Vignettes from times past when my Loomis Chaffee closest pals Gene Mercy, John Suisman, and yours truly, the three amigos, tripped the light fantastic during my 1958 Dartmouth senior year Christmas break in New York, New York— the city that never sleeps, nor did we.
Gene went to Lehigh University in bleak Bethlehem, Pennsylvania where he made up for the depressing city with party times off campus progressing in later years to become a senior partner at Goldman Sachs, member of the Lehigh Board of Trustees, with many other boards and trust responsibilities. Beloved pal John, of blessed memory, left us three years ago. He outshined during his college years, Captain of the Yale Golf Team further upstaging us with man for all seasons Yale sophistication. Soos, as we called him, copied fellow Eli alum Cole Porter, piano in his dorm room occasioning frequent applause with his vast repertoire of (naturally) Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, et al.
Thus, our wondrous 1958 Christmas vacation began on a dour note with a disappointing Saturday matinee of The Flower Drum Song. The alleged musical production turned out to be second rate Rodgers and Hammerstein with a soporific Hammerstein script and a score of Chinese American difficulties in San Francisco with love complications described by acerbic New Yorker drama critic Kenneth Tynan, “A world of woozy song.”
Hoping to upgrade our matinee disaster we picked up our top-tier debs early evening at the Biltmore Hotel. During the Eisenhower years, Manhattan was an island of social, economic, and cultural equanimity. The legal drinking age was eighteen, the bars stayed open until four in the morning, and the Biltmore Hotel advertised special student rates for Seven Sisters and Ivy Leaguers. Our three dates from Smith College filled the bill.
The hub was Under the Clock at the Biltmore, where everybody poured through the tunnel from Grand Central. The Palm Court was next to the hotel lobby and served convenient cocktails along with Emory Deutch and his violin, who serenaded a conspicuous well-groomed college crowd. On holiday weekends it took on the appearance of a freshman mixer in Northampton.
We departed the Palm Court to whet our appetites at Luchow’s located in the then seedy neighborhood of 14th Street at Irving Place. We partook of their nightly Christmas tree lighting that promulgated the legendary restaurant’s Kleindeutschland gemütlichkeit encouraging a goodly consumption of house Löwenbraü.
Next stop was The Waverly Lounge at the Hotel Earle on Christopher Street. Laurie Brewis, fey bistro version of Noel Coward, was the featured pianist and lounge singer accurately billed “The London Edition of Show Tune Encyclopedia.” Laurie made a specialty getting to know his college devotees on a first-name basis. Our dates were duly impressed when he identified us and even remembered our college affiliation.
Keeping the evening upscale we brought the ladies uptown to the Stork Club. Social climbers patronized the Stork Club along with its Café Society regulars. Sherman Billingsley, former prohibition bootlegger, was saloon keeper and host of columnists Walter Winchell and night club maven Cholly Knickerbocker for tabloid documentation. Billingsley famously gifted samples of Sortilège, his signature perfume and winked if your companion stashed a Stork Club ashtray into her handbag. Our dates obliged the custom. The price of a drink at the bar gained entrée to the plush Cub Room for a rhumba played by Payson Re’s orchestra. This was the upscale part of the evening. The nitty-gritty came next at Jimmy Ryan’s.
Before Elvis or the Twist, the popular sound of New York was Dixieland. The uptown headquarters was Jimmy Ryan’s where Wilbur de Paris and his band turned 52nd Street into Rampart Street. Ryan’s rep was prep United Nations. The room was not restricted to Ivy Leaguers but was a democracy that also welcomed outliers from far-flung places like Duke, Syracuse, or Notre Dame. Insiders knew when you bought intermission pianist Don Frye a drink he never forgot and rewarded you at the door or even a trip to the men’s room with a six-step pianistic flourish. Our dates were unaware of this and were startled when they left for the ladies room to a Broadway overture.
Next in line that night of nights was the other end of the spectrum, a $7 cover charge with a two-drink minimum, the price at the Copacabana for a bridge-and-tunnel spectacle of buxom chorus girls and comedian Joe E. Lewis in his drunken Damon Runyon act about bookies, barkeeps, and broads. I can still remember the off-color punchlines.
Bartender: “You have another drink and you’ll really feel it.”
Joe E. Lewis: “I have another drink I’ll let anybody feel it.”
Our debs said they loved them or were otherwise too embarrassed to offer dissent. Last call and last dance with morning sun peeking over the horizon of the Queensboro Bridge marked closing time with bagels, lox, and eggs at Reuben’s on 58th Street. The curtain closed sneaking back into each of their rooms at The Biltmore, a guarded State Secret recounted many Christmas reunions testing the tolerance and forbearance of our wives.
Golden days when we were young. The song has ended but the memory lingers on.RICHARD PRESS