Stephen Ostrow: King Queen - Rolling Stone
Home Culture Culture News

Stephen Ostrow: King Queen

Politician and pitchman to the pansexual revolution


Public restroom sign

Caspar Benson

Divine comedy, funnier by far than any fantasy of Dante’s: in the hard winter of ’76, the comical young exurban consumers are ascended again from the subterranean mass-transit inferno, to jam the Empyrean Club again, clearly ignorant of how discernible they are; genital males clothed by the perpetual sale of Wilson’s House of Suede and Leather, genital females who assume that wearing real lesbian-type fatigues is the same as wearing those assembled by Yves St. Laurent. And there is that unmistakable rusticity about them, a bright, alert blindness, their eyes misted by the perpetual central air conditioning of the Levitt homes of Matawan, New Jersey. In awe, which displaces for the moment their profound bewilderment at why they are here, drawn to this pansexual night-world by a cyclopedic force they now lack the stamina to comprehend or define, they await the comely bartender of the Empyrean’s main groping arena, the Ninth Circle Cocktail Lounge, in order to spend extensively on things like Pina Colada (they believed it branded them too straight, in the sexual sense, to order intricate drinks, until they learned that Pina Colada was the most demanded beverage a year ago at the Continental Baths, their first pansexual paradiso).

Tip the comely headwaiter and they will gain their own table in the adjoining nightclub room, where, for a stiff cover, they’ll hear a singer of indeterminate gender aping Bette Midler’s aping of a tough, smirking male drag queen, frankly burly beneath his pet pailletted gown and Bette Davis wig. His patter, between choruses of the dirty version of “Mad about the Boy,” is rife with phallus-clitoris comparison gags, which he once could have performed only in a gay bar; which is the only place he ever used to work; which is what the Empyrean always was, until the abrupt embracement of pansexuality by Matawan and all ingenuous places like it across the perplexed republic.

After the drag act, exurbia’s more benighted still hop the Broadway express (like yesterday’s prom kings and queens, in white tux jackets and net formals, too intimidated by Manhattan taxis to hail them), to the now relatively staid Continental Baths; or they join the myriad other sons of bowling teamsters sidling through nightspots which all ape New York’s original disco purgatorio, the now defunct Le Jardin. They are in striped hair like the old Bowie’s, and complex Maybelline applications infinitely more complex than those achieved by the women they bring. Those bored by plain old transvestitism descend into the far west Village’s netherworld of snake-pit waterfront bars, cavernous pockmarks lit with single 40-watt red bulbs so that sexual encounters may occur in corners in sync to the shattering music and, most notably, on makeshift stages, where such faddish diversions as an exhibition of the entire fist of one male shoved extensively up the anus of another, more flexible one (or, to call it by its rightful name, fist-fucking) have reputedly been observed by Lee Radziwill and her friends.

Another hinterland contingent, those most elegantly streetwise, those already bored with sex in public places, those who now maintain that if you’ve seen one fist-fuck you’ve seen ’em all, also traverse the Village to the waterfront, but to punish with their Frye boots the parquet of 12 West, the only pansexual disco where you’re now sure to detect the limos of Ryan and Tatum O’Neal and Angela and David Bowie, where Bette Midler and Stephen Stills and Marisa Berenson actually had to wait in line to get in, an establishment which is nightworld’s future, the nightclub of Brave New World if Huxley’s soma had been speed.

Suggest to the frye-booted outlanders that because they are present, Ryan, Tatum, Marisa, Etcetera will soon not be; that what killed the Continental was middle-class youths’ excessive presence. That as soon as media purveyed the notion that opulent, affluent persons enjoyed multi-sexuality and flocked to its various watering holes and made the papers and the six o’clock news and thus attracted Matawan, the opulent and affluent tarried a bit to giggle at the rubes and pronounce them fabulously trashy and then fled to seek something besides pansexuality with which to demonstrate their uniqueness, something more contemporary, like racism. Suggest that aberrant sex is now as passé to the elite as liberal causes, and Matawan is but momentarily nonplused, secure in its belief that it has become beautiful and chic simply by embracing this bizarre milieu, even secondhandedly. Tell these innocents that entrepreneurs of pansexuality are exploiting the curious mass obsession with a media dead baby, ask them to define that obsession, and their young brows furrow. “We read that gay people, um, bisexual people, were very right-on,” explains a youth from Mineola, Long Island, distracted by a dance floor of male couples, female couples, duos and trios of quixotic combinations. “Very cheerful. I mean, nobody much is cheerful. Very in touch. . .”

“. . . with their passions.” His date, a febrile girl of 19, finishes for him. “Very productive and creative and sexually liberated and capable of very deep feeling. Only when you get rid of all sexual hangups are you free. Everybody wants to do that now. Straight? Gay? Those are square old labels, we are against labeling and role playing, it’s countersurvival. I think you’re very square to use those labels. This is a very mind-expanding, free, human place. You’re countersurvival if you think somebody here’s ripping you off, and paranoiac, and that’s very square. Look what you get here.” She wears no makeup. Her escort’s troubled skin sulks under a discreet dust of Pan-Cake or Erase. Persist with this questioning in the pansexual nightworld and the answers differ only in the degree to which psychological patois muddies them. In the lobby of the Actors Playhouse, after a performance of Boy Meets Boy, one of the myriad thriving pansexual plays, a young man with bewildered, unfocused eyes who states that he and his silent girl are from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, offers rapidly, “At home Thursdays I’ve got my men’s group and Janice has her women’s group and in them there’s a lot of nonverbal communication. So we both found out we liked touching members of the same sex, it’s very authenticating to discover that just the opposite sex can’t give you the whole number, sexually. So far we are monogamous, we still believe in modular relating; and wife swapping, mate swapping, that’s now very dysfunctioning. Janice and I are our own functioning unit, but if she’s turned on by a chick, that’s not dysfunctioning. Me, I got impotent a couple of years ago. My group thinks it was too much pressure to perform, because there’s been so much sex everywhere. Uh, straight sex. When you accept any sex, you get your potency back. Janice and I now relate to ourselves as people. I don’t give a shit who thinks we’re ‘in’ or ‘out,’ those are nonproductive values. Exploit? Who? Listen, it’s worth plenty to us to get our sexual consciousnesses expanded.”

