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The Last Party
Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night
By Anthony Haden-Guest
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Anthony Haden-Guest
All rights reserved.
TAKE YOUR PARTNERS
MAURICE BRAHMS GOT INVOLVED WITH MANHATTAN'S Nightworld entirely on account of John Addison, who arrived from South Africa in the early seventies. "He was a second cousin of mine. He stayed with me in Brooklyn," Maurice Brahms says. The cousins were unalike. Brahms was of middling height, garrulous, straight, and dressed like a businessman, whereas Addison was tall, gay, secretive, and elegant. Brahms had a front-stage demeanor, like an actor doing monologue. Addison liked to lurk in the wings. But the cousins got on fine. Both were ambitious, tough, and sharp, and both could grip a dollar hard enough to make it squeal with pain.
Maurice Brahms had been in the restaurant business since he was seventeen. "My father bought a restaurant for my uncle, but he died after a couple of years. I took it over," Brahms says. The place was the Colonel at 101 Park Avenue. John Addison had an uncle who owned a parakeet business in Ventura County in Southern California, and he himself had studied horticulture in South Africa, but horticulturenot being huge in Manhattan, he signed up with Ford as a model. "He did well from day one" says Jerry Ford. He worked with Francesco Scavullo and became a long-term lover of the photographer. Addison also took a backup job as a waiter in Yellowfingers, a restaurant in midtown on Third Avenue. Unlike most MAWs (Model Actor Waiters) Addison quickly decided he liked the restaurant business. Preferred it, in fact, to the glam drudgery of modeling.
Juice bars were big in those days. Addison opened one up not far from the Ford Model agency, under the 59th Street Bridge. He called it Together. "He was a night person and I was a day person. I never had a nightlife," says Brahms. "He opened up my eyes. When I saw how many people were going out at twelve o'clock at night. And paying five dollars for a Coca-Cola and five dollars for admission! And I had a restaurant and I would get thirty-five cents for a Coke and they would scream and yell it was too much money. I said what the hell am I doing ? I should be doing what he's doing." That's part of the magic of the night, the way that the moon and stars, though invisible, smothered in the contaminated skies of big cities, nonetheless manage to charm silver and gold out of pockets that are zippered shut in the daylight.
Fancy clubs at the time, like El Morocco and Le Club, were straitlaced, if not completely straight, so Le Jardin, which was on two separate floors in the Diplomat Hotel on West Forty-third Street, the penthouse and the basement, was a breakthrough. Though fashionable straights were made welcome, "Le Jardin was essentially gay. And there were some very pretty women there," notes Bill Oakes of RSO. "Which was obviously one reason gay discos broke out. Women could go and dance there without guys hitting on them." Also welcome were every sort of exotica. Patti Smith sang at Le Jardin, for instance, soon after making it at CBGB as chanteuse. Le Jardin was stylish, with bowls of fruit and cheese on tables. It was a bellwether of what was to come.
Brahms and Addison started to make the rounds of Nightworld. The place that Brahms found riviting was a gay club, Flamingo. Flamingo had been started in 1975 by Michael Fesco, a former Broadway dancer, a gypsy in the chorus of Irma La Douce. It mostly had gay male members, who each paid six hundred dollars a year. Flamingo was in an upstairs loft space, and there were two stunning women on the door, with gardenias behind their ears and Tuinal smiles. Since there was some fear of drug busts the club had an unlisted telephone number, but initiates knew they would find it under Gallery for the Promotion of People, Places, and Events at 599 Broadway.
Michael Fesco, a club owner and promoter, says that running a gay club at the time was a breeze. "For the seven years that I was at Broadway and Houston, we never had any problem with the neighbors," he says. "Everybody was gay, queer. Who cared? Now it seems like everyone cares. AIDS came along and the whole gay issue became a kind of a phenomenon. And we got into a lot of trouble with the religious right and rednecks around the country."
The only women regulars at Flamingo, the Tuinal smiles aside, were a couple of disco music nuts. "I would haul along the latest records in a milk crate or a canvas tote bag," says one of them, Robin Sciortino. The club was famous for the intensity of its ambience and for its theatrically inventive parties. "There were Black parties and White parties," says a habitué, writer Stuart Lee. He remembers a live pig scarfing down copies of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar that people would toss into its pen, and set pieces such as a Crucifixion with the models dressed as Roman legionaries, and a Jesus Christ who would, from time to time, turn his eyes heavenward and ascend a cross.
Maurice Brahms, a straight middle-aged businessman, wasn't offended by the Flamingo's inventive cabaret at all. "I saw a tremendous potential for the gay market that wasn't being utilized. All the clubs that they had were raunchy and secondary," he told me. Even Flamingo itself didn't scratch the surface. "If people will pay this much for soda with a jukebox, my God, what if somebody built a real club for the gay population? It could explode."
