HARLEM AFTER DARK: A TOUR. A broad swath of hedonists- from international chic society to Greenwich Village bohemians- considered Harlem the perfect place to cap off a night at the theater or to diffuse the tensions of a hectic business day. "Harlem is the one place that is gay and delightful however dull and depressing the downtown regions may be," novelist Max Ewing wrote his mother. "Nothing affects the vitality and the freshness of Harlem."
A major element of Uptown allure was its enormous social fluidity; in this urban free zone- "a seething cauldron of Nubian mirth and hilarity," as one newspaper columnist put it-the Social Register and Emily Post held no sway. The rigorously enforced rules had been carefully rewritten when, in the wake of World War 1, America's social arbiters moved from the Four Hundred to Café Society; now they were simply dumped with cheerful abandon. The elite not only frequented public restaurants, but basement speakeasies, where they mingled not only with non-Social Register customers but with people of color. Blacks were employed in the best homes, not as maids and butlers, but as Charleston instructors. As one of Carl Van Vechten's characters observed, "Rilda, my pretty, there's no such thing as a set any more and you know it. Everybody goes everywhere."
The tour that follows offers a trip through Harlem's emblematic clubs and dives, a view of New York's playground after midnight.
THE WHITE-ORIENTED TRADE CLUBS. A newcomer to Harlem would invariably start at Jungle Alley, for this strip of 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh avenues provided the densest aggregation of nightclubs and cabarets in New York. Most of the big clubs catered to a oredominantly white trade. Variety listed eleven, but the uncontested Big Three were the Cotton Club, Connie's Inn, and Small's Paradise.
Carl Van Vechten once arrived at the Cotton Club's long canopy in racially mixed company and was turned away by the Mafiahired bouncer; he vowed to boycott the club until black patrons could hear Ethel Waters singing on its stage. But it was precisely the club's racist policy which made it the most comfortable stop for a first-timer to Harlem; one could view the black-white maelstrom without actually descending into it. From the touristic vantage point of a table filled with white customers, the prefabricated exoticism neatly choreographed on a proscenium stage a few yards away was anything but threatening. The Cotton Club was not the only Harlem club that catered to white audiences, but it was the largest, featured the most extravagant shows, charged the highest prices, and most strictly enforced the color line. No less than England's Lady Mountbatten dubbed it "the Aristocrat of Harlem."
Getting the jump on the Uptown craze, mobster Owney Madden opened the Cotton Club in the fall of 1923 as the East Coast outlet for his bootleg beer. Limousines pulled up to the club's marquee, where a doorman greeted customers in ermines and gibus top hats, and they were directed to a large horseshoe-shaped room designed by Joseph Urban and filled with artificial palm trees as part of its ersatz jungle decor. The elegantly appointed tables were crowded together on two tiers and ringed by banquettes, and the menu featured not only fried chicken and barbecued spareribs, but the foreign dishes that appeared on the menus of Downtown clubs; prices were high and quality undistinguished. The black waiters stylishly negotiated their way through the crowd, although they didn't Charleston and spin their trays, as did the waiters at Small's Paradise. To enforce the Cotton Club's high tone, waiters informed customers that bottles of bootleg liquor should be carried in the pocket rather than set on the floor, and anyone who talked too loud was initially tapped lightly on the shoulder and subsequently evicted by the headwaiter.
The floor shows, which ran up to two hours, consisted of a featured act interspersed with numbers by the Cotton Club's sepia chorus line and its tuxedoed Cotton Club band. These Ziegfieldesque spectacles promoted a strictly regulated version of beauty that would be acceptable to white audiences-the homogenous sepia chorus line was composed uniformly of "high yeller" female dancers who were under twenty-one years of age and over five foot six in height. (Cab Calloway sang two songs-"She's Tall, She's Tan and She's Terrific" and "Cotton Colored Gal of Mine"-that made the club's case for the appearance of its chorus line.) The skin color of the male dancers was more varied, and the same was true for the centerpieces of the revues. "The chief ingredient was pace, pace, pace!" the shows' director Dan Healy observed. "The show was generally built around types: the band, an eccentric dancer, a comedian- whoever we had who was also a star.... And we'd have a special singer who gave the customers the expected adult song in Harlem." Those star names included the best in uptown entertainment. Among the singers were Ethel Waters and Adelaide Hall. The bands included Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, the dancers included Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, Paul Meeres "the brown Valentino", and "Peg Leg" Bates.
