National Prohibition (1920-1933) drove legitimate bars and other alcohol retailers out of business. Those who continued to serve alcohol were no longer licensed or regulated. These illegal establishments or speakeasies in New York City popped up like dandelions in spring. After five years, there were as many as 100,000 speakeasies in New York.
I. Clip Joints
I. Clip Joints
The terms “blind pig” and “blind tiger” were often used to describe less reputable drinking establishments. Truly notorious were those called ‘clip joints.’
The sucker was usually brought to the clip joint by a taxi driver or sent there by a hotel clerk; he was assured that he would find girls galore and lost of good liquor “right off the boat.’
When he arrived he was immediately importuned to buy drinks for one or more of the hostesses, who intimated that they would be available for more interesting activities “after we get through work.” The girls usually drank “gin highballs,” which were compounded of water and a little orange juice or ginger ale, and for which the sucker drink, was given a double slug of raw alcohol doctored to resemble whiskey.
If he got helplessly drunk, he was simply robbed and dumped into the gutter a block or so away from the clip joint. If through some miracle he remained fairly sober and showed a disposition to quit spending, the usual procedure was for one of the hostesses to accuse him of insulting her. Thereupon the floor manager would indignantly tell him to leave and present him with a bill, an outrageous compilation which included a large cover charge, a dozen drinks he hadn’t ordered, all those he had already paid for, a bottle or two of liquor, a half dozen packs of cigarettes at a dollar each, and extras.
If he paid, he was permitted to depart, although he was lucky if a sympathetic hostess didn’t pick his pocket before he reached the door. If he protested, he was kicked and slugged until he was groggy or unconscious, after which he was robbed and thrown out.1
There was wide variety among speakeasies in New York. Here are brief descriptions of a few of the more reputable and better-known.
Mobster Larry Fay opened the Casa Blanca Club. It was one way to sell some of the alcohol he was bringing in from Canada. It was a popular speakeasy for gangsters. On the first of January of 1932, he announced a 30% pay cut to his employees. In response, his doorman shot him to death that same day.
Radical social activist Lee Chumley opened his speakeasy in 1922. It soon became popular with writers. They included Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and E.E. Cummings. Chumley’s originated the restaurant term ’86’ to indicate when a customer was unwanted. Shouting ’86’ alerted patrons that police were coming and they should exit by the 86 Bedford Street door.
Actress Texas Guinan owned Club Intime. When raided, she claimed that her customers had brought their own alcohol into her club. It was illegal to sell alcohol but not to drink it. She insisted that neither she nor her customers were breaking the law.
Connie’s Inn was a competitor of the Cotton Club. Although now virtually unknown, Connie’s Inn booked major jazz acts. They included Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Fletcher Henderson. Other things being equal, they may have liked working at Connie’s Inn better. There they enjoyed great artistic freedom. They even designed their own shows.
El Fey Club
Mobster Larry Fay (see Casa Blanca above) also owned El Fey. He bootlegged liquor from Canada using his fleet of city cabs. He hired one of his former customers to serve as hostess. It was the colorful Texas Guinan.
Landmark Tavern opened in 1868 as an Irish saloon. The owner and his family lived on the second and third floors. When Prohibition outlawed selling alcohol, the family occupied the first and second floors. The saloon became a speakeasy on the third floor. Police never raided it.
In addition to alcohol, the Nepenthe Club served some of the best food in the city and could seat 80 men. It excluded women. In his prior speakeasy, the owner had bad experiences with women customers. Barring them didn’t seem to hurt his business. In 1927, he netted about $100,000. That’s about $1,400,000 in today’s dollars. And it was all tax-free.
The Stork Club
The Stork Club was very popular with celebrities. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell had a private table there and it was his base of operations. The gossip he learned at the Stork Club was the the grist for his column and radio program. It was one of the best-known speakeasies in New York.
The Cotton Club was located in Harlem. Its theme was usually that of a fanciful cotton plantation. The customers were white, as was the gangster owner, Owney Madden. The staff and entertainers were African American. Some of the artists were Lena Horne, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Ethel Waters. Duke Ellington’s Orchestra was the house band for years.
Actress and owner Texas Guinan was famous for greeting her customers with ‘Hello suckers.’ (See Club Intime above.) She also served as emcee and entertained with forty fan dancers. They danced ‘very close’ to customers. See Club Intime above.
The 21 Club was the place to be and be seen. It was a favorite of Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, and Humphrey Bogart, and other well-known personalities. After a police raid for selling alcohol, the Club developed an ingenious hidden door to its bootleg hidden in the cellar next door. Also, in case of a raid, the bartender could press a button that flipped its shelved backward. This dropped the contents into the sewer system.
It’s clear that there were speakeasies in New York that few people would want to enter. There were also a few that they couldn’t enter.
III. Resources on Speakeasies in New York
Asbury, H. The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition. NY: Greenwood, 1968, pp.198-199.
Readings on Speakeasies in New York City
Hirschfeld, A., and Kahn, G. The Speakeasies of 1932. Milwaukee: Glenn Young Books, 2003.
Sismondo, C. America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies, and Grog Shops. NY: Oxford U Press, 2011.
Walker, S. The Night Club Era. NY: Stokes, 1933.