Even the most anarchic sexual outlawry rapidly becomes commercialized. No place epitomized this more than the basement of the Ansonia Hotel, at 230 West 74th Street in Manhattan. The location would become infamous as Plato’s Retreat, New York’s most celebrated pit of filth. But it began its underground career as the Continental Baths, an upscale gay hangout complete with a swimming pool, coffee shop, massage parlor, steam room, and floor show that starred such talent as Metropolitan Opera singer Eleanor Steber. (The filth, in this case, was metaphorical: Unlike many other bathhouses, such as the infamous St. Mark’s Baths, the Continental was kept scrupulously clean.)
The establishment received an unexpected boost when Bette Midler, who had spent many an evening performing cabaret acts for the Continental’s clientele, mentioned the baths on The Tonight Show in 1970.
Before long, an armada of straight couples was sinking the gay cruisers’ fun. But Steve Ostrow, the club’s bisexual suburban New Jerseyite owner (who had, on at least one occasion, brought his own six-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter to the baths), was delighted with the change in crowd, declaring to a Rolling Stone reporter, "We’re close to total sexual liberation here. . . . The world comes here now to feel the release of pent-up sexuality, all those years of inhibition are splattered, if you will, against my walls!"
Unfortunately, the gay and straight markets mixed like massage oil and water. In September 1976, the basement of the Ansonia was taken over by entrepreneurs Larry Levenson and Mike Ross, who moved their swingers’ club, Plato’s Retreat, to its eighth location. "We finally got rid of the baths," groaned an Ansonia resident in a November 1977 New York magazine exposé. "Now we’ve got Plato’s Retreat."
Levenson and Ross retained the Continental’s swimming pool, dance floor, and mattress-covered orgy room. They added a cold buffet, and charged $25 per couple and $10 for each single woman. As in the rest of the swinging world, female bisexuality was considered chic and sexy but male homosexual activity was discouraged. Men were not admitted without a female partner, who had to escort him into and out of the orgy room.
No liquor was served, but drugs were prevalent. Dan Dorfman, the New York magazine writer, gave Plato’s a glowing review:
When I arrived at Plato’s shortly before midnight, there were about 85 couples on hand, and I counted roughly 30 naked people among them. Later, at about 2 A.M., there were about 150 couples, and I’d guess there were about 70 people in their birthday suits. A variety of sexual feats were being performed nearly everywhere — in the pool, in the whirlpool bath, on the lounge chairs, and in a large, thickly mattressed swing room. Trio sex — usually two men and a woman — was not uncommon. I also spotted several women making love to each other. . . .
Still, just wandering around Plato’s can be a lively experience. For example, I strolled into one area that houses about 40 cubicles where people can make love in private. While there I suddenly heard moaning. I thought someone was hurt and rushed over. As it turned out, the moans were coming from a girl, perhaps nineteen, and they were moans of pleasure, not pain. Her companion, another girl, in her late twenties, smiled at me, and said: "Why don’t you come in?" I blushed, thanked her, and walked away.
The next such invitation was difficult to turn down. It came from Andrea, a striking brunet [sic] of about 27. She saw me walking about with a pad, asked me if I was a reporter, and then pleaded with me: "Don’t call this place a f–k joint, because there’s more to it than that. You can have brief, beautiful relationships here. Every city should have a Plato’s."
|Levenson had been introduced to swinging in 1976 by a housewife he’d met in a Brooklyn cocktail lounge. He was an unlikely candidate to push a free-love agenda. (Al Goldstein of Screw characterized him as "shallow intellectually," and when Al Goldstein tells you you’re shallow intellectually, you know you’re really swimming in the shallow end of the Jacuzzi.) But he was affable, and a terrific promoter. Celebrities such as Richard Dreyfuss popped in (though most kept their clothes on), Joe Thomas had a hit disco song named after the club, and the $2 Plato’s-logo bags (so convenient for transporting your Quaaludes!) showed up in Vogue.
But if Plato’s was ready for the world, the world was not quite ready for Plato’s. In 1978, Time magazine painted a grim image of the goings-on at the Ansonia.