The division between the performers and the audience was more carefully maintained than in any other club in Harlem. (Even its name evoked both the antebellum South and the color of its patrons.) The club was owned by white mobsters, its shows written and directed by whites from Broadway and performed for an all-white audience. Black performers did not mix with the club's clientele, and after the show many of them went next door to the basement of the superintendent at 646 Lenox, where they imbibed corn whiskey, peach brandy, and marijuana. "It isn't necessary to mix with colored people if you don't feel like it," Jimmy Durante comforted the squeamish. The Cotton Club allowed the timid and well-heeled to cautiously dip their stylishly shod feet into the roiling waters of primitive Uptown.
WORKING-CLASS SPEAKEASIES. As the evening wore on, a visitor to Harlem might wander on to one of the side streets near Jungle Alley, where cocaine and marijuana were available (the latter ran ten joints for a dollar). Here were the less-elegant boîtes that attraced a more racially mixed crowd. Harlem was filled with these cheaper speakeasies, known as "lap joints"-police estimated nearly ten to every square block. The Sugar Cane, for example, stood at the edge of Harlem's "low-down" district, on 135th and Fifth Avenue. From the outside one saw a silent man seated in the front window who pulled a long chain connected to a bolt on the entrance door. Like many speakeasies, the Sugar Cane consisted of a raw cellar at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs, 25 feet wide and 125 feet long. The damp subterranean space could accommodate a hundred revelers, but on Saturday nights twice that many jammed in. The crowd included only a sprinkling of white customers (for this represented the fringe of adventure), and was dominated instead by bootblacks and stevedores in silk-striped shirt sleeves and tan shoes with squared-off bulldog toes and maids and hairdressers in bright ginghams and lowscooped dresses. They gathered around the two dozen wooden tables roughly jammed together, sat on wooden or wire-legged café chairs, and drank from low-grade, bootleg liquor poured from bottles that bore fake labels from Haig & Haig, Hennessy, and Peter Dawson, or an even more crude blend known as "smoke" or "lightning." The rudimentary three- piece band accompanied a torch singer under bright white light singing "I'm Busy and You Can't Come In." As the lights revolved from blue to red, dancers filled the tiny floor, "animal beings urged on by liquor and music and physical contact," as Wallace Thurman described them.8~ When the dance floor became too crowded to execute the bump or the mess-around, patrons simply shuffled their feet in place, which was known as dancing on a dime.
The decibel level went up after 3:00 A.M., when New York's curfew law shuttered the city's legitimate cabarets. At this point, moonlighting performers dropped into the clubs that had paid off the police for "special charters." "Jazzlips" Richardson or the dancing Bon Ton Buddies, fresh from playing Hot Chócolates at Connie's, for example, might do a turn in exchange for food and drink. It was the custom to show approval of the performers by tossing wadded-up dollar bills at them, or rapping on the tables with glasses or small wooden hammers. The activity at institutions like the Sugar Cane continued in high key until piercing seven o'clock whistles warned that a new work day was about to begin.
RENT PARTIES. A Harlem visitor might wander through Harlem's residential side streets and up several flights of stairs into a crowded apartment where a rent party was in high gear. Perhaps the most indigenous of black entertainments, the rent party was an institution created in response to the sorry reality that Harlem's inflated rents were $12 to $30 a month higher than in other areas of Manhattan, while salaries paid to African Americans were lower than those of their white counterparts. The average Harlem resident spent 40 percent of his or her income on rent-and if it wasn't paid by Sunday, the landlord put the furniture on the street on Monday morning. Long and narrow "railroad" flats were cordoned off with sheets, cots were added to dining rooms, and day sleepers and night sleepers frequently used the same couch at different hours. The most inventive solution to the rent problem was a party. "That is one of the things that is so nice about our Negro friends," recalled composer Virgil Thomson. "If they can settle anything by means of a social ceremony, they will. And they have so much available- their ability to play dance music, their ability to dance, their ability to have a good time, not to mention their ability to cook."
