By Carter B. Horsley
Manhattan of the late 1970's was at
one of its historic emotional peaks.
It had survived "Drop Dead" signals
from Washington, the oil crisis depression and was in the midst
of a new building boom and a new sophistication that was spawned
with the rhythmic multiculturalism of "Saturday Night Fever"
and the opening of Studio 54.
It was an exciting time to be urban and part
of New York's survival was greatly aided by an influx of foreigners
who gobbled up real estate that had deflated a bit but remained
too rich for most New Yorkers.
It was the onslaught of celebrity society,
the tabloids, the gossip and talk shows, the affirmative action
programs and the aftermath of Watergate and the Vietnam War -
a time for R & R, rest and relaxation, release and relief,
before the interiorization of social existence created by the
early magic of MTV and the clouds of corporate downsizing that
Studio 54 was a disturbing and important phenomenon
that raised dire issues of duplicity, corruption, immorality and
media irresponsibility - issues that permeated and reflected a
culture change, one whose notoriety would help fuel the fundamentalist
upsurge and the coming conservatism of a Ronald Reagan and the
This giddy era stopped short of combustion. Certainly
not all New Yorkers, to say nothing of the rest of the country,
got caught up in the naughty euphoria of decadence that Studio
54 epitomized, but its influence, or at least its tentacles stretched
by the media, were pervasive. One could look elsewhere for the
intellectual boulders, such as Tom Wolfe's "Me" generation,
on the rapids of the country's growing egocentrism, its pell-mell
rush to pleasure and escape from "large" responsibilities.
The eloquent speeches a few years later of a Mitch Snyder on the
homeless did not fall on deaf ears, just overdecibeled ears, drowned
out by the ever more violent fantasies of special effects.
Obsessive preoccupation with the tangential,
the puffed, the fashioned, the fluffy, was not necessarily a national
pastime, but an increasing dominant distraction for many. One
could certainly argue that the tawdriness of the major talk shows
was far more psychically, or at least culturally, damaging to
the millions of viewers than the mere depravity of the thousands
of outrés who habituated Studio 54 and its imitators.
Neither the first nor last great disco, Studio
54 was the quintessential New York experience of its era. It radiated
a palpable energy that was inescapable, seemingly, as well as
an aura of sensuality and "interactivity" that was without
It emanated evil.
It mocked privilege.
It dispensed power.
It crushed egos.
It made heroes.
It was chic.
It was sleazy.
It was outrageous in its raw flouting of the
It was corrupt and corrupting.
I resisted going for a while, at least until
I was with a group I knew would not be rejected at its infamous,
degrading door. I had heard and read plenty of stories already
about its shamelessly open drug scene, which held absolutely no
enticement for me, but journalistically it was difficult not be
a little curious as to how wild a scene it might be.
Having gone to New York discos since 1961,
I was not a Puritan as far as nightlife, although I was, and am,
a total square about drugs other than regulated ones like alcohol
and cigarettes. I did love to dance, however, and once past the
cordons and though the long and wide entrance hall, the magnetic
rush to the dance floor was strong and quickly thrilling for good
dancers, and even bad ones, were not limited to their partners
of the evening.
For the first time in my experience, dancing became
a solo dare. Who needed a date when you could just boogie, swirl
and lean, show off, gravitating towards someone's fine, similar
groove. It was communal dancing, but not folksy: more spiritual
than sexy, though absolutely sensual. I would kick off my tasseled
loafers and kick them to the ledge of the slightly raised bar
area and sync with the booming, shaking music and dance, usually
with my eyes closed half the time, 'til I was drenched with sweat
and feared for blistered feet. I'd recover my shoes, wander off
to one of the surrounding bars for a Budweiser to try to cool
down and then survey the scene while trying to catch my breath.
In his prologue, Haden-Guest observed that
"dancers, washed in the surf of sound, dappled and splashed
by light, shed the dull gravitational tug of quotidian life, and
lost themselves in what was at once a voyeuristic jostle, like
a fairground, and a domain of the self-absorbed, like a ballet
for prima donnas only." Ahem, or amen.
Haden-Guest relates the maneuverings and passings
through of Vladimir Horowitz, the Rev. Sun Moon, Moshe Dayan,
Fred Astaire, Christie Brinkley, Cher, Grace Jones, Diana Ross,
Andy Warhol, Barry Diller, Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger, Truman
Capote, Halston, Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Ford, Mikhail Baryshnikov
and Rudolf Nureyev at Studio 54, but his focus is more on its
creators, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, and their competing promoters
and occasional collaborators such as Mark Fleischman, Maurice
Brahms, John Addison, Arthur Weinstein, Erol Wetson, Uva Harden
and Carmen D'Alessio among others.
For decades, my only exercise has been disco
dancing, but I would only dance to music that moved me like Steve
Wonder's, Michael Jackson's, Gloria Gaynor's, the Pointer Sisters,
Marvin Gaye and the like, and I have not been motivated to stray
out onto a dance floor and make a fool of myself, letting go,
for several years as the dance music lately has been horrible,
to my ears, and I therefore have gained weight.
