Long before ecdysiast Blaze Starr became the reigning Queen of The Block, there was the legendary Bettye Mills, who arose from humble Pigtown origins to become one of the tenderloin district's more memorable characters and nightclub owners — which in those days The Baltimore Sun politely called "cabarets."
What brought Mills' name back in the news was the death earlier this month of her son-in-law, James Thomas Lee "Jimmy" Stubbs, 95, who in the late 1940s was day manager of Mills' Stork Club, whose name was later changed to the Bettye Mills' Club.
In 1956, at age 48, Mills died of cancer at her mansion at 501 Somerset Road in Roland Park — far from the hardscrabble existence that had defined her earlier years, which drove her, no doubt, to become a successful businesswoman.
"She was a tiny tot when she came with her parents from Lithuania. They were poor. It was in the early 1900s, and they first settled in Highlandtown and then moved to Pigtown," said Dorothea "Dottie" Stubbs, Mills' daughter, now 92, who lives in Perry Hall.
Mills, whose maiden name was Karl, was first married at age 12 to a man of 35. At 14 she was a divorced mother with two orphan brothers and a sister to support.
She would eventually have four other marriages, with her last ending in 1949 when she was divorced from Bernard F. O'Day.
"Her father had been murdered and her mother died, and she had to take care of the family," Stubbs said in a telephone interview. "She had a very interesting life, but it was full of love and later money."
Initially, Mills worked as a stenographer. But then came the Roaring '20s and Prohibition.
"She then became a bootlegger," her daughter said.
With the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, Mills, who had managed to save $80 in pennies, took $60 to City Hall to purchase a liquor license. The remaining cash went for stock, a few cases of beer and a few bottles of wine.
Mills was in business. Her first night club was in a small building at High and Low streets in East Baltimore, where, to preserve capital and cut expenses, she and her brother worked as bartenders.
But Mills dreamed of moving uptown to the big time — and in her mind that was the rip-roaring, wide-open Block.
Mills, with her outsized personality, was sometime called "Baltimore's Texas Guinan," after the larger-than-life Texas chorus girl turned saloon keeper Mary Louise Cecilia "Texas" Guinan.
Guinan's New York speakeasy, the 300 Club, gained notoriety during Prohibition for its chorus line of 40 ill-clad fan dancers — and for Guinan's customary greeting to patrons: "Hello, suckers!"
A dog lover, Mills in 1936 opened the K-9 Club on High Street near Gay, where she remained until the early days of World War II, when she finally made it to The Block. She opened the Stork Club at 704 E. Baltimore St.
When night club impresario Sherman Billingsley, owner of New York's Stork Club, sued over the use of the Stork Club name, Mills changed it to the Bettye Mills' Club.
The club thrived during World War II, when Baltimore's population swelled with war workers and servicemen.
"Her clubs were always money makers," Stubbs said, so much so that Mills was able in 1943 to buy her Roland Park home.
Mills once explained that while she was struggling to feed her siblings in South Baltimore, she promised herself that if she ever made it, she would buy a house in Roland Park.
Her club, she explained in a Baltimore Sun article in 1949, was mainly patronized by "longshoremen and other maritime workers," who dropped by to take in the five-girl floor show and listen to a three-piece band while sipping 15-cent beers.
Mills, with her long blond curls and celebrated beauty, did not perform as a burlesque stripper but rather served as an emcee introducing acts.
"She didn't strip. She wouldn't do that, and actually she was very shy," her daughter said. "She learned to emcee. She'd come on stage, introduce the girls and then they'd do their thing."
She said that her mother wanted to sing but that even after taking lessons, she "couldn't sing a note" — but she could dance.
"She always wanted to dance the night away. She wanted to go on stage and dance," Stubbs said. "And she had a great sense of humor and was simply flamboyant."
"I saw her emcee at her club and she was very good. She was also a very kind person," said Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman and federal maritime commissioner who got to know Mills when she worked as a reporter for The Sun and was assigned to write a story about her.
"She was a very beautiful and kind woman and had a great personality, but was shy," Bentley said. "I don't think she ever personally knew how good she was."
When Mills was suffering financial reversals at the club, Bentley pitched in for several months as a night manager.
"After I finished up working at The Sun, I'd go over and work at the club from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. I didn't get paid. I liked her, and we became very good friends," Bentley said. "Bettye was a straight-up and honorable person."
Mills was known for her generosity in helping those who came to her with hard-luck stories. She lent them money and gave them jobs. At her death, The Sun described her as the "open hearted queen of Baltimore's burlesque row."
Mills planned her wake, held at her Somerset Road home, in elaborate detail during the last month of her life.
In her high-ceilinged living room, she lay in her casket wearing a pearl-and-rhinestone tiara stop her curls. She was dressed in a satin and lace gown sewn with pearls and wore detailed pearl and rhinestone slippers.
She was nearly blind when the slippers were presented to her for her approval. She ran her hand over them and found them lacking in jewels.
"You know I wear them all over my shoes, just not on the toes," she said.
After the wake ended, Mills' casket was placed in a hearse — by her direction the honorary pallbearers were three showgirls, two barmaids and a waitress — and, with a police escort, passed her nightclub for the last time.
She was buried in Loudon Park Cemetery.
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