LIFE at the Stork Club: Old-School Nightclub Hand Signals Explained

Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
This one means, "Call me to the phone, I want to get away from this table."
Alfred Eisenstaedt
'40s

Manhattan’s Stork Club, one of the most famous watering holes in the long history of American nightclubbing, was—from its opening in 1929 to its demise in 1965—the place to see and be seen in the Big Apple. The slick, sexy, smoky creation of a native Oklahoman and ex-bootlegger named Sherman Billingsley, the Stork was, in the words of legendary gossip columnist and radio loudmouth Walter Winchell, “New York’s New Yorkiest” joint.

Sherman Billingsley, Stork Club owner

Sherman Billingsley

Billingsley was, it would seem, born for the role of nightclub big shot; rarely a night went by when he wasn’t on the floor, shaking hands, slapping backs, greeting movie stars, musicians, powerful pols and famous athletes, keeping the booze flowing, playing cards with the clientele—in short, running an upscale saloon like a well-oiled (and highly profitable) machine.

While a hands-on kind of guy, Billingley was also just downright handy—as in, secret hand signals sent to his staff when sitting with customers. The trick? The signals had to be discreet enough so the customers wouldn’t catch on, and clear enough, amid the din produced by a well-oiled crowd, that the staff wouldn’t screw it up.

Here, LIFE.com looks back at the Stork Club in its heyday and, specifically, at some of Billingsley’s most frequently employed creative gesticulations.

Billingsley portrait: Alfred Eisenstaedt–The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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