This post was written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
At the height of the Roaring Twenties, the wealthy and glamorous descended in droves on the northeast corner of 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue to hear the latest compositions, see the newest dances, and revel in the cultural and creative crucible of Harlem’s most famous nightclub: the Cotton Club. Known as the “Aristocrat of Harlem,” this cabaret was opened in September 1923 by gangster Owen “Owney” Madden (1891-1965), while he was in prison for manslaughter, and operated almost continuously until its relocation downtown in February 1936.
In the New-York Historical Society Library we’re fortunate to have two ephemeral items from the Cotton Club: a program and menu from April 1932. From these two items much about the unique history of the Cotton Club can be discerned. The images on both front covers reveal both the interior decor of the nightclub (described as “a brazen riot of African jungle motifs, southern stereotypology, and lurid eroticism”) and the strict color line it imposed: black performers entertained a white only audience.
A cornerstone of both the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, the Cotton Club was renowned for the caliber of its floor shows, which opened twice a year and featured some of the most important African American performers of the early 20th century. The careers of dancers, singers, and musicians, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949), Adelaide Hall (1901-1993), Lena Horne (1917-2010), the Nicholas Brothers (Fayard 1914-2006 and Harold 1921-2000), and the bands of Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and Cab Calloway (1907-1994), were launched at the Cotton Club where regular radio broadcasts by the Columbia Broadcasting System introduced them to the rest of the United States.