Tag Archives: lobster palaces

Dining with Diamond Jim

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In the early 1900s with the growth of Broadway’s fame as a place for flashy people to see and be seen, no one stood out from the crowd like James Buchanan Brady. Known across America for his large collection of diamonds which he boldly wore in public, he inspired others to display trappings of wealth. In the words of Parker Morell, author of a 1934 book about Brady, “Jim was the diamond studded decoy duck that filled the coffers of New York’s merchants.”

Those merchants included not only the jewelers of Maiden Lane, but also the restaurateurs of Broadway. Among his favorites were Rector’s, Churchill’s, Shanley’s, Healy’s, Murray’s Roman Garden, [see below] and others on and off Broadway. In 1917 he gave a talk at a dinner of the New York Society of Restaurateurs where he contrasted Broadway’s restaurants with the downtown places of his much poorer early days where a plate of corned beef and beans cost 10 cents.

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Brady was a highly visible regular in restaurants and so-called “lobster palaces.” The proprietor of Rector’s, the reigning palace of lobsterdom, referred to Jim as “our ten best customers” due to his frequent visits coupled with the vast amount of food he was alleged to consume. And of course his presence in hot dining spots attracted celebrity hunters galore.

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But did his celebrity also win him a get-out-of-trouble ticket – or did he simply live in a time when being super rich brought immunity from scandal? As “America’s greatest salesman,” James Brady frequently hosted parties of visiting businessmen whose contracts he was courting as a major player in the railroad equipment business. He could spend up to $3,000 (in 1904, equal to $82,000 now) for an evening’s entertainment which might also include the company of well-paid chorus girls or visits to women on the shady side of town. He freely poured wine for his guests, but he did not drink. Orange juice was his preferred accompaniment to meals – at a time when it was not considered a customary beverage.

diamondjimphotoDespite the expensive dinners he gave, he showed a contradictory attitude toward restaurant spending. According to George Rector, Jim swore he would not come back to Rector’s after it levied a 10-cent cover charge. Of course he did return, but why argue over such a minuscule fee? And when he was charged with extravagance, he countered defensively that extravagance meant spending money you didn’t have or wasting it on worthless things. He, on the other hand, spent his well-earned money on simple dinners such as what he called his “one-two-three”: Lynnhaven oysters, terrapin, and canvasback duck. Expensive, yes, but not extravagant “because you get your money’s worth.”

He could be generous. According to gossip columnist O. O. McIntyre, when Brady died in 1917 he had a number of elderly waiters on pensions.

He began acquiring and wearing diamond jewelry in the 1880s when he became a traveling salesman for a railroad equipment company. According to Morell’s book Diamond Jim, it was common then for traveling men to wear diamonds, and to gamble with them too. Brady was able to build a collection by winning at cards and dice. Displaying his collection to business associates and clients proved to be a good way to impress them and make sales. By 1893 he was ordering diamond-crusted pieces and sets that were custom designed exclusively for him. When he attended meetings of railroad directors he often wore his “transportation set” that included cufflinks resembling tank and coal railcars, and shirt studs in the forms of a bicycle, auto, and airplane.

diamondjim1908jpgAccording to some accounts, his jewels may have made him a nationally known celebrity and an effective salesman, but failed to win him acceptance by genteel society. Perhaps he regretted his glittering reputation. Headwaiters bowed down to him but he was sometimes ridiculed in newspapers. The Baltimore Sun ran a story in 1913 titled “Reckless Money Spenders of America in a Delirium of Extravagance Rival Rome’s Profligates” that spotlighted Diamond Jim and implied he bribed railroad purchasing agents.

He faced further unfavorable scrutiny the following year when testimony before the Interstate Commerce Commission revealed that the inexplicably debt-ridden New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Co. had, among other transgressions, bought railcars and equipment from Brady totaling $37 million without competitive bidding. In his ICC testimony Jim freely admitted that he had been very generous to the company’s officials – but simply because they were old friends. He also told the commissioners that he kept no books because “I don’t propose that anybody else shall know how I have built my business.”

Well, at least he could eat. Though it was often recounted that he consumed prodigious quantities of oysters, lobsters, and game, I am skeptical about this since the accounts seemed to be part of legend-making after his death. Nonetheless, his diet, which included half a pound of candy daily after he cut down following a diagnosis of diabetes, seemed to have a disastrous effect on his health. In 1912, and later in his will, he donated a large sum of money to Johns Hopkins Hospital for surgery he said gave him a “new stomach.”

When he died, James Brady’s fortune, including his diamond collection – though quite substantial — turned out to be smaller than expected. Obviously “Diamond Jim” was largely a media creation. The man vanished in 1917, most of the restaurants failed with Prohibition, but the fantastic stories have persisted.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Maxim’s three of NYC

As some New Yorkers may recall, their city once boasted a certified branch of the famed Maxim’s de Paris. It opened in 1985 on two floors in the Carlton House on Madison and 61st. After seven years in which it went through many changes, it closed in 1992. It was grand and expensive, but despite its golden name never made it into the highest ranks of NYC restaurants.

The proprietor of an earlier, independent Maxim’s in New York, Julius Keller [pictured below], once wrote that “the American people reveled in anything that savored of a European atmosphere,” but perhaps that was truer in his day than the 1980s. His Maxim’s thrived from 1909 until 1920 when it fell victim to wartime austerity.

It was one of the “lobster palaces” on and near Broadway that appeared before the First World War to cater to fun-seeking after-theater crowds. Typically the palaces adopted French names, poured champagne like water, and featured some form of entertainment as well as premium-priced chicken sandwiches and broiled crustaceans.

