He was a runaway from Ohio in 1900 at age14, he went east and joined the Marines in 1901 (he lied about his age to get in) went off to South America with his unit and became a corporal before his captain figured out he may be too young. The Marines gave him an honorable discharge and sent him home.
Home wound up to be New York City, where he
got a job as a waiter at the Waldorf and would wait on notable
people like Diamond Jim Brady and Harry K. Thaw. It was there
that he met Billy Lahiff and they became life long friends. Their
personalities were very similar, both self educated, soft spoken,
ultra polite, big hearted men who suffered no fools. They both
moved on to other bistros like Jack's opposite The Hippodrome.
It was there Jack Spooner developed his famous Flying Wedge with
waiters Pat Geraty and George Gates.The Flying Wedge was a very
smooth method of streeting objectional customers. The great war
broke out and when America entered it, Jack rejoined the Marines
as a recruiting Sargent in the day. His nights on Broadway were
spent with Lahiff who went on to open a club at 48th St, LaHiff's
Tavern became the most famous Roaring 20's watering hole for celebs
of both coasts, journalists, sports figures (especially prize
fighters), illustrators, authors and all those who followed them.
Jack Spooner became a Tavern fixture for 14 years.
In 1925 a cub reporter for the Daily News named Ed Sullivan rented a room above LaHiff's and Jack used to slip him both money and meals. Sullivan must of never forgot it, because he would often write about Jack in his On Broadway column that he started in the 1930's. Sullivan was not alone however as Jack became a friend and confidante of all the major journalists of the day; Damon Ruynon, Louis Sobel, Walter Winchell etc. Lahiff had a very large sign on the wall that read "LaHIFF Appears To Be A Big Hearted Guy ONLY Because SPOONER Trusts Everybody! " It was at LaHiff's that Jack started his famous autograph book for his daughter Amelia (my mother). "The Book" became an attraction unto itself because the autographs were very personal. Quite a few had illustrations and other doodling artwork. Many were from cartoonists and Jack even found himself written into the story line of serial comic Joe Palooka . The autographs soon numbered over 1000 and most were from people he was on a first name basis with. Just about every celebrity icon and more from the world of Theatre, Sports, Film were in "The Book" and it took on a life of it's own. Celebs would ask for it to be brought forth to their tables so they could read what their peers had written and perhaps try to top it! Sullivan described it in one column as "one of the seven wonders of the street".
It was during the Roaring 20's that a bootlegger named Sherman Billingsley also came to the Big Apple with an eye towards one day having a legit cafe night club that would be the "Toast Of The Town". Prohibition stunted his early ambitions, as did having three mobster semi silent partners, but a turn events including the death of Prohibition and serious illness of Billy LaHiff in 1933, made everything come Sherman's way. Lahiff passed away in June of '34. Billingsley's wise recruitment of "LaHiff's Best Men" one of them being Jack, played a major role into turning his Stork Club into the worlds most famous nite club. Having folks like Spooner, who was already a celebrity among the celebs, on his staff enabled Billingsley to draw the clientele he desired. He appointed him Matr'e D and gave him his plum assignment of running the Cub Room. The Cub Room was a private room for VIPs to get away from the mad throng that was paying the real tab. Though it was private and discrete, things were not really less serene in there. To the contrary, The Cub Room fight of the Erroll Flynish "Alan Swan" character Peter O'Toole played in the 1980's movie My Favorite Year, was no figment of filmmaker Richard Benjamin's imagination. The Cub Room was a very lively place. It just was guarded by "St Peter" Spooner & his charges who decided whom may pass through the golden chain to escape the prying eyes of J. Q. Public. One wonders if not for places like the Cub Room, if J. Edgar Hoover &"Mrs Hoover" as his partner was Clyde Tolsen was known by insiders, could of survived the public scrutiny even though Hoover kept "files" on everyone that could possibly threaten him both real or imagined.
