It’s hard to believe, but though black performers entertained whites at Depression-era venues such as Harlem’s Cotton Club, audiences remained separate.
Blacks were either not permitted, or they were relegated to the back of the club.
This kind of segregation was finally undone at a Greenwich Village basement lounge called Cafe Society—a play on the upscale nightclubs for snobbish elites popular in the 1930s.
He’d spent time traveling in Europe and was impressed by the racially mixed cabarets he’d visited.
He was also a huge jazz fan, and at his new venue he booked talent such as Lena Horne, Art Tatum, and Sarah Vaughan. Billie Holiday (below) was the opening night performer, and she later debuted Strange Fruit there.
Cafe Society Sheridan Square (Josephson opened another cabaret uptown) had a good run for a decade or so. “Ultimately, his political cabaret was undone by politics,” wrote Sam Roberts in The New York Times in 2009.
“In 1947, after Mr. Josephson’s brother Leon, a Communist, refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the cafe owner was pummeled by prominent columnists, customers left, and both clubs were sold.”
[Bottom Photo: Charles B. Nadel via Downtown Express]