Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Oklahoma, Bootleggers and Caf Society

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Oklahoma, Bootleggers and Caf Society

Article excerpt

NEW YORK -- I have known about Sherman Billingsley, his Stork Club in New York and the endless celebrities who went there for more than 35 years all of my adult life. I loved to tell my New York friends with pride that Billingsley was from Oklahoma.

During the late 1950s, I went there alone a few times to sit at the bar and watch movie stars, Broadway stars and politicians come and go. Having dinner there was far beyond my income as a part-time reporter and student in New York, but I could see that the elegance of the patrons, far more than the dcor, made it America's most famous night spot despite constant picketing by unions during those years.

Billingsley often welcomed Oklahomans at least with a handshake, and he sometimes invited the most recent Miss Oklahoma to his club.

I had heard that he was a former bootlegger in Oklahoma, but that didn't bother me. Bootleggers were part of Oklahoma's culture until 1959, when liquor was first sold legally in stores here.

What I didn't realize was that Billingsley had started bootlegging as a boy with his brothers in Anadarko, operated through pharmacies in Oklahoma City, moved on to other states as Prohibition expanded and started the Stork Club in 1926 as a jazz age speak- easy.

His early partners in the Stork Club were gangsters before he gained full control of the club during the early 1930s.

All this is well reported in Stork Club, an enthralling recent book written by Ralph Blumenthal of the New York Times and published by Little, Brown and Co.

Blumenthal reports fascinating tales of the Stork's glittering world.

It's where Jack Kennedy wooed Jackie, where Prince Rainier wooed Grace Kelley and where columnist Walter Winchell snubbed the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The likes of Orson Wells, Joe DiMaggio, J. Edgar Hoover, Tallulah Bankhead, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Claudette Colbert, Harry James, Betty Grable, Errol Flynn, George Burns and Gracie Allen loved to "hang out" there. So did the Roosevelts and Harrimans of New York society and gangster Frank Costello.

For me, however, the most interesting part of the book stems from the early days of Billingsley and his brothers as bootleggers in Oklahoma, Washington, Nebraska, Michigan and New York. The details of how they sold liquor through pharmacies went beyond my knowledge of that illegal prohibition trade, though I remember anyone could have pints of liquor delivered.

In the days of five-digit phone numbers, a bootlegger could be reached in Oklahoma City by dialing a set of the same five numbers, such as five 5s or five 7s.

I remember seeing firemen "rescue" cases of liquor from a bootlegger's garage before dousing a fire.

John Sherman Billingsley was born in 1896 on a farm near Enid, where his parents, Robert and Emily Billingsley, had migrated from Tennessee and Arkansas. He was the last of seven children. The family moved in 1901 to a farm near Anadarko.

In 1901, Sherman's oldest brother Logan was charged with homicide for killing the father of a woman who had accused Logan of getting her pregnant. Logan was convicted and then acquitted when he appealed on the grounds of self-defense. He later married the girl.

Logan gave Sherman, who was 14 years younger at 11, a little red wagon in 1907. …

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