He has a point: pansexual entrepreneurs, after all, merely packaged a product which Matawan waited to consume. The proletariat can hardly be expected to pay, anymore, for the weary tropology of gay or black activists, Patricia Hearst, Smokey the Bear, Ralph Nader, Margaret Mead, Gloria Steinem, or ozone conservationists versus users of hair spray. No other cause has sustained itself by providing something saleable: Watergate merely added a tour-bus stop, pollution provided John Denver with song lyrics, militant women produced Virginia Slims. Alert entrepreneurs could find nothing more to vend except the new sexual imperative, which they sold brilliantly by convincing Matawan that if it did not buy, it would feel unfulfilled and culpable. They’d learned this sales technique by observing two pioneer pansexual purveyors: Tony De Fries, David Bowie’s ex-manager, who supervised, for Bowie’s American debut, the metamorphosis of a quiet, heterosexually-turned-out London singer into a theatrical aberration resembling Lauren Bacall in Designing Woman, or Twiggy, Mia Farrow, Garbo in Ninotchka, the girl in the “Come to the Fabergé” ad, or James Dean wearing Fabergé; and the solicitor extraordinaire, Stephen Ostrow, instigator of the Continental Baths, and by far the most astounding of all pansexual pitchmen.

That no serious writer has examined the new Ostrow is partly due to his very recent discovery of the incredible uses he can make of his notoriety. Gossip columnists noted him, of course, back when he became the first steam bath owner to open the premises to all sexes, to provide nightclub entertainment in addition to the diversions within the steam room, to discover Bette Midler. They quickly dropped him, however, after limousines stopped clogging West 74th Street, after Jersey discovered him and made him rich, after everybody with a liquor license started courting the new suburban pansexual clientele. By early 1975, reservations for holiday nights at the Continental had to be made months in advance, so keen had the hinterlands become to experience, if only by osmosis, the immense sexuality just beyond the stage and the dance floor.

But these facts are mere overture to the Ostrow of tomorrow, the new goals to which he can and will apply his power, just as the Continental’s dim foyer and art-cinema box office are but a dignified prelude to what lies beyond, or rather below them. While one is announced by intercom, there is time to study the whimsical posted warnings about use on the premises of marijuana and other illegal excesses, and Ostrow’s prices. Way back when it was obscure and only homosexual, the Continental cost a few dollars a night; now private rooms rent for $10, $12 on weekends, and the disco-nightclub experience alone costs three dollars weekend nights, plus the expensive food and drinks. “But forget the rip-off prices,” directs Hughie, a former Continental devotee one interviews later; frankly and exclusively homosexual, he frowns, bewildered at his now anachronous preference. “Forget that the place isn’t clean anymore. I don’t expect the Plaza but the dirt in there. Forget that the no-drug rule’s now strictly enforced – so you’ll buy more drinks. Ostrow has alienated his first customers by bringing all those weird straights and women down there, staring. Not to mention all the blacks. We used to go to Harlem in ermine and pearls ’cause blacks were sexy and free. Now it’s reversed – Ostrow’s turned fags into the new blacks, if you follow me. . .”

Saturday night, in the spring of ’75, one follows a very ebullient Ostrow employee down mirrored stairs to a stunning cavern blessed by multisonic stereo blasting Bowie and Barry Manilow at uncounted decibels across the emerald swimming pool and the panchromatic walls, spotlit with Ethel Barrymore pink gels and other benevolent, line-obliterating pastels. The baize of the billiard table is unscarred, as is the bar; ubiquitous mirrors insist that you confront yourself perpetually, and enlarge to infinity any unaesthetic presence on the dance floor or the nightclub stage. Beyond, the air near the closed, portentious steam-room doors is misted, as if by a munificence of warm breath. Though it is early, several nude males sport about in the pool and upon the wooden lounges beside it, like those on the patios of Miami hotels. The bar, game room and dance floor are occupied by a dozen boys dressed in towels; black boys dressed like pimps; suburban couples both young and determinedly young. “It gets so you don’t wanna go outside,” the vivacious employee shouts over the music. “This is the real world.”

Like Dante’s, without time or exit. Here Ostrow materializes, in slim European boots and tight light pants which, tucked into the boots, resemble riding breeches. Tall, arresting, he is impressive in spite of something concave about his small mouth, which smiles in perpetuity, though secretly, as if loathe to reveal a transcendent punch line. His welcome is kind, sincere, in no way calculated or fawning. Of course the stereo obliterates conversation, and we start upstairs, past a hallway of private rooms strange with lingering masses of used amyl nitrite, to an elevator which snaps us to Ostrow’s apartment in the old Ansonia Hotel, of which the Continental occupies the basement. Smiling, Ostrow says little; already you sense that he is charismatic, in both the theological and public-relations senses; besides, silence is needed to absorb the huge apartment, implausibly yet comfortably theatrical, the playboy’s penthouse, assuming he has taste. An acre of old floors has been expensively rubbed to grain, lighted by Klieg, polished hourly, furnished with the Museum of Modern Art’s purloined collection. The round living room’s French windows open onto a narrow circling terrace over Broadway, and Ostrow steps outside.

“The real world,” he asserts satirically, pointing down, “full of laws I didn’t make or it wouldn’t be where it is. The scarier it gets out there, the more they crowd in downstairs. Here, there is no recession.” Now he points directly below us. “You can cruise the street from here. See that boy and girl crossing at the light? He’s looking up.” And Ostrow waves, more a salute, or blessing.

The largest of the living room’s good paintings, by obscure, expensive artists, is of a Latin boy who somewhat resembles the youthful Sophia Loren; with restrained pride Ostrow explains, “That’s Jesse, my lover. He lives here.” Sitting, he stretches his legs aristocratically, as if relaxing after a fox hunt. “Yes, I’ve been told I’m the Hugh Hefner of the new sexuality, living up here, my playground below, rarely going out.” But you have not mentioned Hefner, only thought of him; you wonder where Ostrow could have originated and it happens again, his singular ability to guess or read unspoken questions.

