Gay History NYC 1979 – 1985: An Oral History of the Infamous Saint Marks Baths by Paul Lewis
The notorious St. Mark’s Baths was … a place of such debauchery someone once described it as “Gomorrah the way it shoulda been.”— Andrei Codrescu, The Villager
Long ago and far away, during the age of runaway hedonism that was the mid- to late-1970s, Americans were experimenting more and more with their sexual freedom. Heterosexual Americans, that is. The age of orange shag carpeting and chocolate brown/white plaid sofas was also the age of swingers’ parties; stuff like putting each others’ hotel keys in a basket and pairing up that way. The age of silk shirts, polyester everything, platform shoes, enormously wide ties and sport coat lapels that were bigger than a stealth fighter’s wings was also the age that brought us Burt Reynolds on the pages of Cosmopolitan Magazine, naked as the day he was born, (but with a hand covering his juicy bits). And disco thumped and bumped its way onto the airwaves and into the nightclubs.
Now, if the straight Americans could do it; post-Stonewall gay Americans could do it; BETTER.
Shortly after earning my undergraduate degree, I was privileged to be offered a job with a company which owned restaurants and night clubs. Far from the monotony of corporate life that I’d imagined I would have to endure for years until I could accomplish something exciting or creative, I was plunged head-first into a fantasy world. One where most people didn’t wake up until 8 or 9 o’clock at night, and didn’t go out before midnight. And we stayed out. Sometimes for days at a time.
Now, the post-Stonewall Riots gay scene in New York was plagued by a caste system. For an outsider looking in (with a modicum of curiosity) it appeared as if races were separated quite thoroughly, and that no matter what race one was, there was a certain “glass ceiling,” if you will, that a gay man would hit; and because of his job, finances, or lack of connections could not break through. For instance, any Joe could walk into a Christopher Street bar, put $1.50 on the counter and get a Budweiser. But when it came to the places for the social elite and financially well-endowed, notoriously exclusive clubs like 12 West and The Saint were selectively admitting clientele long before Steve Rubell started “picking” people to pass the velvet rope at Studio 54.
The after-hours clubs (which opened at 4:00 in the morning or just before) were not quite as picky, but if you didn’t have a half-ounce of cocaine, some sort of celebrity status, or connections to either other popular venues or the mafia, there was no way you were going to be able to enjoy the no-holds-barred partying within the clubs’ exclusive VIP rooms.
Now, by 10:00 in the morning or thereabouts, the music had usually stopped at the after-hours joints and everyone left wanted to go home, usually with somebody. Sure, there was plenty of pairing up and leaving the early clubs, the late clubs, and the after hours clubs. But show me a guy and I’ll show you a person who’s had at least one dream about fucking for hours at a time. Well, someone once said something like “if you can think it; it’s probably already been done.”
Imagine non-stop sex with myriad attractive strangers for as long as you can stay awake.
Bette Midler got her start singing at a joint called The Continental Baths in New York City. Her accompanist was a young Barry Manilow, who played the piano in his birthday suit, a towel, and nothing else. The Continental was one of a gaggle of places where, for a fee, a guy could walk in, check his clothes, wrap a towel around his waist (or not) and find the companionship of like-minded guys in dark corners (or not-so-dark-corners, if that was your bag).
My colleagues had tried over and over again to get me to accompany them on a “trip to the ‘tubs'” but I’d refused. An invitation came one evening after I’d introduced them to an extremely good-looking young friend from out-of-town who was all wide-eyed and naive about everything. So after a trip to Studio 54 and the notorious, warehouse-sized after hours dance club Crisco Disco, we both relented and went along for the trip.
If you build it, they will come.
Bathhouses, up until about 1975, were filthy, dark, bleak places, I am told. This all changed when gay entrepreneurs Billy Nachman and Bruce Mailman, the creators of the most exclusive gay disco in town (The Saint – in the old Fillmore East theater building) decided to come up with the ultimate bathhouse. Millions (literally) of dollars were spent turning No. 6 Saint Mark’s Place in Greenwich Village into a bathhouse with, for lack of a better term, class. Maybe chic-appeal is more like it.
