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Nightclub City

This dark and dazzling history of New York City nightclub life in the 1920s and '30s explores the complex relationships among urban politicians, social reformers, and the business of vice.

Nightclub City
Politics and Amusement in Manhattan

Burton W. Peretti

2007 | 304 pages | Cloth $55.00 | Paper $26.50
American History
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Table of Contents


1. The 1920s New York Nightclub, a Modern Institution
2. "The Hostess Evil"
3. Tammany Nights
4. "War on the Nightclubs"
5. Bargain-Counter Broadway
6. "Where Fleshpots and Politics Together Meet"
7. Nightlife in the La Guardia Era
8. A New Deal for Nightclubs
9. Billy Rose and Nightclubs for the Masses

Conclusion: The Nightclub in Retrospect


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In 1926, on 54th Street in midtown Manhattan, the entertainer Mary "Texas" Guinan's 300 Club glowed with color and resonated with activity. Stephen Graham, an Englishman, recalled his visit to the club with pleasure. "The walls are covered with pleated cloth and the roof tented with the same cloth softly toned in old rose, green, and sere yellow. There are hanging Chinese lanterns, and on the walls illuminated designs of parrots. There are twenty or thirty tables and a small space in the middle of them for intimate dancing. The lighting is wonderful." "A charming girl in blue satin trousers and wearing a crimson sash" sold cigarettes while "a smart girl in black with silver flowers on her hips" dispensed gift dolls. A guitar quartet strolled amid well-heeled patrons such as Harry Thaw (the wealthy playboy famed for his murder of the architect Stanford White twenty years earlier) and the mayor of New York City himself, James J. Walker, "flitting in elegantly to touch the hands of several of a large party and yield his charming smile to the ladies." Guinan, the mistress of ceremonies, appeared to introduce her "near-naked girls" and "a song about cherries." "Cherries!" the crowd shouted. One "girl . . . put a cherry into each man's mouth. One took the cherry and kissed the girl's fingertips. Another girl following ruffled up men's hair as she passed." A young man was recruited to dance with the chorines, the audience sang "And She Knows Her Onions!" and Guinan tossed finger-clappers and snowballs made of felt to the customers. The show concluded with a merry projectile fight. The hostess pelted a pair of newlyweds with rice and the clock struck five. "One of the waiters borrowed a horn from the jazz band and blew dreadful reveilles into the ears of the sleepers." By sunrise, even Guinan herself had become sedate.

Shortly after Graham's visit, the 300 Club became a victim of official suppression. According to the New York Times, four hundred patrons were present that night, including two U.S. senators (whom the Times discreetly did not name) and twenty visitors from Georgia welcoming home the new champion of the British Open golf tournament, Bobby Jones (who was not at the club). Two New York City policewomen, "dressed and acting as if they were visiting flappers seeking a thrill," staked out the premises in advance. When vice officers and federal Prohibition agents announced the raid, some male customers tried to "fight it out" and were arrested. Also taken into custody were Guinan's father, Michael, the club manager, and seventeen-year-old Julia Dunn, a chorus member charged with "having taken part in an objectionable dance . . . in flesh-colored tights almost covered with imitation pearl beads." The site of the 300 Club was shuttered for six months. In city court, however, Julia Dunn was freed by the magistrate, who ruled that the narrow distance between tables had forced her to dance amid the customers. Michael and Texas Guinan were acquitted after a trial, and none of their customers were punished as well. After the padlock came off of the front door, the old 300 Club venue housed similar liquor-dealing nightclubs, including the Club Argonaut owned by Larry Fay, the man who gave Texas Guinan her start in the nightclub business in 1922.

The short life of the 300 Club is part of the fascinating and important history of Manhattan nightclubs between World Wars I and II. This history illuminates important dynamics in American culture in these decades, such as gender relations, affluence, leisure, law enforcement, and urban commerce. Manhattan Nights explores these dynamics in one grand context: the interaction of nightclub leisure and civic life. The encounter between clubs and government generated scandals, reform crusades, and regulations that helped to redefine the realities and the images of urban life in the United States. In addition, through this interaction nightclubs also transferred some of their style and cachet to the texture of city politics. By 1940 nightclubs were closer to the respectable heart of civic life, and the dream-manufacturing operation of the leisure industry had insinuated itself into politics. Since then, to the present day, the interwar mating of clubs and politics has continued to influence the culture of the city and the nation.

