Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Belle Livingstone

Episode Summary

Belle Livingstone (1875-1957) was an American actress and founder of speakeasies during the Prohibition era.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today we’re heading back to the era of U.S. Prohibition to talk about a woman known worldwide for her beauty whose colorful journey included forays onto Broadway stages and into her own speakeasies. She crossed paths with European royals, American Industrialists and world-renowned Mobsters. Meet Belle Livingstone. 

Isabel Graham was born in rural Kansas in 1875. The story goes that she was found as an infant in a patch of sunflowers in John and Anna Graham’s yard. John was the owner and editor of the local newspaper. 

In her youth, Isabel moved with her parents to Chicago. She was always a bit wild. At the age of 17, she ran away to join a musical theater company. Her father went searching and after finding her in Saginaw, Michigan, tried to bring her home. In an attempt to avoid that fate, Isabel proposed marriage to a total stranger in the lobby of the hotel they were staying in. The man accepted her proposal. 

The marriage served its purpose and didn’t last. The moment they were married, Isabel fled. 

She moved to New York City to continue her acting career. She adopted the name Belle Livingstone and was soon on stage, first as a chorus girl and then as a lead. One of Belle’s claims to fame was that her physical measurements matched those of the Gibson Girl, a pinup drawing in the 1890s then seen as depicting the ideal shape of a woman. PT Barnum offered her a weekly salary of $1000 to work for him. She turned him down. She was too busy hobnobbing with elites like  Teddy Roosevelt.

In the early 1900s, Belle traveled to London with a Broadway show. From there, she moved on to Paris, where she ran her own salon. One journalist called her, “The most dangerous woman in Europe,” because of her beauty. It certainly got her a lot of attention. Belle said she had many affairs with prominent European men and she married three more times: once to an Italian Count, once to an English Engineer, and once to a wealthy guy from Cleveland. 

In 1927 when Belle was 52 years old, she left her Parisian life and returned to New York City. 

It was the time of Prohibition in the U.S. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution had been ratified in 1919, banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition may have shut down legal sales of booze, but it opened up a whole new kind of business: the Speakeasy. 

Belle got hooked by the secret, debaucherous clubs. When she returned to New York from Paris, friends took her to the speakeasy owned by Texas Guinan, a famous female speakeasy owner. Belle and Texas eventually became good friends.

Belle decided she wanted to start her own speakeasy, specifically geared towards New York’s wealthiest patrons. She planned to charge an annual membership of $200 and she got an investor to back it. She found a house on East 52nd Street and opened the establishment’s doors. But Belle couldn’t make the money she needed and that first speakeasy closed. 

She didn’t give up that easy. In 1929, Belle started another speakeasy called the Silver Room at 384 Park Avenue, but it was soon raided by federal agents. 

Taking to heart the saying that third time’s the charm, Belle founded yet another New York City club in a five-story house at 126 E. 58th Street. She asked competitor and gangster Owney Madden if opening this new club was okay with him. In her 1959 autobiography, Belle recalled his response. He said, “Lady, go as far as you like.”

Belle called her third attempted institution the Fifth-Eighth Street Country Club. It had Florentine ceilings, marble floors, an indoor mini-golf range, a pond with goldfish, game rooms, and more. Its preselected patrons were the rich and famous of the city. 

The Country Club opened its doors on October 25, 1930, with much fanfare. The Russian Archduke Leopold and the English Duke of Manchester were there alongside U.S. industrialist John D. Rockefeller. Al Capone showed his face, as did Owney Madden. Opening night was a success. 

But the good times didn’t last. Federal agents raided the Country Club a few weeks later and Belle was caught trying to escape in her red silk pajamas. 

Belle was charged with violating prohibition and was sentenced to 30 days in jail in Harlem. When she got out, she left New York to open speakeasies in Nevada, California and Texas. 

Belle died in 1957. She was 82 years old. She had arranged for a monument in a graveyard in France that said, “This is the only stone I have left unturned.”

Belle Livingstone’s life reflected the glamor of the roaring ‘20s and the not-so-glamorous life of starting a business, and an illicit one at that. 

Tune in tomorrow for another tastemaker. We’ll be talking about a woman who changed the world of organizing.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!