American History Book Review: Café Society

By Gene Santoro
3/21/2018 • American History Magazine

Café Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People

Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson, University of Illinois Press, 328 pp., $29.95

In 1938 Greenwich Village, a former shoe salesman named Barney Josephson, inspired by European satirical cabaret, opens this country’s first night club to host both black and white performers for an integrated audience. Eyepopping murals cover its walls; a provocative attitude infuses its ambience. Overnight, Café Society becomes the talk of the town, drawing the rich and chic and radical. Soon Café Society Uptown is spun off. On both stages: star-dusted talent like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, the Golden Gate Quartet, Dixie Hummingbirds, Imogene Coca and Zero Mostel.

Ten years later, Josephson’s brother refuses to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, columnist Westbrook Pegler crusades against Barney, and the clubs close by 1950. So blacklisted Josephson starts a “hamburgerie” called The Cookery, where in 1970 he restarts his broken impresario’s career. His well-told story entwines entrepreneurial vision, progressive social action and resonant history with stunning photos.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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