In Humphrey Bogart’s defense, the panda was minding his own business.
On that September night in 1949, Bogart and his pal, playboy Billy Seeman, had walked into New York’s fashionable El Morocco nightclub with dates, albeit of a peculiar shade: each had brought with him a 22-pound stuffed panda. Inside, the foursome took their seats and ordered a round of drinks.
As the story goes—and almost anyone who ever set foot in the El Morocco heard it—a starlet swept by the table, snatched Bogart’s panda, and began to walk away with it. Bogart leapt up to retrieve the purloined panda, in the process shoving the starlet, Robin Roberts, to the floor. The ensuing ruckus included the kidnapping of the other panda by a friend of Roberts’s (Bogart went after her too), fisticuffs between Bogart and the friend’s millionaire boyfriend, and plates hurled through the air by various parties.
In the end, Bogart and Seeman (and, one presumes, the pandas) were tossed out of the El Morocco and told never to return. When asked by reporters later if he had been drunk, Bogart snapped, “Who isn’t at four o’clock in the morning?” It was a free country, he argued, and if he wanted to buy his panda a cocktail, “that’s my business.”
There were other clubs, certainly, each reeling in the well-heeled patrons who exemplified the glorious heyday of mid-20th-century Manhattan nightlife—the Harwyn Club, Toots Shor’s, the Rainbow Room, and the urbane canteen that was Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club. But none could match the glittering, boozy beau monde that was the El Morocco.
Originally founded as a speakeasy by a dapper former boxer, the El Morocco thrived as a supper club in the post-Prohibition and postwar eras. Its regulars included the biggest names in international café society, politics, theater, music, commerce, and Hollywood.
“What I remember is the glamour,” the gossip columnist Aileen Mehle, best known as “Suzy,” recalled before her death in 2016. “You’d walk in the door and it sort of hit you in the face. Every woman was dressed to the nines, coiffed to the nines, bejeweled to the nines. It looked like a great movie set.”
“I had never seen anything like it,” says Taki Theodoracopulos, the conservative commentator and social gadfly. “And when it finished, I could tell it would never come back.”
Who went to El Morocco—or Elmo, as it was known to regulars? The better question is: Who didn’t? In one black-and-white photograph you see Marlene Dietrich, dancing cheek to cheek with Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. In another, there’s Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn, in one of the club’s mod banquettes. In a third, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in faux-crown paper party hats.
Through the years the club played host to Kennedys, Rockefellers, Guggenheims, and half of titled Europe. There were society swans (Barbara Hutton, Doris Duke, Brenda Frazier, Babe Paley), athletes (Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Jack Dempsey), political scions (Franklin Roosevelt Jr.), fashionistas (Valentina, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Oleg Cassini), and media titans (The New Yorker’s Harold Ross, Condé Nast, Ed Sullivan).
Aristotle Onassis was always seated at table one, where he would sometimes read a newspaper; Elizabeth Taylor went with at least three of her seven husbands. Lyndon Johnson, then a senator, once dashed into one of the club’s phone booths to serenade Lady Bird with “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” And on the night in 1961 when the club lowered the curtain on its longtime location at 154 East 54th Street to move to bigger quarters two blocks east, its farewell party included Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, director Otto Preminger, Jack Lemmon, lyricist Jule Styne, and socialite Slim Keith. One party-goer spoke for the group: “Where will we go for the next 18 days?”
The place was less nightclub than nightly theater: its director, John Perona, an Italian immigrant with the natty looks of a young Maurice Chevalier and the rough edges of the pugilist he once was, held court while surreptitiously surveying every clinking glass and dancing couple. As syndicated columnist Lucius Beebe wrote in his introduction to El Morocco’s Family Album, a privately printed clothbound scrapbook of photos given to select customers in 1937, it was Perona “who discovered that the fanciest floor show imaginable to a chic and witty audience of New Yorkers is themselves. Not only were they fascinated with looking at each other, libeling each other conversationally and bowing to themselves in mirrors, they would pay fabulous sums to do it.”