Anyone could throw a rent party. One made up a party slogan, had it cheaply printed up by the peripatetic Wayside Printer, who pushed a cart that carried rudimentary printing equipment. Cards were passed out in pool halls and laundromats and distributed to passersby along Seventh Avenue. The apartment's temporary halls were removed, the contents of the parlor and dining room cleared out, to be replaced by a dozen chairs borrowed from the local undertaker. Cheap proletarian food, redolent of the South, filled the kitchen. These events, which were Harlemized versions of the jook--joint parties of the deep south, reminded many recent immigrants of their roots. Rent parties were staged most frequently on Saturday nights and Thursday nights (when domestics often had the evening off), but one could find a rent party any night of the week. The public paid admission, ranging from a dime to a half- dollar, to be admitted into a parlor dimly lit with red lights.
Partygoers who arrived before ten danced to the radio tuned to Andy Preer's Cotton Club Syncopaters, but soon live musicians arrived and set up in the parlor. At cheaper parties the band consisted solely of a piano player who opened up the top and front of an upright piano and beat out rhythm with his feet. The more elegant pickup bands might include drums, a guitar, a saxophone, or a fife. The dancing was usually slow and sensual-"slow- dragging"-broken up by livelier performances such as a Black Bottom contest, a Charleston contest, or a breakdown. One could wander back to the kitchen to buy food or stop at a makeshift hallway bar that served bathtub gin, rye, and corn in quarter-pint portions known as "shorties," or one could stop off in a room set aside for cards or craps.
The dancing continued through the night, and the $5-pernight piano man (who improvised rather than read music) usually paced the event not only with songs but with his salty repertoire of wisecracks and shouts-"Shake that thing, Mr. Charlie!" "Do it, you dirty no- gooder!" The dancers, in fresh ginghams or peg-top trousers, bright blouses or gaudy arm bands, responded energetically. As Thurman put it, "Liquor has lit the fire, music must fan it into a flame." At the best rent parties, professional Harlem musicians- who called them "jumps" or "shouts"- would show up after their paying gig. By the night's end a screaming match or a switchblade fight might have broken out, but more often the peaceful partygoers tumbled home happy and exhausted. And most important, the rent got paid.
HOMOSEXUAL AND LESBIAN NIGHTLIFE. Advertised largely by word of mouth to those "in the life," homosexual and lesbian nightlife thrived in Harlem. Greenwich Village and Harlem were the city's main areas that countenanced homosexual gatherings, and homosexual Richard Bruce Nugent recalled that the two bore many similarities. "You didn't get on the rooftop and shout, "'I fucked my wife last night.' So why would you get on the roof and say 'I loved prick.' You didn't. You just did what you wanted to do. Nobody was in the closet. There wasn't any closet." Harlem churches were strictly antihomosexual, but the community provided a model of tolerance. Many of the Harlem Renaissance's key literary figures were homo- or bisexual (among them Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and perhaps enigmatic Langston Hughes) as were many of Harlem's best-known performers (among them Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Mabel Hampton, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters).
In the homosexual iconography of the period, the black male vied with the swarthy Italian youth and the sailor in uniform as the iconic love object. Negroes were also regarded as sexually flexible. (A common pick-up line at that time among available blacks: "I'm a oneway man-now, which way would you like?" And in a period when syphilis was rampant, sex between men was popularly rationalized, "Better a little shit than a chancre."86) The Mafia looked upon black men's attractiveness to white men as a phenomenon to exploit (nor did it hurt that Al Capone's cousin was homosexual and poet Parker Tyler reported numerous attempted seductions by gangsters).
The best known of the homosexual and lesbian hangouts was the Clam House, a long, narrow room on 133rd Street's Jungle Alley, described in Vanity Fair as "a popular house for revelers but not for the innocent young." Downtown celebrities went on bisexual sprees- among them were Beatrice Lillie, r Tallulah Bankhead, Jeanne Eagels, Marilyn Miller, Princess Murat from Paris, and-dressed in matching bowler hats-came chanteuse Libby Holman and her heiress lover,Louisa Carpenter du Pont Jenney. The only performer to publicly exploit her lesbian identity was Gladys Bentley, the Clam House's headliner. The 250- pound alto singer dressed in top hat and tuxedo, belting out double-entendre Iyrics to popular songs like "My Alice Blue Gown," or "Sweet Georgia Brown," and encouraging her audiences to join in on the lewd choruses. "If ever there was a gal who could take a popular ditty and put her own naughty version to it," observed one journalist, "La Bentley could do it."
