3 East 53rd Street, back in the day. Today this location is an attractive pocket park with a water fall.
Of all the gin mills on this planet, Humphrey Bogart got thrown out of this one in New York City in the 1950s.
You see, the owner Sherman Billingsley was “the man” of his times, the arbiter of who was in and who was out. His bar and restaurant, The Stork Club at 3 East 53rd Street, was the most prestigious nightclub in the city, frequented by celebrities, royals, sports figures, debutantes, and café society (except Bogey and a few other blacklisteds). Black tie (or military dress uniform) was standard wear, any night. The bartender’s name was “Cookie.” Female patrons were given a small vial of “Stork Club” perfume and flowers. Also for the ladies, Sunday night was the balloon party; balloons would drop from the ceiling at a preset time filled with presents like folded $100 bills. If you needed a ride home, Sherman had a private car for use by preferred guests. Regular patrons received a case of champagne as a Christmas present every year. As he told his employees, “If you know them, they don’t belong in here.” There was a 14 karat gold chain at the entrance; if the doorman unclipped it for you, you were admitted. Just don’t misbehave.
If there hadn’t been a Stork Club in the 1950s, you would be reading something else right now. Because that is where my Mom met my Dad sometime around 1954.
My Dad and Mom had interesting paths to that gold chain. Since Dad wasn’t high-born, he had to get there the hard way.
Although Dad only spoke about his dangerous mission, he received high accolades for his assignments in the US Army during World War II. He kept a meticulous folder with such letters. For example, the 1st Lieutenant in the Signal Corps Inspection Service received the following beautiful handwritten letter dated August 30, 1943 from a Miss Helena Christy Batzer, a coworker at Bendix Radio:
“Dear Lt. Olcott:
We are sincerely sorry that you are leaving Bendix Radio. We have enjoyed working under you, and have always felt that your ideas were practical and progressive. You have done much to promote a spirit of harmony; and to familiarize yourself with the problems of the individual, for which we are grateful.
May I thank you for the help and encouragement you have given to me and my associates.”
After leaving Bendix, the US Army Signal Corp sent him to projects in Washington, DC, Newark, and then finally back home on March 31, 1945 where he was assigned to the Reeves Sound Laboratories on West 47th Street in Manhattan. The personable Officer came to the attention of the President and Founder of the Laboratory, Mr. Hazard E. Reeves. A muckety-muck’s muckety-muck, Hazard was the real deal, a blue blood patrician with tony homes in Manhattan and Tuxedo Park, New York. His military contracts were highly profitable and he was a pioneer in the manufacture of recording tape, cables, television, and camera equipment. Dad never spoke to me about Hazard but he worked for him three times (!) In Dad’s files, I found two notable letters from him to Dad, the last one personally signed “Hazard.” (the first one was signed by his secretary “r”). Both are very personal — addressed to Dad as “Bernie” — and they give me the strong impression that in the true Horatio Alger fashion, Hazard was Dad’s mentor in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Hazard’s letter to Dad dated January 16, 1953 makes reference to “your personal problems” which probably refer to Dad’s first divorce and the failed air conditioning business with his brother. Later that year in November, Hazard appointed Dad as a Management Consultant for Cinerama, Inc., one of his companies and so Dad moved back to New York from Ft. Worth. Dad got some serious whoop-ass in 1953!
I wish I had known Hazard – he is a very interesting character. He certainly seems to have had the right background to enter the Stork Club at will. As part of my research for this story, it turns out that I know some distant relatives of his — they even have a child named “Hazard.” But, unfortunately, their elders did not know my “Hazard” of long ago.
In terms of career, he worked in a related industry to the family of Dad’s first wife and may have been a factor in him meeting her at some party on the Upper East Side in 1948. When that marriage collapsed, Dad nevertheless kept up the relationship with Hazard. So after his sojourn in Texas with his brother, which included writing a patent on air conditioning technology and soliciting Bernard Baruch for investment opinions with his $62,000 capital (a tidy sum in 1953), he found himself back in New York as a consultant for Hazard. I don’t know if Hazard came with my Dad to the Stork Club the night he encountered the woman with a French accent, but as Sherman admitted all men in dress uniforms, the Stork was definitely on Dad’s radar.
So Dad was “in” anytime he was suitably attired (or with folks like Hazard). He knew the system and worked it. Like me, one time in 1997, I was trying to crash a Rolling Stones press conference under the Brooklyn Bridge. I had driven there with a contact who had created the nascent rollingstones.com website – very new at the time. There was security working the perimeter and as soon as I walked up to the venue, about 20 press people got off a bus and lined up to pass through the checkpoint. The security guard asked each one in turn the same question, “were you on the bus?” When it was my turn, the answer of course was “shit yeah, I was on the bus.” The genius I was with, unfortunately, answered the question “no I drove here.” Regrettably, he did not enter the event. You gotta work any system with a minimum level of resourcefulness (and/or obviousness).
As for my Grandmother Margo, she worked The Stork Club system like a natural. Her Salon de Couture had been set up in the Carnegie Towers a few years prior and many of her clients naturally were regulars at the Stork. She spoke “frou-frou” and “café society” fluently, and besides, the Stork’s menu was in French! Couldn’t have been easier for her. She and Albert (my Step-Grandfather) were definitely “on the bus” from the get-go and went at least once a week. Sherman loved the younger people; my Mom tells me she went there regularly with her friends as well.
One night while at the Stork Club, she must have noticed the charismatic veteran at the bar and I would not have put it past her to engage him in conversation as she passed by. She was always looking for nice gentlemen to introduce to her shy daughter. “Why don’t you come with me to my table, Bern, and meet my daughter?” she said in her French accent, scrubbed clean of its Quebec intonations after her early years of marriage to my grandfather Paul in Paris. Dad went to the table. Years later, he told Rosemary (wife no. 5) that when he was introduced to the petite beauty looking up at him, it was “love at first sight.”
The dinner menu at The Stork Club (click for a larger view and you are there).
Next week, I will cover my Mom’s (and Grandmother’s) path from Québec City to New York City via Montréal in “The Quebec Connection.”
In the meantime may I invite the dear reader to step into the Stork Club for 3 minutes circa 1956? This is the opening scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “The Wrong Man” and features The Stork at the height of its game. Hitchcock, who gives a personal introduction to the film, makes you feel like you are there. Behind the opening titles, Sherman can be seen distributing flowers to the ladies. What can Cookie pour for you tonight?
Copyright © 2015 by James B. Olcott