THE BLACKS WERE ON THE STAGE.
THE WHITES WERE AT THE TABLES.
THE MOBSTERS WERE BEHIND THE SCENES.
AND SOMEHOW THE MAGIC TOUCHED THEM ALL – Jim Haskins – “The Cotton Club.”
In the 1890’s, Harlem was the land speculator’s dream. The elevated railroad lines that had been extended to 129th Street in Manhattan, had transformed the area from the hinterlands to what was called “The Great Migration.”
At the time, black families lived mostly in the area between Thirty-Seventh Streets and Fifty-Eight Streets, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The upper crust of society viewed Harlem as the next step for the upwardly mobile, and as a result, splendorous townhouses costing thousands more than comparables downtown, were being built as fast as the Harlem land could be purchased by the land speculators.
By 1905, the bottom of the Harlem real estate market fell though the floor. The land speculators were forced to face the fact that the townhouse had been built too quick, and that the prices were far above what the people were prepared to pay for them.
On the verge of bankruptcy, the land speculators used tactics that today would be illegal. They decided to rent their buildings to black tenants, far above what they would charge white tenants. Then, in a frenzy to recapture their losses, the land speculators approached white building owners and told them if they didn’t purchase vacant buildings they would rent them out exclusively to blacks, thereby reducing the value of the white landowner’s properties. The white landowners didn’t bite, so the land speculators made good on their promises. Whites began moving out of Harlem in droves, replaced by black families who had never lived in such a fine neighborhood before. Black churches followed their congregations from the slums of Manhattan to the splendor of Harlem, and by the early 1920’s, Harlem was the largest black community in the United States.
However, most blacks could not afford the high rents charged by the white building owners, so they took in tenants, causing two and sometimes three families to live in a one, or two-bedroom apartment. Coinciding with the overcrowding of Harlem, came the influx of illegal enterprises, such as numbers runners, houses of prostitution, and drug dealers. This was counteracted somewhat when prosperous blacks, mostly in the entertainment business, decided Harlem was where they could showcase their talents in a neighborhood filled with people of their own race. Fritz Pollard, noted All-American football player, who made his money in the real estate, moved to Harlem, as did fellow All-America football player Paul Robeson — destined to hone an outstanding career acting and singing on stage. They were quickly followed by famous singers like Ethel Walters and Florance Mills, and Harlem was ready for a renaissance equal to that of the glowing White Way on Broadway.
However, when there was money to be made, white gangsters like Dutch Schultz and Owney “The Killer” Madden were ready to jump in and take the profits, by force if necessary, which is the way they did business anyway. Schultz muscled his way into the Harlem numbers business, chasing out such black notables as Madam Stephanie St. Claire and Caspar Holstein. And during the height of Prohibition, Madden had his eyes on the perfect place to sell his bootleg booze: The Club Deluxe on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue.
The Club Deluxe was owned by former world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Whereas, Johnson was proficient with his fists, Madden and his formidable crew were good with guns, knives, and bats. A few choice words, backed with the threat of violence, with few meager bucks thrown in, and Johnson handed over Club Deluxe to Madden and his partner/manager George “Big Frenchy” DeMange. The two gangsters renamed it The Cotton Club.
Not to totally insult a black man with the prestige of Johnson, Madden threw Johnson a bone, and let him hang around the joint, resplendent in a tuxedo. Johnson would smile and tell everyone who asked that he was the assistant manager under DeMange.
To understand why such a great heavyweight boxer like Johnson would cower before Madden, who was barely five-foot-five-inches and 140 pounds after a huge dinner, one would have to be made aware of Madden’s background.
Owen “Owney” Madden was born at 25 Somerset Street, in Leeds, England, on December 18, 1891. In need of work, his father moved the Madden family to Liverpool. In 1903, when young Madden was only 12, his father died, and his mother re-located her family to America, settling on the West Side of Manhattan, in a neighborhood called “Hells Kitchen.”
Madden fell in with a boisterous gang known as the Gophers. He became proficient in the favored crimes of the era: robberies, muggings, and labor racket beatings. In order to hurt and intimidate, Madden’s favorite weapon was a lead pipe, wrapped in newspaper.
