Walter Winchell’s Hunting Ground: The Stork Club
Famed New York watering hole the Stork Club was where celebrity careers were made and destroyed.
In 1929, New York Times reporter Amy MacMaster investigated whether or not the city’s social clubs—and by “clubs” she meant speakeasies—were named properly.
The piece was a sly wink at the farce of Prohibition, and she seemed to have a good time wandering around places like the Detective Story Club, the Hell Gate Republican Club and the Club of the Old 19 Waiters. There was one new joint, however, that MacMaster couldn’t figure out. “Is the Stork Club a game preserve league or a parents’ organization?” she wondered.
It was an inauspicious beginning for a legendary bar, but MacMaster’s joke wasn’t far from the truth. The Stork Club (which was located at 3 East 53rd Street for most of its life) was a kind of game preserve—one where the clientele was the wildlife and the hunter was a man who lived at Table 50.
That man was infamous gossip columnist Walter Winchell. He wore his fedora cocked to the side while cigarette ash dusted his typewriter keys. He treated words like hand grenades, lobbing them at the celebrities and politicos waiting for tables.
He had plenty of targets over the years—Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, J. Edgar Hoover, Humphrey Bogart, the Kennedys. So many stars came and went that it would probably be more interesting to see a list of who didn’t go to the Stork Cub. Even J.D. Salinger occasionally surfaced there before he became a recluse.
The Cub Room, the inner sanctum of the Stork Club, was the home of Table 50 and the headquarters of a perverse yet fabulous sort of intelligence agency. The place was bugged and its two-way mirrors allowed discreet surveillance of celebrities and staff. Secrets wafted through the cigarette smoke until Winchell—the inspiration behind Burt Lancaster’s character in Sweet Smell of Success—used them to make or break careers.
He considered his voyeurism noble, a way to pierce inflated egos and remind people that celebrities were just like them. “Democracy is where everybody can kick everybody else’s ass,” he once said. “But you can’t kick Winchell’s.”
Winchell called the Stork Club “New York’s New Yorkiest place,” a title suggesting a delicate ecosystem where fame, power and wealth coexisted according to a set of arbitrary yet magical rules. If one imagines the celebrities as gazelles, admiring their reflections in the ecosystem’s lagoon, then Winchell was the crocodile lurking under the surface waiting to feast.
As for the boldface names, their feasts came free, courtesy of club owner Sherman Billingsley, who used them to lure the hoi polloi. “Celebrities were the sugar that Billingsley used to swat the fly,” the writer John Lahr, who visited the club in his youth, remembered years later.
In 1945, when the New York Times asked Billingsley about the club’s hierarchy, he said, “The out-of-towners come to see the natives who come to see each other.” But it was another frequent guest, deciphering the DNA of Billingsley’s business strategy, who came up with a better description: “The show consists of common people looking at celebrities and the celebrities looking at themselves in the mirrors—and they all sit popeyed in admiration.”
Lucius Beebe, the bon vivant and New York Herald Tribune gossip columnist, understood the gears of the club’s machine as well. “The Stork is the dream of suburbia, a shrine of sophistication in the minds of countless thousands who have never seen it, the fabric and pattern of legend,” he wrote in the introduction to The Stork Club Bar Book. The guide echoed the gossip columns of the day, a gushy catalogue of cocktail gems punctuated by the occasional mixological disaster (The Earthquake Cocktail, The Bellamy Scotch Sour). Maybe people shouldn’t have cared, but they did, fuelling what Beebe called the “vast industry” of “quite ordinary newspaper reporters whose almost sole concern is with the inmates of the town’s various plush and chromium cocktail zoos.”
Billingsley orchestrated the seating arrangements like an air traffic controller working the busy shift. Where you sat could be interpreted as a favor, as punishment, or as part of some tactic to generate drama for the gossip columns. Staff members, who sometimes worked as informants, were guided by Billingsley’s complex system of cues and gestures. Lahr remembered that Billingsley, “had more hand signals than a third-base coach.”
But perhaps “New York’s New Yorkiest place” meant something different, something less romantic than whatever Winchell intended. Peek behind the curtain and you would see a manufactured glamour, a cheap reflection bouncing off the two-way mirrors. As an employer, Billingsley’s track record was poor. Labor groups launched a flurry of lawsuits and he was a vicious adversary.
There were other disputes that chipped away at the club’s veneer. As the Red Scare unfolded, J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn and Joseph McCarthy—men who all knew the power of celebrity—appeared at the Stork Club more frequently. Then, in 1951, famed black entertainer Josephine Baker claimed the club had refused her service.
“The Stork discriminates against everybody,” Winchell offered in weak defense. “It’s a snob joint.”
The club grew quieter, the lines shorter. In 1963 the establishment, which had never needed to promote itself, began advertising that it had a hamburger and fries deal for $1.99. That’s when the old-timers knew it was over. The Stork Club lingered two more years until it was finally shuttered. Billingsley died shortly thereafter.
The site’s new owner demolished it, turning “New York’s New Yorkiest place” into something entirely different. The location was converted into Paley Park, a break in the skyline featuring patches of trees, seating and a waterfall designed to—perhaps ironically—drown out the city’s noise.