Today’s installment of the Points Interview is the ninth of the series and, as ever, we’re grateful to find so many authors willing to discuss their work in this forum. That’s certainly true of entry #9–Burton Peretti, talking about his book Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhattan (paperback edition, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). Interested readers can see the table of contents and an excerpt of the book here.
Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.
Manhattan nightclubs in the 1920s were places your mother wouldn’t want you to go. They were frightfully expensive. Prostitutes and gangsters often worked in them. If you bought liquor in the clubs, you were breaking the law. If you were there during a Prohibition raid, you would be arrested. Governments at the city, state, and local level tried to stop the spread of nightclubs, and then they tried to regulate them in various ways. Do-gooder reform groups got into the act, too. Only the Great Depression killed off most Manhattan nightclubs, though. When the clubs revived later in the 1930s, they were tamer places. Liquor was now legal again and carefully regulated, and clubs catered to the middle class and conventioneer clientele. The new clubs paved the way for the mostly innocuous family entertainment found in the suburbs after World War II.
What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
The nightclub began as a retail outlet for illegal liquor (by the drink) during Prohibition. The entire concept was intended to lure high-spending violators of the Volstead Act, and it was wildly successful. Nightclubs and speakeasies also corrupted the police force, which took protection money to look the other way, illustrating the harmful general effect of Prohibition on official morality. The clubs (along with other kinds of speakeasies) also encouraged heavy and reckless drinking among the wealthy and middle classes. The revival of clubs after the worst years of the Great Depression led to heavy regulation of the liquor trade, but also to more self-regulation by customers. Narcotics were less prevalent, but they became a new field of investment for enterprising gangsters in the late 1920s who had earlier been involved in liquor. Drugs also played a heavy role in increasing crime in black Harlem, where the city largely allowed the trade to flourish. This hazard contributed to the severe decline in nightclubs and in white “slumming” in Harlem.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
I thought the intersection of leisure and politics and government was the most interesting aspect. Nightclubs, along with the sexual openness, prostitution, and drinking that surrounded them, quickly became a part of civic life. Reform groups and government officials became aware of nightclubs and folded them into their agendas. Then, of course, their efforts to regulate the clubs led to all kinds of unintended results.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone from Nightclub City are you most curious to see turned over soon?
I was unable to find many reminiscences of nightclub customers. I would have loved to have included more first-person recollections of people going into clubs, interacting with each other, etc. That was the missing piece in the book, I think.
BONUS QUESTION: It’s too soon to give up on the idea that Ken Burns makes a documentary of your book–who would you like to hear provide the narration?
Susan Sarandon. I met her when we appeared together recently on the genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? Besides having a great voice, Saradon would be ideal because we shot our segment in a former speakeasy. We discussed her grandmother, who worked in the 1930s and 1940s as a nightclub hostess. Grandma was a bigamist, too, but that’s another story…
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.