“Born in Brooklyn, went to Brooklyn College; when I thought of the Continental I was working in finance, on Wall Street. I weighed 268 pounds. My wife and I’d settled in Matawan, New Jersey, with our two kids. I was the cantor of the local synagogue, I’d helped build it. I was 38 and had never been to a steam bath; but my wife was paying all her attention to the kids. I lacked love, feeling, and at work I talked to this boy who . . . listened. He took me to a bath, I went back by myself. Told my wife; we started thinking of investing in a bath. I have this curse,” and his smile is sardonic. “I’m very creative but I’m also an excellent businessman. My mind creates things to sell, because the final test of creativity is, is it saleable? Right? My wife and I started driving over to Manhattan, parking outside the well-known baths like the Everard, clocking how many guys went in at what times of day, we’d then figure at so much a head against rent, insurance. Kids would dart in, scared they’d be seen – funny, because that’s gone now – and come out looking sated. I knew if I could improve upon the existing steam-bath ambience,” and he pronounces the word correctly, “create a lifestyle within one for guys I understood, guys like myself from Jersey who . . . you see, in 14 years of marriage I’d never been with another woman. Have never, because I’m still happily married to my wife. Sex with another woman would have caused me deep remorse, but sex at a bath with boys, that was simple release. And I knew the country was full of men like me. Sex, after all, is the most intense form of communication, and this is a technological society built upon expanding communication, much as capitalism was built on expanding money; I sensed we’d need to expand sexual communication, by promiscuity without guilt, and that if I could create a place in which that could occur, in which the middle class could create its own values, instead of living by values imposed upon it by the church, the state, as it always had. . .”

Impressive: his credibility and presence, it must be emphasized, are mesmerizing, almost messianic; simultaneously, he is pleasantly accessible, casually satiric of himself. “God, what a struggle when we opened here. My wife was behind me all the way, the boys got to love her. Joanne and I aren’t separated, we just live separately. My relationship with her and the children is the foundation of my life.” His boy is six, his daughter twelve, “going on 40,” as he puts it; apparently to them, a book like Show Me would read like Nancy Drew. “Sure they come to the Continental, they know the whole story. They were on the TV show with me and my wife and Jesse,” and again he points to the portrait, “the Pat Collins program, it was called A Man, His Wife and His Lover, a study in working bisexuality. So the kids are very hip, very happy and healthy. I tell them they’ve begun life in an era without labels, in which they can be just sexual people. They think I’m the greatest father who ever lived. I’ve never said, ‘Don’t tell your friends,’ and they do. This place is more than my living now, it’s my mission. I’ve led a whole sexual revolution here, and I’m ready to expand beyond these walls. To be used by the people. Yes! I’m speaking of politics. . .”

He crosses and recrosses the thin booted legs; otherwise he is quite composed. He does not mean to sound satirical now, and the sense of urgency, credibility, gentle messianic energy increases. Providing an impenitent ambience for Jersey patriarchs, he asserts, was gratifying and profitable but incomplete: he wished for the world’s sexuality “to attain the scope my own had here, all sexual encounters with all beautiful people, and by ‘beautiful’ I do not mean the jet set, the café-society crowd. They were here only a short while.

That Bette Midler would put him in touch with the latter was by chance; he found her waiting tables at the Improvisation Club on Ninth Avenue and let this weird girl try a couple of songs for the boys in towels one Saturday. Her stage was an orange crate. One night’s engagement stretched to 16 weeks and drew enormous mixed crowds and, incredibly, a steam bath became a desirable booking for Sarah Vaughn, Morgana King, Lillian Roth and Eleanor Steber of the Met, who sang Mozart. For her opening, which was recorded live by RCA, male patrons wore black towels. Memorable but, to Ostrow, still not the point.

“By then, straight guys who’d brought their dates started coming back alone. They would enter very macho,” and he mimics a simian stance, “play a very macho pool game, nothing more. Weekends they’d come with girls again. Finally they came alone and got into towels. And found themselves watching beautiful boys and feeling a thing they’d kept suppressed. And grooving on it! They started coming in groups, three or four guys’d rent one room, share it, participate in the sexuality, but in a new, different way.”

His reading of “new, different way” is so compelling that one actually awaits the description of some hitherto unimagined physical endeavor. He enjoys that, pauses. “Even so, the atmosphere here was still too monosexual.” To remedy that, he asked several professional models, “beautiful chicks who swing gay, straight, anything,” to come to the baths weekends, disrobe, swim in the pool with men, “and then go in the steam room! Incredible, it was a complete rejuvenation! Oh, a couple of men complained – all middle-aged and uptight. The young guys loved it! We’re close now to total sexual liberation here, but I wish everybody in the world could have witnessed the first awakening down there, the dawn of the revolution, the first girl turning on to beautiful boys in towels, the first straight guy who did, the first gay guy turning on to naked women! Will this sound excessive? That the Continental has grown full with love, like my life! The world comes here now to feel the release of decades of pent-up sexuality, all those years of inhibition are splattered, if you will, against my walls! Enough semen has been excreted here to populate the world to infinity! It’s now time to publish my book about it all; also my wife’s. Hers is called Rhinestones, Poppers and Sweat.”

Of course without his credibility, these monologues would be as unnerving as hearing a knockabout farce read by fine actors who excel only in classic tragedy. “I learned politics the day I opened here,” he is saying. “The Mafia, which controls some of the bisex bars and baths, was making me offers I couldn’t refuse, but I did. The cops were raiding us three times a night. I would not stay underground, I would not give an inch to the syndicate, I could prove that to you. My wife and I walked the streets getting thousands of signatures on petitions; we took them ourselves to the mayor, the governor. You think gay lib got city hall to ease up? No way, I did. I got laws changed. This building is now Revolutionary Headquarters; young people come to me by the hundreds now, for guidance. I set up a VD clinic downstairs, free blood tests. I run private therapy sessions for those still sexually unsure. I speak constantly in public; I just addressed 200 Jewish wives from Long Island, told them sex is not synonymous with love, freedom’s the New Deal, the words ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ are gone, obsolete, we are sexual people capable of all sexuality. I said. ‘I have more sex in a week than you get all your lives; your husbands are at the Continental right now,’ and they love it, they are spellbound! Put me on a platform and I communicate the good life. And in the race for mayor or Senate, anybody who got even three-fourths of the persons now sympathetic to multisexuality to the polls to vote would have to win! Look, I’m trusted, respected. I’ve got the drive, style, money, the wife and kids and the lover the new politician will need beside him publicly. I know it will still be tough. But it would be my greatest fulfillment.

