The Speakeasies of New York- Where Locals and Artists Hit the Sauce During Prohibition
Old timey speakeasy style bars have become just as popular and cliché as sports bars in middle America. But real speakeasies were nothing like the quaintly luxe interiors with bow-tied men using their powers of mixology to charge $15 drinks. The speakeasies of the 1930s were sometimes just a hidden room with a bottle of barely drinkable booze made in a bath tub. With hundreds in New York alone, most were run by gangsters- and some made legendary marks that transformed the social strata of New York nightlife in the 1920s.
21 Club- 21 West 52nd Street
The swanky 21 Club was even swanky back in 1929 when it was one of the most high profile speakeasy joints, Hemingway, Bogart, Sinatra and other Hollywood types. A 1930 raid prompted a secret passageway to be constructed, hiding the bar’s stock in a hidden door to the cellar next door. When cops would raid, the bartender would press of a button, flipping the bar’s shelves upside down and smashing the bottles of booze directly into the NYC sewer system.
300 Club- 151 w 54th st
Actress and spitfire Texas Guinan would greet her customers with “Hello suckers,” as they poured in droves to the speakeasies where she emceed. Finally opening her own place, the 300 Club had forty sexy fan dancers that would rub up against illegal imbibers. When busted by the cops she’d say patrons brought their own liquor with them, and that her girls simply HAD to dance so close to the customers because the club was “too small.”
El Fey Club- 123 W 45th Street
Hell’s Kitchen mobster Larry Fay ran a bootlegging racket running whiskey from Canada to New York in his fleet of city cabs. He opened El Fay on 45th Street to help unload the booze fresh from the north, and hired once-customer Texas Guinan as the boisterous hostess of the club.
Landmark Tavern – 626 11th Avenue
Long before Prohibition, Landmark Tavern opened its doors in 1868, on the then waterfront of the Hudson. Originally, it was an Irish saloon, opened by Patrick Henry Carley and his wife, who lived on the 2nd and 3rd floors with their children. Since Prohibition killed the economy of many drinking establishments, they had to transform the 3rd floor into a speakeasy in order to support their family. The bar was never raided and has been open consistently since 1868.
Club Intime- 205 West 54th Street
The Midtown outpost of Flute Bar and Lounge was once Club Intime, a speakeasy stop for society men who frequented Polly Adler’s brothel nearby. Another Texas Guinan joint, the bar celebrates its history with a hot-jazz party the last Saturday of every month, inviting guests to dress in their old timey best and sip champagne in the same alcoves that Guinan’s patrons did.
Chumley’s -86 Bedford Street
It was a tragedy when Chumley’s closed it’s doors in 2007 to fix a collapsed chimney- then never re-opened (or will it?). The cozy speakeasy opened in 1922 at 86 Bedford- which is fabled to have coined the restaurant term to “86” something, or get rid of it. When warned of a police raid, the Chumley’s staff were told to send their customers out the Bedford Street door when the cops were on the way (or get rid of the clientele..). Somehow, the cops would always enter through the Pamela Court entrance, letting the customers escape without being seen.
The Stork Club- East 53rd Street
The Stork was always a celebrity hotspot- before, during and after prohibition. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell (1930’s answer to TMZ) called it New York’s New Yorkiest place- and based all of his newspaper columns and radio broadcasts on gossip he overheard at his private Table 50.
The Cotton Club- 644 Lenox Avenue
Despite being home to the greatest Black entertainers of the era such as Lena Horne, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (who was the house band during Prohibition), Harlem’s Cotton Club was strictly whites only- and also strictly held up an air of extreme racism. Owned by bootlegger gangster Owney Madden, he ran the club from Sing Sing as a place to unload his bootleg beer, attracting celebs and locals who wanted in on the best jazz performances in New York.
Casa Blanca- 33 West 56th Street
El Fey owner Larry Fay’s other venture, the Casa Blanca Club, was a hotspot for gangsters, that started to lose popularity in 1931. On New Year’s Day in 1932, Fay announced to his staff that they’d be getting a 30% pay cut. The door man wasn’t too pleased, and came at Fay that night with a gun, shooting him dead and putting a permanent end to Fay’s bootlegging and racketeering career.
Connie’s Inn – 7th Avenue and West 131st Street
Connie’s gave the Cotton Club a run for their money, booking jazz acts like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Fletcher Henderson, only difference was that Connie’s let the musicians design their own shows. They shut down as soon as Prohibition ended, seeing no point or fun in legally selling booze.
Originally written by me for Flavorpill