the cotton club -- 2/11/21

Today's encore selection -- Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout. During the Roaring Twenties and into the Great Depression, the hottest club in New York was the Cotton Club, an establishment owned by one of the city's most notorious gangsters. Though it featured black performers and was located in the middle of Harlem, New York's preeminent black neighborhood, black patrons were almost never allowed in, and the decor was made to evoke a Southern slave plantation.

"In 1927 Harlem was a playground for white people who could afford to pay for liquor and sex -- and who liked having sex with black people, so long as they didn't have to talk to them afterward. Of the uptown nightclubs that catered to white patrons, the Cotton Club, which billed itself as 'the Aristocrat of Harlem' in its newspaper ads, was the best known and most expensive, as well as the one with the dirtiest pedigree. Owney Madden, the owner, was an Englishman of Irish parentage whose family had emigrated to New York's Hell's Kitchen when he was eleven years old. He was slight of stature and spoke in a high-pitched voice that sounded, Sonny Greer said, 'like a girl.' But appearances were deceiving, for Madden was a vicious street fighter who in his youth had racked up a long list of cold-blooded killings. He now ran one of New York's most successful bootlegging gangs, investing his profits in Broadway shows like Mae West's Sex (and, it was whispered, having a backstage affair with West herself). In 1920, while he was serving an eight-year term in Sing Sing for manslaughter, he acquired a failed Harlem supper club called the Cafe de Luxe that had been 'owned' by Jack Johnson, the famous black boxer, who served as the front man for yet another mobster. After Madden was paroled in 1923, he turned it into a cabaret with a stiff cover charge whose scantily dressed dancers and sexually suggestive stage shows became the talk of Manhattan.

"Located on Lenox Avenue at West 142nd Street, the Cotton Club was a second-story walk-up that held between six and seven hundred people who sat in two tiers of tables surrounding the dance floor. The walls were covered with what Irving Mills, who was prone to malapropisms, called 'muriels.' The rest of the decor, as Cab Calloway recalled, was suggestive in a less innocent way:

The bandstand was a replica of a southern mansion, with large white columns and a backdrop painted with weeping willows and slave quarters. The band played on the veranda of the mansion .... The waiters were dressed in red tuxedos, like butlers in a southern mansion, and the tables were covered with red-and-white-checked gingham tablecloths .... I suppose the idea was to make whites who came to the club feel like they were being catered to and entertained by black slaves.

"Spike Hughes, who visited the club a few years later, described it as 'expensive and exclusive; it cost you the earth merely to look at the girl who took your hat and coat as you went in.' He was stretching it, but not by much. According to [jazz musician and frequent Cotton Club performer Duke] Ellington, the cover charge was '$4-$5, depending on what night it was,' the equivalent of fifty or sixty dollars today. John Hammond remembered the food as being 'bad and expensive,' and a menu from 1931 shows that he was at least half right: A sirloin steak cost two dollars. Bootleg champagne (not on the menu) went for $30 a bottle. The prices meant that only well-to-do customers could afford to take the ride that was described in the club's ads as '15 Minutes in a Taxi Through Central Park' to see 'The Best Creole Revue Ever Staged in New York with the Greatest Array of Colored Talent Ever Assembled.' ...

"Madden hired only light-skinned women as Cotton Club Girls, and ... blacks who sought admission to the club were turned away by the bouncers whom Carl Van Vechten, a white critic and photographer known for his fascination with Harlem and its residents, described as the 'brutes at the door.' In July of 1927 The New York Age, a black newspaper, warned its readers that the club, by order of the New York Police Department, 'does not cater to colored patrons and will not admit them when they come in mixed parties.' The color bar, Spike Hughes said, was not quite absolute: 'If you were very famous, like Ethel Waters or Paul Robeson, then the management would allow you to show your coloured face inside the door; but you had to be tucked away discreetly in an inconspicuous corner of the room.' It was, however, strictly enforced whenever racially mixed groups sought admission, so much so that W. C. Handy, the composer of 'St. Louis Blues,' was once turned away from a show of his own songs. Connie's Inn, which opened in 1923, had been the first Harlem cabaret to exclude blacks, but Madden went further: While the shows at Connie's Inn were written and directed by blacks, the Cotton Club only allowed them to perform onstage."



Terry Teachout


Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington


Gotham Books


Copyright 2013 by Terry Teachout


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