Good god almighty, I have found home. It’s the summer of 1949, the war is long over and it’s time to loosen up, booze it up and celebrate in New York’s consummate gentleman’s saloon, Toots Shor’s. Here at 51 West 51st Street, our big, boisterous host slaps me on the back and offers his favorite slogan: “Any crum-bum what can’t get plastered by midnight just ain’t tryin’.”
As a journalist for one of the NYC dailies—sans the internet and before the ubiquity of television—my byline offers a renown in the city that equates celebrity. And since I work just down the street, like most of my comrades, I slip out before deadline for a martini or two, just to help the words flow, enjoying a smoke or two at the round bar in the center of the joint. After meeting deadline, it’s back to Toots for the evening round.
Shor is entertaining his best friend Jackie Gleason—who spends the day here imbibing, goes home and takes a nap, then returns for the night shift—along with the typical mix of celebrities and athletes: Bob Hope, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway, Mickey Mantle… and Frank Costello, head of the New York mob, tipping his glass to Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Hey, there’s President Truman enjoying a scotch (visitors over the years also include Presidents Nixon, Johnson and Eisenhower). Although we don’t talk about it, wives and gal pals are not so welcome here at Toots. This is a man’s world, though it’s nice to see my girl Judy Garland sharing swill with Marilyn Monroe.
Toots Shor’s Restaurant opened in 1940, and was an instant smash success, ruling for two decades as the home-away-from-home lounge for many of the nation’s most famous lushes and mirroring the excitement that was New York during the era.
You could also eat here, in the vast back room. On the menu, there’s such fancy fare as sauteed frog legs ($4.95), English sole ($4.10), calf’s liver ($4.50), cornish game hen ($3.95), Maine lobster ($7.25), yankee pot roast ($3.95) and duckling ($4.75). But really, why bother, with such a generous pour at the bar?
Sadly, our heyday at Toots, like all good things, won’t last forever. In 1959, Shor sold the lease for his 51st Street restaurant for $1.5 million to a real estate developer. The following year, he opened at a new location at 33 West 52nd Street, which never gained the following of the original, as social moors changed (devolved?). Meanwhile, celebrity culture became untouchable, athletes starting making obscene amounts of money for hitting a ball and the two-martini lunch was suddenly frowned upon.
Oh, how very sad. And we say that modern culture is more advanced? Life 60 years ago sounds like it was much more focused on living in the moment. Looser. More fun. Ribald. Today, one can’t even light a cigarette in the middle of Times Square. Progress? Hardly.
In 1971, as New York began its own wicked decline, the doors of Toots’ 52nd Street restaurant were padlocked for nonpayment of taxes totaling $269,516. Feds offered him a free ride if he would squeal on some of his more infamous clientele. But the loyal Shor refused, and shuttered his struggling eatery. While he had lived for many years in a 12-room brownstone at 480 Park Avenue with his wife, Baby, and their three children, he died at age 73 in poverty at the Drake Hotel.
Fortunately, Toots Shor lives on, via a brilliant documentary helmed by his granddaughter, which features dozens of original interviews, archival footage and oral history, weaving in the social, cultural and political forces that helped to build his New York empire. I watched the doc over the weekend and was ashamed that I had never heard of Toots. But now, after devouring some four dozen web sites about the man and his regime and studying every picture on the web, I feel like we’re old friends. I’ll drink to that. The former site of the original Toots Shor’s Restaurant today, marked with a plaque.