With the landscape of New York watering holes changing seemingly by the hour, and the classic saloons which spawned this tradition all but a distant memory, it’s heartening to know that Bill’s Gay Nineties has stood the test of time. Just as it did in the mid 1920’s when it stubbornly defied the powers that be and opened its doors as a “speakeasy” during Prohibition, this jewel in the crown of Roaring Twenties nightlife continues to defy the powers that be (progress now and development) while holding its sacred ground for a clientele, in some cases, four generations old.
You’ll find everything just as it was in Bill’s, unchanged and unspoiled, except for the faces of those who carry on the tradition. In fact, the only significant difference between now and “then” is that you probably won’t get caught up in a raid!
When it was a residence….
The address at Bill’s Gay Nineties has always been a well known destination. Originally a private home built in the 1850’s, this five-story brownstone claimed as its very first tenants a Mr. Robinson and his family, himself a man of the cloth whose parish was just around the corner. Reverend Robinson was a noted composer, as well as a minister, which instantly brought recognition to the building which housed him. He managed during his tenure to publish countless songs and hymns including “1865 Songs of the Sanctuary” which issued over a half million copies.
Next to take up residence at this upscale address were a Major Clement C. Moore and his wife Laura Williams. Laura was a socialite and Clement had been a major in the Civil War. They owned residences as well both in Newport and Paris, but here was where they preferred to call home, especially during Yuletide, for Clement was the grandson of the famous Clement C. Moore who authored (as a gift to his grandchildren), A Visit from St. Nicholas, the perennial favorite which begins with, “’Twas the night before Christmas.”
The last tenants to claim this address, before its swift transition into a speakeasy, were a Mr. and Mrs. George Butterworth, both prominent New Yorkers, also active in music and affairs of the parish. George enjoyed playing the organ up in the second floor parlor when he wasn’t acting as trustee for The Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And, just like the tenants preceding him, this pastime continued the grand tradition of music being a mainstay within these walls. It’s turned out to be a fitting tradition for music to this very day is the signature at Bill’s. Six nights a week someone is singing and tickling the ivories… the ghosts of Christmas past must be proud!
When it was a speakeasy…
There’s an uplifting adage that goes, “When something bad happens God is closing a door but opening a window.” Well, in 1924, Bill Hardy took that adage literally and reversed it. He boarded up the windows and opened a door, and thus began the legend that is Bill’s Gay Nineties.
Having been a boxer, a jockey, a dance instructor, a Broadway dandy and married to one of the Ziegfield girls from the legendary Ziegfield Follies, who better than Mr. Bill Hardy to launch such a New York enterprise?
He knew everybody that was anybody from each of his past professions, (not to mention the world of politics and the underworld), and his dabblings in each of those worlds had provided him access to and the procurement of one the most widely admired photograph collections in the world. The walls of this once private home soon became a glittering tribute to the past, and a hallmark to the future of what would be. Evoking the “Gay Nineties” as his theme, and also the name of his speakeasy, Hardy immediately exhumed the careers of many famous vaudevillians and hired them to rework their magic for a whole new generation. And it worked. (It would be like opening a retro 50’s place today and hiring a bunch of Doo-Wop groups to perform.)
At its height, Bill’s featured three floors of rotating entertainers doing their act on one floor, taking a break, then moving on to the next. Every night was a party at Bill’s and every table a part of it, for the infectious group sing-along which permeated the air was as alluring as the illegal hooch in the glasses. Yes, ringing the buzzer, whispering the password and entering this glorious era of New York nightlife, was simply the thing to do back then and Bill’s was at the forefront of that era. And, just for the record, the police were “all” the wiser.
After Prohibition Bill’s Gay Nineties was often mentioned in many of the high profile columns of the day - Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, Jack O’Brien - stating who had been at Bill’s and who did what. The most celebrated “who did what” was the infamous brawl that made all the wire services between writer/actress Adela Rogers St. John and the entire wait staff at Bill’s. Yes, nothing had really changed for the place when the drinking ban was lifted because, unlike most other speakeasies (of which there were over thirty thousand), Bill’s was more than a boarded up joint to buy booze. It was, (and is to this day), a classic New York nightclub in the grandest tradition.
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