Madden made a ton of money in a racket called the “insurance business.” As the president of his own “insurance company,” Madden would visit the local establishments and tell the business owners that the owner needed “bomb insurance,” in case foreigners, or maybe even Madden himself, decided to bomb the businessman’s store. The business owners caught wind quick, and paid Madden what he demanded. If they didn’t pay Madden, that’s businessman’s stores would go up in flames and debris in a matter of days, and sometimes even hours. While Madden was a member of the Gophers, and making tons of money in his “insurance business,” he was arrested 44 times, but not once did he ever go to prison.
When Madden was 17, he earned his nickname “The Killer.” A poor Italian immigrant did nothing wrong, except cross paths with Madden on a street in Hell’s Kitchen. In front of a crowd of his fellow Gophers, and whomever else was standing on the street that day, Madden pulled out a gun and shot the Italian dead. Then Madden stood over the dead body and announced to the assembled crowd, “I’m Owney Madden!”
By the time he was 23, Madden had at least five other murders to his credit. Hence the nickname – “The Killer.”
However, Madden thought he was bulletproof, until November 6th, 1912, at the Arbor Dance Hall, which was in the heart of the territory controlled by the Gopher’s rivals: the Hudson Dusters. Madden strolled into the hall by himself, like he had nary a care in the world, during a dance given by the Dave Hyson Association. Madden was watching the proceedings from the balcony, when eleven Hudson Dusters surrounded him and shot Madden six times. Madden was rushed to the hospital, where a detective asked Madden who had shot him.
“Nothin’ doin,'” Madden said. “It’s no business but mine who put these slugs into me. My boys will get them.”
By the time Madden was released from the hospital, six of his eleven assailants had already been shot dead.
While Madden was recuperating from his wounds, one of his fellow Gophers, Little Patsy Doyle, figured he’d take control of Madden’s gang. Doyle was also intent on taking back his former girlfriend, Freda Horner, who now was the sole property of Madden. Miss Horner told Madden about Doyle’s intentions, and as a result, Madden told Miss Horner to tell Doyle she would be glad to meet him for a date at a saloon on Eighth Avenue and 41st Street. When Doyle arrived, dressed to the nines and all smiles, two of Madden’s gunmen shot Doyle dead.
Being the obvious suspect, Madden was arrested three days later for the murder of Little Patsy Doyle. At Madden’s trial, he was shocked to discover that Miss Horner had betrayed him too. Miss Horner testified in court that it was Madden who had set up the Doyle murder. As a result, Madden was convicted and sentenced to 10-20 years in Sing Sing Prison. He did only eight years, and was released in 1923, just in time to strong-arm Jack Johnson into selling him the Club Deluxe, a.k.a.- The Cotton Club. By this time Madden was big into bootlegging with his partner Big Bill Dwyer, and the Cotton Club was the perfect place to sell their illegal hootch, especially their famous Madden No. 1 beer, which was considered the best brew in New York City. They took in a legitimate guy named Herman Stark as their front man/partner/stage manager, but the show within the show was completely run by Madden and DeMange.
According to Jim Haskins book The Cotton Club, when Madden and DeMange took over the joint they redid the entire interior “to cater to the white downtowner’s taste for the primitive.” The club was made over in “jungle decor,” with numerous artificial palm trees dotted throughout the spacious establishment, which had seating for 700 people. The most exquisite draperies, tablecloths, and fixtures were purchased, indicating this was a “plush late-night supper club,” and the exorbitant prices highlighted that fact. The menu was varied. Besides the traditional steaks and chops, the Cotton Club cooks drummed up Chinese and Mexican dishes, as well as “Harlem” cuisine like fried chicken and barbecued spareribs.
DeMange presided over the front door like a tyrant. One rule was perfectly clear. Although the waiters, busboys, bartenders, cooks, service personnel, and performers were all black, no black people were allowed inside as customers. (The name itself – The Cotton Club — came from the light brown color of undyed cotton.) The chorus girls had to be “tall, tan, and terrific” which meant that they had to be at least 5-feet-6-inches tall, light skinned, and no older than twenty-one. The girls also had to be expert dancers, and at least be able to carry a tune. For some unknown reason, there was no color-shade restriction on the black male dancers, who were all proficient in “high-stepping, gyrating and snake-dancing.”