Jack Spooner was not just a waiter, he was a personal pal to many of his customers. Joseph P. Kennedy, Jim Farley, Democratic Party Head and later Postmaster General, actor George Raft, illustrator James Montgomery Flagg (creator of the Uncle Sam poster) My Mom remembers going to the horse racetracks with her Dad's high roller friends in the early 30's and she would climb under the bleachers because being three sheets to the wind, they were dropping twenty dollar bills down through the openings like there was no tomorrow. When she entered the job market at 16, he got her a job with the Marx Toy Company and Lewis Marx would send his chauffeured Rolls Royce to Brooklyn transport her back and forth to Manhattan. Although my Mom only worked there for a year or so , leaving to get married in 1938, my older sister, brother and I were treated to some very Merry Christmas' courtesy of Marx Toys well into the mid 1950's.
Jack himself never drove a car, he took the train dressed in a full tux. Coming home at 4 or 5 AM dressed that way, you would think he may of encountered trouble, but he never did. He was carrying some serious folding money too. Producer Mike Todd used to tip him a $100.00, which was a very nice tip in the '40's . Jack also carried a small leather billy club with a lead weight in it just in case. But just in case never came in 40 years of wee hour commuting. He did get hit by a Taxi cab once. I think he was given a wide berth by anyone who may of sized him up because of his persona. I recall it well as some of my first memories of him were a bit wary, and I could not of been more than three or four. He was very soft spoken, yet he could be very intimidating and when he came in the room you paid attention. Sherman Billingsley who was notorious for confronting and firing his employees, never wanted to confront Jack Spooner. I learned this from several other Stork regulars including Henny. Another thing Billingsley demanded was once you quit or if he fired you.... that was it for ever working at the Stork again. Not so in Jack's case. He left at least twice that I know of and still returned. Once to manage his pal Jack (heavyweight champ) Dempsey's and once to take over Billy LaHiff's Tavern that was floundering under Billy Jr's ownership. But Sherm also knew Jack Spooner was a big draw. Celebs would clamour for his table. His style could best be described as a very classy version of Don Rickles. He was never loud or obnoxious like Rickles, but he was very sharp witted and sometimes quite sarcastic, yet always polite and a gentleman of first order. The celebs loved to be insulted by him and the columnists even wrote about it therefore creating even more demand for his services and increasing his Stork Club job security. Billingsley who put his name on the menu The Spooner Sandwhich (Danny Kaye's favorite dish) also asked him to keep The Autograph Book at the Club as an added attraction.
By the mid '50's just as the Stork was starting to slip a little from union trouble, competition like Eden Roc, Copa etc, Jack developed Parkinson's disease. He hung on till summer 1955, when he had to step away. Dorothy Kilgallen wrote in her column of August 11, 1955 " NEW YORKS MOST FAMOUS WAITER JACK SPOONER OF THE STORK CLUB IS SERIOUSLY ILL AT HOME. JACK WHO KNOWS LITERALLY THOUSANDS OF CELEBRITIES ON A FIRST NAME BASIS, WAS HEADMAN OF THE CREW SHERMAN BILLINGSLEY BROUGHT TO THE STORK FROM THE OLD La HIFFS TAVERN"
He started treatment for the tremors but very little could be done then. He returned to the Stork Club on a part time basis. In 1956 Walter Haight a Horse Racing columnist wrote in the Washington Post "Who Is Americas Top Waiter ?" Spooner at the Stork, Walter at Toot's Shore's Oscar at the Waldorf?...... but Jack's best days were behind him. He moved over to the Eden Roc with Gregory Pavlides another Billingsley right hand man but did not stay too long. He was still mentioned in Eden Roc reviews as late as 1959 as the person who's table to ask for. In late August that same year, he and my grandmother moved out to "the country" on Long Island and lived out their years with us. He no longer had to start making out his 1500 plus Christmas cards in August. Some of his old friends stayed in touch like Ethel Merman, Martha Raye, and Jim Farley who was now president of Coca Cola. I was twelve when they moved in and got to know Gramps a lot better. But being a teenager, was not that interested in what transpired in his world of cafe society thirty years ago. Besides I was going to be a racing driver, not a writer....Talk about regrets, Jack Spooner definitely took a library full of stories and God knows how many screenplays to the grave with him on September 2 of 1963. Long removed from the swing of things, he still mustered headline obits in the New York Times, Washington Post etc. Two of the neat things I keep framed in my writing room are Franklin D. Roosevelt's autograph to him from 1932 and a certificate from the son of one of gramp's other old pals. Had Jack Spooner passed away just two months later, I would not have it, for the Jack who signed it was none other than another President of the United States.....Jack Kennedy.