Past Auction

Doyle New York's September 16, 2014 Auction of El Morocco: the John Perona Collection Exceeds Estimate

Tue, Sep 16, 2014 at 10am EDT |
New York
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Landmark Sale of the Collection of John Perona, Owner of the Legendary New York Supper Club, El Morocco

  • Landmark Sale of the Collection of John Perona, Owner of the Legendary New York Supper Club, El Morocco
  • Auction Comprised Paintings, Furniture & Decorations from Mr. Perona's Private Collection, as well as Photographs and Memorabilia from El Morocco.
  • Sale Totaled $376,319, Surpassing the Estimate of $215,555-327,070

Image removed.Doyle New York held the landmark sale of El Morocco: The John Perona Collection on September 16, 2014. The sale comprised paintings, furniture and decorations from Mr. Perona’s private collection, as well as photographs and memorabilia from his legendary supper club, El Morocco. The sale totaled $376,319, surpassing its estimate of $215,555-327,070, with 90% sold by lot and 98% sold by value. Important jewelry, clocks, paintings, books and autographs in the collection will be offered in sales throughout the Fall.

For thirty years until his death in 1961, John Perona lived at the epicenter of international café society. European royalty, Hollywood stars, South American millionaires and prominent figures in society, commerce and the arts all gathered at the undisputed star of New York’s supper clubs – El Morocco. Countless photographs of celebrities and socialites seated on zebra-patterned banquettes beneath tropical palm trees chronicle the Golden Era of New York’s night clubs, and through those images, the legend of El Morocco still lives today.

Early Life

John E. Perona was born Giovanni Enrione Perona on January 18, 1897 in the village of Chiaverano near Ivrea in the Province of Turin, Italy. His parents, Clemente Enrione Perona and the former Rosa Ravera, were farmers. The seven Enrione Perona children included John; his two brothers, Emilio (Emil) and Giuseppe (Joe), both of whom also emigrated to the United States; and his four sisters, Nota, Gina, Norina and Corinna.

In 1912 at the tender age of 15, John Perona departed for the United States from Le Havre, France, on the French liner S.S. Rochambeau, arriving in New York on May 22. He joined his older brother, Emil, who had already emigrated in 1908 and was working as a farmer in Sussex County, New Jersey. In 1917, Emil established Perona Farms, where John worked through World War I. Originally a dairy farm, Perona Farms eventually became a genteel boarding house favored by prominent actors and entertainers seeking a relaxed country respite from the city. It is still owned by descendants of Emil Perona.

Following the end of the War in 1918, John Perona moved to New York City and by 1919 was working in the restaurant business as a busboy. On February 4, 1922, John married Eleonora (Eleanor) Pauline Enriello Allono (1900-1959) in Greenwich Village at the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii, in an earlier building predating today’s imposing 1929 structure. Eleanor was the New York-born daughter of Giovanni Enriello Allono and Anna Ciamporcero, Italian immigrants from Ivrea. The newlyweds settled into their new home on nearby Sullivan Street and welcomed the birth of their son, Edwin Clemente Perona, on Christmas Day, 1922.

Prohibition

The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment ushered in the era of prohibition, which took effect in January 1920. This in turn led to a proliferation of speakeasies – the semi-covert clubs where patrons could order banned alcoholic beverages. Typically, these establishments operated in rented spaces, so they could be quickly closed and just as quickly reopened under a new name at a new address.

In 1923, John Perona, together with his brother Joe, opened his first establishment, Perona’s Cabaret, at 232 West 46th Street. Over the ensuing years, John opened other speakeasies catering to a more upscale clientele. The Bath Club, described as “Manhattan’s most elegant oasis,” was housed in the former Ogden Mills Reid mansion at 35 West 53rd Street. Decorated in a Turkish theme, it even featured a “lady’s bar,” a backgammon room, and a ping pong room on its upper floors. The Jungle Club at 201 West 52nd Street featured a “Spanish patio bar.” In 1932, in partnership with his friend Peppy d’Albrew, a former professional dancer, John transformed the shuttered Jungle Club into Place Pigalle. The new club was decorated to resemble Montmartre and featured a quartet of can-can dancers and a Maitre d’ named Maraschino.   

In the early 1920s, John Perona had befriended a regular at Perona’s Cabaret, the then relatively unknown Argentine boxer, Luis Angel Firpo. Billed as “The Raging Bull of the Pampas,” Firpo challenged Jack Dempsey for the title of Heavyweight Champion in a legendary 1924 match, becoming a folk hero in Latin America. This historic match was immortalized by American artist George Bellows in his masterpiece, Dempsey and Firpo (Dempsey Through the Ropes). Another Argentine who entered John’s inner circle of friends around this time was the millionaire bon vivant and race car enthusiast Martín de Alzaga Unzué, nicknamed Macoco, who partnered with John to open the Bath Club and El Morocco. Through his friendships with Firpo and Macoco, John developed his lifelong interests of boxing (he sparred with Firpo occasionally) and race cars (he owned seven cars at one point.)

