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The Fifty-Fifty Club

In 1932, Phil Jeffs bought the Fifty-Fifty club, a seedy dance hall and sly-grog and cocaine palace in the Chard building (built in 1924). When Jeffs took command, he avoided police raids by heaping money on bent officers. He also forked out sums to hard men such as Frank Green as a guarantee that they would not cause trouble on the premises, and dissuade others from doing so. He, like Kate Leigh, also enjoyed the friendship of prominent politicians. Jeffs considered such payouts essential overheads, much like electricity, heating, rent, liquor and drugs.

The club had about ten bridge tables, each surrounded by four wooden chairs at which guests sat drinking heavily or snorting cocaine from small bowls. Behind the bar were ice-chests yawning with many kinds of alcohol. The noise from the 150 or more hooting, squealing revellers made conversation difficult. An electric fan cooled the guests and dispersed the thick, pungent fog of cigarette smoke. Patrons danced the foxtrot and Charlestone: a four-piece jazz band rattled off 'If You Knew Susie', 'Oh You Beautiful Doll' and 'The Sheik of Araby'. When the jazzmen took a break, they would be replaced by a thin, pale youth who played sentimental favourites on a grand piano with a Persian silk scarf stretched exotically from its top.

Cocaine was freely sold by dealers, who paid a cut of their profits to Jeffs. There was gambling for those who could still afford it after paying the sky high bar prices. Prostitutes, often supplied at a premium price by Tilly Devine, worked the Fifty-Fifty Club in profusion. Pickpocketing and robbery were rife at the Fifty-Fifty, but even those patrons lucky enough to escape an actual mugging were bled blind as they were hit on repeatedly by employees for tips: in the elevator as they entered, to get in the front door, to order a drink or a meal, to dance, to use the bathroom. To leave the club cost the customer a five pound 'exit fee'. Fights often broke out between customers and rival gangs

One journalist partook of the Fifty-Fifty's hospitality and reported:

[There are] Orientals, thugs, half-castes and painted women of the street mingling with well-know scions of Society, prominent actors and actresses and the leading lights of our legal and medical professions. The place has even had vice-regal connections. Unofficially, of course. Here is an Oriental sphinx-like and furtive, dancing with an attractive young white girl. The dark-skinned foreigner opposite is an Egyptian, suspected of trafficking in that vilest of all trades, White Slavery.

Adapted from the award winning book Razor, by Larry Writer © 2001, Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd. Second edition now available with new material. Find out more >> about the bookBuy the book >>
Photo © Historic Houses Trust