This blog post was written by Megan Dolan, intern in the Archives Department at N-YHS
Throughout the 1920’s, prohibition-induced underground speakeasy clubs were major social destinations for dining, drinking, dancing, and listening to live music, generally jazz. But with the end of the prohibition era, the speakeasy gave way to a new type of establishment: the supper club. Although speakeasies had similar components, supper clubs were far more elaborate. They were generally grand Art Deco establishments serving as both restaurant and night club — a ‘destination’ where people could spend their entire evening, from cocktail hour to dinner to nightclub-style entertainment, with patrons expected to remain after dining for dancing, music, and other night club entertainment.
The 1930s and 1940s are considered the golden age of supper clubs, with high society frequenting famous establishments such as the Rainbow Room, Copacabana, and El Morocco. One of the more colorful supper clubs dating to that era was “El Borracho” (i.e., The Drunkard), at 51 East 53rd Street. Founded in 1944, the club was conceived at the outset to be a polished, up-market venue aimed at socialites and celebrities. But “El Borracho” achieved its greatest notoriety after Harvey “the Fire Chief” Rosen took over management in 1956.
Rosen’s “El Borracho” was characterized by a number of stylish quirks, such as mynah birds over the bar and a menu that included a ‘Siamese’ fish with a head at both ends, jokingly priced at $4,127.82. It was best known, though, for more seductive features, such as the ‘Romance Room’ where various mantras regarding love and the words “I love you” (translated into twenty-three different languages) were hanging on the wall. There was also a ‘Kiss Room’ containing thousands of signed lipstick-kissed index cards by various women that were hung all around the room. Female patrons were encouraged to add to this collection. El Borracho thrived throughout the late 1950s and closed in 1962.
N-YHS recently acquired an eclectic collection of materials relating to Harvey Rosen and El Borracho, including business cards, postcards, lip decals, “kiss” related quotations, and other racy ephemera that might seem more suitable for a Mad Men set than a historical society (in particular, the article on “The Art of Selecting a Mistress” seems tailor-made for Don Draper). Also included are a few magazine and newspaper articles relating to an incident (probably staged by the flamboyant Rosen) where two “blondes” disrobed after entering El Borracho. While not your standard scholarly fare, the Harvey Rosen and El Borracho Collection provides valuable insights into the supper club scene in New York as well as the decidedly un-feminist perception of women that characterized this era.
These un-feminist attitudes towards women are defined perfectly in this piece of promotional stationary by El Borracho. Let us hope that ‘thin lipped’ 21st century women are not seen to ‘lack feeling’ and be ‘content to remain spinsters’!