Al Hirschfeld The Speakeasies I Remember


“At a speakeasy, you had to be known to get in,” he added. “Each place had its own clientele.” Many dispensed membership cards. “I had a couple of hundred of them. Some were three-dimensional, a little ball-and-chain; some of them were keys with which you opened the door; but most were just cards. Usually the password was ‘Buzz.’ You’d press the button, the guy would open the little window in the door, and you’d say, ‘Buzz.’ And he’d open the door.”

Every speakeasy proprietor, even the most genteel, had to deal with mobsters to get liquor, and the mobsters became famous, even fawned over. Hirschfeld said, “I knew both Dutch Schultz and Big Frenchy [the now forgotten George Jean DeMange]. I never cultivated them, but to a lot of people they were celebrities. They didn’t hide or anything. They were part of the culture. Everybody wanted to be with Dutch or Frenchy and share in their contributions to the gaieties of life.” Schultz, responsible for as many as 135 murders, was gunned down by rival gangsters, but “the gangsters only killed each other. They never bothered with civilians, except accidentally.”

All Hirschfeld’s speakeasy-hopping was peaceful—except for once. A friend from Paris, he said, “wanted to go to a speakeasy, but he was afraid because he had heard there was violence in them. I said, ‘Oh, no, no. I’ve been going for the last year. I go every night. I’ll take you tonight to a very interesting place called the Hotsie Totsie.’ So he said fine. I took him there, and after we were there for about 15 minutes, pow , a gun went off, and a guy was shot and killed. The papers called it the Hotsie Totsie Murder. And my friend was held as a material witness and couldn’t go back to France.”

When Hirschfeld started work on Manhattan Oases , in 1931, speakeasies were “a really flourishing industry.” He’d see beer and whiskey being delivered to them in broad daylight. “Ten barrels of beer, and scotch and rye and stuff. The cops would be out in front, protecting the order.”

Despite their links to gangsters, Hirschfeld said, the speakeasies were always a lot of fun. “Yes, yes, they were. And never to be repeated. Each place had its own thumbprint. They were all different, and each one had a personality. If you were in the neighborhood, if you lived nearby, you lived there . They have not been replaced.”