“I’m entirely realistic about this. It’ll be a long climb. But politically, I’ll still be a young man in 1984.” Though he laughs, it is unclear if that year seems ironic to him. “First, there’s New York, which is my town.”

This first struck him during the last mayoral campaigns, when all four candidates actually asked Ostrow if they might address the Continental’s weekend contingent. “I was amazed! My God, unheard of, a would-be mayor speaking in a steam bath! My wife and I were suddenly getting invited to private campaign affairs, like breakfast at Herman Badillo’s. No, Jesse didn’t go. I asked straight out why we’d been asked, though I knew the answer: I was told I controlled the multisexual vote, even then they weren’t saying ‘gay vote.”‘ And of course it occurred to him that if others could woo an electorate he manipulated, he could do it quicker and better himself.

“You’ve come to me at what happens to be a very crucial moment in all this.” But, dramatist that he is, he’s saving that for the curtain. “I’ve been thinking carefully since that breakfast: first, to determine just how much further I could carry sexual freedom.” Restless now, the messianic smile more excited, he strides the circle of the room, contemplates the statue of Verdi in the tiny square down on 72nd, briefly hums La Traviata in a resonant baritone. “Of course I saw this economy coming, this end to dreams, the discrediting of the psychedelic experience, the final end of faith, in government as we knew it, in the family. Who can bear the expense anymore, the worry of the old way, who can afford to have kids? I knew how weary they would all get – of fear. When you’re scared, your cock shrivels. I knew that when they had nothing left to lose, they’d be forced to seek only the basic, their sexuality, but without fear, in a controlled reality, a planned environment, an ambience dedicated to total sensuality! And that is the new public mood! Who gives a shit now about ecology, sociology? We’ve all learned that when we die, those things will be pointless, that we can trust nothing but our senses; all that will count at the end is the extent to which they’ve been gratified. Millions are now ready to serve the senses! These are really incredibly sensual, luxurious times! I wonder if the Continental is big enough anymore to hold the multiple escapees? I’ve not made this public: that we now have dozens of people living downstairs, on a permanent basis. And hundreds more want to! These are scientists, engineers, attorneys, teachers, who can afford to live elsewhere but they’ve come to me and said, ‘The world outside’s too much, this world is beautiful, what’d it cost per month?’ I charge ’em by the day, regular rates, and they register and pay daily. I’m not ready to run the Hot L Baltimore, but they’re free to make this home, and you should see what some have done to their rooms! Wallpaper, hangings, paintings, phones. Color TVs. Ironing boards! A phenomenon: they go to work, come home and never go out again; it’s all here – food, drink, laundry, pool, endless music, endless dancing, endless sexuality, no strings or obligations, just endless feeling, a perpetual party. Kids who come to me for counseling, I often say just three words to them: do your thing.” But the party burgeoned beyond anything of Jay Gatsby’s. Besides Ostrow’s tenants and regulars and suburban tourists, there’s the whole crowd down from 125th Street. “Nobody‘s done this: I invited, through ads in the Amsterdam News and on WBLS, the black rhythm & blues station, all the black community into the Continental. Free. Come, enjoy! Or vice versa. And there were hundreds of blacks here instantly, every night; I wanted the white Matawan crowd to begin to get used to grooving on racial mixture. Found myself with a whole new . . . market.”

Did he almost say “vote”? He mind-reads that at once, and grins. “The blacks downstairs aren’t necessarily voters. Yet. They are the source of immense new energy here, a second rejuvenation! The white reaction’s astoundingly good. But listen, I promptly got a call from the Mattachine Society, once the sexual civil-rights force, asking me, ‘What is this new policy, letting blacks in?’ Yes, I swear! Gay lib has gotten as bourgeois as Matawan was. As bigoted as all those ‘beautiful people’ are! ‘Your old customers are turned off,’ the Mattachine said. “‘Old” is right,’ I said. ‘They better turn on, to a new world. White, black, bi, straight are coming together here as they never have anywhere in history. The Continental is not safe and WASP but it is an overwhelming sexual melting pot, in a new united sexual era.’ “

Now he is ready to detonate. “Every politico in the state now petitions me for support, but only one really grabs me: State Senator Carl McCall, elected in ’74 to the 28th District, the West Side here, and Harlem; a dynamic young black man, reminds me of Sydney Poitier, a tough, together guy with a very saleable political record. He is New York today – as I am. And he’s asked me to join him sponsoring a huge rally in Madison Square Garden, a mammoth campaign to get potential voters registered. Like bis and gays, blacks just haven’t voted, and if you’ve got each of those factions, you’ve got the city. Of course, Black Muslims tried to turn blacks off of any sex that is nonpropagating, but that’s passé. The night Elijah Muhammad died this place was full of blacks, and they laughed: he’d told them he was God and would never die. Carl McCall has a strong black influence – at the moment. He has a definite mayoral potential, or governor – I mean, who is Hugh Carey, you know? Anyway, the registration rally, my people are very interested in it already; so are the blacks. . . .”

In whom, Steve? How many of them know who Senator McCall is? He does not display a genius for publicity; moreover, he lacks a Xanadu in which to fete the voting melting pot. Come on, Steve, say it. One actually addresses him thus; he encourages it with his laugh. “Okay, I’ll tell you something I have not announced publicly till this moment: I’ve consulted with city and business leaders; and I will definitely announce myself as independent candidate for New York state senator in the next election. Definitely. There.” For what district? The 28th? He only grins. “I’m fully aware I can lose, but it’s a beginning, a means to know how and where the people see me functioning. There are other offices, for example, borough president. I must know where the people want me. It’ll be a very serious campaign: I’ve been on a long series of college lecture tours, and my wife and I and Jesse will go into the street for signatures again. This is not some ego trip; no way; that would be sick, ludicrous. . .”

Somehow he segues here into a discussion of evolution. He will do that unexpectedly, the delivery of wry monologues which are purposely convoluted, erudite, accurate and riveting, due to his startling internal engine. He is sometimes like a great actor holding an audience rapt by reading the Yellow Pages, or a messiah reading the Bible. Jesse enters midway, to shake hands firmly. A handsome, masculine, well-spoken boy, he allows that he much prefers New York to his native California. The phone has summoned Ostrow downstairs, but he waits courteously for one’s exit.

