High life | 27 April 2017

Unlike Andy Warhol, I never got spat at but that was because I behave like an old-fashioned gent

High life | 27 April 2017
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Twenty-five years ago this week, Los Angeles was burning because of Rodney King’s beating at the hands of the fuzz, and I had my shoulder sliced open by a doctor in order to repair torn ligaments. My shoulder hurt more than Rodney’s ribs. I know that because I saw him, on TV, get up and gesticulate freely after having been whacked rather hard by four cops. I didn’t lift my arm for months. Lesson to be learned: it’s better to be beaten by four police officers than to run into an ice wall at high speed while skiing with snow blindness.

Forty years ago last week, there was better news: Studio 54 opened its doors, changing the Big Bagel’s night-time culture for ever. The club was founded by two friends of mine — they became friends after a rocky start — and to get in you had to do physical battle under the giant marquee with the ‘deplorables’ that lay siege to those of us who were given the signal to enter upon arrival. The sidewalk outside Studio was a scary zoo: the non grata ones linked arms against those welcomed by the legendary Mark Benecke, and some even spat at people like Warhol and his entourage as the club’s heavies escorted them in. I never had any problem with the BBQs — the Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens crowds —as I always dressed square and never expected the heaving humanity to open up à la Red Sea to welcome me. Lesson to be learned: act like an old-fashioned gent, not like a haughty celebrity, and the crowd will neither spit on you nor try to keep you out.

Studio was redolent of secret chambers. There were nooks and crannies, and places where people openly screwed and took drugs. What amazed me was that it was always referred to as exclusive, but at full capacity it held 2,000, a fact that always led me to question its exclusivity. Which brings me to the point of my story.

What I miss most when in New York is not Studio, or Nell’s, nor even El Morocco, but the small cabarets, known back then as saloons or dives, where jazz musicians and singers could take popular songs and deliver them to you as though they were confiding in your ear. They were dark, they were smoky and they were small, and the best of them, near Third Avenue and 55th Street, was called the Blue Angel. It opened its doors late, as Elmo’s and the Stork club closed theirs, and its lavishly upholstered room was straight out of a 1920s Berlin whorehouse. Eartha Kitt and Johnny Mathis and Woody Allen got their start there, and the place was packed with celebrities who lived at night, people such as Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich and that awful Truman Capote. For some strange reason I used to be in the gossip columns back then, especially around 1956, because of the film stars I used to escort around. The maitre d’ of the Angel treated me like a celebrity (that was a first and last, I might add).

Manhattan back then had more piano bars than immigrants. Cocktail pianists in smoking jackets played their hearts out over the noise of drunks in long seamless medleys. That was the best part of the day, or rather evening. You’d pick up your date after a hard day on the tennis court and head for a piano bar while her stomach was empty. Once you were well oiled, you’d move on to a restaurant, followed by El Morocco. After that, holding on to each other for balance, you’d head for the Blue Angel, where you’d stay until dawn. Then, owing to youthful horniness, it was on to even better things. It might sound like a dull life, but I wouldn’t trade it for a Nobel Prize for Literature.

People stayed up much later than they do now. Even after a 6 a.m. drink, there was always Lexington and 51st Street for breakfast. Bickford’s served good but cheap all-night food, and as there were no drugs back then, people actually ordered food when they were hungry. From the end of the war in 1945, until well into the 1960s, Manhattan had more cabarets than anywhere else in the world. The Little Club was owned by Billy Reed, a gay man who took a shine to me and gave me his best table despite my rather definite announcement the night we met that there would be no hanky panky, table or no table. It was at the Little Club that the baseball great — greatest ever, as far as I’m concerned — Mickey Mantle tried to pick up my date Linda Christian, wife of Tyrone Power, but took a liking to me instead and invited me to the Yankees dugout leaving Linda alone.

There was a romantic, sexual electricity in those small cabarets back then, or perhaps it was the fact that I was in my twenties that made it so. It was a magnetism that made one feel on top, especially when escorting a beauty. The big-band era was coming to a close, but there were still more than 20 ballrooms in the city where one could go and dance one’s legs off. Many hotels had their own supper clubs — the Persian Room at the Plaza, the Cotillion at the Pierre, and the Wedgwood Room of the Waldorf Astoria. I once even entered and came third in a cha-cha-cha contest, but I’ve been too embarrassed to write about it 60 years on.

Anyway, that’s how things were back then, and when it gets dark I sometimes miss them. Lesson to be learned: don’t get old.