Opinion

Shermane Billingsley, Guardian of the Stork Club’s Legacy, Dies at 78

Shermane Billingsley was barely 2 years old when the Broadway gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen revealed that Shermane was bedridden with a fever of 104. Less than a year later, Walter Winchell reported that Shermane had vamped to an inquiring columnist, “I will break your heart someday with my big blue eyes!”

She was still a tot when Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimmer and movie Tarzan, was about to present her with a bunny on live television but froze; she filled the void by ad-libbing, “You know, my father once gave me two rabbits, and in a short time I had 200.”

Shermane Billingsley, who died on April 16 in a Manhattan hospital, was the last living link to the storied Manhattan nightspot that made her such endearing fodder for the society pages, the Stork Club. She was the youngest daughter of its impresario, Sherman Billingsley, and after the club closed in 1965, she became the faithful guardian of its legacy for nearly six decades.

Her son Austin Billingsley Drill said she died of cancer at 78. The family delayed the announcement of her death until this month, he said, to give them time to mourn.

“She was the youngest of the three daughters and was the darling of the Stork Club,” said Ralph Blumenthal, a former New York Times reporter and the author of “Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society” (2000). “She was the keeper of the flame.”

Ms. Billingsley made her father’s unpublished memoirs available to Mr. Blumenthal for his authoritative book. For years she reached out to publishers, documentarians and movie studios to keep the club’s legacy alive, and even to restaurateurs to see if it could be resurrected.

The Stork Club opened in 1929, during Prohibition. It eventually fell victim to a prolonged strike and to diversions like television, as well as to the emergence of a go-go ’60s generation that rejected the glamour of the cafe society that had thrived through the scarcity of the Depression and World War II and offered fairy-tale escape during the conformist, socially conservative 1950s.

Patrons of the Stork Club in 1944. The club was, one writer said, “a shrine of sophistication in the minds of thousands who have never seen it.”Credit…John Lent/Associated Press

Mr. Billingsley died of a heart attack in 1966, a year to the day after his club shut its doors.

“I was there when the Stork Club closed,” Ms. Billingsley told The Times last year. “Everyone said it was the unions that caused its demise. But it was James Dean. It was black boots and jeans. It was the arrival of the new world.”

The Stork Club was not the only famous nightclub in New York, but when it was in its heyday, in its several incarnations — at 132 East 58th Street, 53½ East 51st Street and, for most of its existence, 3 East 53rd Street, off Fifth Avenue — it was “New York’s New Yorkiest place,” as Walter Winchell called it in his syndicated column for The Daily Mirror. It was Winchell’s preferred hangout and the full-time domain of Mr. Billingsley, a teetotaling former bootlegger from Oklahoma who managed to corral the likes of the mobster Frank Costello and the G-man J. Edgar Hoover to be his regular guests.

Mr. Billingsley insisted that he didn’t remember how or why he chose the club’s name. But, like a stork, it delivered.

“The Stork is the dream of suburbia,” Lucius Beebe wrote in “The Stork Club Bar Book” (1946), “a shrine of sophistication in the minds of thousands who have never seen it, the fabric and pattern of legend.”

The mirror above the bar, Mr. Blumenthal wrote, allowed the image-conscious patrons “to admire themselves and one another under softly flattering lights — the ultimate entertainment at the Stork Club.” From the bandstand, even the likes of Count Basie and Guy Lombardo couldn’t compete.

Those reflections linger, at least in legend.

The Stork club in 1942, a few years after it had moved to its last location, 3 East 53rd Street, near Fifth Avenue. It was, the columnist Walter Winchell said, “New York’s New Yorkiest place.”Credit…Associated Press

There is the anecdote about one of the first patrons, the writer Heywood Broun, who was said to have mistaken the club for a mortuary and, when he couldn’t find the body to whom he had come to pay respects, settled at the bar instead.

There’s the one about the time Ernest Hemingway scuffled with Lewis E. Lawes, the warden of Sing Sing.

And then there was the night a well-heeled customer gave the doorman a $1,000 tip and asked him if it was the largest tip he had ever received. “No,” the doorman said, “I received a $2,000 tip about a year ago.” The customer asked who had given it to him. The doorman replied, “You gave it to me.”

A bar from one of the Stork Club’s incarnations was said to have wound up at Jim Brady’s, a pub in the financial district that closed at the start of the pandemic.

Mr. Billingsley worked 16-hour days and ran the club like a drill sergeant, but things didn’t always run smoothly. He fought an epic, bitter battle with the restaurant workers’ union (he wired the club’s kitchen so that he could keep tabs on conversations there from high above in his seventh-floor apartment). He became embroiled in a civil-rights complaint when the Black entertainer Josephine Baker and her party complained that they were denied proper service at the club one night in 1951. And he was kidnapped by mobsters who were rivals to his Stork Club partners.

There was one unanticipated event he embraced blissfully. After he and his wife, Hazel (Donnelly) Billingsley, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, had two daughters — the second was already 14 — he was so sure his third child would be a son that he completed the birth certificate while his wife was in labor.

But when the baby turned out to be another daughter, born in Manhattan on Oct. 9, 1944, he edited the name from Sherman John to Shermane Joy.

Ms. Billingsley in 2022 at Jim Brady’s, a Manhattan pub that was said to house the bar from one incarnation of the Stork Club. “As a child,” she said, “the place that I called home was the Stork Club.”Credit…Lila Barth for The New York Times

Shermane grew up in the club. She celebrated birthdays there, starred with her father on the weekly “Stork Club Show” on television, and regularly occupied a seat at her family’s reserved table.

“As a child, I lived in a number of apartments, a townhouse and our farm in Pound Ridge, but the place that I called home was the Stork Club,” she wrote in a revised edition of “The Stork Club Cookbook and Bar Book,” written with Ken Bloom and published in 2022. “It was where I went after school, to have a Coca-Cola, do my homework and sit with my dad. It was where we celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, at our family table. No matter what the occasion, that’s where we were.”

She befriended the daughters of Bert Lahr, Gary Cooper and Jack Benny. She met Cary Grant with her friends when he was visiting a friend backstage on Broadway. (“We were a bunch of 14-year-olds,” she later gushed, “and we thought we were going to die!”)

Shermane attended the all-girls Spence School on the Upper East Side (she cringed at being chauffeured there and was finally allowed to take a public bus), learned ballroom dancing and was enrolled by her father in nearby Finch College so that he could keep her from straying like her wayward sisters. She later transferred to Connecticut College in New London but didn’t graduate.

Ms. Billingsley was in her early 20s when the Stork Club closed. Her father was tapped out. She quit college to save money, her cousin Robert Billingsley said in an interview.

In 1965, she married Craig Drill, a Princeton graduate, former Navy officer and investment adviser, and they eventually moved to Ridgewood, N.J. After that marriage ended in divorce, she married Timothy J. Wheeler, who worked at the magazine National Review. He died in 2007.

In addition to her son Austin, from her first marriage, she is survived by another son from that marriage, Clifford Billingsley Drill; two grandsons; and a stepbrother, Robert Rodenberg.

Did she ever give up on trying to revive the club?

“The club was like a living memory to her,” Austin Drill said by email, “and she hoped others might remember it too.”

“Even in her final months of life,” he added, “she was speaking with filmmakers, restaurateurs, publishers, historians, etc., about the legacy of the Stork Club, and how best to keep its spirit alive. So, no, she never gave up.”

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