From their inception in the early 1920s, nightclubs in midtown Manhattan's theater district were celebrated as representative institutions of that roaring decade. Boisterous rooms filled with illegal liquor, female dancers, well-heeled revelers, and multiethnic employees, surrounded by a nightlife environment of speakeasies, Broadway street life, taxicabs, dance halls, and all-night restaurants, exerted a pull on the national imagination. African American Harlem and bohemian Greenwich Village provided uptown and downtown counterpoints, respectively, to antics in the theater district. In the mid-1930s, after the repeal of Prohibition and the passing of the worst of the Great Depression, the nightclub achieved a renewed prosperity and notoriety. Mostly because of the efforts of nationally syndicated gossip columnists and Hollywood musicals, the Manhattan nightclub remained an iconic presence in popular culture. Partly as a result of this, some clubs were able to survive the upheavals of the 1940s and stay in business for decades.

Previous histories of the nightclub have stressed two predominant themes. First, they have argued that the clubs' popularity illustrated the decay of Victorian institutions and values after the turn of the nineteenth century. They have also especially noted the role of nightclubs in the evolution of race relations. Southern African Americans migrated to Harlem in large numbers during World War I and established its cabaret culture. In the 1920s, though, white managers and gangsters forcibly took over black-owned clubs and controlled the career of black entertainers. Their campaign facilitated the vogue for Harlem among affluent white patrons. At the same time, though, civil rights advocates and artistic modernists were inspired by the pioneering and intimate interracial contact that the new nightlife encouraged.

My initial research into nightclubs simply strove to carry this story forward into the depression decade of the 1930s. After a cultural institution reaches an apotheosis, it seemed logical to ask, does its influence wane and go into decline, especially if surrounding economic conditions worsen drastically? In such circumstances, in what direction would a nightclub rebellion against Victorian bourgeois domesticity and in favor of "modern" experimentation now go? Would depression America—which celebrated "the common man" and rural roots—encourage an antithesis of the classic nightclub, and perhaps a future synthesis of Victorian and modern values, of conformity and rebellion?

As the project progressed I maintained an interest in these questions, but I also increasingly found myself stretching the boundaries of the topic and searching for the broader relevance of the Manhattan nightclub story. I became particularly fascinated with clubs' increasingly high profile as an object of social and political debate between 1924 and 1933. In these years, while literary figures such as Carl Van Vechten, Edmund Wilson, and Rudolph Fisher explored the implications of the nightclub experience for private sensibilities and social relations, other observers tended to perceive clubs differently, through the lenses of public values, priorities, and policies. Critics blamed nightclubs variously for crime, the disruption of standard activity during the day and the night, the spread of illegal liquor, the corruption of young women, the spread of organized lawlessness, and the rise of public immorality. Clubs were said to represent both the growing pains and the signs of decadence that resulted from the city's often chaotic development in those years. In short, I came to be fascinated with the ways in which nightclubs became implicated in the civic life of the city.

Contemporary observers' perception of the nightclub as a social institution expressed and popularized the notion that clubs helped to measure and indeed determine the condition of civic life in New York. At this point, a short definition of civic life is in order. By 1920 at least five major components constituted American urban "civic life." The citizenry, of course, was the central component of civic life, although the legal definition of citizenship (as well as the intensity of popular civic-mindedness) varied over time. Then there were city, county, state, and national governments, whose overlapping jurisdictions sought to adjudicate, legislate, and administer the city under the weight of precedent. Dynamic political parties and "machines" helped to channel countless private and public interests into official hands and to provide for the more orderly management of the mass electoral process. The mass-circulated press had long been central to what the historian Mary Ryan has called the rule of "politics by publicity." Finally, there were the urban reformers, issue-oriented individuals who sought to cure the city's ills through moral suasion, investigation, "expert" diagnoses, and insurgent politics. All of these constituencies—citizens, government officials, party bosses, newspapers, and social reformers—acted upon the interwar nightclub, demonizing its moral influence and leading investigative and regulatory efforts.

Nightlife regulation in the 1920s represented a climactic effort by the Victorian reform tradition to shape the morality of New York City. In the eyes of reformers, the nightclub was the ultimate embodiment of urban depravity. Its doors were a portal through which sexual, ethnic, and criminal transgressions were funneled into a dense and lurid urban underground. Thanks to their efforts between the world wars, reformers and their allies in government turned nightclub regulation into a compilation of reform groups' truisms and tactics and government enforcement strategies. This reform spirit survived the upheavals of the Great Depression and was intensified by the triumphant entry of reformers into City Hall in 1934, in the administration of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia.

