Vanity Fair, August 1915
A Little Tour of the Cabarets, by P. G. Wodehouse
THE other day, having business with the president of a certain trust company, I called at his office at noon, and was informed that he never arrived there before two o’clock. The reason, I learned, was that he spent the early hours of every morning at the cabarets. It seemed a peculiar way of carrying on a great business, but a few nights later I saw a sight which brought understanding to me. At a table at the Follies Roof, the hour being one-thirty a.m., I espied three extremely prominent and important powers of the financial world talking earnestly with their heads close together. They were paying no attention to anything except themselves, and it was obvious that what they were doing was fixing up some momentous deal for the ultimate spoliation of the widow and the orphan. Before they left to snatch an hour or so of sleep, they probably arranged all the details in such a way that the widow and the orphan will get theirs in a manner which will make them think a Zeppelin has dropped bombs on them.
That is the secret of the cabaret’s vogue. It has superseded the old-fashioned office. You know how it is with offices. You are just settling some scheme for doing a free people to the tune of a few million dollars, when there is a telephone call, or somebody drifts in and sits on your desk and begins to talk about himself, or you find the stenographer hiding behind the curtain, taking notes to sell to your rivals. Jesse James could not have worked under such conditions. Financiers had to think out some other place of meeting, and the idea of the cabarets struck them at once. A cabaret is the ideal place for plotting. If there had been cabarets in Guy Fawkes’ days, the English Houses of Parliament would have gone up so high that they wouldn’t yet have come down.
Statistics show that the patrons of cabarets are divided almost equally into visitors from the Middle West, young girls being lured, and bulbous millionaires trying to think up schemes for inculcating thrift and prudence into a too speculative public.
The financier fox-trots round the floor, his brow creased with thought. He is bumped into by another financier, who has not yet completed his course of lessons at the correspondence school of modern dancing. It gives him the idea he has been seeking since dinner. When the music stops, he goes over to the other man’s table.
“Say, listen, Jimmy, old man, just a minute. I’ve got an idea.”
And then they sell each other the Pennsylvania Railroad.
ON no other reasoning is it possible to explain why the cabarets are so popular. It is absurd to suppose that crowds flock to these places every night simply to watch Diamond Jim Brady doing the one-step. At any theatre they could see professional dancers who do it quite as well. I have a respect amounting to veneration for Mr. Brady, but I prefer him seated. And, as for the other so-called attractions of the cabaret, they are non-existent. They consist for the most part of vocalists who sing very loudly in a key different from that in which the French horn in the orchestra is wailing, and chorus-girls doing Swedish exercises at your elbow in a manner that on a warm evening engenders intense sympathetic fatigue—a vicarious perspiration, as it were,—in the onlooker. Surely it is not for the sake of these things that men leave their comfortable homes.
No, the cabaret is the modern office, and I suppose it is with a sense of what is fitting to the dignity of business that men go to them dressed in business suits. One of these nights somebody will attend a cabaret in evening dress and there will be a riot.
And yet, from one point of view, it seems a pity, this rigid adherence to the costume of the day-time. To my mind, a visitor to a cabaret assumes a certain responsibility. The moment he enters the door, he becomes part of a spectacle, and it is his duty to make that spectacle as attractive as possible. Despite the undercurrent of stern business, a cabaret is supposed to be a place of wild revelry, a sort of last-act-of-a-musical-comedy place. It is not fair to come there looking like an advertisement of somebody’s Bon Ton ready-made suitings for the dressy shipping-clerk at fourteen dollars a throw. Let us have a little display, a certain air. Let us exhume the old dinner jacket, shake the moth-balls from the dress trousers, and throw out our chests as if we were someone. Let us cultivate that sleek appearance and that look of haughty aloofness which make the London night-clubs so fascinating. To enter a London night-club is to feel that one is on probation. The exquisitely groomed young man who stares at you so superciliously may be a clerk, but he looks like the son of a duke, and, if you pass his scrutiny with success, you feel prouder of yourself: you feel that you must be quite a fellow after all. But you may go to a cabaret here in tweeds and brown shoes, and nobody cares. It is democratic, but it is not suitable. After all, people who go to cabarets want to be thought wicked, and you cannot be really wicked except in evening dress. A wicked man in evening dress is a polished villain. In tweeds he is just a plug-ugly.
