"We couldn't take the word of two Prohibition agents against Miss Morgan."
Anonymous juror, after Helen Morgan beat a liquor charge.
For the millions of Americans who elected not to indulge in non-alcoholic fruit juices the Prohibition decade offered a variety of alternatives. There was Bathtub Gin, made according to your own formula in your own happy home. There was the friendly neighborhood bootlegger, always around when you needed him. And, finally, there was the speakeasydenounced, condemned, defamed, raided, padlocked, boarded up but always there, or maybe around the next corner.
In New York in 1929, Police Commissioner Grover Whalen's men counted 32,000 speakeasies. Admittedly, a low figure for the number of illicit oases serving the teeming metropolis of 6,000,000. You couldn't count the speaks because there were too many of themin the basements of fashionable Manhattan mansions, in penthouses off Park Avenue, in Greenwich Village cellars, in Wall Street office buildings, in brownstone rooming houses, in tenements, in two-family dwellings in The Bronx, in Bay Ridge hardware stores, in . . . well, the speak was everywhere. There was one on New York's East Side with an exterior that made it look like a synagogue. There were any number set up as soft drink parlors, and any number operating as restaurants or tearooms; all you needed to know to get the hard stuff in those places was the right word, or maybe the right wink.
The out-and-out speakeasy, free of concealing adornments, was by far the most interesting of the illegal resorts. The showmanship in these operations intrigued a New York Times operative in the spring of 1929
"The intricate and mysterious rites observed before patrons are allowed to enter seem to be chiefly intended to add romantic excitement to the adventure . . . The devious means employed to protect the entrances to speakeasies probably adds to the general mystification. Bells are to be rung in a special way. A sliding panel behind an iron grill opens to reveal a cautious face examining the arrivals . . ."
The face behind the sliding panel wasn't always the warmest one in town . . . The proper car or the proper word ("Joe sent me") would open the portals, of course. Once inside, a man was among kindred souls. The speakeasy was nothing like the bar we know today. It was more like a club. The elbow bender alongside you had the same entree, the same special status that you had. He was "one of the boys" in a closely knit group of insiders foregathered in the interest of some temporarily illicit good fellowship.
The speakeasies added something else that was new: women, traditionally barred by customs from the saloons, but a decidedly welcome fixture in the new-style oasis. There was more than one kind of woman in the joints, as it happened. There was the woman in the carriage-trade speak, on the arm of her escort and quite possibly in evening clothes if she was coming from a theater date or a party. And there was the woman in the flesh-for-sale trade, using the less discreet watering places as a base of operation for pickups.
. . . the speakeasies almost invariably stocked female companions for their lonelier clients, sometimes as "hostesses," sometimes as cigaret girls, sometimes as checkroom girls, sometimes as pure and simple hustlersif you'll pardon the expression. The local police took the view that the speakeasies were a Federal problem, but the Prohibition Bureau assigned only 200 sleuthsnot all of them incorruptibleto ferret out the 32,000 traps in the sprawling city.
In that situation, a speakeasy might get shut down now and then, as its luck or connections ran out, but an enterprising owner could always reopen very quickly and let word-of-mouth advertising bring back the faithful. The chances were they would not have far to go; the speak that ran afoul of the authorities generally set up again in the same vicinity, sometimes only a
few doors away from its old location.