Change and influence, though, moved both ways. In the 1920s, the brazenly self-confident nightclub itself was a representative of a more general rebellion in American culture against traditional concepts of civic life. This rebellion, exemplified by the mass flouting of Prohibition, would be poised to influence American civic life for decades to come.

To put it another way, while the public sphere sought to regulate and tame the nightclub, the clubs themselves helped to alter behavior and discourse in the public realm. Prime evidence of the latter trend could be found in the changing tone and substance of public leadership in New York City, which increasingly seemed to contradict that leadership's condemnation, investigation, and regulation of nightclubs. This tension was epitomized by the spectacle of a 1926 public hearing in which New York mayor James J. Walker pressed the case for a closing time for nightclubs by offering his own eyewitness accounts of customer misbehavior in clubs in the early hours of the morning. It was also reflected in the eagerness of the anti-prostitution crusader George Worthington to pose for pictures with Texas Guinan, who some alleged to have procured young women for male nightclub customers. A decade later, in an echo of Jazz Age practices, lawyers in the office of the crime-fighting prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey treated sequestered anti-gangland witnesses—who were likely prostitutes—to nights on the town, complete with dinners and Broadway shows. Even as civic-minded New Yorkers were debating the contours of moral reform and regulation, then, they sampled the potentially forbidden fruit of nightlife in bites of varying sizes. They accommodated their behavior to the new "immorality" and revised their assumptions about public norms, propriety, and even their official decorum.

The cross-pollination of nightlife and politics continued unabated despite a change in political regimes halfway through the interwar era. It influenced both the tenure of "Jimmy" Walker and Tammany Hall from 1926 to 1933 and that of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his reform coalition beginning in 1934. Since the mid-1800s Tammany Hall, the governing Democratic organization in Manhattan, had invested in concert saloons and other pioneering entertainment venues. In 1925 it engineered the election of Walker, who as mayor became the city's most famed regular nightclub customer. Such involvement by politicians in nightclubs, as well as reformers' demonizations of the clubs as nests of civic corruption, helped to foment the scandals that eventually drove Tammany Hall and Walker from power. In the next decade La Guardia offered new condemnations of nightclubs and their allied institutions as part of his quixotic effort to remake the city's entire culture. La Guardia's effort culminated in his championing of wholesome public leisure at the New York World's Fair in 1939-40, but the fair ironically became the biggest promotional device for salacious leisure the city had yet seen. Less quixotic were the epic public works of La Guardia's parks commissioner, Robert Moses, whose accomplishments also included the demolition of the Central Park Casino, the only nightclub owned by the city itself.

The passion which New Yorkers addressed the new nightlife in part reflected interwar Americans' deep concerns about the general nature of their civic life. The 1920s yielded a steady series of laments from learned observers about the decline they perceived in citizens' commitment to public duty. Some thinkers, such as John Dewey, were guardedly optimistic about the future of participatory democracy. Others, most prominently Walter Lippmann, despaired about a general public disinterest in politics and advocated government in the future by "experts." Cynical modernists such as John Dos Passos, meanwhile, celebrated the demise of what they considered to be Americans' outmoded compliance with corrupt authority and awaited the rise of Communism. All agreed, though, that modern culture, especially the city, popular culture, and the new leisure, had brewed what Lippmann called "the acids of modernity"-notions and practices in life, thought, and leisure that diminished earlier commitments to civic involvement. This critique of modern urban culture helped nightclub controversies to intersect with loftier debates about civic life as a whole.

These debates have stayed with us until the present day. One scholarly component has explored the general significance of leisure in society. The pioneering scholar of human play, Johan Huizinga, was a contemporary of Dewey and Lippmann who shared their disdain for the mass-marketed entertainment and frivolity of the interwar era. Later historians have proved more amenable to the notion that modern, mass-oriented leisure, like the ancient games studied by Huizinga, has helped people to construct and to perceive their culture as a whole. Similarly, labor historians in Great Britain and the United States have debated the nature of workers' leisure since the 1800s: did they engage in healthful and liberating play, or was their "free time" excessively constructed by the hegemonic forces of capitalism? Today, more general comment is made about a perceived new crisis in Western civic life. Jürgen Habermas, Amatai Etzioni, Robert Putnam, and others variously blame bureaucracy, mass marketing, television and the Internet for reducing populations—especially in the United States—to a state of disinterest, nonparticipation, and civic anomie. Popular cultural critics such as Neal Gabler stress the dangers posed by the Hollywoodization of civic life, in which public events and personalities are packaged as mass-media entertainment, politicians are treated like celebrities, and unqualified entertainers are elected to public office.

