I had been researching the past for years, and now I was on a hunt for literary inspiration. I’d done the best I could with books and biographies, musty copies of original Life Magazines, YouTube, and interviews. Now I needed something different and I found a new experience. Art in the midst of life.
I stopped at the top of the stairway leading down into darkness. I adjusted my pearls and flexed my gloved hands as I stepped down the metal steps one at a time. I got to the bottom and the door was closed and black as night. I knocked at the door and wondered if a small window would slide open and a hushed voice would demand, What’s the password?
I waited. And wondered. Anything can happen when there’s a knock at the door.
It was modern day, early twenty-first century. But when that door opened, I was ushered into the past, to New York City in the Twenties and Thirties. Feathered head bands, red lips, flapper dresses, suspenders and fedoras were everywhere. To my left were velvety alcoves around tiny tables where you could sip on cocktails and eat little morsels of goodness. To my right was a long bar where men and women from eighty years ago were drinking out of Speakeasy-style white coffee mugs. One woman in a long white dress looked astonishingly like Ginger Rogers. I walked over to the bar, ordered a “Bad Romance,” and of course the capped and suspender-sporting bartender asked if I wanted that or a drink. I said with a knowing smirk, I knew you’d say that.
Then the music started and the elephantine saxophone and the clarinet played while the outrageously dressed singer sang her heart out. Songs reminiscent of Cole Porter, Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman and Al Jolson. We all smashed together onto the dance floor and bobbed back and forth, witless of the tight fit as we twirled and shimmied. I had been struck speechless as I entered this new world. Everywhere I looked were people from the past. I had gone hunting for inspiration, and I found that, but I had found much more. I’ve been researching the Art Deco era for years now and I was craving the ability to jump into the past just as Owen Wilson did in Midnight in Paris. And then a friend told me about Club Wit’s End.
In February 2009, Diane Naegel and Don Spiro created the monthly celebration of the Jazz Age lifestyle, music and aesthetics. They like to think that enjoying fine cocktails, dancing the night away to hot jazz, and dressing in your finest is not a lost art in New York City. The name Wit’s End comes from the nickname that Dorothy Parker gave to Aleck Woollcott’s East Side apartment– somewhat infamous hangout for the Round Tablers and others in the New York social set.
The Wit’s End is held at Flute, 205 West 54th Street, New York City. Flute was once the speakeasy Clube Intime run by the infamous Texas Guinan. On the last Saturday of every month from January to October, 7PM to midnight, they offer a chance to go back in time with live music from bands such as Grandpa Musselman & his Syncopators, Baby Soda, The Red Hook Ramblers, Gelber and Manning, Cynthia Sayer, Brian Newman and the Moonlighters.
Talking with Don Spiro and Kevin Fitzpatrick, the manager of Wit’s End, I discovered a generous philosophy that is quite a refreshing attitude in the music scene. Don Spiro said, “Wit’s End has definitely contributed to the traditional jazz music scene in New York, offering a place where bands can play to people who appreciate them in the way they should be (as opposed to playing in theaters where people are stuck in seats). We also feel musicians should be compensated for quality and, as a result, we have a great reputation amongst musicians. Wit’s End has become a hub for people who like all things 1920s and 30s, and we reach communities around the world. We are connected to similar clubs in Los Angeles, Chicago, Providence and Austin, and have branched out to other organizations like the Art Deco Societies in NY, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. We co-produce an annual Fourth of July show, the Liberty Belle Spectacular, with other vintage themed promoters in New York and have teamed with the Museum of the City of NY, the Ziegfeld Club, and the Dorothy Parker Society.”
Art historian David Garrard Lowe said that the Art Deco era had “an unabashed advocacy of beauty.” Club Wit’s End echoes that reality. Climbing down those stairs, knocking at the door and entering into the era that I had been researching and “living” for years, was incredibly meaningful. It was like walking right into my novel and I found myself subconsciously searching for characters that have become my friends, waiting for them to walk around the corner at any moment. I found a way to experience the past. And to be able to grasp a small parcel of time to enjoy it bodily instead of just mentally? Magic.
To learn more about the Art Deco era, I highly recommend A Journey Into Dorothy Parker’s New York and The Lost Algonquin Round Table, written and coedited, respectively, by the founder of the Dorothy Parker Society, Kevin Fitzpatrick. At DorothyParker.com you can find out about the society’s unique events including a gin tasting (Dorothy Parker American Gin, of course) in Brooklyn on April 30th as part of a Dorothy Parker launch for National Poetry Month. Another favorite (if you can get your hands on a copy), is David Garrard Lowe’s Art Deco New York. It is an exquisite photo journey and a witty, history lover’s dream.
Pablo Picasso said, Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. We need to make spaces to create and find inspiration whether we’re feeling the passion or not. It’s a discipline as well as a compulsion to create; it’s a fantastic mix of the two seemingly diametrically opposed elements. Emotion, intuition and passion combined with the basic discipline of just doing it.
In Midnight in Paris, Gil (played by Owen Wilson) says, “How is anyone ever gonna’ come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city? You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form…” There is art to be found and savored everywhere you look. Inspiration is not passive and as Picasso says, it needs to find you busy. We need to be experts at seeking out beauty, and then be prepared and willing to see it. We need to seek out that closed door and knock. And wait. And wonder. Because anything can happen when there’s a knock at the door.