Sunday, October 2, 2011

Nucky at Babetts

Nucky Johnson, in his later years. After getting out of prison, Nucky couldn't resume his leadership of Atlantic City because his protege "Hap" Farley had taken over. Nucky was now just an ordinary citizen who walked the boardwalk and around the town that he once owned.

Nucky often patronized Babette's, one of the most popular nightclubs and gambling joints in Atlantic City during its heyday.

Babette's had a bar shaped like a ship and catered to a high class guests who often dressed in their finest. Guests could also find some action at Babette's backroom card tables.

Babette's was owned by Daniel Stebbins and was initially called the Golden Inn, however he changed its name to Babette's after he married Blanche Babbett, a showgirl.

BABETTE’S - 2221 Pacific Avenue

Babette’s, the place in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire where most of the serious partying takes place, was one of the most stylish clubs in Atlantic City’s heyday, and located at 2221 Pacific near Mississippi Avenue.

Nelson Johnson, in The Boardwalk Empire (Plexus Publishing, NJ, 2002), only mentions Babette’s once: “Those nightclubs/casinos, which flourished under Nucky’s regime were the 500 Club, Paradise Club, Club Harlem, (Grace’s) Little Belmont, the Bath and Turf Club, the Cliquot Club, and Babette’s, which was one of the most chic gambling casinos of that era, attracting patrons from around the country.” He quotes a former patron as saying, “Only the very best people went to Babette’s. They had the best steaks and mixed drinks in town, and great entertainment.”

Babette’s was owned by Dan Stebbins and his wife Blanche Babette, a showgirl who became a wealthy and prominent member of Atlantic City society.

In The Last Good Time (Three Rivers, 2003) Jonathan Van Meter wrote about the federal investigation of flagrant gambling in Atlantic City: “From their initial undercover investigation, which lasted months, they (Bureau of Internal Revenue) determined that there were approximately twenty-five horse race-betting rooms and gambling casinos in Atlantic City employing more than five hundred to seven hundred people, and they were raking in about $8 million a year.”

“The report went on to distinguish the ‘horse-rooms’ from the ‘gambling casinos.’ The casinos were generally connected to nightclubs which acted as ‘feeders’ for the gambling rooms. For example, the Paradise Club, the Club Harlem, Babette’s, Grace’s Little Belmont, the Bath & Turf Club, the Clicquot Club, were all typical nightclubs with bar, restaurant and cabaret entertainment, but in the back of each was a gambling room containing all forms of games, such as roulette wheels, craps tables, poker, black-jack games, ‘bird cage,’ and in most instances, horse-race betting as well. The nightclubs were well known and widely advertised establishments which employed high-price orchestras and Broadway or Hollywood stars as entertainers.”

Babette’s may have been the scene of Nucky Johnson’s downfall when began a personal feud with newspaper baron William Randolph Hurst. According to Jonathan Van Meter, “Back in 1921, on the evening after that first Inter-City Beauty Contest, Nucky Johnson inadvertently planted the seeds of his own destruction. He had arranged for showgirls from Follies Bergere, George White’s Scandals, and Earl Carrol’s Vanities to parade down the Boardwalk. He also paid for a fancy costume for the ‘Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,’ Evelyn Nesbit, to wear in the parade, but she got drunk on gin and fell off her float, right into a pile of horse dung. Nucky kicked her out of Atlantic City that very day.”

“Later that night he invited the girls – minus Nesbit – back to a party at his suite at the Ritz to entertain visiting dignitaries and local bigwigs,” says Van Meter but, “There are several versions of what happens next, but they all end the same. Nucky Johnson insulted actress Marion Davies, who was the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, by calling her a ‘tramp’ among other ‘vicious’ things. Some versions of the story have it that it happened at the Ritz, where Marion was in a suite just down the hall, having a party of her own that same night. Other versions maintain that Hearst was with Davis in Atlantic City and that words were exchanged among the three of them at Babette’s Yacht Bar, one of Nucky’s favorite hangouts famous for its ship-shaped bar.”

As Van Meter explains, “In any event, Nucky had made a powerful and vindictive enemy out of someone who under any other circumstances would have been happy to be his crony. Nucky later said of Hearst and Davis, ‘He’s a windbag who a dumb broad has played for a sucker.’ Hearst was not the kind of man you wanted to upset, as he was not above using his newspapers to destroy perceived enemies. At Hearst’s behest, the New York Evening Journal began a campaign against Johnson that reached a crescendo in 1929, shortly after the underworld conference.”

It was Hurst who manufactured the bogus composite photo of Nucky Johnson walking down the Atlantic City boardwalk with Al Capone and Meyer Lansky. While all three men were in town and me together, the photo was made by putting two or three unrelated photos together to make it appear they were walking together.

And it was the continuing newspaper reports of the gambling and vice in Atlantic City that forced the federal and state governments to crack down on such illegal activities.

Later on, when the 500 Club was raided, among those arrested in the backroom gambling den was a mobster said to have botched an attempt to kill Barbette’s owner Dan Stebbins.

NEXT UP: LIVE AT THE FIVE - Atlantic City's 500 Club.

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