What Was It Like to Visit Ray Bourbon’s Nightclub?

While we have about ten hours of Ray’s recordings and some first-hand accounts from people who knew or worked with him, we don’t know much about the experience of seeing Ray in person at a nightclub.  In this post, we one brief account I stumbled into at archive.org.

The “Argonauts” is an obscure travel book published in 1940.  Five college kids, just graduated from school, decided to embark on their own American “road trip”, writing about what they saw along the way.  The book was published by Modern Age Books, New York and, apparently the publisher was talked into footing the bill for the trip.

While the book is obscure, some of the authors went on to later fame.  

  • Lillian E. Ross got a job with the New Yorker in 1945 and wound up writing for the magazine for seven decades.  Ross’s work was a primary influence on what we now call “New Journalism”.
  • George Whitman served in the military and later became the owner of the well-known English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, in Paris.  He was awarded a medal by the French government for his contribution to the arts.
  • Joseph Wershba had a long career at CBS News, working with Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow during the McCarthy years.  Later, he was one of the original producers for 60 Minutes.
  • I think “Helen Ross” is likely Zola Helen Ross, a Pacific Northwest genre writer and co-founder of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association.
  • Mel Fiske was a labor organizer and member of the Communist Party who was on staff at the Daily Worker from 1940 to 1956.  After denouncing the Communist Party, he became a fixture in San Francisco as a labor and peace activist.  Fiske was married to poet and author Diana O’Hehir and died in 2008.

Front flap of "The Argonauts"

Ray’s nightclub was the Rendezvous, located at 1841 Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood.  He bought the club with other investors in 1936.  Sometime in the early 1940s, the investors “went elegant” and moved the club to the Sunset Strip, 8950 Sunset Boulevard, calling it Chez Boheme.  (“For Twenty-Four Hours Ray Studied to Become a Medico”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 24, 1944, p 25.)

Since The “Argonauts” was published in 1940 and has several references to work on the film Gone With the Wind, the group probably visited the Rendezvous in 1938 or 1939.

The sixth chapter of the book, “Magic Land”, deals with the group’s stay in Hollywood, interviewing many of the “behind the scenes” average people involved in making movies.  They go to Ray’s club on pages 145 to 146.

We don’t know which of the authors wrote the description – the book is credited as a group effort with no attribution to the individual authors for chapters or sections.

“Olive Lynn took us to Ray Bourbon’s night club.  “You’ll see the decadent side of Hollywood,” she warned.  “Some of the moving picture people and tired businessmen go there for higher excitement.  They want anything that offers diversion.  That’s why fortune tellers, swamis and Aimees prosper here.”

“Aimees?”

She laughed.  “Aimee Semple McPherson, the evangelist.”

A shriveled, middle-aged woman led us to a table at the side of the smoky room.  A low ceiling, risqué paintings and odd red ornaments provided atmosphere.  Red was the predominant color; even the pianist’s nose was the color of red pepper.

“Everybody here knows what everybody else is thinking.  If they don’t, they suspect it.”  Ray Bourbon, fat and oily, with a black mustache, opened the program in a high-pitched voice.  Then he removed his false teeth.

“See? Now I can kiss like Gable!”  He laughed shrilly.

Well-dressed and well-fed men and women sat around us.  A gray-haired, attractive woman, very drunk, burst into song, wildly and in a deep voice.

Said Ray Bourbon, “Did you cut your finger nails, or have you been looking at those concrete statues in the park again?”

The lights were dimmed, and a strip teaser came on.  “Don’t I look like an advertisement for Super-Suds?” she asked when she had completed her act.  Ray Bourbon applauded uninterestedly.  He sang, mimicked and gratuitously patted the pianist’s head.  Young men in the audience waved at him.

In the washroom, a Negro girl handed Helen a towel.  She pointed to a small sign above the sink: “Tips Are My Only Salary.”

“Wrong?” She answered Helen’s questions.  “Sure it’s wrong.  I pay for the laundry and the towels.  Get no money at all from the management.  But I can’t find any other job.  I’m putting two brothers through school; one wants to be a lawyer.  Maybe he’ll do better than me.””

The “Argonauts” appears to be public domain.  You can download and read the entire book at archive.org.

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