What made El Morocco—and eventually unmade it—was its snobbish exclusivity, its ability to make its patrons feel that they were sitting in the midst of the most elegant spot on the planet, and had been handpicked to do so. And more important, everybody on the outside had not. Invites to the annual “egg nog party” Perona hosted on New Year’s Day were particularly sought after.
On the evening the club opened, in October 1931, its majordomo, Frank “Carino” Beccaris, stood at the door as the sounds of the orchestra’s melodies filtered onto the sidewalk—and turned every single customer away, explaining that the club was already full. In reality, the club was empty, but Carino’s trick worked; the following night El Morocco was packed, and it would remain so every night until the early 1960s. Within five years of its opening, it was referenced in the lyrics of a Cole Porter song, “Down in the Depths.” “It was the place,” says actor Robert Wagner. “It was on.”
El Morocco’s magic was a product not just of its starry guest list, but, as is the case with all great nightclubs, of the personalities who produced it, from Perona to Carino and his successor, Angelo Zuccotti, who became one of the most celebrated maître d’s in the history of New York, to photographer Jerome Zerbe, the peripatetic, bawdy outcast of Cleveland society who floated from table to table documenting the scene in pictures. “It was the only place in the world where someone could be photographed in a banquette, and once you saw it you knew exactly where it was,” Jimmy Mitchell, the club’s press agent in the 1960s, said of the zebra-striped booths, designed by Vernon MacFarlane.
Compared to the more buttoned-down environs of the Stork and its ilk, the El Morocco was fast and flashy, an Alfa Romeo Spider in a garage of Packards. It had a champagne room for private dining and two orchestras (one big band, the other Latin), which took seamless turns, so the music never stopped for more than a moment.
“It’s not that everyone danced so elegantly,” says Reinaldo Herrera, who as a young man once boldly sent a bouquet of violets to Vivien Leigh at an adjoining table. “It was that they had elegant music. You were dancing to ‘Night and Day,’ not ‘Fuck the Police.’”
Liz Smith, then a cub reporter for the famous Cholly Knickerbocker gossip column, found herself sitting ringside at the El Morocco almost every night starting in the late 1950s. In those days, the gossip columns gained access through flattery, which meant some of Elmo’s most scandalous tidbits were never printed. Like when Brazilian industrialist Francisco “Baby” Pignatari, playboys Porfirio Rubirosa and E. Haring “Red” Chandor, and actor Forrest Tucker would sneak off to the restroom to take stock of their legendary endowments. “They would go in there and place silver dollars on their erect cocks, and you would hear this hysterical laughter coming from the men’s room,” Smith, who died in 2017, told me. “I think Pignatari always won.”
Lucius Beebe referred to the club’s regulars as “the Parade of People Who Count.” But there was more than one way to count. “It was a first-class supper club. And the people were very, very mixed,” recalls former Broadway columnist Burt Boyar. “You would have the Duchess of Windsor and C. Z. Guest on a banquette, and right in front of them would be a couple of hookers and Bob Harrison, the publisher of Confidential magazine.”
Perona “discovered that the fanciest floor show imaginable to a chic and witty audience of New Yorkers is themselves.”
“I knew people who carried El Morocco matchbooks ostentatiously, just to be able to put a cigarette pack down on the table with that matchbook on top of it,” Boyar says. “Without saying, ‘I’ve been to El Morocco,’ they were showing off that they had.”
The Casting Director
John Perona was an unlikely choice for prince of the city. Born in the tiny Italian town of Ivrea, he left Italy at 15 to make his way in the world; if Zerbe’s version of events is to be believed (a big if: Zerbe was known to embellish), Perona lost track of time in the company of a young lady in England in 1912 and missed his voyage on the Titanic.
Perona worked in restaurants in London and Paris, as a ship’s mate, and as a boxer in Buenos Aires. Eventually he landed in New York, as a busboy at the old Knickerbocker Grill. He opened a small restaurant called Perona’s, which became an overnight smash when one of his old sparring partners, Luis Ángel Firpo, knocked out Jack Dempsey and told reporters he was going to celebrate at Perona’s, which had “the best food in town.” Soon the place was drawing Vanderbilts and Harrimans. Flo Ziegfeld came with his showgirls.
