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
Rumor has it that Bette Midler got her start singing at a joint called The
Continental Baths in New York City. Her accompanist (again, this is merely
hearsay) 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 hereinabove 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
- 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 antique shop 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
- 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
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, they didn'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 writeup 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.
- "History Lesson: Backroom Crackdown"
- "Gay Sex in the '70s": film review by Dana Stevens, The New York
- Interview: Ian Levine (Part 2)
- "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,
http://www.thevillager.com/villager_160/slumming.html (accessed 1/21/07)
- Website of the St. Marks Hotel
- 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.
UPDATE 1/27/07: further research turned up this website: http://www.gaytubs.com/lengendary2.htm
which contains photographs and plenty of first-hand recollections by former patrons of the Saint Mark's.