I HAVE a friend who would go even farther in this matter of cabaret reform. He would have a censor appointed, whose duty it would be to stand at the door of entry and pass upon the personal appearance of would-be patrons, rejecting all who did not in his opinion increase or at least maintain a definite standard of ornamentality. It is a Utopian idea, but there is something in it. At present anyone may come in, no matter how homely, and there are few more painful sights than that of a little stout man in tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses pirouetting anxiously round the room. A morbidly sentimental legislature will not permit you to shoot him, and there is nothing to be done except to sit there and watch him.
It is a good idea, this of the censor, and I think that in the end the existence of such an official would increase the profits of the management. It is a factor in human nature that we push and jostle to get into places from which anyone is trying to exclude us. Adam and Eve probably thought Eden rather dull till they were outside it, but after that Eve would have traded every fig-leaf in her trousseau for a pass-ticket or a rain-check. So, with the cabaret. If it could be made difficult to get in, there would be long waiting-lines outside the doors every night. And what a cachet admission would carry with it. Mankind would be divided into definite classes. There would be the Adonis who could get in anywhere, and, starting from him, various downgrades. The girl whose fiancé belonged to the first class would not be obliged to boost the young man’s looks. She would triumph automatically over girls engaged to men who were allowed inside, say, Castles In The Air and Reisenweber’s, but were barred from the Follies.
Failing a censor, there seems nothing to be done but to leave it to the good taste and public spirit of the individual.
Cabarets are divided into various groups,—those where the food is bad and those where the food is unspeakable: those where the waiters are civil and those which are doing good business: those where the performers perform without introduction and those which offer what they call revues, with elaborately printed programmes. There is no word of spoken dialogue in these revues. They consist of a series of songs and dances, with twenty minute intermissions to enable to audience to enjoy itself. It is only fair to say that they do not interfere very much with one’s pleasure.
AS far as it is possible to ascertain from a somewhat restricted experience, the chief trouble with the cabarets is that there are only enough really smart people in New York to make up one good audience. If you can hit on the particular cabaret which these people are patronizing on any particular night, you will have an interesting and stimulating time. The difficulty is to do it.
In general practice it works out that if, having heard that Frolics in the Twentieth Story is the place to go to, you repair thither in search of the gay life, you find it deserted except for a few drug-store assistants and a sprinkling of citizens from some Omaha center, and learn too late that, since the previous week, Fashion has deserted Frolics in the Twentieth Story and that the only cabaret in town worth visiting is Reigelheimer’s. You get a hasty shave and dash off to Reigelheimer’s, and find that there has been another shake-up, and that Mosenweber’s is now the one spot. New York is so restless, so fond of change, and the Broadway palace of today is the hovel of tomorrow. The only thing to do in order to beat the game is to stick to one cabaret and wait there till its popularity comes round again.
As I write this, everybody is going to the Cascades above the Biltmore, but, by the time my words are in print, Fashion will probably have whizzed off to some spot at present not on the map of the Great White Way, say the Blue Bird, on top of the McAlpine—and the Cascades will possess only the melancholy interest of Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain, which got its write-up from Oliver Goldsmith simply through being deserted.
I have a kind and sympathetic heart, but I weep few tears when I find a cabaret doing bad business. I look on the cabarets as the Federal League of Broadway life. Everything was getting along quite nicely till they came along, promising the public rich rewards if they would desert the good old hotels at which they were wont to sup,—the Sherrys, the Delmonicos, the Knickerbockers.
ONE of these days I am going to start a cabaret myself,—without music, without singers, where dancing is forbidden and nobody is allowed to speak. My patrons will sit around in comfortable chairs, doing nothing but relax. Those who can think will be allowed to think, but these will form a small proportion of my clientele. I shall provide no attractions; I shall do a better thing than that—I shall protect people from attractions. In six months I shall retire with a fortune, leaving the field to imitators who will have discovered that the Something New which this city wants is Rest.
Follies on the Roof, Castles In The Air, Reisenweber’s, and Cascades above the Biltmore were real New York night spots. The McAlpin Hotel (not McAlpine) had a Blue Bird Room adjoining its roof garden. Wodehouse used the fictional name Reigelheimer’s again in “The Aunt and the Sluggard” and Uneasy Money.
Oliver Goldsmith’s poem about Sweet Auburn is “The Deserted Village.”
Wodehouse’s idea of regulating admission to a cabaret on the basis of appearance anticipated the famous “velvet rope” at New York’s Studio 54 by over six decades, but one doubts that its atmosphere of disco, cocaine, and glitter would have pleased him.
—Notes by Neil Midkiff