To show how strict Madden and DeMange were about their policy of segregation, about a month before their second grand opening, (The Cotton Club was closed by Prohibition agents for a while, ever though the local cops were on the pad), the following job interview took place. Present were Madden and DeMange, along with their choreographer Althea Fuller, and their orchestra conductor Andy Preer. The girl being interviewed was Queenie Duchamp.
DeMange to Madden: Boss, when is the club going to be ready to open?
Madden: The pigs won’t cause us trouble for a time. They know if we’re forced to close for bootlegging they won’t get their bonuses. As it is, they’re missing the extra padding and the boys have been complaining to the Sarge. Yeah, they’ve learned their lesson. As for the club’s show… let’s ask Althea and Andy.
DeMange to Preer: Andy, how’s the pit? Ready for next month’s opening?
Preer: We will be. If Althea gets her girls ready, the pit is ready to stomp.
Althea Fuller: Boss, we had a setback. One of the girls went and found a “moral conscience.” She’s following her sister, a Garveyite, back to Africa. Shame, she was a looker in the front line. Don’t worry, Boss, I’ve already got replacements ready to audition for you today. One of them looks promising and comes with a recommendation. She’s in the front row, third one in… Queenie Duchamp. First, let’s see if she can remember the steps she was taught this morning.
(Andy Preer leads the orchestra in “I’ve Found a New Baby” and 5 dancing girls audition. Queenie Duchamp is third from the left.)
Madden: Keep the third and the fifth. The other girls are too dark and short. Althea, make sure you grill them about rules and rehearsals. We are NOT running a gut bucket operation here.
(Madden leaves with his bodyguards)
Fuller: Queenie, come here. You got the job on a few conditions.
Queenie: Anything you want Miss Fuller.
Fuller: Number one – No booze, No boys, No drugs. No exceptions.
Queenie: Yes, Miss.
Fuller: Number two- Rehearsals are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday starting at 1:00 p.m. sharp. All rehearsals are MANDATORY and lateness will not be accepted. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but rehearsals here are grueling and performances are long with many elaborate costume changes. That means you can’t afford to be draggin’ your ass around here. Make sure you eat and get your rest. Do you understand?
Queenie: Yes, Miss Fuller.
Fuller: Number three – No mixing with the patrons. There are about 700 whitefolk that walk through those doors every night. And according to Mr. Madden, they only have one goal here and that’s to spend money. They come here to hear the best Negro music and dance numbers in the city. They might act like they want to be your friend after a couple of drinks, but they don’t. Mr. Madden doesn’t want the races mixin’ and as far as I’m concerned, I think that’s better for business anyway.
DeMange: If a white customer starts to give you a problem or tries to make a connection with you, tell me. I’ll take care of it. It’s happened before. Sometimes these rich people get a couple drinks in them and they think they own the world. Don’t worry about it, just let me know. We run a tight ship here.
Queenie: Yes, Mr. DeMange. No problem Ms. Fuller. I am an entertainer and I understand the importance of practice. In fact, I’m a singer, a blues singer! If you ever need a singer….. (Ms. Fuller and Mr. DeMange look at each other.)
Fuller: Look, missy. Your goal here is to dance, smile and follow the rules… not sing. Got it?
Queenie: Yes, Miss Fuller. Got it.
Fuller: Another thing… stay out of trouble. You’re a looker and the club world can be dirty and dangerous. It doesn’t have to be though. Keep to yourself and whatever you do, stay out of Mr. Madden’s way. If you do this, you’ll be fine. Now go to wardrobe for a fitting.
Queenie: Yes and Thank you, Miss Fuller.
The Cotton Club was an immediate success with the downtown swells. On opening night, the Fletcher Henderson band entertained the crowd (Henderson’s band was the house band until June 1931). Through radio broadcasts originating nightly from the Cotton Club, Henderson’s band was such a success, he became one of the most sought after band leaders in America. Following Henderson was the Duke Ellington Band (until 1934), and then Cab Calloway and the Cotton Club Orchestra.
