Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Mysterious Life of a Deco Handbag - The Stork Club & The Velvet Hammer

The holidays have come and gone and it feels as if I have been around the world and back, a whirlwind of art and fashion.

For Christmas I received the most fantastic vintage handbag! It is a 1930s black velvet and wrought metal pagoda-shaped birdcage bag, a wonder of Art Deco ingenuity, absolutely genius! 

When I opened the latch on the handbag and tilted the top open, it revealed a snow white silk interior, a tufted and mysterious box as luxurious and foreign as the glovebox of a Rolls Royce Phantom. 

When I reached my excited and curious hand inside of the bag, I felt something resting on the bottom. I felt around and pulled out a business card. As crisp and white as the silk lining, this business card was printed elegantly with a refined font in stark black ink. The text simply read "Sherman Billingsley - Private Rooms - Stork Club". Below is a photograph of Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley sitting at his favorite table at the Stork Club.

The Stork Club and El Morocco were the hot spots in New York City for celebrities, politicians, the literati and notorious gangsters from the 1930s to the early 1960s.

When I looked at this business card, my mind began racing. What were the historical implications of this card being in this bag? What was its provenance? Who originally owned this bag? Were they a celebrity, a grand dame of cafe society? What sort of life did this handbag lead from then until now? What scenes was this refined bag witness to? Surely it was carried on the gloved wrist of a lady out to enjoy a fine dinner with a dashingly handsome gentleman. It would have been casually placed next to a crystal flute of champagne just in reach to be taken to powder one's nose. 

Below is a photo by famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt of the glamorous ladies within the Stork Club's powder room.

Was the owner of this handbag a showgirl seduced by a B-level film star or an heiress slumming with her Latin dance instructor? Was the bag gently placed on the bedside table or thrown on the floor in the midst of passion, a silent witness to all manner of debauchery? 

Was this handbag carried by the striking actress Yvonne Printemps, star of the Folies Bergère? She is photographed below by the great photographer Horst in 1934 for Vanity Fair in a fantastic ensemble as worn by her character in the Broadway production of the Noël Coward play "Conversation Piece".

Could my bag have been in the possession of Millicent Rogers, the Standard Oil heiress, fashion icon and great champion of Native American art? When this handbag was new, she was married to an American stockbroker. She is photographed below in 1938 also by Horst. 

Could the charming and talented Frances Langford, radio star, singer and actress have carried this handbag to a celebratory cast party held at the Stork Club, setting the bag down only to break into a rapturous rendition of her signature song "In the Mood for Love"?

Below is a wonderful image taken of Langford by the photographer C.S. Bull in 1936. What an absolutely gorgeous dress!

Wouldn't it be fun if the handbag belonged to the adorable Chilli Williams, better known as "The Polka-Dot Girl" of World War II, famous as the pinup girl in a polka-dot bikini? She is photographed below in the 1940s, not in a polka-dot bikini, but with a magnificent headdress.

Perhaps the bag was worn on the arm of the great actress Bebe Daniels, who made an amazing 230 films. Under contract to Warner Brothers, she certainly would have dined alongside other up-and-comers and contract players at the Stork Club. Here she is in the 1930s photographed also donning an amazing feathered headdress, but with the ultimate dinner date, a live cheetah!

Wouldn't it be brilliant if Bette Davis herself had owned this handbag? She was also under contract at Warner Brothers at the same time and favored very dramatic clothing for nights out on the town. This bag would have been the perfect finishing touch for this amazingly chic outfit she wears in the photograph below. 

Speaking of cheetah, the gorgeous model Babs Beckwith would have looked divine with this handbag, perfect for carrying just the right shade of blood red lipstick.

This bag would have been absolutely perfect carried by the great Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. I can see her strolling the back streets swinging this Chinoiserie bag by her side in Josef von Sternberg's "Shanghai Express". 

I would like to imagine that the original owner of my beloved handbag had been the actress Myrna Loy, co-star of the great "Thin Man" films, where she played the beautiful, stylish and often hilarious Nora Charles. Myrna Loy had a kindness of spirit that radiated out of her face, making her one of the Silver Screen's most beautiful stars. Below are two photos of Loy, one with a very inventive hairstyle and the other with her looking amazing, a perfect portrait.

In closing, in honor of the great dinner clubs of yesteryear and the glamour of their patrons, we have a take on the classic chocolaty cocktail, "The Velvet Hammer".

Cocktail of the Week: "The Velvet Hammer" 

serves two

1 oz Crème de Cacao 
1 oz Tia Maria Coffee Liqueur
2 oz Vodka
4 oz Cream

2 chilled martini glasses

combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker
shake with ice and strain into martini glasses
serve and enjoy