Keller, who liked to be called Jules because it was classier, was a Swiss immigrant who landed in New York solo in 1880 at age 16. After working as a waiter in a number of restaurants and hotels, and eventually owning a few, he found a promising location on 38th street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Activity was moving in that direction and he thought he could make a go of it despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost by four failed predecessors which included the Café des Ambassadeurs and the Café de France.

At first he operated under the name Café de France. Nobody came. So, being resourceful, he dressed his waiters like servants to Louis XIV, hired an orchestra, and, most importantly, borrowed the name of the famous Paris house of good food and naughty gaiety, Maxim’s. Success followed quickly. Each year on New Years Eve he gave away souvenir plates displaying the words, “Let us go to Maxim’s, where fun & frolic beams,” possibly lyrics from the 1899 French play The Girl from Maxim’s.

His clientele was made up of society figures, financiers, celebrities, and those indispensable “others” with money to spend. Maxim’s courtly tone had a tendency to slip occasionally, as was often the case with lobster palaces. On one occasion in 1911, 250 people coming from the annual automobile show jammed the place, causing quite a fracas when the staff had to forcibly eject them in the wee hours. But Keller drew the line at known criminals. He deliberately discouraged the patronage of gangster friends from the old days – when he had ventured into gambling and, as part of the operation of his Old Heidelberg, prostitution. He wanted Maxim’s to be first-class.

During his years operating Maxim’s Jules was known as “the father of café society,” and for providing male dance partners for lone women patrons in the dance craze of 1914. Among these was his discovery, Rudolph Valentino. He was proud of his restaurant. As he wrote in his 1939 autobiography Inns and Outs, his visit to the original Maxim’s convinced him “that the replica we had put together . . . suffered nothing from comparison.”

Given restaurant-world Francophilia and the fame of the Maxim’s name, it’s to be expected that there were namesakes scattered across the U.S.A. (even in pre-WWI Salt Lake City, a city not generally known for kicking up its heels). And it’s hardly surprising that there was yet another Maxim’s in New York, this one sprouting in the Depression among other Greenwich Village hotspots such as The Black Cat, The Blue Horse, and El Chico. Other than that it acquired new banquettes around 1931, I know absolutely nothing about it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Spectacular failures: Café de l’Opera

In 1910 the media was abuzz with the new Café de l’Opera on Broadway between 41st and 42nd streets in NYC. Its enormous cost and the stunning, over-the-top lavishness of its interior set a new standard for opulence on the glittering White Way. Could anyone have guessed that in a mere four months this splendid “lobster palace” would fail?

Given its fate, how perfect was it that the crowning jewel of the interior decor was a billboard-sized painting of the fall of Babylon installed prominently on a landing of the 22-ft wide staircase?

The after-theater eatery was designed to be the showplace of Times Square. It was financed by a consortium of investors that included architect/decorator Henry Erkins and John Murray, impressario of the almost-as-splendiferous Murray’s Roman Gardens, also designed by Erkins. The team sunk millions into gutting the old Saranac Hotel and turning it into a fantasy Babylonian stage set worthy of the Hippodrome. The bill for interior renovations and decor, under Erkins’ direction with Stern Brothers department store acting as general contractor, came to $1,250,000, a sum that borders on $30 million in today’s dollars.

The silver service alone cost a quarter of a million 1910 dollars, while a huge painting by Georges Rochegrosse cost something like $50,000. Er, or so it was gushingly reported. However another source claimed the painting was a copy, which is probably true. As for many of the imported ancient treasures, they were replicas cast from Middle Eastern artifacts housed in British and French museums. The gleaming black marble covering interior surfaces and pillars on the ground floor and balconies was artificial.

The interior was a startling demonstration of the transformative power of life-size statuary, concealed lighting, mirrored walls, and a million or so sheets of gold leaf. The electrical industry was thrilled with the restaurant’s flair for showcasing what miracles modern lighting could perform. But the architectural community was rather scandalized. They hid their distaste in a haze of apparent flattery, producing choked praise in which adjectives like magnificent served as insults. The “lurid and gorgeous” restaurant was so overwhelming it could “overcome at once the more sober judgment of the critic,” claimed The Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine.

The restaurant’s dining rooms occupied four floors with its main kitchen located above them. Manager Henri Pruger, hired from the Hotel Savoy in London at the princely salary of $50,000 a year, oversaw a staff of 750. Six months after arriving in NYC he headed back home, and one can only wonder how much of his salary he managed to collect. Stern Brothers wasted no time seizing all the furnishings for auction but a goodly number of them apparently were acquired by the new owner, Louis Martin. A restaurant pro, he had formerly presided over the famed Café Martin at Broadway and 26th with his brother J. B.

Martin quickly made changes, moving the kitchen to the basement to solve the problem of food arriving cold at the tables as had happened under the previous management. He installed a bar on the first floor and eliminated the previous regime’s terrifically unpopular formal dress requirement, said to be an English notion. But the jinx was on. If ever a location reeked with bad omens, it was this. On opening night in December 1910 an employee of the Café de l’Opera started an accidental fire in a storeroom causing firemen to parade through the dining room with axes. Well, there was that foreboding fall of Babylon depicting invaders in the banquet hall. But what possessed Louis Martin to create a dining room lighted by a dozen perched owls with electrified eyes the size of silver dollars?

Martin, who ran the restaurant as Café Louis Martin, withdrew from the business in 1913. The new management renamed it the Café de Paris. On the color postcard shown here it is clear that the golden statues on the balcony are gone, replaced by flowers during this incarnation. In 1914 the Café de Paris went bankrupt and in February the restaurant’s “furniture, pictures, ornaments, rugs, carpets, curtains, linen, tableware, kitchenware, and other equipment and furnishings” were auctioned. The building was razed in 1915.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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