'Toots': The man who knew every celebrity in America
Early on in "Toots," the new documentary about the legendary New York saloon keeper Toots Shor (it opens Friday here at the Downtown Independent Theater), we get to see Frank Sinatra recalling the night Toots asked him to come to dinner at his joint with some of Toots' pals. The other pals? Bing Crosby, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth. As the four sultans of mid-century America made their way through the restaurant to a private table, the whole saloon spontaneously erupted with applause. If you were a celebrity in New York from 1940 through the early 1960s, the place to be was Toots Shor's, where you'd find sports icons, journalists, actors, mobsters or politicians, all lifting a glass in the same smoke-filled room.
Today's celebrity clubs and eateries are niche joints--the film crowd inhabits one spot, the musicians go somewhere else, the journalists (the ones that still have a job) have a different hangout. But Toots Shor's was a watering hole where everyone rubbed elbows. You'd see Joe DiMaggio at one table, Jackie Gleason at another, the likes of Frank Gifford or Mickey Mantle or Walter Cronkite across the room. On one night, Toots could be seen having a drink with Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, then heading across the room to hang out with mob boss Frank Costello. As the writer Pete Hamill says in the film: " 'Toot's' was a part of the imagination of people who had never even walked in there. They knew it existed the way they knew the Statue of Liberty existed."
Made by Kristi Jacobson, Toots' granddaughter, the documentary nicely captures a colorful period in American culture, a booze-fueled age where men cheerfully insulted each other, bet on the ponies and started drinking at lunch and often didn't stop till the sun came up. Toots kept everyone's glass filled to the brim. A giant of a man, he was famously gruff--he used to boast of receiving a letter from an out-of-towner who'd enjoyed the food, but advised that if he wanted to be successful "you'd better get rid of that fat slob of a headwaiter who spent most of his time insulting patrons."
Toots led by example. In the film, Jacobson's mother tells the story of the time Toots breezed into church one morning, determined to be there for her confirmation (Toots was Jewish, but his wife, a former showgirl affectionately known as Baby, brought the kids up Catholic). Toots had been out on the town all night, so he brought along his drinking buddy--John Wayne. Toots wasn't much of a businessman, blowing most of the dough he ever made, but if he ever had problems with creditors, he'd turn to his pal, Frank Costello, who'd manage to set things right. One of the more interesting revelations in the movie is that when Toots needed ready cash to open a second restaurant in 1960, he went to Jimmy Hoffa, who loaned him $7 million from the Teamsters union's pension fund.
The best part of the movie is the great gallery of characters Jacobson assembled to tell all the Toots anecdotes. The Teamsters tale comes courtesy of Gianni Russo. He looks so familiar, I said to Jacobson. Where have I seen him before? She laughed. "He played Carlo Rizzi in 'The Godfather.' " It made me wonder--how mobbed up was Toots? Keep reading:
His granddaughter isn't really sure. "Gianni says that Frank Costello was in the saloon every day, so it's pretty obvious my grandfather and Costello were good friends--my mother used to call him Uncle Frank. But no one knows the exact terms of the relationship. You could definitely say that being friends with Frank Costello protected Toots from a lot of problems."
Toots died when Jacobson was 6, so she only had vague memories of her grandfather. No one in the family told many stories about him. "When I first interviewed my mother, almost everything she told me was new to me," she says. "It was like opening the floodgates. I kept going, 'Wow, I'd never heard that before.' "
She actually began work on the documentary a decade ago, getting sidetracked on other projects before returning to finish the film, which has won a number of recent awards. For many people, just the mention of Toots' name opened a lot of doors. Her first two interviews, back in 1998, were with Walter Cronkite and Frank Gifford. "It was so long ago that I faxed my request to Cronkite," she recalls. "The next day he called back, saying whatever I wanted, he'd be happy to do it. You learn as a journalist that you should get a big name right away, so whomever I went to afterwards, I could always say that I'd already talked to Walter Cronkite."
Some of her best interviews are with journalists, including Mike Wallace, Pete Hamill, Dave Anderson (the New York Time sports columnist who wrote Shor's obituary), Gay Talese and Nick Pileggi, who tells of his days as a young AP reporter, watching the older reporters and editors slip off in the middle of work for a quick snort at Toots, visits that were known as going on a "bombing run." "Toots had an undying passion for sports as well as tremendous respect for the guys who wrote about it," Jacobson says. "So I think he was fond of journalists, because they helped people connect with their heroes, but it was pretty savvy to treat the writers as well as you treated the sports stars."
It was clearly a different era. You can't help but notice in the film that it was very much a man's world--women were only allowed into Toots' joint if accompanied by a man. It was also largely a white man's world, even though Jacobson says that Toots had a huge fight with the owner of the Stork Club when he refused entrance to Josephine Baker, a famous black singer of the time. Toots made sure she was welcome at his place. "What mattered to Toots was not who you were or where you were going, but if you did something," Jacobson says. "He came from nothing and liked being around people who'd had the same kind of success, having done it all on their own. That was the kind of success Toots respected."
If you can't see the film while it's here in a theater, don't miss it on DVD. Toots Shor is one of those great Damon Runyon-style links to an America that seems very far away from the country we live in today. One day, after Toots and Jackie Gleason had been drinking, the two burly men challenged each other to a bet over who could get around the block the quickest. Toots lurched around the block as fast as he could, sweating profusely the whole way, but when he returned, he found Gleason already at the front door, unwinded. It took Shor a while to figure out that he'd never actually seen Gleason pass him. Finally, Gleason merrily fessed up. He'd taken a cab. As Gay Talese says in the movie, it was a different time. "People lived shorter lives then. But they were happier."
Photo of Toots Shor, left, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio from Indiepix