Despite the fact the only booze served on the premises was Madden’s No. 1 beer, customers were allowed, even encouraged, to bring their own booze they had obtained illegally elsewhere. Of course, the management had a hefty set-up charge, which included the glasses, ice, and the mixers. If a customer came unprepared and still wanted booze instead of beer, the doorman, and sometimes even a waiter, came in handy. A bottle of champagne could cost a customer $30, and a bottle of scotch – $18, a kingly sum in those days. But the customers were well-healed, and nobody ever gripped about the prices; at least, nobody who cared about their continued good health.
After a while, DeMange and Madden lightened up a bit on the “no-black-customers-allowed” policy. This happened in 1932, right after W.C. Handy, known as “The King of the Blues,” was denied admission, even though the Duke Ellington Band was inside playing songs that Handy had written. Ellington pleaded his case to Madden, and Madden agreed to loosen his policy. But just a little bit.
Light-skinned blacks were now allowed in as customers, and a few darker blacks, who were famous entertainers themselves. However, blacks in mixed parties was a definite no-no.
Writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten wrote, “There were brutes at the door to enforce the Cotton Club’s policy which was opposed to mixed parties.”
Jim Haskins wrote in The Cotton Club, “Only the lightest-complexioned Negroes gained entrance, and even they were carefully screened. The club’s management was aware that most white downtowners wanted to observe Harlem blacks, not with mix with them.”
Even famed comedian Jimmy Durante displayed blatant racism when he said, “It isn’t necessary to mix with colored people if you don’t feel like it. You have your own party and keep to yourself. But it’s worth seeing. How they step!”
Durante went as far as to intimate that blacks were innately more violent than whites. “Racial lines are drawn here to prevent possible trouble,” Durante said. “Nobody wants razors, blackjacks or fists flying. And the chances of war are less if there’s no mixing.”
In 1933, after he settled a little problem with the IRS, and with Prohibition now over, Madden decided to call it a day. He handed over the reigns of the Cotton Club to DeMange, and hightailed it to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he opened a hotel/spa, which became the favorite hideout for New York mobsters on the lam from the law. In fact, when New York Mafioso Lucky Luciano was in hiding, because a bulldog special prosecutor named Thomas E. Dewey had a warrant for Luciano’s arrest on a trumped-up prostitution charge, it was at Madden’s resort where Luciano was finally arrested after four months on the run.
Of course, Madden was still a silent partner with DeMange in the Cotton Club, but the huge profits would soon diminish, before coming to a halt in Harlem.
It started with the Great Depression, which had cut down dramatically on the disposable income of the rich, and the formerly rich. Downtown revelers who had frequented the Cotton Club came less often, and when they did come, they spent less money. These same revelers got caught up in the street gang mentality, and as a result, an avalanches of bullets stared flying in Harlem; whites shooting blacks, blacks shooting whites, and members of the same race slinging shots at each other. With so much lead zinging though the Harlem air, white-oriented Harlem clubs like the Cotton Club suffered a dramatic decrease in attendance.
In addition, no area of America was affected more by the Depression than Harlem. By 1934, according to the New York Urban League, more than 80% of Harlem residents were on “Home Relief,” which we now call Welfare. The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell fanned the flames of racial tensions when he started leading boycotts of white-owned stores in Harlem, in order to force them to hire more black workers. Despair and resentment sprung up in the streets of Harlem, and this lead to a fateful day in Harlem history.
A dark-skinned, 16-year-old Puerto Rican named Lino Rivera was sulking around the streets of Harlem, out of work and desperately looking for a job; any job. To pass the time, he took in a movie, then went to the Kress Department Store on 125th Street. There he spotted a knife he wanted. But the knife cost ten cents and Rivera didn’t have ten cents. Rivera had just snatched the knife and put it into his pocket, when a male employee of the store grabbed Rivera, and a scuffle ensued. While the two men were battling and another white employee tried to subdue Rivera, a crowd of black shoppers surrounded the fight, obviously favoring Rivera. During the melee, Rivera bit the thumb of one of the white employees. The injured man shouted, “I’m going to take you down to the basement and beat the hell out of you.”
Within minutes, the rumor had spread on the streets of Harlem that two white men were beating a black boy to death. This false rumor received dubious confirmation, when a blaring ambulance pulled up in front of the Kress Department Store. It made no difference the ambulance was there for the white man who had the severely bitten finger.
