Hand Signals at The Stork Club

The Stork Club was a famous Manhattan night club that was founded by Oklahoma native and ex-bootlegger Sherman Billingsley (ed. note: amazing name), and operated continuously from 1929-1965. The NYC hot spot — which was located on 53rd Street near Fifth Avenue — was a destination for celebrities, artists, writers and wealthy people in general. You might remember The Stork Club from an appearance in the second season of Mad Men when Don and Betty infamously attended a party hosted by Jimmy Barrett.

While cruising through the LIFE archive, I found a mesmerizing series of images of Mr. Billingsley demonstrating his own brand of nightclub-code via hand gestures. The full set of images are below.

LIFE caption: Closeup of Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley w. hand on tie, one of his elaborate signals to his nearby assistant which means “No check for this table,” while sitting w. patrons over his usual Coca Cola, in the Cub Room.

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LIFE caption: Closeup of Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley pointing down, one of his signals to nearby assistant which means “Bring a round of drinks,” while sitting w. patrons over his usual Coca Cola, in the Cub Room.

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LIFE caption: Closeup of Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley w. palm up on table, one of his signals to nearby assistant which means “Bring a bottle of champagne,” while sitting w. patrons over his usual Coca Cola, in the Cub Room.

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LIFE caption: Closeup of Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley tugging at his pocket handkerchief, one of his signals to nearby assistant which means “Get them a bottle of perfume” (ranging fr. $7.50 to Chanel at $150) while sitting w. patrons over his usual Coca Cola, in the Cub Room.

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LIFE caption: Closeup of Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley w. hand to nose, one of his signals to nearby assistand which means “Not important people” or “Their check is no good.” while sitting w. patrons over his usual Coca Cola, in the Cub Room.

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LIFE caption: Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley (2R) flashing one of his eleborate signals (5-fingers spread out on L hand) to his assist. Gregory Pavilides meaning that music in the main dining room is too loud, as he chats w. patrons over a Coca Cola, in the Cub Room.

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LIFE caption: Closeup of Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley w. hands interlocked & thumb up, one of his elaborate signals to nearby assistants which means “Get them out & don’t let them in again” while sitting w. some annoying patrons over his usual Coca Cola.

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Comments on “Hand Signals at The Stork Club

    Fosteron March 2, 2009 @ 9:45 AM:

    Michael,
    This is my favorite ACL post hands down.
    Foster

    plaidouton March 2, 2009 @ 9:54 AM:

    Hilarious! Great find.

    JLon March 2, 2009 @ 9:57 AM:

    Definitely, this is great stuff!!

    Robon March 2, 2009 @ 9:57 AM:

    i feel bad for the assistant. they would have fared better as a 1st base coach for the Yankees w/ all those signals.

    great find and thanks for sharing

    samon March 2, 2009 @ 10:23 AM:

    awesome, but what happens when he rubs his nose by accident?

    Alphaon March 2, 2009 @ 10:26 AM:

    I use only one, universally understood, hand signal these days. :-)

    Steveon March 2, 2009 @ 11:32 AM:

    Greatness – thanks for sharing.

    Tomon March 2, 2009 @ 12:00 PM:

    A glimpse high snobriety. I love it.

    Ol' Sporton March 2, 2009 @ 12:00 PM:

    Makes me want to open…

    Ol' Sporton March 2, 2009 @ 12:00 PM:

    …a club. Great Post!

    bcarter3on March 2, 2009 @ 1:17 PM:

    For some strange reason, I suddenly have an urge to go buy a Coca Cola….

    ADGon March 2, 2009 @ 1:27 PM:

    There is a great biography of Billingsley and the Stork Club…can’t recall the exact title. His only surviving family member….his daughter…lives in Ridgewood,N.J.

    thesundaybeston March 2, 2009 @ 2:11 PM:

    Get these people out and never let them in again…if only I could flash that sign at work.

    joshuaon March 2, 2009 @ 2:41 PM:

    There was a great book that came out a few years ago detailing the rise and fall of the club. Fantastic book. Also, if you check out e-bay, you can find some killer original items from ash strays to the bottles of perfume Billingsley gifted.

