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Cowriter Carl Arnold and I were privileged to meet Barney Josephson at the site of his last club, The Cookery, on University Place in Manhattan, and interview him shortly before his death. He regaled us with anecdotes of his creation of Café Society, “the first integrated nightclub in America, outside of Harlem.” Barney told us that director Otto Preminger planned to develop a feature film of his story, but they had a falling out. He had taped an extenscafe.htmive oral history, not yet published, which his widow Terry Trilling Josephson wrote as a “posthumous autobiography.” It is a wonderful work. We have also interviewed several others from the era, most recently Madeline Gilford, widow of Jack Gilford, the first MC at Barney’s original Greenwich Village basement location. — John Byrd 

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F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover and "close associate" Clyde Tolson open a file on one   Leon Josephson, recently excommunicated from the American Communist Party due to   his unsanctioned participation in an attempt to assassinate Hitler during his early rise to power in 1933.   Hoover brands Leon a subversive, a Jewish lawyer and activist who defends causes that are counter to the established social order. Leon backed union organizers and defended striking laborers...and now he and his associates were financing a radical new night club in New York's Greenwich Village, a cabaret that would feature jazz music, social satire, and integration between blacks and whites for the first time in the country... an establishment whose owner would be none other than Leon's younger brother Barney Josephson.  Hoover is determined to neutralize Leon, and to see to the demise of Barney's Cafe Society.

Trenton shoe salesman Barney Josephson visits 1930s Berlin, where he delights in its cabarets that feature satirical comics who cleverly lampoon the political climate. It is worlds apart from New York’s predictable nightclub fare, clubs usually run by the mob. Barney dreams of a new kind of New York club featuring jazz, top-notch talent, and comedians with a topical bent…it will also be a club that is integrated on both sides of the footlights.  

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This revolutionary idea becomes reality in 1938 when Café Society opens in Greenwich Village at 2 Sheridan Square. With the aid of Columbia Records producer John Hammond, opening night features cutting edge jazz musicians, comic/MC Jack Gilford, and Billie Holiday, who later debuts “Strange Fruit” here.  Barney goes on to showcase such talent as Lena Horne, Zero Mostel, Imogene Coca,Alberta Hunter, Big Joe Turner, Count Basie and many, many others.

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The club pulls in mostly artists, students and workers but not profits, so Barney opens another, swankier club on Park Avenue and 58th Street that attracts the mink stole and tuxedo crowd. He pays off his debts on both clubs in 11 weeks. After the war, while other clubs flounder, the two Café Society nightspots are wildly profitable with quality talent, and are meccas to celebrities, the working class, students, and the intelligentsia.                                                                                               

Mixing the races is, to say the least, too radical to some who visit the club or read the weekly accounts in the gossip columns of Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen. For others, the Café Societies’ success is deemed subversive. It isn’t long before the fast-changing political climate of the 40s threatens Barney   and those close to him. Forceful political tactics are felt from both J. Edgar Hoover and the House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC summons Barney to testify and the FBI wages a harassment campaign, photographing all who enter and leave his venues. It isn’t long before intimidated customers stay away. By 1950, Café Society Uptown and Downtown are dark.  

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Though Barney Josephson’s daring experiment ends, he vows to open another club someday, and indeed does so years later with the Cookery, again in Greenwich Village, where he brings retired performers, like Alberta Hunter, back to the stage to new audiences and popularity that packs the room and whose performances are broadcasted in the media and are bestsellers at record stores. The Cookery is Barney Josephson’s fitting swan song as one of New York’s most original impresarios.

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View eerie 'spirit' of Billie Holiday below!



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