During Prohibition, Perona opened and ran speakeasies, including his Bath Club, and in 1931 found a skinny town house at 154 East 54th Street for a new one. He considered names such as the Sahara and the Sands but eventually settled on El Morocco. When Prohibition ended, the club quickly became a legitimate success due to its peppy music, splashy décor, and restrictive door policy. “The secret,” Perona said, according to The New York Times, “is being able to select and blend clientele like the ingredients of a fine sauce.”
Model Carmen Dell’Orefice grew up around the corner and, during her years appearing in the pages of Vogue, became a regular, showing up at the club on the arms of various unsavory characters, including Pat DiCicco, the mobster who married and roughed up 17-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt. Dell’Orefice later dated Perona’s son, Edwin, who took her for spins through the city in his Maserati. “The Stork Club was the white, WASP, Republican-American types,” she says. “El Morocco was truly an international cross-section of the world.”
“You had the people who were old names, girls having their debutante parties, as well as the playboys like Rubirosa—and they were as interesting to society as society was to them,” says the actor George Hamilton, who convinced his mother to let him have his 12th birthday party at the club. “It made for a fascinating mixture, which is the secret to any good party. El Morocco was cast.”
The casting director was Perona himself, who hosted various friends at his table nightly, his mannerisms always quick and frenetic, his clothes and jewelry tailored and impeccable. He had his portrait painted by Salvador Dalí, lived on a farm in New Jersey, and owned several foreign cars, often talking of his dream to organize an auto race through Central Park.
Perona’s lieutenants—first Carino, who worked at the club until the early 1950s, and then Angelo Zuccotti, who was just as imposing—were the men who really determined who was in and who was out. “Angelo always looked very elegant, like Prince Fabrizio in Il Gattopardo,” Taki says. “He just knew exactly who belonged, and where to put them.”
And also when to put them out. One night in 1954, socialite Denny Slater brought in one of the just-invented transistor radios, excitedly passing it around his banquette. “The man at the next table was Darryl Zanuck,” recalled Denny’s widow, Anne, who often hosted Ping-Pong tournaments back at her Fifth Avenue apartment for the likes of Errol Flynn and Fred Astaire after Elmo closed at four. “He called Carino over and said, ‘If that man doesn’t stop handing that little machine around, I am going to leave!’ And with that Carino said, ‘Albert, a check for Mr. Zanuck!’”
“It’s not that everyone danced so elegantly,” says Reinaldo Herrera. “It was that they had elegant music. You were dancing to ‘Night and Day,’ not ‘Fuck the Police.’”
While Carino and Zuccotti may have auditioned the nightly cast of characters, it was Zerbe who burnished the club’s continental pedigree through his glossy photographs, a feat that also catapulted him into roles as the society editor of Town & Country and the confidant of the city’s most powerful socialites.
Zerbe proved a decidedly mixed blessing for Perona: the grandson of a coal baron, he was a larger-than-life character (on his deathbed, he re-wrote his will, leaving everything to his male nurse) whose personal work included nude snapshots of several Hollywood leading men, including Clark Gable and Cary Grant. He was rumored to have bedded both Grant and Flynn, who was one of Perona’s closest friends.
Debonair and handsome, Zerbe favored Austrian jackets and threw rowdy parties for the Elmo crowd at his country home in Essex, Connecticut, where he would arrange the statuary in obscene poses. Zerbe also served as a sort of unofficial mayor of gay midcentury New York, often “sponsoring” freshly scrubbed young men who arrived in town to make it. “He was very promiscuous,” said Zerbe’s nephew, the journalist Jonathan Zerbe Larsen. “There were a lot of merchant marines who came and went.”
Perona, Zuccotti, and Zerbe “were hip beyond,” recalled Elaine Stritch, in an interview shortly before her death in 2014. “They knew the score, and they were full of delicious, wonderful bullshit. You felt like a king. The champagne was first class and ice cold, fizzy, just divine. You almost expected Dom Pérignon to come out of the faucet in the ladies’ room.”
