Stewart White as waitstaff at the Reading Room, from A Year at the races by Robert B. Parker and Joan H Parker, Photos by William Strode
My name is Stewart White. This story is being told through the eyes of a then 18-year-old, young black man, who grew up being part of an era of hard-working black men and women, in the private world of the rich and famous. That era is a part of black history that has been around
for many years. I am sharing my part of that history.
I worked at the Saratoga Reading Room for 17 racing seasons- from 1972-1989. I serviced and sometimes “rubbed elbows” with many of the who’s who list of members and their guests that walked through the Reading Room gates. Members such as Sonny Werblin (former owner of the NY Jets and President of the NY Knicks), Mr. Henryk deKwiakowski (aeronautical engineer and owner of Calumet Farm, a prestigious Thoroughbred racing farm that produced some of the greatest Thoroughbred horses of all time), George Steinbrenner (owner of the NY Yankees), Wellington Mara (owner of the NY Giants), Alfred Z. Solomon (a famous hat maker ), Charles Eble (former President and CEO of Con Ed),and C.V. Whitney (filmmaker, businessman and owner of a leading stable of Thoroughbreds).
The Reading Room included 6 rooms upstairs for members to stay overnight after a long day at the track. It was a men’s club, so during the morning hours, women were not allowed above the 1st floor. It wasn’t till the 1980s, that women were allowed honorary membership, but only after the death of their husbands, who had been members.
When my cousin Sonny Gooden, who had started as a dishwasher at the age of 14, brought me on in 1972, there were zero black members. If you saw a black man or woman in the Reading Room- believe me, they were working! The only exception during those early years was a fair skinned, very handsome gentleman by the name of Cab Calloway. Calloway, a legendary jazz musician, was a guest of a member.
Stewart the football player, #22
Sonny Gooden and Stewart White share their experiences in a recent interview with Simply Saratoga Magazine
The front porch at the Reading Room
As young boys in the kitchen, we were curious about what went on outside the kitchen, so a lot of times we would wander about. We would go out on the porch or lawn and we got to know a few of the members who were there day after day. Frank Wright, a top trainer of Thoroughbreds and a former CBS racing analyst, sat at the same table every morning. He would talk with us along with Stanley Petter, a horse breeder out of Lexington, KY. Mr. Cot Campbell, who founded Dogwood Stable, the 1st known racing partnership in 1969, was also a favorite of mine. They were very friendly and we used to look forward to talking with them. They seemed to enjoy our youthful enthusiasm.
After breakfast there was the typical prep for lunch. The lunch menu consisted of soups and hot or cold sandwiches. Members would come in with their families, eat a good lunch, and leave for the start of the races. The staff in the kitchen, from the preparers of the food, servers, all the way down to us dishwashers, worked well together. Lunch, though very fast paced, had a flow that ended up being very precise. We were like a well-oiled machine.
One thing I used to notice was the money that the servers were pocketing, even though we knew that members signed for their checks. There were no cash transactions that took place at the Reading Room. Most of the tips for the servers consisted of 20% of the total check. A lot of members would also give a cash tip, on top of the tip included in the check. Members seemed not to be cheap. If you gave them good service, they were very good tippers. We took notice.
After having some down time while the races were going on and the club was basically empty, it was time to prepare for the members and their guests to return to drink, smoke cigars, and talk about their day at the racetrack.
A fringe benefit of working at the Reading Room was the crazy tips on horses we would get from the members. Everyone used to get their bets together for the runner who stopped by daily to run bets for the staff. Every now and then I would be asked to take a bet over for a member. I remember running a bet for Harry M. Stevens III, who at the time had food catering concessions around the country in places like Madison Square Garden, Shea Stadium and the Meadowlands Sports Complex. I mean, I was actually running! Mr. Stevens handed me $200 and told me he needed me to place his bet before the window closed. I was young and athletic. I made it in time.
In the next installment, chapter two, we’ll meet “The Old Guard!”