O. O. McIntyre, a popular columnist who authored “New York Day by Day,” advised his readers in 1925 that anyone wishing to open a “swank” New York restaurant and establish a smart reputation from the start should get prominent people and theater stars to patronize it. “The rest,” he wrote, “is up to the cafe’s press agent.” He might have added, “and gossip columnists.”
By revealing glimpses into the lives of the rich and famous, gossip columnists like McIntyre, working with restaurants’ press agents, played a crucial role in the publicity system that made New York’s restaurants and nightclubs household names across the nation. The same was true of Hollywood’s night spots, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. Columnist Leonard Hall wrote in 1937, “As restaurants, Hollywood’s famed eating houses are little more than golden shambles, which exist that stars may see and be seen.”
Columnists might sometimes focus on a restaurant’s food, decor, or proprietor, but their main subjects were clearly its celebrity customers. Who was s/he with? What was she wearing? Romances brewing? Was anyone getting the cold shoulder, a divorce? Were their stars rising or falling? [Above Dorothy Lamour and Betty Hutton smile wanly for the camera at the Brown Derby]
The main thing, though, was just to get the names before the readers’ eyes. Typically the columns delivered short bursts of mundane info, each bit separated from the next by an ellipsis (. . .). A sample from Lucius Beebe’s “Faces Around Town,” 1938: “Burgess Meredith having early dinner with Frank Shields at Jack and Charlie’s before going to the theater . . . Henry Luce and Claire Luce, ditto, but indicating marital individualism by commanding different entrees – she pompano meuniere, he chateaubriand and German fried potatoes . . .”
Mid-century spots such as the Stork Club, El Morocco, the Colony, and Jack and Charlie’s ‘21′ in NYC; Hollywood’s Brown Derby, Trocadero, and Ciro’s; and Chicago’s Pump Room were a few of the top restaurants and clubs that played the gossip game. Parlaying gossip was standard practice at the glamour palaces, so much so that the elegant and expensive Voisin on Park Avenue, which also refused to advertise, was noted for having NO gossip columnists holding court at its tables.
Columnists were influential. Sherman Billingsley, proprietor of the Stork Club, credited Walter Winchell with making his club successful. Winchell, who operated out of the Stork from his own table, enjoyed a privileged position in the gossip business and at the club whose upstairs barber shop was at his disposal. In the 1960s a short blurb by Dorothy Kilgallen put Elaine’s on the map, according to its proprietor, the late Elaine Kaufman.
Restaurants, celebrities, and columnists profited mutually from gossip. In New York the featured subjects were people with power, café society, theater actors, and literary figures; in Hollywood they were film stars needing to propel their careers. Restaurants living up to the boast, “A gossip columnist guaranteed under every table,” were appreciated by show biz figures. Newspapers and fan magazines regularly ran photographs of stars arriving at a posh restaurant or of couples smiling from their tables. When a new restaurant or nightclub opened the owner hired a press agent to round them up. They dropped by, posed with the owner, and circulated, in a constant routine that kept their faces and names before the public and added glitz to the restaurant. El Morocco found the publicity generated by an opening night so valuable that they held one every year.
Sometimes restaurant owners would even subsidize patrons from film and stage. At Sardi’s, where as late as the 1960s “one well-timed exposure . . . [was] worth more to a burgeoning career than a whole picture series in a fan magazine,” actor Jose Ferrer dined for months on account before attaining success in his role as Cyrano de Bergerac. “Prince” Mike Romanoff, whose own restaurant would one day become a den of celebrity gossip, had enjoyed free meals at Chasen’s in his early days in Hollywood. [Above Ernest Hemingway and his wife Martha]
All the roles were fluid. Hedda Hopper acted before she took up the pen. But perhaps the best role optimization occurred when columnists became celebrities and used their own activities as subject matter. Journalist Christopher Morley wrote about the doings of his lunch clubs while putting the spotlight on NYC restaurants such as Christ Cella’s.
Gossip columnists still operate but their work became less valuable to restaurants and celebrities with the arrival decades ago of newspaper restaurant reviews and television talk shows and, more recently, social media.
© Jan Whitaker, 2015