The tiny Ansonia elevator becomes an Orwellian voting booth. “
. . . All the sexes/From Maine to Texas/Have never known such love before!” Ostrow would be merely a parody of a parody, John P. Wintergreen’s campaign song in Of Thee I Sing; except that parodies of parodies are finally cultural bedrock; and in a brave new pansexual world, he is so devastatingly possible a candidate.

The point of seeing Senator McCall is, does he believe that too, or would he like to be quoted as believing it, to stroke Ostrow’s followers? That McCall has come a long way from Boston via Dartmouth and the University of Edinburgh is obvious; that he’s politically astute is widely acknowledged. His opening remarks are predictable, like his genially imperative presence, his trim quarters in the new Harlem State Office Building, his ceaselessly complaining phone, his Poitier resemblance: he sees an “emerging coalition of minorities,” the ethnic and sexually aberrant. After Mayor Beame spoke in a steam bath, it was safe for him to step further: to request a private audience with Ostrow, an official Ostrow endorsement and permission to hold two fundraising affairs in the Continental, a campaign “poolside happening” attended by McCall’s wife, Dick Gregory, and an overcapacity audience, admission $15; and a $25-a-head victory celebration after he’d won, proceeds “to eliminate debts incurred during the campaign.” He would probably not have gained the homosexual vote without Ostrow. Yes, gay activists whine to him of Ostrow’s unbounded exploitation, but who listens to them anymore, embalmed as they are in their archaic cause? Yes, blacks seem quite at ease with his Ostrow alliance, especially all those entertained at the baths. As for his political future, he smiles at it; Percy Sutton, a close friend and supporter, just might run for mayor now, leaving the office of Manhattan’s borough president vacant.

For Ostrow too? And how about the Senate seat McCall would vacate for borough presidency? The smile perceptibly wanes. “Steve could absolutely become a serious political element; he alone has made his constituency aware of their political strength, and he’s made that strength clear nationally.”

Someday? So the senator wasn’t one of those consulted about Ostrow’s late momentous decision? A dark look. “No. No, I wasn’t aware that . . .” He’s listening again into the phone receiver, yet not listening, pondering a supporter who’s just become an opponent, envisioning Ostrow whistle-stop campaigning alone in Sodom, in Gomorrah. In the outer office, Ostrow’s vivacious PR man, twice as vivacious now he’s to be a campaign manager, awaits; he is received now with elaborate and wary courtesy.

“Vote for him? I can’t vote till next year, but the day I can, Ostrow gets my vote; no question, the guy is mucho hip, who else is?” This from the apparently male half of a tourist couple, detectable in last year’s haute couture bisexual ensembles bought cut rate at Barney’s. They are patrons of a new sort of speakeasy that has burgeoned, the recording-studio-by-day in which, on weekends, they may, for five dollars, enjoy the dollop of light, dismaying music, flat beer and street freaks still done up like the now eclipsed Cockettes. Conversation is in bad form, like talking of work at California parties, and neither sex nor publicity is encouraged in these clandestine cabarets, which are technically unlicensed bars. Clientele is solicited on the street, very successfully; and macho-drag, or, vulgarly, “gender-fuck,” abounds – males in cocktail dresses, Permalash and full beards. “Steve Ostrow is throwing her Mr. Frederick into the ring?” one of these shouts when questioned. “That man is too good to be president, she should be elected God.” This attracts a large woman, or possibly a woman, the manager, who backs me a pace with each buckshot phrase: “If you’re some reporter and print a word that identifies this address I’ll sue off your balls.”

It is one thing for pariahs to vote for Ostrow – if Christ could have been voted out of crucifixion, lepers would surely have pulled the levers somehow – but that hundreds of adult students at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research jam the auditorium when he is guest speaker is quite another thing, a staggering thing. Dr. David Kahn, a noted psychiatrist at the school who conducts a course in something called “Being Your Authentic Self,” introduces Ostrow with an elaborate lecture laced with references to “toxic versus nourishing or modular relationships,” “actualizing the self,” and the fact that the nonpansexual life is the non-self-actualized life. During this, yawns are almost audible: this is hardly a room of confounded, acned adolescents; the listeners, mostly female, have the look of knowledgeable, worldly women engaged in marriages and lives of which they are in control; women who, as girls, when offered educations at Smith or Mount Holyoke, chose instead Bennington or the Peace Corps. On the speaker’s dais before them, Ostrow is flanked by his wife, a pleasant, relaxed, smartly dressed brunet, and two Continental employees who rather resemble the absent Jesse. Ostrow’s boots and leather have been replaced with Guccis and a Cardin suit; his thick hair is neatly brushed and his large face appears flushed, as though he had just used a sunlamp. Dr. Kahn explains Ostrow’s triumphant, multisexual, actualized life; by inference, the woman on the platform represents his heterosexuality, the men his aberrant activities. The room is airless, Dr. Kahn embarrassingly multiloquent; catching the Westport express in the rain outside is in the listeners’ eyes – until Ostrow takes over. As expected, his eloquence and presence are stupendous, Westport is forgotten. He does not directly refer to his new candidacy, but afterward the audience crowds forward to speak to him, to touch him, and if there were voting levers to be pulled, they’d line up now, the hell with commuter trains.

In urging them to be watchful, daily, for unexpected expansions of sexual horizons, he has referred, with ironic bowdlerization, to a new erogenous zone, somewhere at the base of his neck, which he’d discovered just last night, during a new, ecstatic multisexual encounter with people whose last names he doesn’t know; the latter he stresses proudly. When the audience finally files out, he explains, sotto voce, yet to the intense fascination of the sullen black janitor sweeping cigarette butts from under the seats, “I didn’t think Jesse should come today. I wasn’t sure I wanted him up there representing my dual sexuality at this moment, because it’s suddenly more than dual, it’s going through metamorphosis.” In the Continental yesterday, he’d been equally attracted to one of the “macho pool-playing guys” and a lovely blond girl and had asked them both up into the Ansonia. What followed, which he describes minutely, involved hours of every conceivable combination of the three of them in every room, including bathrooms, and they’re on again for tonight. “I told them to bring friends. This is a first for me! Jesse’s . . . away temporarily, he wouldn’t take to it: his loss. No, that’s not a sunburn, it’s the glow of the memory of undreamed of sex! The anticipation of more!”

