A visit to little ole New York
Looking out at the MetLife building (built in 1909) from the doorstep of The Players Club. 8:00 PM. Photo: JH.

Tuesday was a beautiful early spring day in New York, chilly and mild and lots of sunshine.

History/Memories: There was a big AMFAR benefit at Cipriani Wall Street and we intended to get down there to get some shots of the glamorous and distinguished guests. But we got distracted by our first stop at the Players Club where there was a book party for Joan Kanel Slomanson and her “When Everybody Ate at Shrafft’s.”

The Players Club is at 16 Gramercy Park South, right next door to the National Arts Club. Both enormous brownstones were occupied a little more than a century ago by two very famous New Yorkers. The National Arts Club, number 15, was the home of Samuel Tilden, the man who won the popular national election for the Presidency in 1876 by a quarter million votes but lost the electoral vote to Rutherford B. Hayes. And the house right next door was owned by Edwin Booth one of the most famous American actors of his age and brother of John Wilkes Booth the Lincoln assassin.

Frank Shattuck and Joan Canel Slomanson. Click image to order When Everybody Ate at Schrafft's.

The original house was built before 1846. Booth bought it in the 1880s and had Stanford White transform it into a clubhouse. Booth lived out his final years there and died in the house in 1893. His rooms on the third floor remains exactly as they were on the day he died (at 59). Many of Booth’s costumes and masks can be found today on display in the main room. Also on the third floor is his death mask which was made by John Rogers. On the same shelf is a Rogers death mask of the actress Ellen Terry.

The club has had a distinguished roster of Presidents and members including Edwin Booth, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), John Barrymore, Eugene O'Neill, José Ferrer, Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, Helen Hayes, James Earl Jones, Kevin Kline, Walter Cronkite, Jane Pauley, and Tommy Lee Jones.

A popular spot is also the table where Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) shot pool with other early members of the club. This is located near the Grille on the ground level. In one corner of the room is the "Sarah Bernhardt Room", a tiny elevator where the Divine One was once entrapped for almost an hour, while visiting the club in 1911.

It’s a very old fashioned place conjuring up the era of Edwin Booth and Mark Twain very easily. Entering the spacious and elegant house last night at about 7 o’clock, there were the redolent old fashioned aromas of dinner filling the first floor rooms, and a crowd of people congregating into a single line holding dinner plates for the buffet. The bill of fare was a selection of dishes from the original Schrafft’s menu.

JH, who is a born and bred New Yorker, never heard of Schrafft's. He was born in the mid-70s, by which time the chain was pretty much gone from city. But for about a half century before that, Schrafft’s graced the city with dozens of its famous tea room/diningroom restaurants where ladies went to lunch wearing hats and gloves, where mothers and nannies took small children for the “treat” of an ice cream sundae; where businessmen lined up at lunchtime for a place at the counter or for cocktail hours after five when offices would empty out and people stopped by on their way home.

It was a restaurant era which went the way of the hat and the gloves. Schrafft’s was a chain but it was a class act. Men were not admitted without a jacket – although the management had an extra one available in a pinch. It had started out as a candy manufacturer in Boston, purchased by an enterprising man named Frank Shattuck. Branching out, he put the candy and ice cream in the restaurants.

Everybody went to Schrafft’s. Kirk Douglas as a young struggling actor worked as a waiter in a Schrafft’s. Movie stars, politicians, even Presidents (Truman) stopped into Schrafft’s. Truman Capote got thrown out of Schrafft’s (more than once) for being a nuisance to the clientele (joking around irreverently and laughing too loudly). James Beard admired “the precisely trimmed egg salad sandwiches. Mary McCarthy ate them. E.L. Doctorow’s character “Billy Bathgate” ordered the crustless chicken sandwiches at a Schrafft’s where he and his mother joined “all the fine people in the Bronx.” Authors often placed their characters in Schrafft’s, and often noting the specific choices on the menu because those were famously delectable to millions of New Yorkers and out-of-town visitors.

When I was a young man in New York, there was a Schrafft’s somewhere around Madison Avenue in the low 50s. Several times when I passed by in mid-afternoon, I would see a a beautiful, yet somewhat sad looking woman, probably in her mid-forties, her brown hair elegantly pinned up, sitting by herself at a table by a window with a cup of tea, gazing out as if lost in reverie. It was an arresting sight; it had so many of the qualities of an Edward Hopper painting – everything that is the Big City – beautiful, sophisticated, knowing, and yet an aloneness to the point of oblivion.

