Evelyn Nesbit

Evelyn Nesbit.

When I first began research about my great uncle Gene Harris and his legendary Chicago nightspot, Club Alabam, I wasn’t confident that there was an audience for his story. Then I discovered that the scandalous beauty Evelyn Nesbit performed at the club, becoming a friend and colleague of Dan Blanco and later Gene Harris.

If you recognize the name Evelyn Nesbit, you were likely introduced to her in the novel Ragtime, which was later made into a movie and, more recently, a Broadway musical. If you are new to Evelyn’s life story, you are bound to find it captivating.

While the details of her early life and her connection to “the crime of the century” (her husband Harry K. Thaw’s cold-blooded murder of her former lover Stanford White) had been told and retold, Evelyn’s long and fascinating life following the 1907 and 1908 trials was treated as anti-climactic.

During and after Prohibition, Evelyn supported herself and her only son, Russell Thaw, by working in cabarets and nightclubs. Criminals and powerful gangsters populated her world. Addiction to narcotics, initially used for pain relief, plagued her for decades. Her roller coaster of successes and failures, in love and in show business, was a wild ride.

My new book, The Blackest Sheep, recounts the “second half” of Evelyn’s biography, revealing her phenomenal inner strength, native intelligence, and ability to survive notoriety that would have destroyed most women.

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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.

Chicago’s Novelty Night Club: Club Alabam

In 1927, when Dan Blanco opened Club Alabam at 747 Rush Street in downtown Chicago, the Roaring Twenties were going strong and Prohibition still gripped the nation. Establishing a new cabaret-style nightclub without the ability to serve legal liquor was a risky move. Dan Blanco, however, was a seasoned showman who had worked steadily in saloons, amusement parks, cabarets, and on the vaudeville stage. He had mounted shows at the popular Moulin Rouge Café, located in the Loop, and had operated a notorious roadhouse called Northern Lights, frequented by Chicago’s criminal element.

Blanco was connected to the best talent in town and staged popular entertainment night after night at Club Alabam. He offered good food at reasonable prices. And, while Prohibition was still in force, there was a relaxed attitude about liquor. His headwaiter and eventual partner was my great uncle, the effervescent Gene Harris. Together, their personalities made the nightclub a Rush Street institution.

My new book, The Blackest Sheep, tells how these two men managed to juggle the law and booze-selling gangsters. Life on the margins of respectable society could be thrilling as well as dangerous!

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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.

Dan Blanco: Founder of Chicago’s Club Alabam

Dan Blanco, Center.

Dan Blanco, founder of Chicago’s Club Alabam, was born Daniel Leblang on January 3, 1877, in Mazatlán, Mexico. As a small child, he immigrated with his parents to the U.S. and was naturalized when his father became a citizen in about 1885. A performer, songwriter, satirist, and cabaret host, coming of age at the turn of the twentieth century, Blanco headed an act inspired by French and German cabaret. Ragtime, Honky Tonk, and syncopated rhythms were all the rage and Blanco’s shows pushed the limits of “respectable” middle class entertainment.

During the 1910s, Blanco and his group of “Rathskellerians,” became a longtime favorite act at White City, one of Chicago’s most successful amusement parks. The Rathskeller at White City would be Blanco’s testing ground for new material, where he and his players charmed Midwestern audiences with their titillating songs while mingling with the customers in an intimate setting.

After working in many saloons, cabarets, and nightclubs across Chicago, in 1927, Dan Blanco opened Club Alabam at 747 Rush Street.  A popular nightspot for decades, it was destined to become a Chicago favorite where locals and “visiting firemen” could relax, enjoy good food, song and dance performed by solid talent, and, occasionally, some illicit gambling.

In my new book, The Blackest Sheep, the easy-going Dan Blanco is rediscovered and regains his rightful place in Chicago’s entertainment history.

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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.

My Harris Family of Central Virginia

Minnie Garland Harris and Eugene Alexander Harris, 1900.

 

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.

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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.

Gene Harris’ Club Alabam

Gene Harris’s obituary, December 27, 1964.

Following my mother’s death, I discovered a surprising obituary in her filing cabinet. Dated December 27, 1964, it revealed that my grandmother had a brother, Gene Harris. He was a complete mystery to me. Why had I never heard of him?

Quickly, it became clear that my grandmother Minnie (Harris) Sanger and Gene Harris were half-siblings, sharing the same father, my great-grandfather, Clay Harris.

Gene’s obituary ran on page three of the Chicago Tribune, indicating he was a prominent Chicago resident. Written by Will Leonard, author of the newspaper’s weekly entertainment column, “On The Town,” the article stated that, at the time of his death, Gene Harris owned the oldest single-proprietor nightclub in the city—Club Alabam.  A local hero in Chicago, was Uncle Gene a “black sheep” in the Harris family?

Since 1995, I have explored the lives of my vast Harris family. Ultimately, the intriguing and sometimes shocking details of Gene Harris’ life resulted in The Blackest Sheep: Dan Blanco, Evelyn Nesbit, Gene Harris and Chicago’s Club Alabam.

In upcoming posts, I will expand on the research behind The Blackest Sheep and share tidbits about Chicago history, especially the growth of cabarets and nightclubs before, during, and after Prohibition.

Please join me on a fun and danger-filled trip through Chicago after dark. You’ll meet gangsters, G-men, showgirls, and a wide variety of musicians and performers—including the scandalous beauty Evelyn Nesbit!

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If you enjoy local history, especially the world of entertainment, follow me at joannelyeck.com or on Facebook at 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.