Harlem's homosexual haunts were varied bars like the Yeahman and the Garden of Joy catered to mixed crowds; "pansy entertainment" spots such as The Ubangi featured a sepia- toned female impersonator called Gloria Swanson, who belted out "Hot Nuts, get 'em from the peanut man!"; buffet flats such as Hazel Valentine's Daisy Chain offered sexual tableaux-both hetero and homo- staged in apartment chambers; homosexual house parties like those hosted by Casca Bonds and Alexander Gumby. The most spectacular homosexual events were the costume balls held at the cavernous Rockland Palace on 155th Street.
"Of course, a costume ball can be a very tame thing," reported the gossipy black weekly The Inter-State Tattler, "but when all the exquisitely gowned women on the floor are men and a number of the smartest men are women, ah then, we have something over which to thrill and grow round-eyed." These drag balls were reported in the black press and surrealistically dramatized in America's first unashamedly homosexual novel, Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler's The Young and Evil (1933). Not all the guests were homosexual; many came to gawk. These onlookers ascended a gold-banistered staircase to the box seats that ringed the huge ballroom and looked down on the Grand March of ersatz divas promenading beneath a colossal crystal chandelier and a sky-blue ceiling. The women mostly dressed in drably colored loose-fitting men's suits (rarely a tuxedo) while the men outdid themselves as extravagant señoritas in black lace and red fans; as soubrettes in backless dresses and huge spangles; as debutantes in chiffon and rhinestones; and as a creature called "La Flame" who wore only a white satin stovepipe hat, a red beaded breast plate, and a white sash. The Savoy Ballroom also hosted gala drag balls, where the sartorial achievements were given prizes. (Artist "Sheriff" Bob Chanler, hostess Muriel Draper, and Carl Van Vechten comprised one panel of judges, and they awarded first prize to a man who wore only a cache-sex, silver sandals, and apple-green paint.)
Harlem's gaudy conglomeration of homosexual and lesbian hangouts reflected a zone in which sexual ties of all stripes could flourish. "In Harlem I found courage and joy and tolerance," observed a homosexual character in Blair Niles's 1931 novel Strange Brother. "I can be myself there.... They know all about me and I don't have to lie."
GATHERING PEACE OF THE DICTIES. The Bamboo Inn, wrote Wallace Thurman, "is the place to see 'high Harlem.' " Inexpensive Chinese restaurants were common in Harlem, but the Bamboo Inn featured a balcony, a jazz band, and dancing in the dots of light reflected off the gyroflector revolving over the center of the dance floor. This was an ideal spot to stage a coming-out party or a matron's luncheon requiring just the mildest frisson of spontaneity. A large black bouncer stood by the entrance, and Chinese waiters silently wended through the crowd. An occasional peal of laughter broke the demure hum in the room, and the opening of a few silver flasks under the white tablecloth breached the law. But over all one found at the Bamboo Inn African Americans enacting the middle-class dream. As Thurman described the crowd: "Well-dressed men escorting expensively garbed women and girls; models from Vanity Fair with brown, yellow and black skins. Doctors and lawyers, Babbitts and their ladies with fine manners (not necessarily learned through Emily Post), fine clothes and fine houses to return to when the night's fun has ended."
SAVOY BALLROOM.TO regulars it was the Sa-VOY, to newcomers it was the SA-voy, and to everybody it was "the Home of Happy Feet." This most democratic of institutions provided an Uptown alternative to Fifty-second Street's Roseland Ballroom. The $200,000 building opened on March 12, 1926, its drab but vast stucco front running the full block on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st streets. Four thousand firstrnighters entered an elegant lobby, crowned by a magisterial cut-glass chandelier, and they ascended two flights of marble steps, checking appearances in the ribbon of mirror that ran along the stairs. With each flight the sounds of the big band grew louder, and then suddenly customers came upon the block-long dance floor, raised bandstand, loud, glinting instruments, driving music, and the surge of unpaid performers set against vibrant orange and blue decor. Fess Williams appeared that night in his diamondand-ruby-studded suit, blowing his clarinet, followed by his Royal Flush Orchestra. Later that evening, the Savoy Bearcats performed, and at 1:30 Fletcher Henderson and his Rainbow Orchestra made their triumphal entrance.
