Speakeasy Nights

Before screenwriter Niven Busch headed to Hollywood in 1931, he cut his teeth as writer for the New Yorker, contributing a series of profiles (later compiled in Twenty-one Americans) as well as an intermittent series from May 1927 to Feb. 1930 on New York’s Prohibition-era speakeasies.

February 18, 1928 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

Always careful to shield the identity of speakeasy owners and patrons, Busch described the often less-than-glamorous digs of New York’s illegal watering holes. In a speakeasy called “The No Trump” (referring to card-playing, and not a future president), two Irish brothers took turns mixing drinks “on a kitchen table in a cubbyhole” while Busch sat in a darkened bar and listened in on a conversation coming from the adjoining “bridge room”…

This illustration by Reginald Marsh accompanied Nevin Busch’s article.

LAST CALL…Images taken by photographer Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine during the last days of Prohibition. (Time.com)
WHO GOES THERE?…The familiar slot in the door came in handy for speakeasy owners wishing to screen clients before allowing entry into their illegal lairs. (Chicago Tribune)
BETTER SWILL…The Marlborough House, an East Side speakeasy for socialites during Prohibition, 1933. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White for Fortune. (Time.com)

Busch also described his visit to the “Circus Speakeasy,” operated by a man who “travelled for 21 years with the Ringling Circus”…

A young Nevin Busch, circa 1930. (enetpress.com)
Busch and the third of his five wives, the actress Teresa Wright, in the 1940s. (danielmartineckhart.com)

In his later years as a producer and screenwriter in Hollywood, Busch would script movies ranging from The Man With Two Faces (1934) starring Edward G. Robinson, to The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), with Lana Turner.

All Aboard

One of the prominent voices of the unsigned “Talk of the Town,” humorist E.B. White was also a regular contributor of short pieces in the New Yorker, such as the following which described a mistaken encounter on an overnight train:

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Another way to calm the jitters

If you couldn’t legally (or illegally) buy Johnny Walker Scotch whisky in 1928, you had to settle for their brand of “vacuumed-cleaned, extremely mild” cigarettes, which were apparently sold as late as the 1950s…

And to get a taste of what was showing at the local cinemas, I’ve included this page-and-third spread of movie and theatre ads from the back pages. Note the film Sunrise featured prominently at the top left-hand corner.

Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston, this 1927 silent romantic drama, directed by F.W. Murnau, used the new Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, making it one of the first feature films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects soundtrack. Sunrise (full title: The Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) won the Academy Award in the category “Unique and Artistic Picture” at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929, and Gaynor won the first Academy Award for “Best Actress in a Leading Role.” Sunrise is considered one of the greatest films of the silent era and even today is widely considered a masterpiece.

AWARD-WINNING SMILES…George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in 1927’s acclaimed The Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. (The Red List)

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And finally, more hijinks from the moneyed classes, courtesy of Peter Arno:

Next Time: Amen Aimee…

A Dry Manhattan

Prohibition posed one the biggest challenges to the life of an urban sophisticate in the 1920s, but also provided opportunities for sophisticated behavior through the flaunting of the Volstead Act.

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March 21, 1925 cover by Carl Fornaro (New Yorker Digital Archive)

“The Talk of the Town” for March 21, 1925 opens with an attack on the new U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Emory C. Buckner. He took office with the promise to “debunk” Prohibition enforcement by collecting evidence of liquor sales in nightclubs and speakeasies. Bypassing both the police and the Bureau of Prohibition, he would file injunctions in federal court and have the offending establishments padlocked for up to a year as a “public nuisance.”

(In “The Hour Glass” section of the same issue, the magazine observes that “Minister’s sons always go one way or the other, mostly the other.” It also notes that along with William Jennings Bryan, “Nebraska gave Emory Buckner to the Union.”)

According to the book Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael Lerner, Buckner hoped that his method would break the endless cycle of arrests, plea bargains and fines that had come to define prohibition. His approach took the focus off the city’s working class; rather than throwing bartenders into jail, he would threaten owners and landlords with financial losses and would “pinch the pocketbook of the man higher up.”

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A crowd gathers at the padlocking of The El Fey Club, soon to reborn nearby as “The Del Fey Club.”

Lerner writes that Buckner targeted high-profile nightclubs and speakeasies in the upscale theater district rather than focusing on working class saloons that had been previously singled out by the dry lobby. The goal was to “hold the city’s more cosmopolitan social circles accountable for their drinking.”

In other words, this hit The New Yorker readership, and its writers and editors, right where they lived.

“The Talk of the Town” suggested that Buckner’s motivation was self-promotion, and predicted that his padlocking tactic would backfire, since previous attempts at padlocking actually lent “prestige” to the closed establishments.

That prediction would indeed become true. Instead of curtailing liquor consumption, Lerner writes that the padlocking actually increased the allure of nightclubs: “The leading lady of New York’s nightlife, Texas Guinan, went so far as to adopt the padlock as her personal trademark.”

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Texas Guinan’s 300 Club was a favorite of Broadway and Hollywood agents. Constantly raided by police, it closed in 1929 when Guinan returned to film
Texas_Guinan_1919
Advertisement from Moving Picture World, May 1919, for actress Texas Guinan’s films

Nevertheless, the “Talk of the Town” entry concluded with wistful remembrances of pre-Prohibition days, the Hoffman House taproom and the (Maxfield Parrish) Old King Cole mural above the Knickerbocker Bar, now “reposing disconsolately in the gloom of a warehouse.”

The writer would be happy to know that today the Maxfield Parrish mural (recently restored) graces The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel (if you are in NYC you should put on a nice jacket and grab an old school martini there).

The-King-ColeA final tidbit from Gotham magazine regarding the mural: “John Jacob Astor IV originally opened the St. Regis Hotel in 1904. Two years later, he commissioned the Old King Cole mural for his Knickerbocker hotel. Apparently Parrish, a Quaker, was reluctant to accept the gig, until Astor upped the offer to $5,000. Astor was tragically lost aboard the Titanic in 1912. And the Parrish mural was installed at The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis in 1932.”

Gotham magazine also offers a secret about the mural revealed at an unveiling following the restoration: under his regal robe, King Cole is breaking wind, therefore the smirks of the jesters.

This is what I love about history—its endless digressions.