Brahms began to nose around looking for a venue. He finally lighted upon a former envelope factory at 653 Broadway. "You had those Hare Krishna people there. And the landlord was getting only two hundred dollars a month," Brahms says. "The landlord asked me for a thousand dollars a month. I told him, 'I'll give you twelve or thirteen hundred, but I want a lease of fifteen years. Where I can do whatever I want.' He gave me everything I wanted. He thought I was crazy.
"I spent like a hundred and fifty thousand dollars opening that club. That was unheard of, to put that kind of money in. It was painted black inside, with neon balls. And it had no name outside. I felt the whole mystique of the place was to make a person struggle to find it. There were mirrors on the sides. If you looked in the mirror, the neon balls just went on forever." Which gave the club its name: Infinity. Brahms says, "We advertised in Michael's Thing, a gay magazine, and we did a membership, and I said, 'COMING SOON! COMING SOON! with a penis sign ... and then IT'S FINALLY COME! ...'"
And as part of the decor there was a six-foot penis of pink neon at Infinity's opening in the fall of 1975. "I made two openings, one for eight o'clock and one for ten o'clock," Brahms says. He had invited his straight, or at least uptown list, for eight, assuming they would clear the place to make room for the downtown gay crowd. "But at ten-thirty the room was still so crowded," he says. "Nobody left. There were probably two thousand people in the street. That was the market I had really targeted, and they couldn't get in."
"We didn't have anyone at the door with a guest list," Brahms says. "It didn't exist. It's wonderful when there's no other place to go. I was the only place to go. Nobody knew how to spell discothèque." Brahms's fingers fluttered through clippings. "Donna Summer and the Pointer Sisters. They were just there, partying. Nobody paid them. They paid admission when they came in.
"My policy was: Everybody pays! I wasn't there to become famous. I was there to make as much money as I possibly could." His fingers flew through his press clips and he found a 1975 headline in Women's Wear Daily: DISCOS HAVEN'T PEAKED YET. "If they only knew! If they only knew!" he crowed. "Here's some of the crowds we would get ... everyone was magnificent ... Giorgio Sant'Angelo ... Franco Rossellini ... Calvin Klein ... I mean, everyone paid!
"In this club you would see gays, straights, transvestites, bisexuals, moviestars, paupers, everything. Givenchy used to bring in Bunny Mellon. I didn't charge her. She'd come in for fifteen minutes just to make him happy. He was one of the few people I didn't charge. I didn't have the heart."
"I didn't realize how smart you were," Brahms's landlord grumbled later. "You stole this from me."
It was at Infinity that Brahms met Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager.
Don Rubell, Steve Rubell's brother, the elder by two years, is a gynecologist and, along with his wife, Mera, a substantial collector of contemporary art. For my information, he punched out an abbreviated version of the brothers' backgrounds as though he were filling out a form. "Started lower-middle class," Rubell said. "Became middle class. Grew up in Brooklyn. My father, who had wanted to be a dentist but because of the Depression had taken a job in the post office initially, was also a tennis player, and was the champion of New York City. When it became viable to earn money teaching, he became a tennis pro."
What were his father's strengths? "He won. He was a great athlete. My brother and my father were built very similarly. On the small side. Wiry."
He and his brother grew up living a "typical neighborhood existence," Don Rubell says. His brother's need to connect showed itself early. "We would live a large part of our life at the tennis courts," Don says. "Steve had a zillion friends and would drive us all slightly crazy. Even when he played, he would constantly be talking to people through the fence. He would be talking to people all the time."
Don Rubell is six foot two. Steve Rubell, who was very short as a boy and finally reached five five, later described his horror of Friday afternoons, which were when the father measured his sons. Nor were things better in school. "I'd go into class. People would say, 'You're Don Rubell's brother?'" he said to writer Jesse Kornbluth. "You wonder why I want people to like me?"
Don, moreover, had gone to Cornell; Steve was rejected by Cornell and went to a more run-of- the-mill college, Syracuse, in upstate New York. Ken Auletta, the writer, was twenty-two, in his first year as a graduate student there and was a resident hall adviser. "That means you got free tuition, room, and board," Auletta says. "Your responsibility was to live on a freshman floor in a dormitory with thirty to sixty freshmen. You counseled them if they needed it.
"Steven was on my floor. He was a great tennis player," Auletta says. "But he was having trouble academically. He would come and talk about it. He was a very sweet guy. He had a sweet smile and these big, goofy eyes. And I knew they thought he would be a star. A tennis star. Just the opposite in the world.
"His academic weaknesses were across the board. He wasn't stupid. He just wasn't applying. He basically didn't give a shit about school. It wasn't like he was a wise guy or had a surly attitude or was depressive. He was worried about it. And his tennis coach was worried about it. He was not bounced out. But he was marginal."
Steve played tennis for Syracuse in the Eastern Intercollegiates in his first year, but this experience put him off looking for a future in the game. "I'd see great old tennis players in the stands, drunk and talking about the past. I didn't want to peak so young," he told Kornbluth. Since Rubell's father had wanted to be a dentist, Steve duly signed up to study dentistry. He flunked and transferred to history and economics. He stayed on a couple of years after graduating and picked up a couple more degrees, one a master's in finance.
