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NYC gangsters

From delanceyplace.com:

In today’s selection — from Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington.

During the Roaring 20s and into the Great Depression, the hottest club in New York was the Cotton Club, an establishment owned by one of New York’s most notorious gangsters. Though it featured black performers and was located in the middle of Harlem, New York’s preeminent black neighborhood, black patrons were almost never allowed and the decor was made to evoke a Southern slave plantation.

“In 1927 Harlem was a playground for white people who could afford to pay for liquor and sex — and who liked having sex with black people, so long as they didn’t have to talk to them afterward. Of the uptown nightclubs that catered to white patrons, the Cotton Club, which billed itself as ‘the Aristocrat of Harlem’ in its newspaper ads, was the best known and most expensive, as well as the one with the dirtiest pedigree. Owney Madden, the owner, was an Englishman of Irish parentage whose family had emigrated to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen when he was eleven years old. He was slight of stature and spoke in a high-pitched voice that sounded, Sonny Greer said, ‘like a girl.’ But appearances were deceiving, for Madden was a vicious street fighter who in his youth had racked up a long list of cold-blooded killings. He now ran one of New York’s most successful bootlegging gangs, investing his profits in Broadway shows like Mae West’s Sex (and, it was whispered, having a backstage affair with West herself). In 1920, while he was serving an eight-year term in Sing Sing for manslaughter, he acquired a failed Harlem supper club called the Cafe de Luxe that had been ‘owned’ by Jack Johnson, the famous black boxer, who served as the front man for yet another mobster. After Madden was paroled in 1923, he turned it into a cabaret with a stiff cover charge whose scantily dressed dancers and sexually suggestive stage shows became the talk of Manhattan.

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“Located on Lenox Avenue at West 142nd Street, the Cotton Club was a second-story walk-up that held between six and seven hundred people who sat in two tiers of tables surrounding the dance floor. The walls were covered with what Irving Mills, who was prone to malapropisms, called ‘muriels.’ The rest of the decor, as Cab Calloway recalled, was suggestive in a less innocent way:

The bandstand was a replica of a southern mansion, with large white columns and a backdrop painted with weeping willows and slave quarters. The band played on the veranda of the mansion …. The waiters were dressed in red tuxedos, like butlers in a southern mansion, and the tables were covered with red-and-white-checked gingham tablecloths …. I suppose the idea was to make whites who came to the club feel like they were being catered to and entertained by black slaves.

“Spike Hughes, who visited the club a few years later, described it as ‘expensive and exclusive; it cost you the earth merely to look at the girl who took your hat and coat as you went in.’ He was stretching it, but not by much.…

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