Esther Martin, owner and founder of the Club Charles bar on the 1700 block of North Charles Street, died Jan. 19 following surgery to correct the debilitating effects of diabetes. The 80-year-old Oklahoma native spent the lion's share of her life in the Baltimore nightlife business--she went from hat-check girl at the tony nightclubs of the World War II era to being at the helm of her own watering hole for decades. Through an exhaustive chain of 12-hour days, she made innumerable friends, amassed a trove of outrageous stories (and blue jokes), and fashioned a life best described as an enigmatic study in contrasts. A roomful of celebrated novelists couldn't conjure up such a character.
Martin was a driven businesswoman in the age of Father Knows Best. She was the salty-tongued proprietor of what was once dubbed "the scariest bar in Baltimore," who served up selfless acts of generosity as readily as whiskey shots. She mixed easily with both the rich and famous and the down-and-out. She put on no airs and pulled no punches. Calling her a tough lady with a heart of gold sounds a bit cliché. But so be it.
"She's my heroine," filmmaker and frequent Club Charles patron John Waters said of Martin in a 2000 City Paper interview. "A great, great lady who was a huge influence on me."
"Esther had this insane, crusty exterior, but inside she was one of the kindest, most sympathetic people I've ever met," says Patrick Kahoe, one of Martin's former business partners. "She was always able to put herself in another person's shoes."
Martin came to Baltimore in 1940 with the intention of studying nursing, but instead found work in the city's jumping nightclub scene, then fueled by anxious, cash-flush soldiers and sailors. She worked at all the bygone big names: the Band Box, the 21-Club, even the original Club Charles, a swanky supper club at Preston and Charles streets. As hat checker, waitress, or barmaid, she met--and often became pally with--the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Joe DiMaggio, and Billie Holiday.
She bought what would become her own Club Charles in 1951. The bar and restaurant at 1724 N. Charles St. was then called Charles Seafood, but Martin soon rechristened it the Wigwam, as a nod to her Native American ancestry. A tepee-shaped sign outside advertised grub and firewater.
She and her late husband, Kent Martin (whom she divorced in 1972), had two solid decades of success with the Wigwam. But as the '70s wore on, the environs decayed--and so did the clientele. "Bums" and "winos" were how many described the Wigwam's patrons, but Martin saw them as something else: human beings. Many were troubled veterans left friendless and forgotten.
Alix Tobey Southwick, a longtime friend of Martin's, recalls helping her deliver groceries and clothing to these lost souls. She recalls, too, when a young bar employee with no family in town was struck with a brain tumor. Martin provided her with a free apartment.
"She just did things like that--it was never anything she would have told you about herself," Southwick says. "Really generous people never think they are doing anything unusual, and being generous for Esther was like breathing."
But as the 1980s dawned, community groups and the liquor board--both of whom accused of Martin of drawing "undesirables" to the area--rallied to yank the bar out from under her.
"She was in a corner at that point," Kahoe says. "She loved that business. Other than her family, that was her whole her life. She knew she had to do something."
What she did was take on Kahoe as a partner, and he helped her redesign and remarket the bar toward the young, boho crowd drawn to the art flicks screening at the nearby Charles Theatre. The Wigwam was reborn as the retro-chic Club Charles in the fall of '81. "She changed it from the scariest bar in Baltimore into the coolest," said Waters.
Kahoe, who sold his share of the business back to Martin in 1988, says she "got along great with the arty crowd." Indeed, he recalls in the club's nascent days, it was frequented by some of Martin's old-school friends--including a veteran stripper.
"You'd have guy in tuxedo who'd just come from a museum opening, next to a punk rocker with a leather jacket and mohawk, and then you'd have a 60-year-old stripper dancing on the bar," he says. "The club was wild."
People of all stripes were drawn to Martin, not only for the depthless warmth lurking just beneath her scrappy facade but for her ready supply of back-in-the-day tales. Southwick remembers Martin telling her of the time she saw Billie Holiday, clad only in a loosely tied robe, chase a dog down Charles Street. Seems the mutt had made off with the singer's rubber makeup sponge.
"And Esther always ended that story with, 'Honey, that was wartime--you couldn't get rubber,' which was really the best part of the story," Southwick says.
Martin's eldest son, Battle, who along with his three siblings spent time working in the family enterprise, has nothing but admiration for his mother's work ethic and her escape from Depression-wracked Oklahoma. And though he says his mother was far too conservative to ever refer to herself as a feminist, "she was someone that the women's movement could take a lot of pride in."
By the 1990s, Martin's fading health sent her into semi-retirement. Her daughter, Joy, assumed day-to-day management of the club--and of the Zodiac restaurant that later bloomed alongside it. But as recently as three years ago, Martin told City Paper she wanted nothing more than to get back behind the bar. To mix drinks and swap stories.
The Club Charles is famously rumored to be haunted--rife with the spirits of those who sought refuge in the storied bar. Who's to say Esther won't now be among those lingering, benevolent specters? After all, it was her club. She made it. And she will always be there.
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