What a Swell Party It Was! recalls an era that only the oldest among us would have experienced first-hand. It was a party your reviewer missed and he’s damned sorry not to be born soon enough to have been there.
Unless his photo on the dust jacket was taken a very long time ago, restaurateur and author Michael Turback likely didn’t live through this “golden age of the American nightclub,” either. Nonetheless, he writes about it with authority. He has created a reminiscence in print that evokes every black and white movie that ever gave ordinary Americans a window to the glamorous world of others with access to big city nightclubs and the bucks to enjoy them.
Movies are expected to create a mood. It’s relatively rare when the appearance of static pages in a book can do something similar. In this case, they do. Turback’s descriptions of America’s legendary nightclubs begin on sepia-toned pages with ornate borders. Recipes of drinks and dishes from these long-gone institutions appear on pages of the same tan/beige hue.
Many of the photos could be stills from movies of the ‘30s or set ups by the publicists for these clubs, but others look like they could be candid shots of actual patrons. Some of the pictures say glamour and sophistication, others just show people who might look a bit silly now--or maybe they were just normal folks having some fun. The pictures aren’t captioned and perhaps that’s for the best as they invite the reader to speculate about what might have been going on. One opposite the page introducing Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe begs for explanation. The photo shows a woman doing something to the legs of what looks a group of chorus girls. She seems to be using a commercial spray painting rig. Instant tan? Mosquito repellant? Who knows?
Drink and food recipes tell us what was popular in this bygone era. A few of them survived to have at least an occasional presence on modern day menus. Many, however, are relics no one would recognize in 2018. Ingredients and method of preparing a Sazerac, a drink still popular in New Orleans are attributed to the Blue Room of that city’s Roosevelt Hotel. The French 75 was a mixture mostly of gin and Champagne whose name referenced an artillery piece from World War I. Apparently, it was popular at New York’s Stork Club. That same Stork Club once offered a Walter Winchell Burger. It’s doubtful that anyone born in the last half-century has heard of this New York gossip columnist or has ordered this item named in his honor. The recipe doesn’t sound bad, though. It’s ground chicken, augmented with bread crumbs, minced onion and cream. It was served with sweet potato fries, a fairly trendy item on recent menus.
Had the dish been created in a more recent year, Spaghetti Caruso might have been named Spaghetti Pavarotti. As it is, the Spaghetti Caruso popular in the 1930s and 40s at Leon and Eddie’s in New York survives on the menus of some of today’s Italian restaurants, though maybe there aren’t so many Americans who go for the chicken livers that define that dish.
In all, we found What a Swell Party It Was! aptly named and entertaining on several levels.
--reviewed by Dan Clarke