by Allan May
Although Lawrence Fay claimed he was "pained" by the "racketeer" label placed on him by the police and the newspapers, he found it much more painful to explain away his rap sheet of 49 arrests. "I’m just a regular businessman, like any broker or merchant," Fay told reporters.
Larry Fay was anything but regular. The flashy dresser with a penchant for indigo blue shirts, loud neckties, and highly polished fingernails was one of the most flamboyant Broadway personalities during the 1920s. It was Fay that James Cagney portrayed in the movie The Roaring Twenties.
Fay’s ambition to move beyond "gangster status" could be seen in the elaborate offices he maintained in a respectable office building off Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Surrounded by an attractive office staff, Fay stayed in the background, meeting daily only with close friends, while his well-groomed assistants met clientele at the door and handled business matters.
Little is known about Fay’s early years. Born in 1888, he had his first brush with the law in 1911 when he was arrested for disorderly conduct in Brooklyn. During the next eight years he would be arrested an additional 41 times. Most of the arrests were for traffic violations or charges against his taxi cab company.
Fay became one of the early rumrunners of the Prohibition Era. He got into the business after he picked up a fare who insisted on being driven to Montreal. Once there, Fay purchased several cases of whiskey with the money he received from the fare. Taking the liquor back to New York, Fay found he could sell a $10 dollar case for as much as $90. His trips back across the border became more frequent. By 1922, Fay had amassed a half million dollars from this venture, but was said to have little stomach for the perils of the trade. A year later he got out of the business.
Fay took his bootlegging profits and put them into his taxi cab company. His cabs were designed to be as flashy as he was. They had lots of nickel trimming, lights on both the top and sides, and musical horns. Fay’s drivers took many inebriated customers to "clip joints" that sprang up when prohibition started. Clip joints were elaborately concealed speakeasies where the drunken patrons were rendered unconscious by more liquor, or if necessary, drugs. They were then relieved of their money and driven a short distance from the area and deposited in the gutter.
Muscle was needed to maintain Fay’s dominance in the taxi cab enterprise. This was not one of the dapper Fay’s specialties, so he hired Owney "the Killer" Madden, recently released from prison. With Madden’s strong-arm tactics, Fay soon had control of the two most profitable cab stands in Manhattan: Grand Central Station and Pennsylvania Station. Madden’s muscle kept Fay on top until 1923 when he sold out to a competitor. Fay was then put on that company’s payroll at $10,000 a year.
Fay was close friends with "Big Frenchy" De Mange. When De Mange went into the nightclub business, Fay followed. Naturally Fay’s nightclubs were designed to match his flashy personality. As with his taxi cab business, it was rumored that Fay’s entry into the nightclub operations was bankrolled by Arnold Rothstein.
Fay’s first venture, the El Fey Club, which opened in 1924, was on West 47th. Fay got a copy of a social register and sent out impressive invitations to members of Manhattan society and was rewarded for his effort with a huge turnout. His real coup came when he hired Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan as his hostess and mistress of ceremonies for the club. "Texas" Guinan, with her trademark greeting, "Hello, Sucker!" made the El Fey one of the hottest nightspots in the city and helped initiate Manhattan’s "Night Club Era."
The money rolled in for Fay during the years from 1925 to 1929. With his flamboyant personality, he became one of the most recognized figures on Broadway. When authorities closed the El Fey Club, Fay moved a few blocks away and opened the Del Fey Club. In 1929, he tried his hand at producing a Broadway show. Before the production was due to open, the theater burned down.
Also in 1929, Fay became involved in the New York Milk Chain Association. In the late 1920s, two dairy giants handled nearly all of the bottled milk in the city. Fighting for the scraps were 300 small independents of which Fay helped organize 94 into a competitive group. Fay, still riding high at the time with his Broadway playboy image, was uneasy in this new venture. He soon took to wearing bulletproof vests under his flashy clothes and rode around in a bulletproof automobile. Fay was making $900 a day by mid-1930 from this racket when the state attorney general began looking into his activities. An investigation resulted in an indictment of Fay and 71 others. Fay was acquitted and then bowed out of the association.
The dawn of the Depression years took a toll on Fay’s wealth and operations. His nightclubs closed and he began working as a manager/partner in a new club called the Casa Blanca on West 56th. Fay had been asked in on the venture for the sheer drawing power of his name. Fortunes had changed for Fay. He had recently separated from his wife, Broadway actress Evelyn Crowell, and he was reported to be nearly broke.
At the new club, Fay was trying to make ends meet and manage the club’s payroll. In late 1932, the club cut employee salaries by 30 percent and announced "share a job" plans to cut back on workers’ hours. On New Year’s Day 1933, Edward Maloney, a disgruntled doorman who had suffered both cutbacks, showed up at the club around 8:30 p.m. He was drunk, angry, and armed. After exchanging words with Fay, Maloney pulled a revolver from his coat pocket and shot Fay four times at close range, killing him instantly.
Fay, who had made thousands of dollars a week during the 1920s and dressed in expensive colorful custom-made suits, was wearing a conservative black business suit when he died. A police search of his body reportedly turned up cash in his pockets of just three dimes.
Allan May's e-mail address is: AllanMay@worldnet.att.net