By now a successful businessman, John Perona purchased a large tract of land in Sussex County adjacent to his brother Emil’s Perona Farms. There he dammed a stream to create the newly christened Perona Lake. In this bucolic setting, he built a classic country estate centered around a gracious Tudor-style manor house replete with a tennis court, an unusual riveted steel swimming pool, a two-story guest house, an eight-car garage, staff quarters and a “beach” house. This was his personal Shangri-la where he relaxed as a country squire and entertained family and close friends. John also maintained an apartment in the city; a home in Palm Beach, Florida; and another in Weehawken, New Jersey, with a sweeping view of the New York skyline.

El Morocco

On October 5, 1931, John Perona opened El Morocco as a speakeasy in rented quarters at 154 East 54th Street. Referred to as Elmo or Elmer by its regulars, El Morocco quickly became afavored night spot among the city’s beau monde. The repeal of prohibition two years later on December 5, 1933 was marked at El Morocco with great celebration.

John hired decorator Vernon McFarlane to create the exotic décor that became El Morocco’s trademark. The famed banquettes and the dining chairs were upholstered in a distinctive azure blue and white zebra print. Lining the walls were white-painted cactus, Moroccan grilles, Venetian lamps and the famous palm trees with translucent cellophane fronds. Overhead, a dark blue ceiling twinkled with a galaxy of miniature lights. The club’s exclusive Champagne Room, offering French haute cuisine, featured a more subdued décor of striped wallpaper and white painted rococo mirrors.

The serendipitous decision to upholster the banquettes in zebra print helped establish El Morocco’s international reputation. Jerome Zerbe, El Morocco’s official photographer from 1934-1939, and other society photographers fed the public’s growing appetite for candid photographs of celebrities at leisure. In every photograph taken at El Morocco, the trademark zebra upholstery was conspicuous, branding it with the world’s first “step and repeat” backdrop. As these photographs were circulated over the international news wires, so grew the reputation of El Morocco as the premier gathering place for celebrities and the elite. For many, New York’s social season began with the annual opening night in early October of El Morocco. This invitation-only event drew hundreds of autograph seekers. It was illuminated by Hollywood klieg lights and was featured in movie newsreels worldwide.     

When John Perona wasn’t reigning from his customary place at a round table facing El Morocco’s entrance, he was greeting his guests, who included various Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Roosevelts, Astors, Fords and Rockefellers, as well as titled Europeans and South American playboys. El Morocco counted a galaxy of Hollywood stars among its regulars, including Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks (Sr. and Jr.), Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Merle Oberon, Judy Garland, Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Claudette Colbert, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Audrey Hepburn and many more. El Morocco was, as a 1930s newspaper advertisement for the club proclaimed, “Where smart New Yorkers welcome the elite of the world.”

Society columnist Lucius Beebe, for a time Jerome Zerbe’s partner, wrote, “John Perona was the first night club proprietor to discover that guests would rather be the floor show than see one and dispensed with everything except music and celebrities, with the result that Morocco isanightly and glitteringparade of who’s who in the town…”. Two dance orchestras played music in rotation until 4am. One orchestra specialized in the society music of the era, and the other offered the Latin rhythms ofthe rhumba, tango and mambo. Music in the Champagne Room was more continental, veering toward the Viennese waltz or Hungarian violin.   

Practices now commonplace at popular night spots likely originated at El Morocco. A velvet rope policy guaranteed exclusive entry to celebrities and club regulars, but excluded undesirables, and a remote section of the dining room, dubbed “Siberia,” was reserved for less august patrons, who were nonetheless lucky enough to have gained admission at all. Not everyone who wished to join the festivities inside of El Morocco was able to get past Frank Carino, its Maitre d’ for almost 25 years and a figure more vigilant than St. Peter at Heaven’s Gate. Carino never created a seating chart from reservations. Instead, when patrons arrived, he surveyed the dining room and decided precisely where to place them, sometimes ensuring it was well away from a former spouse. Celebrities were seated on the banquettes where they would be visible, attractive women were seated near the dance floor, and out-of-town businessmen on expense accounts were seated in Siberia, located to the left at the far side of the orchestra. For important guests, extra tables would sometimes be carried in over the heads of diners and placed on the dance floor, if that was the only available place. El Morocco was open for lunch, dinner and late night supper with dancing until 4am. Eveningwear was required after dark, and gentlemen wearing brown shoes after 6pm could expect to be turned away by the meticulous Carino. Upon Carino’s death in 1954, he was replaced by his protégé, the equally formidable Angelo Zuccotti (whose son, real estate investor and former NYC Planning Commission chairman John E. Zuccotti, is the namesake of lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.)

After operating El Morocco for almost thirty years in the same location, John Perona made the decision to relocate the club two blocks east to larger quarters at 307 East 54th Street. The old club celebrated its final night on January 9, 1961, and seventeen days later, John hosted the grand opening of the newly expanded El Morocco. His health in decline, he traveled to his retreat in Palm Beach, but soon returned to New York, where he died in his home at 400 East 52nd Street on June 9, 1961.

John Perona’s funeral at Holy Family Church in Union City, New Jersey drew hundreds of mourners, among them many prominent patrons of El Morocco. Later that year, John’s son, Edwin, sold the club, marking the end of El Morocco’s heyday. John Perona’s grandchildren, having treasured his collection since his death in 1961, now share the magic and glamour of El Morocco with fans and collectors worldwide.

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  • El Morocco: The John Perona Collection
  • El Morocco: The John Perona Collection

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