When I moved to New York in the fall of 1978, I had no idea how exquisitely timed my arrival was. Yes, the city was falling apart; it was the era of Son of Sam, blackout looting, fiscal crisis, scary subways, etc. But it was also the Golden Age of Going Out. And that age was to reach its apogee on Dec. 14, 1978, the night the feds raided Studio 54. I knew about Studio 54 before I came to Manhattan. As the omnium-gatherum of international nightlife, it had attracted the interest of the provincial press, even turning up recurrently in the comic strip “Doonesbury.” At a time when celebrity culture was being born, it drew all living celebrities short of Greta Garbo. Elements from every glamorous world—art, Hollywood, European royalty, fashion, literary, political, Park Avenue blueblood, jeunesse dorée—mixed together in a great glittery whirl. “This will always last,” its dazzled habitués said. “It is too wonderful to end.”
Well, it did end. With the demise of Studio 54 (and of its more bohemian downtown counterpart, the Mudd Club), nightlife in New York entered a long dark age from which it has yet to emerge. Money-making edged out decadence. Sex got dangerous. Big discos became the haunts of teeny-boppers and gays, while retro lounges sprang up to accommodate the Armani singles crowd, and high society retreated to the Temple of Dendur. The better sort of celebrity gave the whole scene a miss. Things became similarly grim in other nightlife capitals, as once-great boîtes de nuit like Le Palace in Paris and Annabel’s in London lost their luster. Now, two decades later, in a rather jittery time, the world of Studio 54 seems well and truly lost. At least it does to today’s would-be smart-setters, both youthful and aging, who continue to go out at night in search of a moment of glitter, if not transcendence. But then, nightlife types are notoriously ignorant of history.
History moves in waves. Things wax and wane. The lugubrious German philosopher Hegel and the more chipper American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. have both held that liberal and conservative views alternate in generational cycles of about 30 years. Russian economic theorists have purported to detect long-term waves in material prosperity. As it happens, the same cyclical logic holds true of nightlife—and with astonishing precision.
Nightlife attains a truly dazzling peak exactly once every 27.75 years. This is an empirically provable proposition. Start with the last peak, that of the Studio 54 disco age, near the end of 1978. Subtract 27.75 years. That takes us back to the early months of 1951, the apex of the postwar nightclub era. Toots Shor’s, El Morocco, and the 21 club were all in high feather, offering live music to the swells and arrivistes constellated nightly on the zebra-skin banquettes.
But greatest nightclub of them all was the Stork Club, on East 51st Street in Manhattan. Thanks to syndicated gossip columnists like Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan, and Dorothy Kilgallen, the goings-on at the Stork Club were the talk of America. It was the place to see and be seen, to laugh and lie and dance and drink and seduce and surrender—provided you could get past the velvet ropes. Even J. Edgar Hoover found it irresistible. The club’s owner, Sherman Billingsley, became the nation’s most powerful arbiter of celebrity. But on Oct. 16 of that year he made a fatal error. When the black chanteuse Josephine Baker arrived after the last show at the Roxy, Billingsley sputtered, “Who let her in?” and instructed the waiters to ignore her table. The next day there were NAACP pickets outside the Stork Club. The scandal did the place in, and the coming of television, which kept people at home, put paid to the Age of Swank.
Now jump back another 27.75 years. That lands us the middle of 1923, the peak of the Roaring ‘20s. Paris, London, and Berlin were all enjoying a florescence of nocturnal hedonism after the war. But the nightlife capital of the world was Harlem, where Park Avenue types and Europeans flocked after midnight, drawn by the hot jazz, wild dancing, and Prohibition-era homemade booze.
Moving back another 27.75 years puts us at the midpoint of the gay ‘90s. In New York, the once pastoral area of Broadway had just been transformed into the Gay White Way. Venturesome bluebloods were stepping out to mingle with chorus girls, gamblers, jockeys, soubrettes, and opium merchants in a new world of spectacular restaurants and naughty cabarets. In Paris it was the height of the belle époque, when the Prince of Wales entertained at Maxim’s and the café chantant was invented—the Moulin Rouge, the Folies Bergères.
A final 27.75-year backward jump places us at the beginning of 1868. New York was still a pre-urban backwater, but in Paris the Second Empire was at the zenith of its splendor. The cancan had just been invented. Le tout Paris waltzed until dawn at magnificent balls to new Strauss numbers like “The Blue Danube.” Jewels were made to glitter and flash by a brand-new technological innovation—the electric light. C’était trop beau, everyone said.
There, by the way, is the reason that nightlife cannot be traced back any further in time: The thing is quite impossible without electric light. It is true that, for special occasions like a royal masque, a certain amount of glitter can be created by a multitude of candles and mirrors. But nightlife, to be worthy of its name, must be an everynight option for those who seek it. And the brilliant illumination of grand spaces on a routine basis cannot be accomplished without electricity.
To find another peak in the nightlife cycle, then, means moving into the future. Using the 27.75-year rule and some elementary harmonic analysis, we can predict with 95 percent confidence that an event comparable to the opening of Studio 54 will occur in the first three months of 2005. That may seem awfully far off to today’s restless pleasure-seekers. But it does mean that we have moved well beyond the last nightlife trough, which, the cyclical theory says, must have occurred in 1992 (just after the gossip columnist Michael Musto proclaimed “the death of nightlife.”)
In my own nocturnal rambles, I am already seeing hopeful signs. For one thing, celebrities are beginning to downsize their retinues of handlers. Such retinues, by their sheer bulkiness, destroy the fluid and spontaneous circulation of beautiful people that is the essence of nightlife. In the late ‘70s they were practically unknown. That is why it was possible for, say, Mick Jagger and Mikhail Baryshnikov to dance together at Studio 54. When it came to “protection,” Betty Ford had her Secret Service man, and that was about it. Things began to get ridiculous in the ‘90s, when I recall Sylvester Stallone once trying to enter Annabel’s in London with seven “bodyguards.” Now celebrities are realizing that they do not really need bodyguards in nightclubs, unless perhaps they are rap artists.
But celebrities do need a plausible place to go—a place where they can meet on equal terms with other celebrities within a matrix of lesser beautiful people. That is where what Carlyle called “the hero in history” comes in. A nightlife peak requires the appearance of a Great Man like Sherman Billingsley of the Stork Club or Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager of Studio 54—or indeed a Great Woman like Nell of Nell’s or Regine of Regine’s. It is impossible to say where such a figure will come from. Before opening Studio 54, after all, Rubell and Schrager, a pair of Syracuse U. graduates, ran a chain of steakhouses on Long Island. All that is certain is that the cunning of history will produce the hero in time for the next nightlife peak.
As for the form this peak will take, who knows? The opening night of Studio 54 on April 26, 1977, was a singular event. It could not have been predicted by any mathematical theory, except, perhaps, catastrophe theory. Robin Leach, who was there on his first TV assignment, said, “All of us knew that night that we weren’t at the opening of a discotheque but the opening of something historical, something that was going to change the shape of the way people lived, or played. Everything had come together in one place. Sodom and Gomorrah met the High Street that night.” Frank Sinatra circled the block in his car, unable to get near the club’s entrance.
Less than three years from now a similarly unexpected convergence will occur, giving rise to another Dream of a Thousand and One Nights. And the new hedonists, ever ignorant of the cycles of nightlife history, will again say, This will always last. It is too wonderful to end.