    Robon March 2, 2009 @ 3:10 PM:

    I don’t get it — this is some kind of ad campaign by Pepsi right?

    The Standard Editionon March 2, 2009 @ 3:25 PM:

    Life prevails yet again…Good find.

    citizen wayneon March 2, 2009 @ 3:38 PM:

    P. Diddy and Fonzworth wished they would’ve had this system back in the day. Favorite post to date Michael.

    Dalon March 2, 2009 @ 3:41 PM:

    Great post. A good old Okie makin’ it in the Big Apple. Bootlegger. Great.

    componentsofenthusiasmon March 2, 2009 @ 6:23 PM:

    Very classic stuff, Micheael. Really enjoyed this one.

    JPon March 2, 2009 @ 10:25 PM:

    great stuff.

    Giannion March 3, 2009 @ 6:40 AM:

    Brilliant! I am turning my left palm up on the table for this one.

    Hesteron March 3, 2009 @ 10:02 AM:

    Aw… No pictures of the hand signals for “No Jews allowed” and “Don’t serve Josephine Baker”?

    joanna goddardon March 3, 2009 @ 10:04 AM:

    amazing. LOVE.

    Tone Lokion March 3, 2009 @ 10:09 AM:

    Perfect… The best thing I’ve read all week…

    Dolphin Hateron March 3, 2009 @ 1:11 PM:

    Reminds me of the Modern Drunkard Magazine’s take on (albeit more sarcastic) drunken sign language. This is infinitely more classy than “The SS me is going down, please don’t step on me”.

    Daveon March 3, 2009 @ 3:51 PM:

    Sherman Billingsley also was the uncle of Barbara Billingsley, who played the mother on Leave It To Beaver

    Andyon March 3, 2009 @ 3:56 PM:

    very ingenious…subtle yet effective

    Mandion March 4, 2009 @ 1:48 AM:

    I am just wondering why you mentioned “Coca-Cola” as many times as you did. Since it was outside the quotes, I assume it was you, and not part of the photo captions. If it was part of the captions, how much money did Life make off of that?

    Coolahanon March 4, 2009 @ 4:09 AM:

    Gives some inspiration that some things can actually spawn out of Oklahoma and can be represented well and remembered..

    Mike van Dikeon March 4, 2009 @ 6:24 AM:

    great link and another one for ‘ http://rulesformyunbornson.tumblr.com/page/1

    Joshon March 4, 2009 @ 3:08 PM:

    I just read a great article on the Stork Club (last article Damon Runyon ever wrote for publication) and it mentioned this very photoshoot. The assistant in this photo was fired because he became too famous as a result of the article and started mugging for other photos instead of actually keeping up with the hand signs. Additionally, Billingsly gave away something like $400,000/yr in gifts which he justified by never spending a dollar on traditional advertising

    clarissadallowayon March 4, 2009 @ 5:09 PM:

    Why would he give guests perfume? To be nice or because they smell?

    Andrewon March 4, 2009 @ 8:41 PM:

    What in the…
    I couldn’t quite possibly imagine myself working for him. With all those hand gestures I would’ve screwed up a long, long time ago.

    stumbleron March 10, 2009 @ 3:13 AM:

    wow. this is an amazing find for cultural anthropologists inside us all! woot

    Junioron April 19, 2009 @ 6:54 AM:

    Wow, what a great find. Really interesting and quite funny that he always has a Coke :)

    Readeron April 20, 2009 @ 5:32 PM:

    The Stork Club was a live TV show in the ’50’s. It was on every night and my parents and I used to watch it together.
    Sherman B. would go from table to table greeting and chatting with the special ones at selected tables. We’d see the waiters pour champagne and the ladies adjust their purple orchid corsages. Everyone was well dressed and charming (on the air).
    It was a slice of life as it was then and maybe still is in some circles.

    Eduardo Corrochioon June 26, 2009 @ 11:06 AM:

    What a douche.

    philip greaveson January 10, 2010 @ 7:54 AM:

    This is for Hester who implied that no Jews were allowed in the Stork Club. Many Jews patronized the club, just to name a few – Milton Berle, Al Jolson and Walter Winchell.

Comments are closed.