The Daily Telegraph - Saturday

Shermane Billingsle­y

Daughter of the Stork Club founder, who kept alive the memory of New York’s fabled nightspot


SHERMANE BILLINGSLE­Y, who has died aged 78, spent more than half a century preserving memories of the Stork Club, the New York nightspot run by her father which became a favourite haunt of film stars during Hollywood’s golden age.

Elizabeth Taylor, on four of her honeymoons, dazzled at the city’s most glamorous watering-hole, as did the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Prince Rainier of Monaco and his film star wife Grace Kelly.

At least four American presidents visited – John F Kennedy, Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon, preceded by a young Ronald Reagan, who romanced Jane Wyman at the Stork.

Senators on the spree mingled there, and Joe DiMaggio dallied with Marilyn Monroe. When the actor Victor Mature married Martha Stephenson, the second of his five wives, on the premises in 1941, Shermane Billingsle­y’s father Sherman doubled as best man.

Sherman Billingsle­y, a teetotal former bootlegger, had opened the Stork Club as a speakeasy in 1929 at the height of the Prohibitio­n era. It thrived throughout the Depression and Second World War before falling victim to a prolonged strike by the restaurant workers’ union, the coming of the television age and the dawn of the permissive society. It finally shut its doors in 1965.

“I was there when the Stork Club closed,” his daughter Shermane Billingsle­y told The

New York Times. “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.”

For years the club’s most important customer was the gossip columnist Walter Winchell, assigned a permanent command post at Table 50 in the Cub Room, from where he ran a network of informants, sifting their tips and titbits before relaying the result to 50 million Americans who read his syndicated column every day or listened to his nationally networked radio show.

In its heyday the Stork was “New York’s New Yorkiest place”, as Winchell put it. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s it was where Winchell helped to fashion the modern cult of celebrity.

Not everyone was welcome. Among the glitterati barred from the Stork over the years were Humphrey Bogart, the comic actors Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason (all for being drunk), and Frank Sinatra – because of “the people he brings with him”. In its early days the club had links to the Mob.

The youngest of three sisters, Shermane Joy Billingsle­y was born in Manhattan on October 9 1944. Her father, certain that his third child would be a boy, had already filled out the birth certificat­e during his wife’s labour and had to alter the name from Sherman John.

She attended the all-girls Spence School and was enrolled by her father in Finch College nearer home, to prevent her from straying like her “wayward” sisters.

Shermane grew up in the club, appearing with her father on the weekly Stork Club

Show on television. When the club tanked in the mid-1960s, she left college to save her father money and married a US Navy officer turned investment adviser, Craig Drill.

After her father’s death in 1966, Shermane found notes he had made for his autobiogra­phy and shared them with The

New York Times, hoping to revive interest in his life. Sex was the spur. “I have seen mothers steal their daughters’ boyfriends and marry them,” Sherman Billingsle­y had written. “I have seen girls steal their sisters’ boyfriends and marry them. I know one father that was familiar with his son’s wife. These were all high-society folks.”

He recalled the night Ernest Hemingway floored the warden of Sing Sing prison in the Cub Room. Not that this worried the

Stork’s press agent: “One fight a year is good publicity, providing the fighters are big names.” On another occasion Hemingway tried to pay his bar tab with a $100,000 film royalty cheque. He was told to wait until closing, when Billingsle­y cashed it with the night’s receipts.

Billingsle­y was known to send cases of wine and $5,000 gallon bottles of perfume to the famous and glamorous. Even “nobodies” who came to gawp at the celebritie­s left with something, such as a lipstick or an ashtray bearing the club’s logo. More than two million bought or pilfered over the years became sought-after souvenirs.

Billingsle­y himself was in no doubt about what kept the customers coming: “Pretty girls and women are about the biggest attraction you can have ... and they do not have to be rich or social, just pretty and beautiful.”

Shermane passed her father’s recollecti­ons to Ralph Blumenthal, the author of Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Café Society (2000). Shermane Billingsle­y’s first marriage ended in divorce, and her second husband, Timothy Wheeler, died in 2007. Two sons from her first marriage survive her.

Shermane Billingsle­y, born October 9 1944, died April 16 2023

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 ?? ?? Shermane Billingsle­y, above; right, her father Sherman, closing up; far right, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at the Stork in 1949
Shermane Billingsle­y, above; right, her father Sherman, closing up; far right, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at the Stork in 1949
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