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I used to love New York - by Anthony Haden-Guest, who's just held his fake funeral at 86

Blog | By Anthony Haden-Guest | May 23, 2023

Smokin’ hot: David Bowie at Studio 54, 1977

Manhattan nightlife has slumped, thanks to COVID and the internet. Anthony Haden-Guest, who's just held his fake funeral at 86, remembers Studio 54 in the city’s heyday

Who or what killed New York’s night world? A number of perps come instantly to mind.

‘The camera phone basically killed off the VIP room as an arena where anything interesting might happen,’ I once told the writer Christopher Tennant, who referred to me as the ‘three-time winner of Spy magazine’s infamous Celebrity Pro-Am Ironman Nightlife Decathlon’. I went on to say, ‘There’s not nearly as much drunkenness as there was back then, and certainly not as much fun. I can hardly remember the last time I saw a queue of giggling girls waiting to use a restroom.’

I moved to New York in the late 1970s, from a still somewhat swinging London. I had long been happily living in a studio in the Pheasantry on the King’s Road when a traditional horror occurred: Developer Swoop.

So I was kicked out, and looking for a place when I bumped into Clay Felker, the great creator/editor of New York magazine, at a party. I’d done some pieces for him – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on-stage in Oxford etc – and he said he’d been looking for me. I explained that I had been somewhat sleeping around.

‘Come to New York,’ Felker proposed.

Yes. A ticket materialised. A life-changer.

The New York in which I arrived was hardly a fun capital. It was just after the famous Daily News ‘Drop Dead’ cover (pictured) about President Ford’s refusal to save the city. New York was so close to bankruptcy that Abe Beame, Mayor of New York from 1974 to 1977, planned to lay off thousands of cops and firemen.

Disco days: broke New York was ripe for revival, 1975

Several unions then set up a joint Council for Public Safety which printed a million copies of a pamphlet, Welcome to Fear City: A Survival Guide for Visitors.

It had a hooded skull on the cover and opened with the tip ‘Stay off the streets after 6pm.’ Bankruptcy was staved off.

And then along came disco.

Yes, Studio 54 – the 54th Street club that boomed from 1977 to 1980. Such has subsequent coverage of Studio been that one could easily imagine that it was back then the only game in town. Not so.

Xenon, Howard Stein’s club on 43rd Street, was as big a draw for another element in New York’s ballooning as an international city – the Eurotrash. That was the semi-affectionate nickname for the incoming rich folk, some distancing themselves from the terrorist groups then bombing and kidnapping in Europe and Latin America.

There was also Area, the very art-oriented Hudson Street club. There Andy Warhol created an ‘imaginary sculpture’ and the Mudd Club, which was Downtown and punkish – heroin chic, not coke.

It was also where an artist friend, Ronnie Cutrone, installed metal cages. ‘They were like rooms. David Bowie had a room,’ he told me. He built a room for Grace Jones while working on an album cover for her. ‘We put her in nude. And we threw in raw meat,’ he said.

There were dozens of such clubs, but Studio was the most effective player in the celebrity culture. This was growing fast but hadn’t gone ballistic. Warhol, the designer Halston and Bianca Jagger all broadened their brands at Studio. The paparazzi would freely shoot the celebs at the door. Inside, the famous would usually be snapped by consent only. It was full Mondo Celebrity.

Bianca Jagger rides through Studio 54 on her 32nd birthday, 1977

Big clubs bulk big in Lost City lore. But such clubs have always come and gone – as arenas for performance and display, rather than for people to connect. The real clubs of New York, in the timeless sense of places where a specific group would regularly cluster, might be restaurants, hotel bars or dodgy joints. These were the real hang-outs.

Manhattan was peculiarly rich in such hang-outs and their loss has been more hurtful to the fabric of the city’s continuing life than that of the most eye-catching, famous, named clubs.

That was brought home to me personally with the closing, within 12 months of each other, of the restaurants Gino’s and Elaine’s. Gino’s was on the Upper East Side. It was the first posh eatery to which I was taken in New York. The mood was set by zebras prancing amid a hail of arrows on the tomato-red wallpaper. Elaine’s was also on the Upper East Side, and it was hugely well known – but not posh. I was a habitué.

That was where I last talked with the writer Hunter S Thompson. As I was on my way out, he said he had left me a drink outside. He then followed me and, yes, a beakerful of bourbon stood on a windowsill. He stood there as I swallowed every drop. A big fellow, Hunter.

I was at a dinner in Elaine’s with Matuschka, the model/artist, when her lynx coat was stolen. Cops were called. It turned out that another guest had filched it as a prank. Ho ho! One cop remarked that I had nearly been arrested as an accessory. Then there was the evening when Harvey Weinstein joined my table while I was eating with a celeb. Weinstein engaged him in a conversation without acknowledging my presence. Gosh, I was saddened when he walked into that media buzzsaw.

Gino’s, Elaine’s … both gone. As have such distinctly different venues as the Life Café on East 10th and Avenue B, an action centre for the emergent life of the Lower East Side which I had got to know while investigating heroin for Rolling Stone – the dealer in the story was located opposite.

So too the Mars Bar at 25 East 1st, round the corner from the hardcore punk club CBGB. Mars drew that crowd and had also had a strong art element after its owner allowed an artist/photographer Toyo Tsuchiya to put on a show there in 1986. In 2015, Dan Glass, a writer and regular, reconstituted the famous Mars Bar bar for a gallery event for my book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.

I happened to be at the closing night of the Mars Bar. Pure accident. Also, equally accidentally, I discovered that I was at the closing night of Swifty’s on Lexington. Swifty’s was the heir to another defunct legendary hang-out, Glenn Bernbaum’s Mortimer’s. It had been launched by Robert Caravaggi, Mortimer’s maître d’, and had been popular with the same Social Registerish crowd.

Until it went pfft! Why? Why did any of them? Financial specifics sometimes. It was the meltdown of 2008 that belted business at Gino’s, and one can only guess how durable the impact of COVID will prove to be, even as British flights to New York are allowed once more. ‘The business climate has not been conducive to a little restaurant like ours,’ Caravaggi said at the time.

Often the closures have been personality-based, as when Glenn Bernbaum mandated that Mortimer’s should not outlive him, and Elaine’s failed to survive the death of Elaine Kaufman.

But the techscape we increasingly inhabit plays a central part – not just hand-held screens, but lives increasingly lived on-line. That has led to the consequent melt of social glue, the person-on-person disconnects and the narcissism of the everyday. Thank-yous are a lost language and individuals bawl into their devices in public places.

So, as the last of the hang-outs are hung out to dry, will this be their lullaby? Are there signs of hope? Always. Robert Caravaggi’s Swifty’s has been reborn – admittedly in Palm Beach.

‘People are always saying New York is in its death throes,’ says Samara Bliss of the Locker Room, a Brooklyn Arts collective. ‘A lot of people left after September 11. New York survived. A lot of people have been leaving now. So don’t let the door bang you on the way out. We’ll survive.’