The Great Equalizer
Now let’s return for a moment to what I said herein above about the gay male caste system during this period of time. Now imagine having to put one’s Rolex watch away in a safe, remove the $400 Halston jeans and $75 Izod Lacoste polo shirt. You couldn’t even keep your Calvin Klein underwear on. And there was no “velvet rope” at the door, either. Well-sculpted body builders in line behind fellows who were 5’11” and probably 90 pounds soaking wet. The cream of the male-modeling crop mixed together with bi-curious construction workers from New Jersey. Artists and Art Dealers rubbed elbows (clad in nothing but a towel around the waist) with elementary school art teachers. You get the idea. Suddenly everyone was just himself, unveiled but for the same modest swath of white terry-cloth, and could hide behind no status symbol nor wealth to get what he wanted. One’s ability to make out well (literally) was based on one’s looks, charm, and upon chance. (The odds were based on three floors’ worth of “hunting” space and how many men happened to be there at the time.) The chance that one would meet “Mr. Right.” (Or, for some, Mr. Right No. 1, Mr. Right No. 2, Mr. Right No. 3, and so forth.)
On the main floor, money was paid and valuables safely stored in signed, sealed envelopes for safekeeping. A key was handed out (to a locker if one had $10, to an actual private room if one had $20-50; dependent upon the size of the bed). And off one went, into Never-Never land.
The first floor contained locker rooms, showers, and, of all things, a diner (with seating on both sides; serving those waiting in line to enter, and those who’d already paid their fee and were towel-clad). The basement contained a swimming pool, more showers, an enormous jacuzzi, and a large, darkened room with a vinyl-covered mattress that must’ve been 40′ x 40′ where all manner of groping was going on. The upstairs three floors contained the hallways and the rooms. Hundreds of rooms. Seemingly miles of hallways. Yes, this place was, indeed, big enough to get lost in.
So what happened that night?
My friend and I secured a room and went out on the prowl, after drinking deeply out of the quart of peppermint schnapps that we’d brought along for courage’s sake. Before I knew it, I found myself without my friend, roaming the halls. Some of the room doors were open, the occupants smiling and beckoning, some of them fondling a favorite sex toy. Others merely lay face down, ass-up. It was like a visit to a surrealistic gallery of nearly every gay male fetish imaginable, all on a canvas of black walls, black ceilings, black carpeting, and low, amber lighting. These people were performance artists and they didn’t even know it.
By the time I found my friend, he’d found the jacuzzi. He got out and his usual well-tanned body was still tanned, but pink from head to toe. He was annoyed that “those dudes in there” kept grabbing at his dick and he couldn’t relax. I explained curtly, “relaxation of the type you seek is not pursued in this jacuzzi, I’d hazard a guess.” We hung out together for the rest of the night, and met:
- A top fashion/art photographer and protege of Andy Warhol,
- The photographer’s incredibly wealthy trust fund-baby boyfriend,
- A tractor-trailer driver who wore a wedding ring,
- A man who offered us piles of very, very good cocaine — we did some and then left when he said it was time to “come to daddy,” even though he said there was lots more coke at his antiqueshop on Madison Avenue and his opulent apartment on Sutton Place,
- An aging (35-ish) player in the gay porn business who wanted to sodomize my friend but my friend said “not with that you’re not!”
- A friendly young college student whom my friend said gave him the best fellatio he’d ever enjoyed in his life,
- A self-proclaimed “famous welterweight boxer” (obviously crashing from a coke binge) who assured us he was “straight” (as he exposed the largest male member I’ve ever seen in the flesh) and that he was just there “for the money” and would “fuck y’all all night for $50”,
- A young man who said he was a farm-team baseball player, and
- A comedian who’d played the major New York night spots as well as Vegas, and had done a little television.
So did they live happily ever after?
Nope. Not at all. The scope of this writeup is merely to invite the un-initiated into one of the unique facets of the pre-AIDS age of decadence in the post-Stonewall age of gay tolerance and liberation. We all know that in fact, they did not live happily ever after. This writeup is not here to blame the bath houses nor the promiscuous for the spread of AIDS; it was only by 1981 that hushed rumors began to spread around the gay community about “gay cancer” and myriad more rumors about what caused it (amyl nitrate or “poppers,” sex with foreigners, sex with animals, anal sex, fecal/urine fetishes, and the list goes on and on). An ironic aside: the man who got us acid and pot for that evening’s club-going and bath house visit was a famous drug vendor who peddled out of an apartment in a building he owned, who one day (about a year or two after our bath house visit) announced “I have gay cancer!” His tone was as if it was a status symbol, somehow. Perhaps he thought that resources like his popularity and financial status could solve the problem of curing him. Tell that to Rock Hudson.