His wife awaits within earshot, though she converses with Dr. Kahn, not hearing her husband, or pretending not to.

Dr. Kahn’s pupils and the Empyrean patrons queue, that Saturday night, in the continuing rain of the wet spring of ’75, outside a Village theater for Saturday Night at the Baths, a slick, rather entertaining cinematic pansexual paean (boy meets girl-and-boy, for horizon expansion) produced by Ostrow and Screw‘s publisher, Jim Buckley. At final fade-out, on impulse, one follows the audience north and hires a Continental room, which is neither dirty nor clean and contains a bed, a 40-watt bulb, an ashtray and mirrors. Living here would be difficult, in that the incessant beckoning disco music would rather interfere with phone conversations and the enjoyment of color TV. One replaces one’s clothing with a white towel; this must not feel foolish, the imperative here is clearly that nothing must feel foolish, that if you allow something to, you have psychically defaulted. But this, it strikes you, is the problem below: nude men and women in the pool mime insouciance, the way the dancers dance, as though choreographed, rigidly stylized, smiling in a No play that has run too long. At the pool table, a handsome black couple acts out a loving billiard game. Ostrow moves through the crowd with excellent posture, conversing briefly, moving on, as though barnstorming. Beside the pool, a man in a towel drowsily says, “Dig that Afro chick, dig all the beautiful chicks here, you dig they’re here, that they dig what happens here, that they fantasize about the steam room.” It is not a suggestion but a desperate command.

Further psychic default: it takes 40 minutes to enter the steam room, which proves disenchanting in the extreme, filled as it is with vague quiescent human shapes, genderless in the rancid steam. One exits, reenters, the music insists, the dancers persist, it is the same ceaseless nightmare continuum of the pansexual cabarets, a musical time warp, an implied progression toward a never attained climax, an amiable search for persons permanently mislaid, a permanent lack of exit. One recognizes, incredibly, a young man from northeastern Connecticut whom one has talked to a month before outside The Ritz, the Broadway comedy set in a steam bath which Ostrow claims is his. The young man had been with a pretty girl to whom, he asserted, he had that morning given an engagement ring. He emerges now somnambulantly from the steam room; even when invited to sit awhile by the pool he seems genuinely to disremember being interviewed before. What he says in answer to questions like “Do you come here often?” is this:

“A lot alone now, used to come with this girl I’m engaged to. I tell her when I come alone, she says okay, but maybe she’d like to do something freaky, without having to tell me, I said okay. We plan to have two kids. Fun? Coming here? Fun . . .” He considers the word with surpassing bafflement. “I think about sex all the time; because everybody else does. The owner, Ostrow? He spoke to me earlier, I never talked to anybody famous before, I didn’t know they were friendly. Vote? I never voted because I’m not going to vote for a liar. But I would be interested in voting for some guy who proves to me he is honest. This Ostrow impressed me as very honest. He seems to understand what you feel – even when you don’t tell him. Even when you don’t know yourself. Fun.” He thinks about that again. “Oh, well, it’s gotta be fun here. Once you really get used to it. Bound to be. Fun?” Then, as if annoyed, “I don’t come here just to have fun.”

At 12 West, in the difficult winter of ’76, at the commencement of the Bicentennial, the fun is fevered, yet not manufactured, like the Continental’s. What it is is tastefully packaged. The dance floor, painstakingly parqueted, is not really large, yet somehow exactly the correct disco size. Both the striped walls and the quad sound are sophisticated, as is the engineer in his glass booth. He chooses the music imaginatively. Balloons bounce playfully against the revolving mirrored balls on the ceiling. On the floor, patrons execute the Hustle, not playfully, but with a professional expertise that looks as good, from the surrounding pillowed tiers, as what Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse teach their Broadway chorus lines. The crowd’s clothes are A Chorus Line‘s costumes, not clichéd, except, of course, for the ubiquitous Frye boots. For the five dollars admission, 12 West members are availed of a continuing free buffet and free soft drinks: liquor is not served, here it is considered somewhat outré. So is sex. Here, these indulgences are frowned upon, though at 12 West, no one ever frowns. As on Broadway stages, the dancers are always intent upon projecting the idea that they are enjoying their work. Smoke and internally taken chemicals are not frowned upon; in point of fact, they may be the primary source of the smiling. The Continental’s odors of steam and sweat do not, in the end, compare with the odor of $70-the-ounce. One does not smell $20 ounces at 12 West. Poppers smell the same everywhere.

A meeting hall operated as a private club – one writes it a note, a membership card is promptly forwarded without charge – has an advantage beyond its nice exclusivity, the fact that no matter what authorities smell on the premises, they can’t do anything. There are four young owners of 12 West, variously called Jeff, Allan, Carey, Lewis, pleasant alert young men in their mid20s. In chorus they explain, as credibly as Ostrow, perhaps more so, “The syndicate’s been around here, sure, but they don’t seem too interested because we don’t serve liquor. There aren’t any fire or building code violations here; we took care of that when we put the place together, and we keep with it. So a bust isn’t possible really.” Smiles always play at their lips when they talk, an eager humor. The four of them originated in places like north Jersey, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and exude a suburban ingenuousness, tempered by benevolent smarts. Each of them has a good administrative daytime job, in construction, mills, on Seventh Avenue, though not designing fashions. Clearly they are sons of the Continental, who came of age within its pansexual ambience, sons of pioneers – their first-generation American parents and Ostrow, their new-think surrogate father.