What also made the club so successful was its sense of escape, the feeling that no matter what was happening outside—Hitler, Korea, the Cold War—inside, it was all glitter and Gershwin. While the occasional ruckus inevitably flared up, Perona took pains to make sure misbehaving customers were quickly shooed out the door. George Hamilton once watched two men brawling outside in the rain, a chauffeur helpfully holding an umbrella over them.
As Bogie learned, for those who dared to behave badly indoors, the price was steep. Zsa Zsa Gabor spat in Perona’s face one night after he had taken out her sister Eva and dared to deny her a new mink coat. “Until the day [Perona] died, Zsa Zsa was barred,” said press agent Jimmy Mitchell. “I can remember nights when she’d be in the car outside, and Rubirosa or Cary Grant would go to John and ask if they could bring her in, and he always said no. Only when Perona’s brother, Edwin, owned the club did they let her back in.”
The Ugly Side of Elmo
The El Morocco had the good fortune to enter its prime at a moment when café society was eager to forget the horrors and privations of World War II—to, in the lyrics of Jerry Herman, put on their Sunday clothes, strut down the street, and have their picture took. “It was still a time of romance, intrigue, and excitement,” says Dell’Orefice. “The war had ended, and people were ready to have some fun, to feel love and living again.”
Taki Theodoracopulos had arrived in New York in 1948 en route to boarding school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. “Remember, in Europe nobody made clothes for something like 10 years. Everything went to the war effort,” he says. “The first time my father took me to El Morocco, I had never seen such glamour. People dressed.” One night, a dozen different women came in wearing the same Chanel ensemble.
Invariably, the club’s patrons flocked to the right side of the room, while the left sat virtually unoccupied. Legend has it that on a long walk to her table one night, actress Peggy Joyce had barked at Carino, “Where the hell are you taking me to, Siberia?,” and it stuck.
“You almost expected Dom Pérignon to come out of the faucet in the ladies’ room,” Elaine Stritch recalled.
Not everyone shunned the left side. C. Z. Guest once came in and demanded to be seated there, “because she wanted to talk about somebody else,” Theodoracopulos recalls. Liz Smith said Cassini was always trying to park there, just to be mischievous, telling her, “We’ll sit over here and make this fashionable.” (They didn’t succeed.) Herrera says that one evening his father spied a friend sitting there and ambled over to chide him about it. “Having spent a lifetime in the tropics, I can spend 10 minutes in Siberia,” the gentleman replied.
But for most who found themselves exiled there, the experience exposed the ugly side of Elmo. That Black people were not part of the scene at the El Morocco—or the Stork, or the Harwyn, or any other of the city’s fashionable nightspots—was heinous but not unexpected in the mid–20th century. While the well-heeled felt free to take the A train to the jazz clubs of Harlem, the journey didn’t work in reverse. This became acutely apparent when someone Black and prominent showed up for a table.
Columnist Burt Boyar and his wife, Jane, had befriended Sammy Davis Jr. during the singer’s acclaimed run in the Broadway musical Mr. Wonderful in 1956. In the middle of the closing-night party, Davis turned to Boyar and said, “Let’s go to El Morocco.” Boyar suspected it was a bad idea: on a prior occasion he had tried, unsuccessfully, to make a reservation for Davis. Still, off they went.
As they walked in, the normally affable Angelo turned stony, escorting the trio across the room as patrons waved and the orchestra struck up a few notes from the Mr. Wonderful score. Taking his seat, Sammy was beaming. “Hey, this is O.K.,” he said, glancing around. Then he spied the look on Boyar’s face. “What’s wrong?”
“We’re on the wrong side of the room,” Boyar replied.
As Perona glared through the diamond-paned glass on the kitchen door, Davis nervously fidgeted with a pipe he wasn’t even smoking. “Let’s just order one drink and get out,” he said.
