1940s Archive

Along the Boulevards

Originally Published November 1948

Sherman Billingsley, let it be said at the outset, is an astute and determined businessman as well as being very much of a perfectionist. He has been in the saloon, night club, and restaurant business since long before many of his competitors were even waiter-captains dreaming of zinc bars and their own intimate, but oh-so-solvent and conservative, following, and he will probably be running a Stork Club when many of them have retired to roadhouses up the Hudson or in New Jersey or to farms in Dutchess County. He has survived prohibition, the organized assaults of unions, the blackmail of racketeers, and even the determination of some of his paying customers to make the Stork into a sort of athletic club and source of personal publicity.

But above everything else, Billingsley has always had style, an air, and a grand manner that have made the Stork more exclusive to the suburban mind than the Union League, of which it never heard anyway, and kept the Cub Room an infinitely desirable premises for the best names that made news without giving offense to less photogenic cash customers around the premises. No other New York glamour spot has contrived to do this neat trick year after year with no least falling off of prestige. Only Billingsley has contrived it. There have been other glamour night clubs where, a few years ago, the titles and tailcoats were so thick that the photographers every evening had a choice between grand dukes and film stars, debutantes and playboys with real thousand-dollar bills to burn, but they are, without exception, with the snows of yesteryear.

There have been scores of articles written in national periodicals to explain the permanence and continued supremacy of Billingsley, and this department doesn't purpose to cap the experts, but it seems as though some clue to why Billingsley is here today and will not be gone tomorrow lies in his conduct of the Stork during the current minor depression which has overtaken the night life of New York. Be it in the record that things are not, as this is being written, in any vertigo of excitement among the bright spots, although by the time it gets into print the chances are the red plush ropes will have to be re-inforced with barbed wire and the customers repelled with wedges of flying waiters.

A slump in business is regarded by Billingsley as a wonderful opportunity of acting fancier than he would ever consider in fat years and, while other entrepreneurs are cutting their staffs, raising prices, sneaking in cheaper help, and looking around for ways of gypping the customer even more outrageously than usual, Billingsley is opening up glad new vistas of hospitality, plying the patrons with flattery and gifts as never before, and spending money on improving everything like a drunken sailor.

It makes the saloon keepers up and down the street grind their canines, but in the face of a pretty generally admitted falling off of business during the early fall, did your smart Uncle Sherman meet the crisis by introducing one-tenth-of-an-ounce bar glasses and picking the pockets of what customers were left as they passed through his foyer? Not Billingsley. He increased the size of every cocktail and highball glass on the bar so that the Martini mugs are now the size of champagne coupes and the Old Fashioned pails resemble goldfish bowls, and he filled them right to the brim with top-notch liquor at the old established price. Customers who had formerly found three of the Stork's highballs enough for a mild glow were suddenly delighted and staggered to discover that on the strength of two their wit had increased to Chauncey Depew proportions and were scampering around the premises like characters in Up in Mabel's Room.

While many other restaurants upped their already astronomical prices in the face of diminishing customers, the Stork's menu remained static, and there was no abating the quality of the chow, the size of the portions, or the grace of the service.

In the Cub Room, where the names that make news are traditionally sandwiched in between the more fashionable Hearst executives and stylish columnists of the town, two orchids bloomed where one had blushed before. The dollar stogies with which Billingsley delights to supply his guests who have the sense to smoke them came not in twos and threes but in bundles. Perfume for the favored fair came in quantities which required them to arrive with new and more capacious reticules, and champagne that in times of easy money had arrived with the blessings of the management in mere quarts was wheeled down the aisles in magnums, while the regulars rubbed little dabs of Bollinger and Clicquot in their hair and moustaches for added fragrance.

A slight falling off in the luxury business assumes, in the Stork Club, the aspects and proportions of bonanza times. As one old-timer around the boulevards remarked to the reporter, he hadn't seen so much truffled pheasant being consumed, Scotch grouse dismembered, and cherries Jubilee threatening the premises with instant holocaust since the early years of the depression of the thirties when, as now, the Stork was living amidst princely pageantries while its rivals were putting up the shutters. There's nothing that brings out the magnificence in Billingsley like the rumor of lean times and, boy, does it pay off!

Subscribe to Gourmet