They found Dad’s ambience tainted, inevitably, and decided that together they could, as one of them puts it, “come up with a happy hedonistic environment. We worked on the look and the feel of the place very carefully. We weren’t, obviously, after a sexual environment, there are plenty of those. A good high place to dance and groove . . .” They scrounged somewhat for the approximate $50,000 it took to open the place; the first members were friends of friends of friends, the carpeting on the tiers was still being nailed down as the first members arrived. None of them had ever run any kind of leisure establishment before. They can’t explain it, but they’d mysteriously created one which instantly attracted both limousines and the Datsuns of Matawan. It amuses them that they don’t really know how they wrought what they have, but having done it so successfully, they can be benevolent to their major competitors, including the disco called the Flamingo, which most resembles 12 West and wishes to draw its patrons. “The Flamingo charges a $48 membership fee,” the boys at 12 West assert gently. “We don’t charge anything. A member can always bring three guests. And here, we do watch out for the people. We do care and they can see it. We don’t let anybody stand on line outside a second longer than necessary. When we’re at capacity we let them in as soon as anybody leaves, and we keep them informed of how long they might have to wait. If anybody inside is too stoned, we take care of them, get them a cab, a doctor if we have to. The women you see here are interesting, right? Not sick chicks at all. Yeah, it’s a new thing, for men who function totally gay to . . . date. There’s a new kind of freedom for them, being with women, and gay men don’t make dumb demands on women. Women seem to be very sick of demands. . .”

When Ostrow is mentioned, the young men smile alertly. “Power trip. He could make it happen. But there must be better guys for politics.”

Like one of them? 12 West could avail any one of them with Ostrow’s kind of power – especially if it turns out to be true, as one senses it is, that what they have unwittingly done here is create the future, and that when the culture wearies, as it might any microsecond, of this sort of place, they’ll create a new one, suitable to new cultural mutations.

Then maybe one of them will want to be mayor. They all smile and laugh softly in concert. One of them speaks of 12 West’s big “Help New York” weekend in late December, featuring name disco entertainers like Gloria Gaynor, ten dollars a head those nights or $25 for three weekend evenings, all proceeds donated to Gotham’s moribund treasury. “But that was not a political act. Not really. Sure, we knew it would get the place, and us, a lot of publicity. The reason we did it, though, besides that, is that the city’s being good to us. I mean, we do love New York.”

And in the difficult winter of ’76, the Continental, like the city, felt a pinch. It was still revered by its patrons as Revolutionary Headquarters, but the clientele had mostly come to resemble General Washington’s somewhat grubby soldiers of fortune. About the women present, black and white, there was the feeling that they wore fur stoles; one Saturday night, two wives of Jersey Toyota salesmen actually did. Young men resembled the salesmen at Wilson’s House of Suede. Boys in towels were tourists from the planet’s most remote sectors. Fine, said Ostrow: though his presence and legend were still pervasive through the steam, he’d relinquished the Continental’s management (though not ownership) to a burly, walleyed type who clearly believed that customers still wanted to see Midler apers.

But Ostrow’s apartment, when one revisits, is, if anything, more laid-back opulent. So is Ostrow. Jesse’s away in Stuttgart, studying the dance, and though he’s been replaced temporarily by a near double, Ostrow’s on his way to Stuttgart, too, to resume his vocal studies. He’s confident now that he’s reached the political point where he can lay back, in Stuttgart or wherever, and wait for them to call him. Which they will. The mayoralty, or even a Senate seat, actually interests him less now than, a mysterious “new political office.”

Having planted that, he rapidly segues, for suspense: settling in an alert attitude on a hassock, he remarks about the lamentable fact that since the death of Lauritz Melchior, there hasn’t been an opera tenor to sing Wagner right, and that he could fill that gap after coaching abroad. You feel that this is all a sly put-on, one of his humorous ploys. To the Democratic party, he knows he must not look too hungry, too available – just available.

“Y’know, Abe – Beame is a very plucky guy in a very tough situation.” This is volunteered, one hasn’t mentioned the mayor. “But, of course, Abe doesn’t serve the multisexual community’s needs. Many straight people, including Democrats, have been telling me they’re ready to support me in a new post, a liaison position between straight and gay-bi. That’s a big job now. The right envoy between the two worlds should be a man with, besides a wife and a lover, a business so good he needn’t ask a high salary.”

He takes a stand on modifying New York State laws concerning homosexuality, laws that will be difficult to change following the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says private sex between consenting adults may still be a punishable offense. “Gay people have been partying too long; everyone has. It’s time to all get together to change these laws.”

He adds that he’s “in communication” with President Ford, Governor Carey. “Ford wrote a very nice letter.” He’s offered his business creativity to Beame. “I want to work out something beyond budget cuts for New York, ways for the city to generate new income, new businesses, new. . . excitement. I can do that! We’ve got to lick this pessimism, by means of creative ideas which spring from the moment. . .”

You feel that by “moment,” he here means, or always means, a sexual moment; that all his inspiration’s orgasmic. You also note that his weird sense of credibility has, if anything, grown. “Oh, my autobiography will be ready by early “77. Strawberry Hill’s publishing it.” From a cabinet he quickly produces some typed sheets and reads:”‘. . . A bathhouse changes the mores of the world . . . A man who loves a boy more passionately but not more deeply than his wife . . .’ I’ve got the book’s title. It’s Bette, Buns and Balls . . .”

Again, you want to believe that his smile is more than professionally pleasant, that things like his book’s title are sendups. They aren’t. “Listen, this’ll interest you. I’ve taken a nice house out in Scars-dale and I’ve moved Joanne and the children out there. I spend a lot of time out there with them now, since Jesse’s away.” Indicating Jesse’s look-alike, who’s engaged in a phone conversation in the kitchen, he adds, “No, he doesn’t come. I have just average-family, at home evenings out there. Joanne’s invented a game I’m going to copyright; Joanne and I and the kids play it. It’s called ‘The Continental.’ Sort of like Monopoly. You start at the Continental’s cashier’s booth and, depending on the dice you roll, you move into the steam room for a multisexual orgy. A low roll gets you VD and a visit to the Continental’s clinic, or a police raid. Or crabs. The kids like it. I think it’s going to be a very successful game, people everywhere will. . .”

Still incredible, how his credibility can frost and decorate, like a pastry tube, the most appalling vulgarity. But of course since time immemorial, successful politicians have been doing that.

The best evening with Joanne Ostrow occurs not in Scarsdale, but during the time when she still resided around the corner from her husband and his steam bath. It is not so much that she is unexpected – it has been impossible to conjure anyone whom Ostrow might have married prior to his initial metamorphosis, except perhaps a woman heavy as he was then, a drinker, a vociferous basso. There seemed no reason to anticipate a slim, poised, gently ironic woman with rich long hair and high cheekbones which will indefinitely thwart aging; who, because you have resolved not to consider Ostrow’s election, instantly becomes an urban, updated Betty Ford. And yet not: some profound disorientation is cloaked by a graciousness too resolute. “Stephen and I lived together here, before,” she begins, underlining the word satirically, embracing with a gesture her brownstone duplex two blocks from the baths, its unlit logs in the slate fireplace, its complacent antiques and heavy erubescent carpets worn with the paths of the two children, instructed tonight to remain upstairs, and with the runnings of an uninstructible afghan and a Shih tzu, one of which is called Snoopy.