The burnished maple dance floor was 50 feet wide and 250 feet long, and a shiny brass rail traced its perimeter. On the next step up were round-topped tables and a soda fountain dispensing Harlerr steaks, Whistle, and tall mugs of root-de-toot root beer and ginger ale for a nickel each. Musicians alternated sets at the far end on twa bandstands so that one band picked up the beat before the other left its post: the music never stopped at the Savoy. From these band stands the best big-band jazz in the world blared forth-including the music of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Fess Williams, King Oliver, and Chick Webb. Jazz had been around long enough for a white band leader, Paul Whiteman, to produce his own Downtown version, but it was cool where the Savoy bands were hot.
The Savoy bands inspired extraordinary dancing-some considered it the superior alternative to Broadway revues. Tuesday night was the best night for sheer terpsichoric pyrotechnics. Called the "400 Club," it was reserved for serious dancers only, and the expanse of floor allowed everyone to hoof with complete abandon. Perhaps the most eye- catching dance was the Lindy hop, named after Lindbergh and popularized at the Savoy in 1927. An updated pre-World War I dance-the Texas Tommy-the Lindy hop alternated a syncopated box step with an accented off beat and breakaway routines. These personal showcase sections mixed everything from pinwheel spins and gyroscopic routines to the Geetchie Walk and breakneck aerial turns. Women were admitted free to the Savoy on Thursdays, and it became known as "Kitchen Mechanics' Night," which was slang for maids and cooks. Saturday night was known among Harlemites as Square's Night because the floor was crowded with Downtowners, and the most glamorous was Sunday night. Movie stars and the international set selected this evening-one might spot Osbert Sitwell, Richard Barthelmess, Princess Violet Murat, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, and Emily Vanderbilt.
Whatever the class distinctions among customers, they mixed on the dance floor, but the momentary sense of democracy vanished as dancers returned to their seats. "Out on the dance floor, everyone, dickty and rat, rubbed joyous elbows, laughing, mingling, forgetting differences," wrote Rudolph Fisher. "But whenever the music stopped everyone immediately sought his own level."
HARLEM HOSTESS. Parties were the hub of Harlem's nocturnal culture, and they helped grease the social Renaissance. The most official of these events were held at the Civic Club and the most proper consisted of Sunday afternoon literary talks, often in French, at Jessie Fauset's home, or in one of the Dunbar Apartments. The most lavish parties were undoubtedly those thrown by A'Lelia Walker, the hostess of the Renaissance. Standing six feet tall, her statuesque presence was emphasized by high heels and tall plumes. The four- times-married heiress wore silk dresses and ermine coatees, paisley beaded shawls from Wanamaker's, and sable muffs, and her well-modeled head and cocoa complexion were set off by silver turbans. "She looked like a queen," observed Carl Van Vechten, "and frequently acted like a tyrant." A'Lelia could afford to do both.
The hundreds of parties she threw during the 1920s were financed by the fortune she inherited from her mother, Madame C. J. Walker, whose life provides the most inspirational of black Horatio Alger stories. An orphaned child of ex-slave sharecroppers, she worked as a washerwoman. As a result of stress and poor diet, her hair began falling out when, about 1903, a large black man appeared to her in a dream and revealed a secret recipe to combat baldness. She decided to invest in her vision, and with capital of $1.50, she started a hair- straightening empire that marketed "Madame Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower" and adapted "hot combs" to straighten the hair of black women. At the time of her death in 1919, her enterprise had yielded over $2 million as well as a mansion called the Villa Lewaro. In contrast to her mother, A'Lelia invested her energy neither in the hair culture business nor in her mother's favorite charities (her will earmarked two-thirds of the profits from the Walker empire for charity). A'Lelia instead devoted herself to developing a Harlem high society that included whites and blacks, royalty and racketeers, lesbians and homosexual men, writers and singers. Her guest list, one observer reported, "read like a blue book of the seven arts," and her parties provided an Uptown counterpart to those Carl Van Vechten threw Downtown.
