Cafe Sociology

What made Studio 54 great?

The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night

By Anthony Haden-Guest

William Morrow; 384 pages; $25

A Folies Bergere night at Studio 54, 1977

Studio 54 was a singular disco. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

One night there–a fairly typical Tuesday, as I recall–I noticed that I was standing next to Juan Carlos, the occupant of the Spanish throne. He seemed to be enjoying himself, though he looked a little anxious when a paparazzo took his picture. (“How am I going to explain this to the archbishop?” he might have been thinking.) Later that week, my mother came to visit me in New York. We were watching a local newscast in her hotel room, and there was a story about the police raiding a disreputable midtown disco. The TV showed images of a youngish Puerto Rican clientele being led out by the cops. “Goodness!” my mother exclaimed. “Are there a lot of Hispanics at Studio 54?” (She’s from Virginia.)

“Well,” I replied, beaming a bit, “the last time I popped in, the king of Spain was there.”

It’s hard to convey how much more interesting New York was in the late ‘70s than it is now. There was a sense of unlimited possibility in the air. Everywhere else–Paris, Los Angeles–seemed provincial and dull by comparison. John Sparrow, the late warden of All Souls College, put it nicely: “My impression is that in New York anything might happen at any moment. In England, nothing could happen, ever.”

Shortly after I arrived in the city, an unknown from the sticks come to learn philosophy at Columbia, I went uninvited to an opening at an art gallery on the East Side. I met a guy there who turned out to be Andy Warhol’s silk-screener, and he introduced me to Warhol, who then introduced me to the governor of New York, Hugh Carey, who then introduced me to Diana Vreeland, of whom I had never heard. The next thing I knew I was in a private room upstairs at the 21 Club having dinner with the lot of them. “Hey, Manhattan’s easy!” I thought. (What I didn’t realize is that you don’t become rich and famous, or even enduringly fabulous, by osmosis; at some unhappy point, you have to work.)

The sense of possibility reached its most intense pitch in that little patch of space-time known as Studio 54. Temporally, it spanned a thousand days, from 1977 to 1979; spatially, it occupied a handsome former opera house that was also a former TV studio (The Jack Benny Show, What’s My Line?, Captain Kangaroo) on 54th Street–254 W. 54th St., to be exact. (Oddly, CBS had called it “Studio 53.”)

It was thither that I–emboldened by my earlier brush with greatness–hopefully hied myself around midnight one autumn evening in 1978 in order to shake my booty, or possibly my groove thing. An hour later I was Zulu-dancing with Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Cavett, O.J. Simpson, Margaret Trudeau, and–for all I know–the author of this engrossing book, Anthony Haden-Guest.

The Last Party is more than the story of Studio 54. It is the Gibbonesque chronicle of the rise and fall of New York night life from the postwar period to the present. The chief cultural innovation of the period was, of course, the discothèque. The great early discothèques were in Paris and Rome; Roger Vadim–the director husband of Brigitte Bardot–coined the word by analogy with cinémathèque. The concept swam into the ken of Americans with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

What is a disco? It is the perfection of voyeurism. Playing recorded music allows the club to get rid of the performers, so that the people have nothing to look at but one another. They are the spectacle. But you have to have the right people, lest the spectacle prove disagreeable. The disco in Saturday Night Fever was the 2001 Odyssey, in Brooklyn, a hustling, polyester-draped mass of rutting Guidos and Guidettes. In a 1978 article titled “DISCO! Hottest Trend in Entertainment,” Life magazine claimed that “there are now more than 10,000 discotheques in the U.S.” Yes, and only one of them was any good.

Liza Minnelli, Liz Taylor, Halston, Betty Ford, Martha Graham

What made Studio 54 seem like the center of the universe was that every world–art, royalty, Hollywood, fashion, rock, Euro, literary, gay, political, bohemian, blue-blood–brilliantly intersected there. It solved, for a brief shining moment, what in game theory is known as the “coordination problem.” Yes, Elizabeth Taylor, Norman Mailer, Warren Beatty, David Rockefeller, and Mick Jagger will go to a nightclub, but only if they are reasonably certain that Diana Ross, William F. Buckley Jr., Salvador Dali, Betty Ford, Frank Sinatra, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the king of Cyprus will show up too–and vice versa. (Actually, the king of Cyprus didn’t get in. The chief doorman, Mark Benecke, was under the misapprehension that he was the owner of Cypress Gardens in Queens.) Halston, Andy, Liza, Truman, and Bianca will be there regardless. Studio 54 delivered this critical mass almost every night, plus another 1,500 or so people who were simply beautiful or interesting to look at, plus Haden-Guest and me.