“Did you get wet? Raining on prom night,” she adds enigmatically, touching a window-pane. “A drink? I don’t, sometimes Chablis.” She has rarely been interviewed, and has determined to be both honest and satiric, and not to hide all her perplexity. The children have descended the stairs to a landing to assess the guest. “Joshua, Maria, back up, please,” she reminds, offhandedly equivocal, which is her way.

“Stephen, we met when we both studied in an opera workshop in the Village, 1959. [Snoopy, back please.] He still sings wonderfully. I’d been told I’d never make the Met with the name Joanne King; somehow I’d acquired the stage name ‘Anna Regina.’ Stephen thought me impossibly theatrical; he was right. We didn’t speak but the workshop assigned us the leads in La Bohème.” A pause of ironic laughter at that title. “Steve forgot one page of the score for every page he learned. I thought him hopeless, but suddenly he asked me out, he’d ask me a week in advance for a coffee date, impossibly square, but suddenly we were engaged and married. When I was pregnant with Maria, he suddenly bought a house in this Levitt development in Matawan: central air, seven appliances,” sardonic arpeggio, “it was ghastly! I couldn’t believe the pot parties, [Snoopy, please] the wife swapping; yes, in Matawan. Nothing to do but visit the state asylum for the insane, or suicide, or divorce. I hate pot, the idea of wife swapping disgusted us, we aren’t suicidal. Steve’s being a temple cantor was lovely for him, but – we returned rather hastily to Manhattan, eventually to this house.”

First, of course, they’d begun coming over to clock steam-bath business, discussing their tubs investment? “Absolutely not. You must have misunderstood Stephen. He did that. I knew nothing of it until one night he casually asked me to go with him to inspect the Ansonia’s basement, which was deserted, filthy. It had been an orthodox Jewish temple, before that a bath called the Mid-Manhattan Club; all that was left was the pool, full of crushed tile and rusty mud. I didn’t know it, but Steve had already signed the lease. He said, ‘I’m opening a steam bath here.’ I said, ‘Great, I can come swimming.’ In all innocence, I said it! He said, ‘Not here, you won’t.'” Her smile now is weighted with lead. “Even when he opened, I did not know what was going on; I’d known gay men but had no concept of the gay world or gay baths, even when Steve advertised in Screw. I didn’t question him, the children were demanding so much of my energy. . .”

But he’s said how much help she was. “I was? I mean, I was! Hilarious. The truth is, he kept me strictly away from there, until the nightclub started, until Bette, who, yes, I told him about, but it was . . . “

Dead stop. A line bisects her brow, as if it were pressed hard with a dull blade.

“I was crushed under what followed. I buckled. Stephen began having these towering rages, then disappearing for days. I had no inkling why. One morning his closet was empty. That afternoon, he called to say he would never see me again. I raced out of the house in jeans, raced around the streets aimlessly. Joshua was only 11 months old. I could not get out of bed mornings. I wandered around the rooms at night, waiting for Stephen to come home. I waited 36 hours a day. I left endless notes at the baths. I was very ill, I had to save myself. I went into analysis. After a while, at least I could get out of bed. After a year, Stephen appeared for breakfast unannounced. He told me he did not want a divorce, that he wanted to live separately. And about his sexual . . . evolution. And Jesse. I had not known. I buckled again. I was ill again, I inched back into the light, and that is how we stand. I’m free to do as I wish. Stephen encourages me to date, but I don’t. I haven’t had sexual relations with anyone, but if I wanted to, I suppose I should. Could, I mean. I pray that Stephen will come back. Meanwhile, I suppose I have made,” a quick laugh tears the membrane of her wretchedness, “a ‘satisfactory adjustment.’ God, I hate those words.”

But they’ve restored her sardonicism. She breathes again, and politics is an easier topic. “I come from a political family. My great-grandfather was a Jersey state senator, my grandfather was Atlantic County surrogate judge. Stephen’s like them: destined for it, perfectly qualified for this moment in our time; certainly his openness – the wife-and-lover, for one thing – will count enormously for him after what we’ve just been through politically. Oh yes, I’d decidedly like being a candidate’s wife. Sure, the glamour attracts me, but so does the constructiveness: I’ve gotten quite constructive, now that I’ve come to terms with myself. I’ve finished a book, Rhinestones, Poppers . . . oh, he told you. And I’m riding again, which is my passion. I have two show horses that I board out in Westchester. And I’ve begun a modeling and self-improvement course, which has made me hopelessly vain; I now spend 45 minutes making up to go horseback riding! No, I don’t deny that the class may have something to do with Steve’s future.”

And if public appearances meant that Jesse, or another boy, or a boy-and-girl were on one of Ostrow’s arms, and Joanne and their children on the other? “I . . . already realize that they would. I would have to accept it. I’m ready to support Steve fully, publicly, if he wants it. The children, by the way, know far less than Steve implies: they’ve been to the Continental afternoons, and like most young kids now they have a notion of gay sex but no specific comprehension, and I’ve never tried to explain. I’ve tried not to project my own approval or disapproval of anything pertaining to sex. Steve wants them to form their own sexual attitudes. I don’t think they’d be shocked about their father. Is anyone anymore? In principle, I agree with Steve’s obsession with sexual freedom. In principle.” The blade touches her brow again.

And just suppose, in 1984, her husband said, “We’re going to live in Gracie Mansion – you, me and Jesse.” Her smile is devious. “Nineteen eighty-four. That’s a book, isn’t it? Well, I’m already living a life I hardly planned. And learning to enjoy it. If Steve asked me that, I suppose in the end I would have to . . . make a satisfactory adjustment. I wonder, who would sleep in which bedrooms?”

It passes behind her eyes again, the inferno. Then, “Well, it is a wonderful house. The children would love it. I wonder if I could keep the horses there?”

In This Article: Coverwall


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.