It happened that Ian Schrager grew up a few blocks from Rubell, but he was a couple of years younger, and the vagaries of districting took them to different schools. But Schrager, too, went to Syracuse. One day he got into horseplay in a dorm. His opponent was something like six foot four, one of the college basketball stars, but Schrager wouldn't knuckle under. It was this that caught Rubell's eye. There were marked differences between Rubell, who was exuberant, with elastic features and—still guardedly—gay, and Schrager, who was shy, introverted, bonily good-looking, and straight, but the two swiftly formed one of those youthful friendships that are usually the most enduring in life.
Rubell was draft material on leaving Syracuse and joined the National Guard along with a Syracuse friend Bob Tannhauser. When they sensed their unit might be headed to Vietnam, "Steve managed to get us into a military intelligence unit in the Army reserves," Tannhauser told writer Michael Gross. "He had this knack, this desire to be where decisions are made. He wanted to direct what was happening, and he was so charming and disarming, people immediately embraced him. I hadn't even gotten my uniform and Steve was already the assistant to the company commander."
Steve Rubell joined a brokerage firm in Wall Street after leaving the military. "He gradually grew to run the back office," Don Rubell says. "There was a company at that time called Steaks 'N Ale that was being franchised. And Steve found a great location, I think on Queens Boulevard. And it was so good the parent company decided to use it for their own.
"I remember the night it happened. He was furious. And he stayed up all night, chewing up pencils and breaking pencils. By the next morning, there were just thousands of fragments of pencils in his room. He thought this would be the end of his life. Then he decided that he would never do that again. He would only go on his own."
But Steve Rubell had decided that the restaurant business was for him. His first places were a functional eatery in Bayside, Queens, and a fancier place in New Haven, Connecticut, called the Tivoli. "It was wonderful. A classic restaurant," Don Rubell says. Steve moved to New Haven and lived there for a year. What attracted him to the restaurant business was what attracts many amateurs to running restaurants, bars, and clubs—the idea that you spend your time not with numbers or with things, but with people. Neil Schlesinger, who had been at Syracuse with Rubell, and became his partner in these ventures, says gastronomic adventure was far from the point. Steve Rubell was a steak-and-potatoes guy. "He would say the best surprise is no surprise," Schlesinger says. Cookery was not his forte. "He knew nothing about restaurants. He couldn't turn a hamburger. He couldn't pour a glass of milk," Schlesinger says. "I could clean a coffeepot. I could fill up the salt and peppers."
Ian Schrager had begun to practice real estate law in 1974. Steve Rubell approached him and signed him up, with a retainer of one thousand dollars. It was his job to organize a rapidly swelling chain of Steak Lofts, some of which were doing poorly. "It was robbing Peter to pay Paul," Schlesinger says. He told Rubell they would be far better off with just a couple of successful places. "Steve called me soon after. He said, 'I've done a deal,' " Schlesinger says.
One of the final pieces in Rubell's restaurant empire was the Inn of the Clock, a place he took over in the twin towers alongside the UN Building, only to find that the building wouldn't let him run a smokestack to the roof. "That was a problem for a steak restaurant," as Don Rubell puts it, rather understating the case. The place was another bust, and the Steak Loft chain was teetering on the brink.
With typical brio, Rubell decided to open his most ambitious eatery yet. His newest Steak Loft was to be in a venerable stone building, which had until recently been the clubhouse for a golf course on land owned by the City Parks Department in Douglaston, Queens. Ian Schrager came in on the deal, too. Now as a full partner.
Excerpted from The Last Party by Anthony Haden-Guest. Copyright © 1997 Anthony Haden-Guest. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Act I: Nights on Fire,
1 Take Your Partners,
2 Manhattan à la Mode,
3 The German Model, the Israeli Playboy, the Peruvian Party Girl & the New York Businessman,
4 Studio 54, Where Are You?,
5 Hell on the Door, Stairways to Paradise,
6 Club Wars,
8 Club Wars Heat Up,
9 The Other,
10 Addicted to the Night,
11 Imperial Visions,
12 The Bust,
13 Disco Sucks!,
14 Club Fed,
BETWEEN THE ACTS: I Goblin Market,
Act II: Nightclubbing,
15 The Shunning,
16 Après Disco,
17 Wild & Free,
18 Eurotrash Epiphanies,
19 Uptown, Downtown,
20 Hearts of Darkness,
21 "Death of Downtown",
BETWEEN THE ACTS: II Masquerade,
Act III: Nightfall,
22 Kamikaze Kids,
23 Rehearsal for the End of the World,
24 Beyond the Velvet Cord,
25 The Last Nightlord,
26 The Dark Side of the Mirror,
FINALE All Tomorrow's Parties,
About the Author,