That night the streets of Harlem erupted in total bedlam. Born out of resentment of the Depression, and the dismal way white people had been treating black people in Harlem for years, hundred of blacks rioted in the streets. They looted white-owned stored and pilfered merchandise as if they had an absolute right to take it.
The perception to the downtown whites was that Harlem was no longer safe for them to venture into, even to see the wondrous entertainment at the Cotton Club. In addition, black musicians and entertainers no longer considered the Cotton Club as the top of the heap. It became a place where the entertainers could start their careers, but once they got noticed, they went on to bigger and better things. Business became so bad at the Cotton Club, and other Harlem clubs that catered to the white downtown crowd, such as Small’s Paradise on 7th Avenue, that Harlem’s Cotton Club closed its doors for good on February 16th, 1936.
DeMange and Herman Stark, with Madden’s blessing from Hot Springs, moved the Cotton Club downtown to Forty-Eighth Street and Broadway, to a space formerly occupied by the Harlem Club. The new Cotton Club was an immediate success. It had its grand re-opening on September 24th, 1936. Cab Calloway and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson performed that night, as did Avis Andrews, the Berry Brothers, and the gorgeous Katherine Perry, who was so light-skinned she could easily pass for white.
Because it was so accessible with its new Midtown location, the Cotton Club was raking in the cash. In the third week alone, it grossed more than $45,000, and in the first sixteen weeks, the average weekly gross was $30,000. The prices in the new joint were higher than the Cotton Club’s in Harlem. A steak sandwich rose from $1.25 to $2.25. Scrambled eggs with Deerfield sausage rose from $1.25 to a $1.50 and lobster cocktails went from $1.00 to $1.50.
Still DeMange and Stark kept packing them in.
One price that did decrease was the Cottons Club’s cover charge. In Harlem, in order to keep the “undesirables” away, the cover charge was $3 per table. However, since blacks very rarely crossed the “Mason-Dixon Line” of 110th Street, the new Cottons Club’s cover charge was $2 per table during dinner time, and nothing after that.
The new Cotton Club continued to thrive until the summer of 1939, when the Internal Revenue Service hit the club’s management with indictments for income tax evasion. The indictments hit the Cotton Club Management Corp, including Herman Stark – President, George Goodrich, — Accountant, and Noah Braustein – Secretary-Treasurer, with four counts of failure to pay, and embezzlement of taxes. If convicted, all three men could face up to 25 years in prison, and fines of up to $20,000 apiece. Amazingly, because he was just listed as an employee, Frenchy DeMange escaped the indictment. At trial, the Cotton Club Management Corp. was found guilty, but the three officers escaped conviction. Still, Stark had to fork over a hefty fine to the government, in addition to $3,400 owed in back taxes.
At the start of 1940, it was obvious that the Cotton Club, and Herman Stark, had money problems. Besides the high Midtown rent and the effects of the Depression, the unions, especially the musician union, had a stranglehold on Stark and his profits. Before his problems with the I.R.S., Stark was skimming money off the top to make up for any shortfalls the unions and the high entertainment payrolls caused. But with the government watching the Cotton Club like a hawk, skimming was now impossible.
The Cotton Club closed its door for good on June 10th, 1940. Stark and DeMange gave no official reason, but as one columnist put it, the main reason was, “the lack of the famous, old filthy lucre.”
Yet, that explanation would be too simplistic. Of course money was a problem, but also America’s taste for music like Duke Ellington’s and Cab Calloway’s was changing too. The younger generation of Americans were enthralled with the new jazz and “swing” styles of white bandleaders like Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and the “King of Swing” — Benny Goodman.
The Cotton Club was a great idea whose lifespan had reached its conclusion. The black entertainers who had cut their teeth working at the Cotton Club, people like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne, all went on to establish long and wondrous careers. But the concept of a night club with all black entertainment no longer appealed to the white mainstream of America.
The Cotton Club closed because it was a concept that had blossomed, then like a gilded rose, slowly died.
Still, the memory, and the impact of the Cotton Club on society will linger as long as song and dance remain an integral part of our American culture.