Thursday, Dec. 04, 2008

Where Everybody Knows Your Name (Except the Coppers)

By 1927, an estimated 30,000 illegal liquor establishments, or speakeasies, had sprung up nationwide — twice the number of legal bars before the "Noble Experiment" began. But none were as famous as Manhattan's Stork Club. Together with a trio of New York mobsters, Oklahoma whiskey peddler John Sherman Billings (later known by the surname Billingsley) founded the saloon in 1929 on West 58th Street. In 1931, three days before Christmas, New York authorities launched a citywide raid. The Stork Club was one of their first targets. A month later, when police returned with two trucks to carry away the bar's furnishings, they discovered dozens of bottles of hooch stashed behind sliding panels, as well as a 700-pound safe for the juice joint's profits. But the raid didn't keep the club from becoming the Studio 54 of the 1940s and 50s, hosting the rich, the famous, the beautiful and damned alike, from Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Hemingway to Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. It closed for good in 1966 after an expensive battle against unionization and allegations of racism.