But why did all these “competing elites” blend together so ecstatically? One reason, I think, was a giddy feeling in the late ‘70s that the End was Nigh, so everything was permitted and there was no reason to compete. The rest of the country had endured Vietnam and Watergate, but New York had its own little problem: bankruptcy and physical collapse. It was like Rome in the waning days of empire: Let the great debauch proceed!

And if there was a bit of buggery and whatnot going on up in the balcony, what of it? “You would look around and you’d see somebody’s back,” says a photographer quoted by Haden-Guest. “And then you’d see little toes twinkling behind their ears.” In the warren of grungy rooms beneath the dance floor–the celebrities’ sanctum sanctorum–the coke was consumed by the linear foot, and (according to the author) the odd European contessa could be found handcuffed to a water pipe, getting squired from the rear by one of the pretty shirtless busboys. In short, the place made Bosch look like a Methodist picnic. “I don’t know if I was in heaven or hell,” said Lillian Carter, the president’s mother, after a visit. “But it was wonderful!”

Outside, the vetting committee at the door kept the great unwashed in their horrible disco regalia from getting past the velvet ropes. Attempts at dramatic entrances were not always successful. On one occasion recounted by the author, a woman rented a horse, stripped naked, and arrived at the door, Lady Godiva-style. The doorman looked her over and said, “OK, the horse can come in, but you have to stay outside.” Another guy, desperate after repeated rejection, tried to climb into the club through a vent but got stuck. He was found a few days later in black tie, dead. OK, the door policy was cruel, but at least it kept Village Voice gossip columnist-in-chrysalis Michael Musto out.

Steve Rubell with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mick Jagger

And so the great party went jollily on, night after night, presided over by owner Steve Rubell, irrepressible though always zonked on ‘ludes (co-owner Ian Schrager, the son of a Meyer Lansky lieutenant, was all but invisible). It seemed it would never end. But all the while the shadow of doom was creeping nearer and nearer, till came a day when it pulled off its whiskers and pounced.

It was Thursday, Dec. 14, 1978, to be precise. That was when a platoon of IRS agents, who had been denied entrance when they came to boogie, returned in a more official capacity. They found numerous cash-stuffed Hefty bags that had been hidden in the basement ceiling–“the skim”–and five packets of white powder. I was there the night of the raid, and the party was exceptionally good. It was even better a year and a half later, the night before Rubell and Schrager went to prison. (They had tried to implicate Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan as a coke user in the meantime, but the ploy didn’t work.)

Today, Rubell is dead of AIDS, and Schrager owns the half-dozen most chic hotels in the United States. Andy and Halston and Truman are dead, along with an alarming percentage of those named in Haden-Guest’s index. Studio 54 has had numerous reincarnations, but the bloom was permanently off the thing by 1980. I know, for since then I have been to: the Tunnel, the Red Zone, Mirage, Visage, Mars, Save the Robots, the Ice Palace, Crisco Disco, G.G. Barnum’s, the Ritz, the Roxy, the Limelight, the Cat Club, Club USA, the Palladium, the Mudd Club, AM/PM, Magique, the Underground, MK, Area, the Milk Bar, Nell’s, the Jefferson, the Surf Club, the Peppermint Lounge, the Pyramid Club, the Continental, Infinity, Hurrah, that club at Hudson and Vandam whose name I can’t remember, Café Society, Xenon, the Red Parrot, Au Bar, the World, Club A, Heat, Berlin, Danceteria, Interferon, Bond’s, Regine’s, and New York, New York. (I have not, however, been to a new club in the East Village called “Studio Filthy Whore.”)

You might think that I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. These were nightclubs of the highest standing and chic. Hundreds of thousands of aspiring fabulous people sought the entree to them. All are defunct, or moribund. Today’s “club kids” take boring drugs for days on end, until they find themselves sawing the legs off their roommate’s corpse (as chief club kid Michael Alig was recently arrested for doing). The Last Party leaves no doubt: The New York nightworld is dead.

Let’s go to Paris.