It was like a page out of The Beautiful and the Damned. I was wandering the apocalyptic, post-5 p.m. ghost town of the Financial District, freezing in my flimsy flapper dress, looking for an address: 60 Pine. As if on cue, a man in a top hat and long coat emerged from around the corner. “60 Pine? Right this way.”
Typically I make it a rule to avoid following strange men in top hats, but I threw caution to the blistering wind (good lord it’s cold downtown) and followed my chapeau’d chaperone to a historic manor house (one of those old timey New York ones that John Jacob Astor built, or gave money to, or sneezed in). Through the doors you could hear faint sounds of brassy horns and the snap of a snare. Shadows of men in coattails and ladies in cloche hats passed through my periphery. Out of the corner of my eye I could have sworn I saw a minotaur speaking to Little Bo Peep, while a fairy pranced in the background. No no, this was not an acid trip (mushrooms are more my thing). This was Shanghai Mermaid.
Shanghai Mermaid is, as self-described, a speakeasy from another time. It draws its inspiration from the gin-soaked, smoke-filled secretive back rooms of New York, Paris, and Shanghai, where artists, the literati, and good ol’fashioned booze hounds would band together during Prohibition for jazz and a good time. It calls for New Yorkers afflicted with nostalgia to channel their inner Scotts and Zeldas and dance ragtime and drink Sidecars and (insert all Jazz Age cliches here).
Since 2007 these secretive, word-of-mouth affairs were held in the red-and-black-splashed Red Lotus Room out in Crown Heights. But in 2013 the space was sold, forcing party creator Juliette Campbell to make her magic in random locations throughout the City, which brings us to 60 Pine.
By day 60 Pine Street is home to the Down Town Association, but tonight this 19th century mansion played host to hotsy-totsy choice bits of calico and their dates (I’m really good at googling 1920’s slang phrases). Each room of the mansion had a different vibe. In one room, which I took to be a drawing room, people mingled over drinks on long, leather couches while a harpist conjured soft, warm melodies. In another room, small tables were set up like the dining room of a Parisian cafe. The atmosphere hummed with boisterous conversation, French jazz, accordion music, and couples spinning in a frenzy of Foxtrots and Charlestons. A cigarette girl paced in front of the entrance for anyone looking to purchase some cigars, cloves, cigarettes and something mysteriously referred to as Madame Shanghai’s Secret Potion. (Hmm. One please.)
Every Shanghai Mermaid has the underlying 1920’s cabaret theme, but individual parties are served with a twist. This particular one was called the Fairytale Ball, so in addition to your favorite flapper couture, guests were invited to don fairy wings, historic garb, or other mythical accoutrement (so…that explains the minotaur making moves on Ms. Peep). Besides purchasing an actual ticket, dressing the part is your real entry to the festivities. The parties are held on a monthly basis, and word on the street is a new Red Lotus Room is in the works for 2015.
After a swig of Secret Potion (ingredients of which I cannot reveal…mostly because I was already buzzing on a blend of whiskey and other liquids), I leaned against the back wall of the Parisian cafe and tried to look like I was thinking about Hemingway and Cole Porter and everything else that was in Midnight in Paris. Really trying to blend. It must have worked. F. Scott himself approached me and asked if I’d like to dance. Again, I try not to make it a habit of dancing old time dance moves at secret Fairytale Balls, but since I already threw my “man with top hat” rule out the window, I figured why not? On the dance floor, I felt like Z to his Scott, Daisy to his Jay, a ton of nameless women to his Hemingway…at least in my own imagination. But imagination is the key to enjoyment at Shanghai Mermaid. With everyone so devoted to the theme, it’s easy to forget the 21st century and genuinely imagine stepping into another time. New Yorkers could certainly use a little more imagination…and a spoonful of Secret Potion.