June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
In 1933 the sale of alcoholic beverages became legal again in the United States—and the speakeasy died. Thus ended the 13-year social-engineering experiment that President Herbert Hoover had called “noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.” Prohibition had certainly had far-reaching effects, and not only in ways Hoover had anticipated; it also spawned the speakeasies that, in the words of the newspaperman Stanley Walker, “contributed more than anything else to the madhouse that was New York.”
Al Hirschfeld, the famous theatrical caricaturist, knew that madhouse intimately. He even wrote and illustrated a book about speakeasies, Manhattan Oases , published in 1932, while Prohibition was still in force. To mark Hirschfeld’s hundredth birthday, this remarkable book—which describes the era’s cafés, clubs, and dives with a pungent mixture of fondness and scorn—has just been reissued under a new title, The Speakeasies of 1932 , with an introduction by Pete Hamill (Glenn Young Books/Applause, $26.95).
“Prohibition brought in the gangster era and made the whole country corrupt,” Hirschfeld told me shortly before his death this past winter. “That was the culture of the city. If you wanted to hear good swing, or anything, you had to go to a speakeasy. Anybody you can mention, from Louis Armstrong to Bix Beiderbecke, performed in speakeasies. They were all illegal, so everybody was corrupted. They all became lawbreakers.”
Hirschfeld remained active until the day he died, rising around 10:00 A.M. in the Manhattan townhouse he’d owned for more than half a century, and by 11:00 arriving in his studio on the top floor, where he settled into a vintage barber chair to work at his drawing board. Afterward he’d have a bourbon or two and a steak for dinner. He never exercised, and attributed his longevity to his genes; his mother had lived to 91, his father to 93.
He told me he had written Manhattan Oases because “it just occurred to me that nothing had been done on it, this phenomenon that changed the whole of America.” He spent a year visiting as many New York speakeasies as he could. He had a lot of territory to cover. In 1929 Police Commissioner Graver Whalen told The New York Times , “Nowadays all you need is two bottles and a room and you have a speakeasy. We have 32,000 speakeasies in this city.” That was more than double the number of legal saloons the city had supported prior to Prohibition—and about as many restaurants it has today.
In his researches Hirschfeld “went from the lowest, from the Bowery, to Jack and Charlie’s”—now the 21 Club—“which I thought was the fanciest. I interviewed all the bartenders, and the bartender would give me his favorite cocktail. The one on the Bowery had a recipe for a drink called smoke, made with Sterno. I don’t know how anybody survived it.”
He went from the Bath Club to the Epicure Club to the Cotton Club, from the Tony’s to the Press Grill, from the Mansion to the Place, and he gathered recipes for everything from an absinthe frappé to the brandy crusta, the horse’s neck, and the sidecar. Ultimately he wrote up 36 speakeasies, their bartenders and their particular drinks. He himself stuck to beer most of the time. “It was safer. I never trusted the liquor. They always had bad liquor. Jack and Charlie’s was about the only place where you could trust your life to it.”
Jack and Charlie’s, named for its founders, Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns, was and remains at 21 West 52nd Street. There Hirschfeld saw Mayor James J. Walker; Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and Heywood Broun; a judge or two; and Police Commissioner Whalen. “Jack and Charlie were wonderful hosts and served the best liquor in town, which they husbanded down below, hidden, so whenever it was raided, they just locked up everything.” The secret vault is still there, behind a two-and-a-half-ton brick-covered door opened by a slim piece of wire; today it is often booked for private parties. “21,” Hirschfeld said, had “the novelty of serving really good food” and kept out “the riffraff, the curious, by charging outrageous prices—twenty dollars for lunch!”
The better speakeasies were staggeringly expensive, he recalled. Although the $6.60 cover charge to hear Paul Whiteman’s band at the Midnight Frolic may not sound like much to modern ears, consider that $1.00 in 1925 equals $10.25 today. When speakeasy patrons were charged $2.00 for a pitcher of water, $10.00 for a pint of whiskey, or $15.00 to hear Rudy Vallée at the Heigh-Ho, they were handing over real money. But a shot of smoke cost a nickel down on the Bowery, and the drinks at most of the speakeasies Hirschfeld visited ran between 50 cents and a dollar.
Just as he knew the founders of “21,” Hirschfeld also was acquainted with Leland Stanford Chumley, founder of Chumley’s, a Greenwich Village landmark that today bills itself as “the last speakeasy in the nation” and is still signless and hard to find at 86 Bedford Street. “I knew Chumley, yes,” Hirschfeld said. “He was a very active political power in the Village, apart from being a very generous proprietor. He had a great following of people that would only go to Chumley’s.”
“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.”