The interwar era is now distant from us and must never be viewed ahistorically, but I find it stimulating to note the similarities between that time and our own. Both eras feature a general disaffection with and cynicism about parties, leaders, and government; disgust with forms of official corruption; and a general abandonment of the hope that the public sphere can get anything done well. The First World War cast a long shadow over the civic mood in the 1920s, when journalists and the mass media found it more profitable to provide cynical, personality-driven political coverage instead of civic-minded analysis. In our time, owing in part to the cultural impact of American wars past (Vietnam) and present (Iraq), ideals of an informed and active citizenry have been overshadowed in journalism and in public expression by pessimism, tabloid trivia, celebrity worship, and the "spin" of political consultants. It is important for historians to pay closer attention to the origins of Americans' embrace of leisure and entertainment to the detriment of more consistent civic engagement.

Viewed through this lens of civic life, various social and cultural elements of the nightclub story take on a new richness. Race and gender, for example, are obvious examples. The interactions of blacks and whites in Harlem and men and women in Manhattan nightclubs have been characterized by some as "pre-political" or "infrapolitical" behavior, beneath the attention of the public sphere. Much of the interaction was discriminatory and oppressive, while some of it was "oppositional" in nature, but could any of it truly be called the stuff of civic life? Race and gender in nightclubs-which seemed to be obsessed with perfecting the provocative display of black people and of all women-seem to belong more properly to the history of sexuality and performance than to the story of civic life. However, nightclub issues helped to raise the profile of race, gender, and sexuality in civic debate and policy. The design and staffing of nightclubs codified dominant notions regarding racial, ethnic, and gender hierarchy and produced conflicts about them. When we examine the anti-prostitution group the Committee of Fourteen, Jimmy Walker, the Seabury investigations (which forced Walker out of office), and the brothel keeper Polly Adler, we find existing notions of race and gender imposed on nightclubs but also transformed by their powerful cultural appeal. Notions about nightclubs, in turn, infused government investigation and regulation with a special passion and some of the cultural characteristics of the clubs themselves.

The intersection of clubs and civic life also highlighted other important trends of the era, such as the evolution of social stratification and of capitalism, the genesis of urban planning and policy, and reforms pertaining to the administration of justice. Each of these trends had an important impact on New York's evolving civic identity. The financing and evolution of nightlife businesses offer a revealing case study of class conflict and competition in the economic realm. The content of nightclub entertainment, as well as the interaction of individuals in clubs, especially brought the status of women and homosexuals into greater relief. And the city, state, and nation's efforts to govern in the metropolitan age centered in part on combating the perceived threat of nightclubs to the civic good.

Manhattan Nights interweaves a history of the nightclub with chapters that reveal its close relationship to major civic trends: moral reform and policing, Prohibition, the fight against public corruption, the Great Depression, and the New Deal. Which emerges is a story of a city, and a national culture as a whole, redefining its civic life through its leisure.

Chapter 1 chronicles the precursors of the Manhattan nightclub, discusses Larry Fay's seminal "bootlegger club" of 1922, the El Fey, and follows the industry to its peak of popularity in 1928. It also sketches the clubs' collective identity, in which entrepreneurs' careful commercial, financial, and technological calculations blended with the sexual, social, and spiritual rebelliousness found in the clubs' decor, entertainment, and social interactions.

