5 New York Gangster Nightclubs
By Michael CannellOctober 1, 2020
When Prohibition shut off the taps on January 17, 1920, everything changed. The roaring twenties came on “with a bang of bad booze, flappers with bar legs, jangled morals and wild weekends,” the singer Hoagy Carmichael said.
For mobsters, the explosion of speakeasies and illicit nightclubs was an unexpected windfall. Men who had scrabbled for lowly thug wages now counted their bootleg money by the pile. They were fixtures at New York nightclubs, where they jigged to jazz with flappers and drank champagne with blinged out chorus girls. Here’s a look at five New York nightspots where you could party with gangsters if you went out for a rave in the roaring twenties:
Hotsy Totsy Club
The Irish-American bootlegger Legs Diamond owned a share of the second-floor Hotsy Totsy Club, at 1721 Broadway, in order to unload unsold whiskey, and because he loved to dance. The good times cam to an end on July 14, 1929 when he shot two men to death after they threatened a bartender. Diamond was charged with murder, but acquitted after five hundred witnesses all claimed their backs were turned.
To walk into Club Intime, hidden in the basement of the Hotel Harding, was to enter an exotic and vaguely dangerous world lined with red velvet and dimly lit by hanging Chinese lanterns. The club was presided over by wisecracking actress Texas Guinan, the queen of New York nightlife. Dutch Schultz eventually bought the club and renamed it Club Abbey, which was known for its transvestite review. The club closed in 1933 after a mobster brawl. Two years later Dutch Schultz himself would die after a shooting in a Newark chop house.
Casa Blanca Club
Mobster Larry Fay supplied his Casa Blanca Club, on West Forty-Seventh Street, with liquor smuggled from Canada in a fleet of taxis he owned. In the hours after a New Year’s Eve party, in 1933, a doorman shot him dead after a dispute over pay cuts.
The Stork Club
An Oklahoma bootlegger named Sherman Billingsley opened the Stork Club, on East 53rd Street, in 1929 as a speakeasy where he could play cards with friends. It served for years as a gangster clubhouse, a night spot where toughs mingled with debutantes, senators, home run hitters, and leading men. The exalted gossip columnist Walter Winchell filled his columns and radio show on chatter and hearsay brought to him at his private table.
The Cotton Club
In 1920, Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, opened Club Deluxe in the heart of Harlem.
Three years later bootlegger Owney Madden, newly released from Sing Sing Prison, took it over and renamed it the Cotton Club. No nightclub could compete with the Cotton Club when it came to raucous music. Duke Ellington, and later Cab Calloway, performed nightly surrounded by half-naked dancers. Uptown was where the party crowd went to hear jazz performances by Lena Horne, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and others. The Cotton Club may have been a favored stage for the great African-American talent of the time, but the audience was strictly for whites only.
See Also: Review of Incendiary by Michael Cannell
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About Brotherhood Betrayed by Michael Cannell:
In the fall of 1941, a momentous trial was underway that threatened to end the careers and lives of New York’s most brutal mob kingpins. The lead witness, Abe Reles, had been a trusted executioner for Murder, Inc., the enforcement arm of a coast-to-coast mob network known as the Commission. But the man responsible for coolly silencing hundreds of informants was about to become the most talkative snitch of all. In exchange for police protection, Reles was prepared to rat out his murderous friends, from Albert Anastasia to Bugsy Siegel—but before he could testify, his shattered body was discovered on a rooftop outside his heavily-guarded hotel room. Was it a botched escape, or punishment for betraying the loyalty of the country’s most powerful mobsters?
Michael Cannell’s A Brotherhood Betrayed traces the history of Murder, Inc. through Reles’ rise from street punk to murder chieftain to stool pigeon, ending with his fateful death on a Coney Island rooftop. It resurrects a time when crime became organized crime: a world of money and power, depravity and corruption, street corner ambushes and elaborately choreographed hits by wise-cracking foot soldiers with names like Buggsy Goldstein and Tick Tock Tannenbaum.
For a brief moment before World War II erupted, America fixated on the delicate balance of trust and betrayal on the Brooklyn streets. This is the story of the one man who tipped the balance.