A'Lelia's most elegant parties were held at the Villa Lewaro, her cream- colored Italianate mansion fifteen miles up the Hudson in Irvington, designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy, the first African American licensed to practice architecture in New York State. A'Lelia was afraid to stay at the villa alone (it was here that her mother had died of Bright's disease in 1919), so she invited guests for long weekends of ostentatious luxury. They were met by black servants in white wig, doublet, and hose and encouraged to rest in Hepplewhite furniture while enjoying her $60,000 Estey pipe organ or her twenty-four-carat gold-plated piano.
Although those weekends were the most extravagant of A'Lelia's events, the most widely attended took place in her Harlem mansion at 108-110 West 136th Street. In the fall of 1928, A'Lelia announced her interest in Harlem's cultural life. She joined her twin limestone townhouses, and, inspired by bohemian friends, she envisioned music being played there, paintings and sculpture on view, and poetry read. Although no one thought her new pursuit could compete with her passions for shopping, poker, and bridge, they were impressed that she transformed her new cultural enthusiasm into an ongoing salon. She named her salon "the Dark Tower" after Countee Cullen's column in Opportunity, and she had Langston Hughes's "The Weary Blues" lettered on one wall. Guests entered through long French doors and stepped onto the blue-velvet runner that led into a splendid tearoom. They checked their hats for 15 cents and listened to a talking parrot. One might remain below to drink and dance on the parquet floor, or ascend to the top-floor library for conversation and bridge, surrounded by bookcases containing works written by African Americans.
Everything in A'Lelia's parlor-cum-tearoom-salon represented the ostentatious best that money could buy: the designer was Paul Frankel; the carpet, Aubusson; the furniture, Louis XIV; the turquoise and amethyst paste tea service, Sèvres; the drink, champagne. Sometimes the music issued from a sky-blue Victrola, but more often someone played a Knabe baby grand piano. Fresh from the Broadway revues were Alberta Hunter, Adelaide Hall, and the Four Bon Bons. Nightclub crooners included Jimmie Daniels and Gus Simons, and Taylor Gordon sang spirituals. A'Lelia's ever-present retinue-Wallace Thurman dubbed them ladies- in-waiting- included striking light-skinned women (actress Edna Thomas, Mayme White, Mae Fain) and witty homosexual men (Casca Bonds, Edward Perry) who organized the socials. For one of her most notorious (and possibly apocryphal) parties, she reversed the favors usually accorded the races-white guests were served pig's feet, chitterlings, and bathtub gin, while the black guests, seated in separate and more posh quarters, dined on caviar, pheasant, and champagne.
The Dark Tower was a fashion showcase, with blacks and whites showing off to one another. Bon vivant novelist Max Ewing described one evening to his parents in Ohio: "You have never seen such clothes as millionaire Negroes get into. They are more gorgeous than a Ziegfeld finale. They do not stop at fur coats made of merely one kind of fur. They add collars of ermine to gray fur, or black fur collars to ermine. Ropes of jewels and trailing silks of all bright colors."
Some of A'Lelia's guests relished her extravaganzas while simultaneously looking upon their hostess-dubbed the "dekink heiress" and the "Mahogany Millionairess"-as a dubious flowering of Negritude. Some artists avoided A'Lelia's, as Richard Bruce Nugent recalled, "Because actually it was a place for A'Lelia to show off her blackness to whites." A'Lelia's fortune sprang from Negroes' aspiration to appear more European-even though Madame Walker insisted this had never been her intention. A'Lelia's favorite cabaret, white-owned Connie's Inn, discriminated against less-wealthy blacks. Although she supported Harlem culture, she had little interest in intellectual talk and rarely read books; one acquaintance cattily declared seven minutes to be her limit for elevated conversation. Whatever her limitations, she managed to surround herself with titled Europeans; bosses of Wall Street; members of the Social Register; leaders of music, stage, and literature. As Richard Bruce Nugent observed, she "had made her bid for space on the upper rungs of the sepia social ladder."
Gay Men, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Trensgenders in Harlem
Where are the Blues?