The clubs' rise to notoriety in the late 1920s caused a spate of nearly simultaneous efforts at reform and regulation. To make sense of these efforts and their cumulative impact, I examine them separately. Chapter 2 explores the Committee of Fourteen's campaign to expose nightclubs as the new breeding ground for prostitution. The committee's investigations of New York's nightlife and its efforts to encourage regulation offer a case study of traditional reformers' special difficulties in the new cultural climate of the 1920s. The group's ambivalence toward uninhibited "new women" on the nightclub scene, particularly hostesses and other club employees, showed traditionalist reformers struggling to comprehend new trends in gender roles and sexuality. Chapter 3 describes the highly ambivalent attitude of Tammany Hall and Mayor James J. Walker—rulers of city government in the late 1920s—toward nightclubs. Tammany's and Walker's juxtaposition of traditional morality in the Irish Catholic style with long and deep involvement in Manhattan nightlife illuminate the government's tortured effort to control nightclubs with new licensing and closing-time laws. This effort, in turn, suggests the larger difficulties faced by the Tammany government in its attempt to reconcile its grass-roots identity with its large-scale business interests in the 1920s. Chapter 4 reflects the fact that New York's civic life was not merely a local concern: federal Prohibition regulators targeted nightclubs as special incubators of the illegal liquor trade. A "war on the nightclubs" in 1928 encapsulated the paradoxes of both Prohibition regulation and of the Republican administration's own indecision about nightclubs, which blurred the boundary between public misbehavior and private intimacy. The failures of all three efforts—by the Committee of Fourteen, the city government, and Prohibition forces—indicate government's inability to define or subsume the new nightlife under its regulatory reach.

Chapter 5 returns us to the nightclubs themselves, describing their decline during the early years of the Great Depression (1929-33) and the genesis of their subsequent revival. The Depression created a general sense that civic life itself was in crisis, so it is necessary to explore how the decline of nightclubs was entwined with New York's general pessimism in the middle of the slump. The chapter also suggests how the Depression redefined many of the attributes of the Manhattan nightclub, making it more amenable to the new economic and regulatory realities of the 1930s. The early 1930s also brought the destruction of the Tammany-Walker regime in city government by means of the state legislature's investigations under the direction of Samuel Seabury. Seabury, in turn, was instrumental in launching Fiorello La Guardia's successful bid to become a reformist mayor. The apparent revolution in civic life revealed many scandals and changed many aspects of municipal government. Nightclubs now were less often the main focus of reform, but the roll of perceived social ills that had been associated with clubs in the 1920s—deviant sexuality, misbehaving womanhood, prostitution, liquor, nocturnality, price gouging, organized crime, and public nudity—remained central targets of official concern. In Chapters 6 and 7, the stories of Seabury and La Guardia show how, even after the Depression and the change in regime, the new nightlife continued to influence what was problematized and investigated—in other words, what was made into an important "issue"—by actors in the public sphere.

The final two chapters return to the milieu of the nightclub. Chapter 8 explores the political and social crosscurrents on the nightlife scene in the late 1930s, updating trends in Greenwich Village, midtown, and Harlem and gauging the impact of new cultural politics (including those of the New Deal and the Popular Front) on the clubs. Chapter 9 concentrates on the career of Billy Rose, the most successful and influential nightclub entrepreneur of the decade. Rose's evolving concept of the nightclub featured surprising adoptions of nonurban influences—from the circus, wild West shows, and the outdoor aquatic spectacle, the latter climaxing in the spectacularly popular Aquacade at the 1939-40 World's Fair. While these innovations helped to boost his revenues to record levels, they also threatened to deconstruct the urban identity of the nightclub. By 1940, nightclub regulation reached a kind of equilibrium and the business had reached new plateaus of profitability, but signs of an imminent "posturban" future for American culture and leisure were also becoming apparent. As war around the world resumed, therefore, the defining era of the nightclub in American life came to an end.

An examination of this story transforms the colorful legend of the New York nightclub into a chapter in the important story of leisure and its regulation. By 1940, two decades of government intervention had helped to shape the contours and content of nightclubs, while the clubs made regulators far more aware of (and complicit in) popular entertainment's influence on the public sphere. Notions and practices relating to sex, gender, race, and leisure that the clubs had introduced became officially recognized as targets of regulation, but Broadway's culture of leisure and celebrity also managed to infiltrate the behavior and the public image of political figures. While show business became increasingly regulated, government increasingly became more like show business. These trends continue to persist. The municipal regulation of leisure continues unabated in New York City today. Manhattan's story contains national significance as well. Its example shaped leisure in other cities, and in regions of all kinds Americans shared New York's ambivalent stance between Victorian morality and modern frankness and tolerance. In these ways and in others, the interwar nightclub was an instructive cultural artifact of Americans' struggle to define the balances between work and leisure, freedom and authority, and civic identity and anomie.

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