" . . . there are losers even at orgies," the reporter wrote. "An enormously fat woman has been sitting around in her underwear for hours, wanly looking for a man . . . Oddly enough, there is less sexual energy in the air than at a Rotary Club party. All the trappings of the normal sexual dance — talk, gestures and clothing — are stripped away as unessential, and emotions are under tight control. As a result, the proceedings are amicable, but flat . . . many patrons seem bored. A pleasant young woman with a distressing overbite is standing at the bar, staring aimlessly into middle distance. ‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ she says. ‘I’m only nude because there’s nothing to do here with your clothes on.’ "
In their defense, the Time editors were trying to publish a story suitable for Middle American coffee tables. What they didn’t understand was that Middle America was Plato’s core audience. To be sure, the club attracted its share of the unattached and professionally hip, such as Candy, who wore a nurse’s uniform; a woman named Sparkles, who partied in nothing but glitter; and Ugly George, who presaged the internet by carrying an early camcorder around Manhattan and convincing women to undress for his public-access TV show. However, most of the clientele was the married bridge-and-tunnel crowd.
Plato’s popularity in the tri-state area represented two major social shifts. The first was a changing attitude toward commitment: Baby Boomers, accustomed to questioning everything, had become dissatisfied with traditional ideas of matrimony. "Even though we are married, we are growing as people, and marriage should have to do with spiritual growth, not sexual exclusivity," John Lobell, a twenty-nine-year-old teacher at New York City’s Pratt Institute, said of his open marriage in a May 10, 1971, New York Times story titled "Group Sex: Is It ‘Life Art’ or a Sign That Something Is Wrong?" (Somewhat incongruously, it appeared on the first page of the "Food Fashions Family Furnishings" section.) The other shift: in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, social ranking was turned on its head. Youth was equated with status, while married respectability was decidedly uncool. Many older adults who had married young began to wonder if they were missing out on something.
The mostly white, upper-middle-class, college-educated professionals who engaged in swinging were a far cry from the sex radicals of the counterculture. Swingers’ groups met in split-level ranches for buffet dinners and well-mannered wife-swapping, careful not to park in the neighbors’ driveway and to clear out by 2 a.m. Books (such as William and Jerrye Breedlove’s Swap Clubs, Gilbert D. Bartell’s Group Sex, and Paul Rubenstein and Herbert Margolis’s The Groupsex Tapes) and films (such as 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) spread awareness of the lifestyle. Jeff Poland, the founder of the Sexual Freedom League, was thrown out of his own organization when the sex parties started charging a cover and political concerns disappeared.
Yet swingers were eminently "organization men" (and women), and unwilling to abolish the institution of marriage. Clubs such as Plato’s allowed them to play "swinging singles" without endangering the privileges of married middle-class respectability. As Plato’s late-night public-access commercials promised, "the pleasure and the fun will keep you feeling young."
When disco died, Plato’s was already in decline. (In 1979, the club hit a publicity nadir when a would-be porn star named Tara Alexander had sex with eighty-six men, then her husband, in the orgy room.) The Ansonia’s owners paid the club $1 million to move into less-intimate digs on Thirty-Fourth Street. The endgame was a double whammy: Levenson’s 1981 conviction for tax evasion and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. At the behest of AIDS activists, the New York City Health Department outlawed sex in public places.
Though Plato’s enjoyed a brief revival after Levenson was released after serving forty months of his sentence, it was closed by the Health Department on November 22, 1985. Patrons of other sex clubs, such as the BDSM-themed Hellfire Club, saw their activities severely curtailed. The Age of License had officially ended. Levenson wound up driving a cab, dying of a heart attack in 1999 at the age of sixty-two.
Today, little of the Plato’s legacy remains. There are some 3,000 swing clubs in the United States and, according to the Kinsey Institute, about four million swingers. However, even in liberal Manhattan, swing clubs such as Checkmates are far lower-key than Plato’s, and would never dream of advertising. It’s only in Europe that the public sex club still survives — there are about a dozen in Paris (not surprising, given the French national fetish). But organized group sex , such as the late, lamented Lusty Loft parties (the inspiration for John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus) and Palagia’s heavily screened One Leg Up soirees, has been limited to private affairs. The days when a full-time sex club seemed a profitable use of Manhattan real estate are long gone.
If anyone knows of any other past, present, or future NYC sex parties that I could write about for an upcoming column, drop me a line. n°
©2008 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.|