I was not all the enamoured of Studio 54's
lighting poles and the Man in the Moon with the Spoon was not
a turn-on for me. My stays rarely lasted more than an hour and
I would usually see some familiar faces, including
that of Anthony Haden-Guest, the omnipresent observer and nocturnal
reveler who has authored this fascinating and very perceptive
book, a splendidly devastating "phoenix" histoire of
Studio 54 and the city's subsequent nightlife.
There were other discos that I liked much more
at various times: Shepheard's in the former Drake Hotel on 56th
Street west of Park Avenue was elegant and plush; La Boite on
far East 72nd Street was appropriately comfy; L'Interdit in the
basement of the former Gotham (now Peninsula) Hotel was marvelously
decorated with international signage and international ladies;
and, of course, Le Club, the private disco in its original incarnation
on East 55th Street, palatially proper in a hunting lodge manner.
(Haden-Guest does not mention L'Interdit or La Boite in his otherwise
encyclopedic tour of what he aptly describes as New York's Nightworld,
but then they were before his merry arrival from olde England.)
What Studio 54 had that was sensational was
frisson and immediacy.
It exuded communality.
It manifested humanity, in most of its guises.
It kindled liberation and independence while
mocking convention and sociability.
It. It . It.
You attended Studio 54, became immersed and
mesmerized by its hordes of ins, outs and betweens, its immensities
You were bewitched also by its intoxicating
airs, usually the inescapable waftings of popped amyl nitrate,
which had a rather pleasant medicinal smell. As a dancing fool,
I did not wander, nor was I invited, to the disco's inner sanctums
where one suspected beer was not the major comestible.
There were weirdoes all over, of course, but
they were not a majority and generally conduct on and around the
dance floor was within relatively normal bonds, especially for
those late hours.
What I missed, however, Anthony Haden-Guest
did not. His contribution to the legend is fascinating in its
shocking, explicit details, but far more impressive in its extensive,
revealing interviews with virtually all the major players of the
time and place. Indeed, Haden-Guest's overview of the Nightworld
is overwhelming. He has turned over most of Manhattan's stones,
unearthing creatures that are rather unbelievable, but true and
not always gossip-page-picture-perfect. (The book has 55
black-and-white photographs that are not alluring, just historic.)
His book is an important sociological study
of an urban pathology that is dark and dank, secretive and seductive,
wearying yet wild.
What disturbed me about Studio 54 was not so
much the place as the patronage it received from the media, of
which I was then, as now, a very minor member. Big media personages
frequented its major parties and their presence was construed
by me, and perhaps part of the public, as a condoning of the Joint's
I was not naïve enough to think that all
was perfect in this best of all cities, but there was little question
that a lot of laws and regulations were not being enforced at
Studio 54. Indeed, there was a general impression that the place
was above the law, or so it seemed for a very, very, very long
Just as major league baseball players should
be role models for their fans, so should the press and the "leaders"
of society be vigorously vigilant in their morals, and I'm not
even right wing!
I am guilty, of course, for I did not just
make one "investigative" visit to Studio 54, but quite
a few, but then I was a relative nobody, just another correspondent
covering the social war zones of the city one might be tempted
to rationalize, which is not quite a good enough excuse. But shame
on those media hobbobs of social influence who fawned at Roy Cohn's
birthday parties and achieved bold-faced gossip column status.
The cavalier anecdotes in the book are devastating
documentation to the madness that was Studio 54: sex in the basement;
sex in the balcony; treats for "special guests" of Quaaludes
stuffed into their pockets and "silver packages of cocaine
tucked into the ashtrays of the limousines that were sent"
to pick them up, and cash tucked into the walls, a lot of cash.
Haden-Guest covers the ups and the downs of
not only Rubell and Schrager but virtually the entire Nightworld
of New York, ranging from Studio 54 to Crisco Disco to Plato's
Retreat to the Underground, Palladium, Area, ad infinitum/nauseum.
His uncensored tour is revealing, exhausting and tinged with energy,
not nostalgia. It stops short of blurring, and one is left with
the notion that a handful, relatively, of not so distingué
entrepreneurs of the Nightworld were remarkably resilient in the
face of the occasional, actually rather rare, crackdowns by the
state liquor or drug authorities, or plain old bankruptcies. Even
more interesting are the plans for projects that came to naught.
This is an unsavory tale of hustlers and whistle-blowers
and not too many innocents. Euphoria? Fun? Binges? Yes. Lack of
decorum. Yes. Criminality. Yes. Murder. Yes.
Haden-Guest does not pontificate. The assorted,
if not sordid, thrills and threats and treats and tantrums and
treatments of the tempestuous times in New York since Haden-Guest's
propitious arrival in 1976 are fascinating, exciting and hopefully
for most people vicarious. His "Inferno" is exquisite
agony for many, weaned on the gossip trash of our times.
He does not wax poetic about his characters,
his scenes. His interviewees are surprisingly eloquent and capture
much of the spirit of all that excitement, excitement that is
a very real component of major cities, the confluence of diverse
energies that often results in rare, titillating moments of memorable
Don't fire until you see the red of their eyes,