Required Reading: 5 Portraits of Prohibition Era Decadence


Boardwalk Empire, which HBO has renewed after only one episode, dips into the idealized fiction of the booze-banned Prohibition years with a glossy, engrossing, and, of course, violent series about Atlantic City’s underworld dealings. Though it remains one of the most over-romanticized periods in American history, the edgy appeal of those post-World War I carpe diem years is hard to dispute — whether on the screen or on the page. So keep yourself immersed in the bootlegger fantasy with these nonfiction titles that best capture the decadence and delusion of the Prohibition era.

Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society by Ralph Blumenthal

The Stork Club was the destination of choice for top celebrities, artists, and visiting royals from the time that it opened during Prohibition until it finally closed its doors 40 years later. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal details the club’s rise and fall through the story of its owner Sherman Billingsley, who dealt with gangsters and union leaders with the same charisma that also made him a success among high-society tastemakers until his final downfall.

The Night Club Era by Stanley Walker

Stanley Walker, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune throughout the ’20s and ’30s, offers an entertaining and highly astute portrait with The Night Club Era. Published in 1933, just as Prohibition was repealed, Walker’s chronicle explores the city’s shifting social fabric as gangsters mingled with businessmen and celebrities in the high-rolling atmosphere of the night club circuit. Even curmudgeonly critic H.L. Mencken conceded that it’s an “extremely amusing book, full of facts that are actually facts.”

Gangsters and Gold Diggers: Old New York, the Jazz Age, and the Birth of Broadway by Jerome Charyn

Broadway emerged as Manhattan’s theatrical spine during the ’20s, a peopled trail of excess and salacious drama — most of which took place off stage. With suitably electric prose and photographs, Jerome Charyn portrays the explosive era and the people who propelled it. Infamous figures from Mae West to F. Scott Fitzgerald appear throughout this panoramic tribute to a bygone golden age.

The Speakeasies of 1932: Over 400 Drawings, Paintings and Photos by Al Hirschfeld and Gordon Kahn

Although much of Al Hirschfeld’s caricatures focused on celebrities and Broadway stars, he also detailed the lesser-known personas of the Jazz Age. The Speakeasies of 1932 — originally published as Manhattan Oases — features Hirschfeld’s portraits of bartenders at 32 illegal drinking holes in New York, capturing the underground allure of these illegal enclaves. Each image is accompanied by a short essay written by Hirschfeld and Gordon Kahn as well as a recipe for the given establishment’s signature drink.

Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson

The book that inspired the HBO series of the same name is a fittingly close study of Atlantic City’s own Prohibition era madness. Although the book obviously lacks the glitzy styling and big budget production of the TV series, Nelson Johnson’s focused portrait offers a more in depth analysis of the real stories that define the mythology.