Marilyn and the Gilded Age of El Morocco

The DiMaggios at El Morocco in 1954

The El Morocco (or ‘Elmo,’ as regulars called it) was one of New York’s most fashionable nightspots. Marilyn visited on several occasions, beginning in August 1951 when she was spotted with movie mogul Joe Schenck. She returned in 1954 with Joe DiMaggio, and danced there with Truman Capote a year later. The venue even had an in-house photographer, Jerome Zerbe. But for all its jet-set glamour, El Morocco was also an elitist (and racist) clique that froze out even Sammy Davis Jnr.

Marilyn with Joe Schenck in 1951

On the Airmail website, Michael Callahan has penned a history of East 54th Street’s bygone celebrity haunt (and you can read more about Marilyn’s El Morocco days here.)

Dining with Milton Greene in 1954 (left); and dancing with Truman Capote in 1955 (right)

“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 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.

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 … ‘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.

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 … ‘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.’

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.

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, John 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.

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.”

With songwriter Harold Arlen in 1955 (top) and with columnist Leonard Lyons and husband Arthur Miller in 1957 (bottom)