If you don't know what a speakeasy was, turn on the television and watch any one of the late-night Jimmy Cagney-Edward G. Robinson movies about the Roaring Twenties. Speakeasies ran the gamut from beer joints and sawdust spots to chic salons and private society clubs. Membership was by entrance fee or invitation or knowing the password ("Joe sent me"), and card carrying was as popular then as it is now in this age of credit cards.
New York's Fifty-second Street was an overpopulated area of the better rooms. But they fostered greater exclusivity. Those lesser people who held no cards or were refused admission because they knew no one of importance roamed up and down the street trying to gain entrée. If they were sober enough to read they would have seen the signs on most of the basement entrances:
THIS IS A PRIVATE RESIDENCE. DO NOT RING BELL.
The smart clubs were opened by mobsters and social-register types. In 1924 a group of society women opened the Lido-Venice on East Fifty-third Street in New York. They had their own measure of decorum and membership, and snobbery kept out the riff-raff.
There was the other side of the coin then, too. Look at the 1925 letter of solicitation from The Night Club, at Forty-second Street and Seventh Avenue:
I am opening the Night Club Sunday, May 3rd, and I am herewith asking you to become a member. Anticipating your joining, I am enclosing a membership card for which I would ask you to send me 85¢. Upon the receipt of this I shall immediately forward you an admission card for the opening week for such night as you desire to attend. You need anticipate no interference on the part of the Government. It will not be necessary for you to bring any kind of refreshments whatever. I shall take care of this personally. Please keep this to yourself; be a good fellow. Let me have your check for 85¢ by return mail.
If you don't want to be a member please return enclosed card.
Yours for a good time,
(signed) Ray Griffith
There were even smart clubs like the Mirador, Moritz, and Deauville whose claim to fame was good food.
Remember, these places were all outside the law. In most speakeasies piano players stashed up against a wall fulfilled patrons' requests. In the posh palaces the piano furnished half-heard or unlistened-to music during lunch and dinner or brightened perceptibly as the hour and the patrons grew happier. The pianists played the kind of music the patrons could recognize—mostly show tunes—and performed to emphasize the melody. Some of the players are barely remembered now: Joe Kahn, Milton Luttenberg. Some achieved fame as songwriters: Ruby Bloom, Ralph Rainger. Some worked in vaudeville as accompanists or featured performers: Charles Baum, Lou Alter, Al and Lee Reiser.
When Repeal came in 1933, a whole new world of joy seeking opened up. The speakeasies turned legitimate (though many of the operators were former bootleggers) and "café society" was born.
—Mort Goode, from the liner notes