I later learned that the woman I’d seen, this subject of my writer’s conjecturing, was the wife of Harold Arlen, the great American composer (among other things: the score of “The Wizard Of Oz”). Mrs. Arlen, it turned out, had long bouts of depression and mental illness. Schrafft’s was a haven for her. As it no doubt was for so many New Yorkers.

Clockwise from top left: Cocktail hour at Schrafft's; The morning inspection of the waitresses uniforms; A rare remaining Schrafft's building on East 79th Street, now a used furniture store; Schrafft's on West 57th Street.

It was a place where working people could go for any of the three meals, have something adequate and tasty and sometimes very imaginatively simple such as a “sardine, Spanish onion and tomato Open Rye Bread sandwich.” Or a “Banana Omelet with Bacon Curls.” Or “Crabmeat and Noodles Au Gratin.” Or one of those famous ice cream sundaes. There was an air of formality, of decorum that provided even the average customer with a hint of élan. It also provided a sense of home. Liz Smith recalls going to Schrafft’s for its “WASPy, homey comfort food….When I became homesick for Texas I would go to Schrafft’s and make myself feel better….I guess we didn’t deserve Schrafft’s; fate seems to have taken it away.”

A young Jackie Bouvier went there after school with her schoolmates, for ice cream. A newcomer to the city, Helen Gurley Brown knew that “eating at Schrafft’s was as New York as climbing to the top of the Empire State Building.

Started by Mr. Shattuck in the early 1920s, by 1950, there were more than 50 Schrafft’s in all five New York boroughs. There were also Schrafft’s in Boston, Philadelphia, Syracuse, Newark, White Plains and New Rochelle. It was one of the first companies to hire women as managers. They had a profit-sharing for at one point was 7700 employees. Many stayed because of that – 25 years, even 50 years. They even had pregnancy benefits for expectant employees. Christmas Day, 1933, they served a special five-course Christmas Dinner for what was a very healthy price: $1.25.

Schrafft's at 61 Fifth Avenue

Mrs. Slomanson’s book has a lot of the recipes with the dates of their creation. “Corned Beef and Cabbage with Boiled Potato” (1961). “Cheese Puffs” (1940, re-written 1960). “Orange-Apricot-Pecan Coffee Cake,” “Chicken Liver Saute on Toast” (1927).

There was a crowd for the fond memories of Schrafft’s last night at the Players Club, a sold out dinner of Schrafft’s dishes. Meanwhile, intending to leave to head downtown to the AMFAR benefit, we were distracted with a tour of the house, its walls covering all kinds of artwork, mainly theatrical -- watercolors of past presidents, a Norman Rockwell portrait, John Singer Sargent portraits, illustrations of James Montgomery Flagg (a wonderful charcoal portrait of Rosalind Russell by him), oil portraits of many of the club’s earliest members, as well as photographic portraits of those members (including Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman), Booth, John Drew, and Mark Twain.

Before we knew it, the guests had all gone into dinner and JH was busy taking in the house/club and the neighborhood with his Digital. A look-at-New York night, it was. And we never got downtown.

The ground floor reception at The Players Club
Portraits of famous actresses on the staircase including Rosalind Russell (center) and Ethel Barrymore (right)
Clockwise from top left: Portraits of Katharine Hepburn and Bea Lillie; John Drew, Samuel Clemens, and Edwin Booth (top left 3) among the first board of directors of The Players Club; Descending the staircase.
Clockwise from top left: Two scenes from the library; The table of head shots of famous actresses of the late 19th/early 20th century; The Players logo painted on a Tiffany window.
Clockwise from top left: Looking down from the 4th floor; A portrait of the Divine Miss Sarah in her robe in the elevator in which she was trapped for several hours in 1911; The billiard table in the Grill room.
The card table in the card room
The bottom of the stairwell
The Ladies (top) and Gents rooms.
The Players Club from across the street

March 29, 2006, Volume VI, Number 52
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch/NYSD.com


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© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/NewYorkSocialDiary.com