. 58th.” Sadly, all the fun came to an end when the Stork Club shut its doors for good on October 4, 1965.
In addition to a dining room with a bar and dance floor, the Stork Club also featured a room for parties (The Blessed Event Room), a men’s club (The Loner’s Room) and a barber shop. However, the most famous feature of the Stork Club was its private back room, the Cub Room. Only the biggest and brightest stars were allowed into the Cub Room, or as those who couldn’t gain admittance called it, the “snub room.” The room was so prestigious that Jack Spooner, the man who guarded the doorway to the Cub Room gained the nickname “St. Peter.” Over time, Spooner became great friends with the celebrities who frequented the club, and every Christmas he’d dress as Santa Claus and pose for photos with anyone who wanted one.
The Stork Club was nearly as over the top as the clubs Stefon would review on Saturday Night Live. Just about anything could happen there. Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra might hop on stage and perform with the band. Whenever Ethel Merman dropped by, Billingsley would personally assign a waiter to light her cigarettes. Frequent patrons of the club would receive a case of champagne as a Christmas present. The Stork Club’s legend grew so large that in the early 1950s, Billingsly hosted a weekly television show, directed by a pre-fame Yul Brynner, in which he’d chat with some of his most notable guests. There were also rumors that Billignsley’s old friend J. Edgar Hoover had the place bugged.
Of course, the most fun (and most ostentatious) event at the Stork Club was the “Balloon Night,” held every Sunday evening. It was just like any other night at the Stork Club, except that balloons were suspended over the dance floor by a net. At the stroke of midnight, the balloons would drop and guests would scramble to catch them because inside each balloon was a ticket with a number that corresponded with prizes that ranged from charm bracelets to cars.
However, Billingsley’s extravagance would be his undoing. He refused to let his employees unionize, which led to protests. Many of the Stork Club’s old regulars refused to cross the picket line to visit the club and some even stopped associating with Billingsley. Soon enough, the Stork Club’s party started to come to an end; as Billingsley started firing employees without cause. Even the house band was eventually let go. In 1963, the Stork Club placed an ad in The New York Times advertising a hamburger and French fries meal for $1.99. The club never had to advertise before and for many observers this was a sure sign that the once glamorous club’s end was near. It’s said that on the Stork Club’s last night, there were only three customers during the entire evening. The former Stork Club site is now Paley Park, a small public park viewed by many as one of America’s best public spaces.
While we can’t enjoy the glory days of the Stork Club, we can enjoy its signature drink. The Stork Club cocktail is a pleasant mix of gin and citrus with just a touch of bitters.
The Stork Club
- 1 1/2 ounces Gin
- 1/2 ounce Cointreau
- 1/4 ounce lime Juice
- 1 ounce orange Juice
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
Shake together with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Tomorrow: “And now, for something completely different…”