The Legend of Nellie Green
Nellie Green was born in 1873 on Grove Street in New Haven. William Talmadge, her soon-to-be husband, lived nearby. The Talmadges were among the original settlers of the Elm City. Nellie’s father (Charles Green), and her grandfather operated a stage coach stop and inn constructed in 1901—later known as the Talmadge Hotel. The building still stands along Short Beach Road on the Farm River where East Haven meets Branford.
In 1920, an amendment to the Constitution prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol. During this era of Prohibition, Nellie ran a speakeasy out of the hotel. The term came from a patron’s manner of ordering alcohol without raising suspicion — a bartender would remind a patron to “speak easy”. The hotel also served as a warehouse for the illegal booze smuggled up the Farm River’s tricky channel from Long Island Sound. The speakeasy became unofficially known as Nellie Green’s, and Nellie’s reputation as the fastest rumrunner along the East Coast was legendary. She was described as brawny, honest, colorful, and tough-talking, but she was a lady, never heard to utter an obscenity.
Her operation grew. Nellie maintained a fleet of nine in the boatyard operated by her husband, Bill. There was the “Sparkle,” and the “Betty T,” and a converted sub chaser named “Uno.” Also in the Nellie Green Fleet was a pleasure craft, “Primrose,” built at the old Johnson’s Boatyard in Branford, and an ancient yacht, “Onward,” built in Lyman’s Boatyard.
The chief pilot for the rum-running fleet was a man named “Wing” St. Clair. The law rarely caught up with Wing and his fellows, and the bootlegging business flourished.
Though Federal agents were armed during their ceaseless patrols, Nellie did not allow her crews to carry weapons. When Nellie learned of an upcoming raid, she would have the men remove the casks of liquor stored under the hotel, and bury them in an adjacent field. One summer, because of the heat and the cow manure in the field, the bottles began to explode and the secret hiding spot was revealed. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Nellie went legit and operated a famous nightspot known far and wide—officially—as Nellie Green’s. Some of the favored clientele were stage, screen and singing stars like John Barrymore, Rudy Vallee, Tyrone Power and Bing Crosby, and the author Jack London. Today, many patrons still remember the restaurant’s manager, Bunny Horton, who throughout the1940s and 50s handled the bartending while booking nightclub acts that attracted crowds from all over New England. It is said if the walls could talk what a tale they would spin.
Nellie passed away in 1952 at the age of 79; Bill Talmadge died 18 months earlier. Both are buried in East Haven at East Lawn Cemetery. Nellie Green and Bill Talmadge had one son, Charles and two grandsons, Bill and Charles Jr.