For several generations, my Harris family lived in central Virginia. My grandmother, Minnie Garland Harris, was born in Buckingham County in 1891. Her mother died that autumn and within two years, Minnie and her father, Clay Harris, migrated to a small town in southern Iowa called Leon. There, they joined an already established group of Harrises and kinfolk who were thriving in business.
Eventually Clay Harris married again and, in 1899, had a son Eugene Alexander Harris, making my grandmother’s brother the first of my very long line of Harrises to be born outside of Virginia.
“Gene” Harris proved to be a boy filled with wanderlust. Dissatisfied with the limitations of a small Iowan town, as an adolescent he headed for San Francisco where he worked as a waiter, beginning a life-long career in restaurants and nightclubs. Eventually, he traveled to Chicago and, by 1923, was settled in his new home. There he would meet songwriter, performer, and entrepreneur Dan Blanco, who introduced European-style cabaret to the city.
Blanco and Harris proved to be a dynamite team, launching Club Alabam in 1927. Together, they skirted the law and dodged gangsters during the violence-filled days of Prohibition. Even after liquor was legal again, there was never a dull moment at the nightclub. Illegal gambling drew customers and paid police protection didn’t always keep the cops from the door.
My new book, The Blackest Sheep, chronicles Gene Harris’ life story in which he befriends show people, deals with Chicago’s criminal element, and creates a loyal following of customers at Club Alabam.
If you enjoy local history, especially the world of entertainment, follow me at joannelyeck.com or on the Facebook page: The Blackest Sheep.
The Blackest Sheep: Dan Blanco, Evelyn Nesbit, Gene Harris and Chicago’s Club Alabam is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other online bookstores.