Sunday, 31 August 2014

Behind the velvet rope at New York's El Morocco


Last year, I took you behind the scenes of Studio 54 as a collection of memorabilia from that legendary club was put up for auction.

A collection from another famous New York nightspot, El Morocco, will be auctioned next month, giving us a chance to step behind their infamous velvet rope.


It’s the collection of John Perona, who opened the club in 1931, initially as a speakeasy. In its heyday which latest from the 1930s to the 50s, El Morocco became known as a haunt for the international rich and famous. The auction itself is largely made-up of the objects Perona bought with his profits from the club, a mix of fine French treasures and complete kitsch (this balance of class and kitsch seems to typify El Morocco), but there is also plenty that those obsessed with this apparent golden age of glamour can salivate over.


El Morocco is attributed with starting some of the customs associated with the most exclusive establishments today. There was the velvet rope, lifted only if you withstood the doorman’s intense scrutiny. You were then led to your table, and heavens forbid if it was the remote part of the dining room nicknamed ‘Siberia’. And then there are the countless photographs of the stars, shown against the distinctive zebra-banquettes. There are many of these photographs available in the auction, sold in lots of 125 a go, and they feature the most starry of names: Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Salvador Dali (he did like a party – remember he was also pictured at Studio 54?).

These pictures, most likely taken by the in-house photographer Jerome Zerebe, who perhaps helped invent the idea of the paparazzi. He said in an interview quoted here: “The social set did not go to the Rainbow Room or the El Morocco until I invented this funny, silly thing of taking photographs of people. And the minute the photographs appeared in the paper, then they came.”


This photograph of the famous debutante Brenda Frazier meeting autograph hunters is press-ready, caption and all. I would also love to sit and read through the scrapbook of carefully assembled press cuttings that’s also available in the auction.



VIPS were certainly made to feel welcome at El Morocco. They appear to have been lavished with gifts, if sample of Pucci scarves, ashtrays and jewellery pictured here are anything to go by. There was a newsletter. Then there’s the El Morocco Family Album, published in 1937 as a gift for regulars and featuring their photographs taken at the club (see, for example, the page featuring Little Edie Beale, shown here). Copies of the book already sell for thousands, so no doubt Perona’s own volume, signed by the likes of Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Swanson, will attract some considerable interest.


The crowd was carefully cultivated. Along with the names who would attract newspaper coverage, there would also be the businessmen who could pay their way into (and would actually pay in) the club, as well as debutantes, European nobility and the likes of Truman Capote, a regular at El Morocco long before he was famous because Perona thought he was interesting. It was where, according to a 1930s advert, “smart New Yorkers welcome the elite of the world.” Or, in other words, the place to see and be seen. In D.V., Diana Vreeland recalls visiting with Clark Gable: “We arrived; we stood behind the red velvet rope. By then, word had gone out that Mr Gable was in the house, and Mr John Perona, the owner, came to take us to our table. Clark grabbed my hand. 'Don't look left,' he said, 'and don't look right, just keep walking. Hold on to your hat kid, this place is gonna blow!' As he said it the place went berserk, I mean berserk! The stares! The people leaning out over their tables! It was almost animalique, like a roaring zoo.”


Nights spent amongst the plastic palm trees and zebra upholstery were fondly remembered. Powers Model Carroll McDaniel recalled: “From my point of view, El Morocco was the most glamorous place in the world. It had an atmosphere that was magic and which you couldn't get in any other place.” Laura Shaine Cunningham, meanwhile, collected some wonderful memories in this piece for the New York Times, from getting dressed up in Hattie Carnegie to dancing with Gershwin. This lost glamour was evoked by Truman Capote in his story “La Côte Basque, 1965”:

Mrs. Matthau extracted a comb from her purse and began drawing it through her long albino hair: another leftover from her World War II débutante nights—an era when she and all her compères, Gloria and Honeychile and Oona and Jinx, slouched against El Morocco upholstery ceaselessly raking their Veronica Lake locks.


Perona died in 1961, not long after the club had relocated to a new address. The auction includes letters of condolence sent to the family, including this one from Joan Crawford. While the era of El Morocco has gone, and its zebra banquettes sadly long rotted, this auction gives tantalising hints of what lay behind the club and its velvet rope. Who wants to come in with me and buy one of those sets of photos?

All pictures from El Morocco: The John Perona Collection auction catalogue by Doyle New York, 16 September 2014.

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