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Literary Scene: Making book on Bill’s wild tales

Bill Mayberry loves to tell stories. And you would love to hear them.

Mayberry, who grew up in Bethlehem, writes in his book about Bethlehem Steel Corp., where his father worked; the beginning of the singles bar scene in Manhattan; his stint in the Navy; starting restaurants, including Bethlehem’s Lehigh Street Depot; selling barbecue, and horse racing.

There were many times during an interview in a Bethlehem coffee shop when he said, “It was a lot of fun.”

You, too, can hear Bill Mayberry’s stories in “Fast Women & Slow Horses The (Mis)adventures of a Bar, Betting & Barbecue Man” (Bill Mayberry with Geoff Gehman, 2021, 192 pp., $12, $4.97 digital).

The book was inspired three years ago when Mayberry met Lehigh Valley author and journalist Geoff Gehman at the Bethlehem YMCA.

Gehman, an arts and entertainment features writer from 1984 - 2009 for The Morning Call newspaper, has written other books, including “The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons.”

“He kept telling me these wild stories that sounded like they actually happened,” recalls Gehman. “I said, ‘Bill, you have to collect these.’ We wanted to preserve these stories, if only for his daughter, grandchildren and friends.”

Gehman discovered that he and Mayberry were born 20 years apart in the same hospital in Manhattan, and that Mayberry and Gehman’s father frequented many of the same watering holes. In another coincidence, Mayberry lives in Hellertown about 300 yards from a house Gehman owned for 11 years.

One of the many tales Mayberry tells is not in the book.

“They used to have elevator girls in [Bethlehem Steel’s] Martin Tower. I was going up the elevator with my Dad to his office. I had gone out with the elevator girl the night before, and she told my Dad, ‘Bill and I had a lot of fun last night.’ My father later told me, ‘Stay away from those elevator girls!’”

Mayberry indicated that he had other interesting stories about girls that he should not repeat.

Mayberry was a partner in Little John’s, a singles bar that had an unusual requirement.

“Everyone had to be dressed up wearing a suit and tie.” It was a positive sign for the female clientèle, who Mayberry says, were “débutantes, very high-class, wealthy young ladies.”

Strategically-placed mirrors let the customers check each other out, and a heavily used phone in the female bathroom let women report to each other about people they met.

Stories in the book include meetings with mobsters and an incident where an irate customer stuck a .38 revolver in Mayberry’s face.

One of the five restaurants he ran over the years was the Lehigh Street Depot, now The Wooden Match. In 1948, Mayberry stood among the 10,000 at the Victorian train station along Lehigh Street in Bethlehem, listening to Harry S Truman campaigning, not realizing he would open a restaurant on that spot 25 years later.

He was told a steak house wouldn’t work for the steelworker crowd. He replied. “You can do it if it’s the best.” His efforts ranged from providing prime rib you could cut with a fork to having his employees and friends constantly filling the parking lot to make it seem that the restaurant was always packed.

According to Mayberry, one of the restaurant’s regulars adopted its name for an investment they were involved in, which was for a chain of stores that came to be called Home Depot.

Unfortunately, the years of high living caught up with Mayberry as he realized he had become an alcoholic.

Alcohol was always part of his lifestyle:

“With the steel company it was unbelievable. Every time I saw anybody happy, it was all based around booze. Most of my close friends were alcoholics. The bottle corked them. In 1983, it all came to a head.”

Gehman says the chapter, “Corking the Bottle,” was the most difficult in the book to write. It went through eight revisions.

As the chapter tells it, Mayberry wakes up under a bridge in Daytona Beach, Fla., after a 14-day bender. Fortunately, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Mayberry recovered and has not had a drink for four decades.

Mayberry is enjoying the book’s publication, which has led him to reconnect with people he has not seen for 50 or 60 years. He hopes to put out an audiobook version in the future. The book cover design is by Dick Boak, whose father and brother were friends of Mayberry and his father.

“Literary Scene” is a column about authors, books and publishing. To request coverage, email: Paul Willistein, Focus editor, pwillistein@tnonline.com

Bill Mayberry