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A Hooch 'n Hellraisers blog post: Entrepreneurial women thriving in Prohibition America

Belle Livingstone:

‘The most dangerous woman in Europe’

Belle Livingstone was born in rural Kansas sometime in 1875, when she was found abandoned while an infant. Named Isabel Graham, she moved with her foster parents to Chicago. In the 1890s, when her father opposed her joining a theater company, she proposed marriage to a paint salesman she just met, and then fled both her parents and new husband.

She adopted Belle Livingstone as a stage name. While in a show in New York, a publicist let it be known that Belle’s measurements matched those of the Gibson Girl, a pinup drawing idolized in the 1890s. Her photograph was published nationwide as the “ideal woman.”
A New York writer said she had “poetic legs.” She knew Teddy Roosevelt, Diamond Jim Brady, Isadora Duncan and Lily Langtry. She performed in a Broadway show that traveled to London in the early 1900s, then ran her own “salon” in Paris. For her hourglass curves, a journalist called her “the most dangerous woman in Europe.”

A self-described bohemian, Belle claimed to have had many affairs with prominent European men. She married three more times, to an Italian count, an English engineer and a wealthy Cleveland man.

In 1927, at age 52, after a long, comfortable life in Paris but with little money, Belle returned to New York. It was the Prohibition era and Belle got hooked by the secret, debaucherous clubs. Friends took her to a speakeasy hosted by Texas Guinan, a famous female speakeasy owner. Belle and Texas eventually became good friends.

Belle hatched an idea for a “super-speakeasy” for New York’s upper crust, with a $200 annual membership. An investor, Franklin Berwin, financed it. She secured a house on East 52nd Street. It was her first speakeasy in Manhattan. But she could not meet her bills and it folded.

She didn’t give up that easy. In 1929, Belle started another speakeasy called the Silver Room at 384 Park Avenue, but it was soon raided by federal agents.

“New York’s most fashionable speak-easy was raided by Prohibition agents last night. The speak-easy was recently opened with a great flourish by Miss Belle Livingstone, a popular actress in London and New York of former days. Its furnishings are said to have cost £50,000.

A well-groomed company of four hundred men and women, drawn from the best known families in Manhattan, were surprised out of their mild revelries by the arrival of six Prohibition agents. They were engaged in dining, dancing, playing ping-pong and miniature golf when the fun started. The leader of the “dry” agents jumped on the orchestra’s platform, and, speaking in Oxonian accents, requested everybody to leave, which they did hurriedly. They then arrested Miss Belle Livingstone and six waiters.

The raid was conducted with the utmost decorum by the agents, who were described by a prominent New York society woman present as being as “gallant as old-fashioned stage coach robbers.” Irish Times

Belle being escorted out of her club by New York Prohibition officers

Taking to heart the saying that third time’s the charm, Belle founded yet another New York City club in a five-story house at 126 E. 58th Street. She asked competitor and gangster Owney Madden if opening this new club was okay with him. In her 1959 autobiography, Belle recalled his response. He said, “Lady, go as far as you like.”

Belle called her third attempted institution the Fifth-Eighth Street Country Club. It had Florentine ceilings, marble floors, an indoor mini-golf range, a pond with goldfish, game rooms, and more. Its preselected patrons were the rich and famous of the city.

Belle dubbed her new speakeasy the Fifth-Eighth Street Country Club. Her pre-screened members included “celebrities, near-celebrities, social registries and financial barons.” It had vaulted Florentine ceilings, Italian marble floors, an indoor miniature golf range, a brook stocked with goldfish, rooms with ping pong tables and backgammon games and a lounge with a long wooden bar. Guests took off their shoes to enter an Oriental-themed room of large paintings, draperies and stain floor pillows.

She sent out invitations for opening night October 25, 1930, and some surprise guests came by: Archduke Leopold from Russia, the Duke of Manchester from England and John D. Rockefeller. Others were not invited but came by anyway. A staffer ran to inform her that Chicago Mob boss Al Capone was sitting in the Monkey Room with others. “We don’t pass anyone who isn’t right” Belle quipped to Capone. He replied, “At least we’re not federals.” Madden also showed up. The group drank nonalcoholic drinks. She sent a check for $1,000 to the table to see what would happen, and the bill was fully paid, with a $100 tip for the waiter. The opening made her a bundle. A reporter for the Evening World wrote, “Can it be that Belle is going to push Texas out of the spotlight?”

But within weeks, the feds raided her again. She famously tried to escape arrest while wearing red silk pajamas. Nabbed and charged with Volstead violations, she kept the Country Club open until January 1931, when a judge sentenced her to 30 days in New York’s Harlem jail. Once out, she used her considerable earnings to open speakeasies in Nevada, California and Texas but could not beat the local hoods at the game.

In 1933, while back in New York, she learned of Guinan’s death and helped prepare her friend’s corpse for the funeral.

Belle died in 1957. She was 82 years old. She had arranged for a monument in a graveyard in France that said, “This is the only stone I have left unturned.”

Belle Livingstone, a woman known worldwide for her beauty whose colorful journey included forays onto Broadway stages and into her own speakeasies. She crossed paths with European royals, American Industrialists and world-renowned Mobsters. Her life reflected the glamor of the roaring ‘20s and the not-so-glamorous life of starting a business, and an illicit one at that.

Other blog posts in the Hooch ‘n Hellraisers series:

Coming soon….

  • Hoochie-Coochie Hooch Haulers


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