I WORKED AT THE “21 CLUB” FOR A WEEK! THEN THEY FIRED ME!
As part of a sad story about how Covid has decimated restaurants
and clubs, the New York Times today published a story about the
legendary “21 Club” (21 West 52nd Street) that has closed down. It
started as a speakeasy in the 1920s and was noted for its NY
clientele of movie, theatre, sports, TV celebrities, and the rich and
famous. It was also noted for its little statues of horse racing Jockeys
that lined the stairs of its brownstone building (see link below).
I have no idea how I got the job at “21” or when or why I was fired. I
think, though, that I was a summer substitute for a friend and that I
wasn’t dressed up to 21 Club standards. Hat check. Only one
remembrance. Not far from my lobby counter, Milton Berle (“Uncle
Miltie”), at the top of his fame, was talking to Ethel Merman, at the
top of HER fame. I only remember hearing star Merman’s response:
“So what are you gonna do, Miltie? Lay me on camera?” You never
forget a line like that. And star Merman was probably just whispering!
. . .No: Sorry: two remembrances. Then Theatre critic, George Jean
Nathan, autographed one of his yearly books of theatre criticism for
me at “21”. (I gather that the acerbic critic, Addison Dewitt, as played
by George Sanders in the film. “All About Eve,” was modeled after
George Jean Nathan). Still have George Gene Nathan’s book.
I also recall spending one day with the autograph hounds, in front of
the “21 Club.” I think it was after I had the job IN the Club. I think one
of my classmates talked me into joining him for a day with autograph
collectors he sometimes hung out with. These were not your casual
collectors (my friend WAS—casual); they were the serious,
humorless, overzealous collectors (some bordering on the demented
—see John Lahr’s novel, “The Autograph Hounds”). They approached
(attacked?) celebrities entering “21.” Some got nasty. There were
stories about a collector who would spill ink from a pen onto a
celebrity who would not sign. That kind of nasty.
The talk that day, I recall, was that “English was coming to town.”
This Mr. English was the legendary West Coast collector, Mr. English,
who apparently knew which hot celebrities were in town that day and
where they were staying. Mr. English was also notorious for giving
you a bum steer if he wanted the celebrity for himself. That kind of
I don’t know if my friend got the tip from English that film star
Douglas Fairbanks Jr (“Gunga Din,” “The Corsican Brothers”) was
staying at the Waldorf Astoria—but we even got the suite number and
floor that he was staying in. And we must have believed it, because I
do recall us running to the Waldorf, running up some back stairs (did
we fear that they wouldn’t allow us through the lobby to the
elevators?) and knocked on the kitchen (I guess) door. And—lo!—
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. himself opened it and quite cheerily said,
“Well. I’ve been descended upon.” What made that line memorable
was the dashing, recognizable voice saying it. And, cheerily, he gave
us his autograph.
That was the last time I spent that kind of day. Or had anything ever
again to do with the “21 Club.”
The Times story (attached) is a glimpse into one part of the New York
that was. The glitz part of it. But what always tops glitz and a youthful
romp through energetic nuttiness is when a toll like Covid has
catastrophic effects on millions of American workers. Still love New
York. But the New York that was, alas: RIP.