By 1982, the number of gay men dying of the mysterious, treatment-resistant disease started tallying up extremely rapidly. And there was plenty of hypothesizing going on that the disease was communicated sexually. Amazingly, there were still gay men going to the St. Marks and some of the other bath houses in New York City. They paid no heed to, or were ignorant of, up-to-date information about the communicability of the disease being disseminated by brand-new groups such as the GMHC (The Gay Mens’ Health Crisis). One by one, like victims-by-proxy of the disease, the bath houses themselves closed up, until the only one left was the well-capitalized and well-connected St. Marks. Finally, the City decided to step in and take matters into its own hands (no, theydidn’t offer hand-jobs to prospective bath clientele). They successfully enjoined the St. Marks from conducting a business which included lockable rooms behind the doors of which un-inspected “high-risk” sexual conduct could occur. In 1986 the Court closed the St. Marks for a period of one year and fined the owners $29,000. The Court further prohibited the owners from maintaining private rooms which were uninspectable and in which such conduct could occur.
The St. Marks’s ownership appealed. Given the uniqueness of what was going on, and the fact that what once was considered mere lewd and immoral behavior was now pretty much agreed to be arguably fatal in many cases, there was little in the way of legal precedent that the defendants could build a good legal argument upon. In fact, the mainstay of their appeal, People v. Onofre, (51 N.Y.2d 476, cert denied, 451 U.S. 987), had nothing to do with a commercial enterprise nor with the potential for hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals to patronize that commercial enterprise in a given month.
The case finally made it to the New York High (Appellate) Court, which ruled that a) that the administrative order which closed the St. Marks Baths (139 A.D.2d 977) was affirmed, b) the costs and fees imposed by the Court in the matter City of New York v New St. Mark’s Baths,130 Misc. 2d 911, 497 N.Y.S.2d 979 (1986) were fair and just and c) that the plaintiff’s arguments on appeal are without merit (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t 1990).
Again, it is out of the scope of this write-up to analyze what happened thereafter, nor to chronicle any of the myriad civil rights actions and appeals that have followed City of New York v St. Mark’s. Let’s just say that when the bath house closed its doors in 1990, it was the end of an era, an era of pushing the envelope of acceptable human behavior, an era of unprecedented hedonism, an era of joyously celebrated sexual freedom, and the end of (perhaps) a somewhat unique social experiment (unbeknownst to all involved but for a few who’ve chronicled this issue for the sake of modern anthropology).
A few years after our experience at the St. Mark’s Baths, the same friend and I held candles and marched with thousands of individuals down a route through New York’s West Greenwich Village, in memory of all the individuals taken from us so early by AIDS. One of the most significant topics of lecture by speakers and conversation among the crowd at large was the issue of survivor guilt. Perhaps the answer to why some were spared and so many taken will come from science. Hopefully sooner than later for the sake of those who’d play Russian roulette with their lives in the name of a moment’s (unprotected) pleasure.
- “Gay Sex in the ’70s”: film review by Dana Stevens, The New York Times, 1/21/07
- Interview: Ian Levine (Part 2) http://www.djhistory.com/djhistory/archiveInterviewDisplay.php?interview_id=19 (accessed 1/21/07)
- “City Shuts a Bathhouse as Site of ‘Unsafe Sex'” by Joyce Purnick, The New York Times, 12/7/85
- “Slumming it on St. Marks, or at Least Trying To” by Andrei Codrescu, The Villager http://www.thevillager.com/villager_160/slumming.html (accessed 1/21/07)
- Website of the St. Marks Hotel http://www.stmarkshotel.qpg.com/ (accessed 1/21/07)
- Court Upholds Power to Close Gay Bathhouses: City of New York v New St. Mark’s Baths, 130 Misc. 2d 911, 497 N.Y.S.2d 979 (1986) also (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t 1990) Versuslaw, accessed 1/21/07. And related case law.
- The personal experience of the writer.
- Anecdotal history given by sources whom request anonymity.
(c) 2005 Paul Lewis
Many thanks to Paul Lewis for sharing this history and his memories with Back2Stonewall.com.
Do YOU have any memories of the notorious and fabulous New St. Marks Maths? If so we’d love to read em. Just post in the comments section below.