It wasn’t an isolated incident. Giorgio Masini, the club’s sommelier in the late 1960s, remembers Estée Lauder coming in one afternoon and placing on a table an envelope with a $1,000 tip for Angelo to guarantee her a booth. While he promised he would make sure she and her guests were treated well, he said he simply couldn’t give her the table she desired. That night, she, too, sat in Siberia. “She was Jewish,” Masini says. “There was a feeling if you had too many Jewish people, it wouldn’t feel exclusive.”
Racism, classism, and anti-Semitism did not cause El Morocco’s downfall directly, but they were part of what made the gilded club suddenly seem like such a relic. In 1961, Perona moved Elmo to a bigger space a few blocks east, just as a social revolution was starting to sweep the country.
A new club called the Peppermint Lounge had paragons of New York society dancing the Twist. Andy Warhol and self-invented superstars declared that celebrity was up for grabs. Out went live music, in came the D.J.’s. Nobody was dressing in black-tie and dancing to “Begin the Beguine” anymore.
Perona died shortly after opening the new El Morocco at 307 East 54th Street. Three years later, Edwin sold it to British nightlife impresario John Mills, who had owned Les Ambassadeurs, London’s answer to Elmo, only with gambling tables. Two years later Mills turned around and sold to Maurice Uchitel, then the owner of the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach.
While the well-heeled felt free to take the A train to the jazz clubs of Harlem, the journey didn’t work in reverse. This became acutely apparent when someone Black and prominent showed up for a table.
“In the end, it was Uchitel who screwed it up,” says Giorgio Masini, who worked for Uchitel from 1966 to 1969. “He was the one who had the least class.” Masini says Uchitel began switching the labels on inferior bottles of wine and liquor and buying cheaper cuts of meat. It didn’t go unnoticed. “If someone ordered Chivas Regal and you served them a cheap Canadian Club, he knew: ‘I don’t know what this is, but this is not what I drink,’” Masini says.
Aristotle Onassis still occasionally turned up, and then the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy, along with a smattering of society types such as Sonny and Marylou Whitney, Charlotte Ford and Stavros Niarchos, and Hope Hampton. Jimmy Mitchell kept the club alive in the gossip columns, but the crowds were dwindling. One night, Bob Hope came in, saw only five tables occupied, and turned around and walked out.
After the club closed in 1969 it would be periodically revived, or be the idle talk of a revival, for the next two decades, including a high-profile but ultimately aborted $2 million relaunch in 1987 by Indian sugar heiress Usha Singh.
Occasionally the El Morocco turns up in the popular culture—as the theme of the 2009 Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala, for example—though anyone hoping to catch a true glimmer of the old glamour has to settle for watching The Way We Were, where Barbra Streisand reconnects with Robert Redford in a (badly) re-created El Morocco during World War II. Or listen to Tito Puente’s jaunty Cha Cha Cha at El Morocco, recorded in the club in 1959.
A New York restaurant called Elmo, opened in 2001, claims to evoke the magic of the club. It doesn’t. There is actually a Club El Morocco in New York, zebra stripes and all, though it bears little (O.K., no) resemblance to its namesake. Located in the Bronx, it’s a thumping Latin disco with a loyal and heavily tattooed clientele. But it does have white palm trees.
“They spent money, but that wasn’t the purpose,” Maurice Uchitel’s granddaughter Rachel, who garnered her own fame (or infamy) as Tiger Woods’s mistress, says of the old El Morocco crowd. “It wasn’t for bottle service, or dancing on tables, or ‘Hopefully I’ll take a model home tonight.’ That wasn’t it. It was see and be seen, because that was the only place you wanted to go. It was for the experience.”
I ask her if she thinks people would, in a post-pandemic world, still come out all gussied up on a weekday to sit in a booth with a lampshade-topped candle on the table and dance to a 20-piece orchestra. “I want to believe they would,” she says. “But I don’t.”
“Today there is no romance, no mystique,” adds Dell’Orefice. “People don’t know how to use their imagination and extend a pleasure. They want dessert up front.”
I once asked Jimmy Mitchell if he thought someone could revive it—if there was still hope for another round at the El Morocco. “I don’t know, but I know it’s missed,” he said ruefully. “That way of life is missed.”
Michael Callahan is the author of The Night She Won Miss America