'Inside Studio 54' Takes You Behind The Velvet Rope, And Into Some Dark Corners

Sep 23, 2017
Originally published on September 26, 2017 9:58 am

This year, the 40th anniversary of the opening of Studio 54, a onetime Manhattan nightspot where very good-looking people danced to very good music while snorting very good drugs, has seen the publication of two memoirs by past owners.

The first, called simply Studio 54, was written by Bob Colacello and original co-owner Ian Schrager (his business partner Steve Rubell died in 1989, at the age of 45). It's a handsome, expensive ($75!) coffee-table tome, filled with gorgeous photos of sozzled celebrities and selections from the scrapbooks Schrager kept throughout his stint running the club. It looks great, fittingly enough, and captures the place's glamour — the fantasy that kept people standing in line for hours, waiting (often in vain) to get inside.

The other book, called Inside Studio 54, is true to its title, taking us past the velvet rope, into the heat and sweat and coke and poppers of the dance floor where hundreds of bodies ground against each other, and into the dark alcoves and out-of-the way balconies, where a slightly smaller number of bodies ground against each other with greater assiduousness.

Which is to say: It's a lot more fun than the coffee table book. Cheaper, too.

Inside Studio 54 was written by Mark Fleischman, who took over in 1980, after the club had been raided and Schrager and Rubell jailed for tax evasion. Now, as then, he's an eager, garrulous host, gleefully sharing his love of the place, and the time, and the drugs. The drugs, especially.

How best to convey to you, prospective reader, how well, how thoroughly, how ecstatically Fleischman knows exactly what you want out of his book? Chapter titles, perhaps?

"Chapter Eleven: Cocaine and Quaaludes." "Chapter Twenty-Seven: Angel Dust Meets The Whippets(sic)." "Chapter Twenty: Roy Cohn Brings the Feds to My Door."

Or perhaps it would be more useful to consult the book's index and report the number of times Fleischman drops a celebrity's name like it's just singed his fingerprints off:

Grace Jones: 11

Calvin Klein: 19

Liza Minnelli: 14

The Rolling Stones: 21

Mick Jagger: 17(!)

Barbra Streisand: 10

And, perhaps most tellingly, Rick James: 27.

You begin to get the idea.

Not that the dirt Fleischman dishes on the many VIPs who've crossed his path seems particularly salubrious. On several occasions, he relates a tale of depravity but coyly withholds a name, and the stuff he does give up often strikes the reader as less-than-surprising.

Model Janice Dickinson? Eccentric! Madonna? A diva, even as "a virtual unknown" in 1983! Robin Leach? Fond of champagne!

(Having spent his career courting gossip pages, Fleischman has internalized their zeal for the superfluous explanatory parenthetical, an unintended source of much of the book's fun, to wit: Fabio gets described as "the actor/model/author known for his long flowing hair and six-foot-three perfectly chiseled body," Charlton Heston as the "star of The Ten Commandments and winner of the Oscar for Best Actor in Ben-Hur") and a passing mention of a party for model Margaux Hemingway reminds him, hilariously, of "her grandfather Ernest Hemingway, author, wildlife hunter, and big-game fisherman. In 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for The Old Man and the Sea.")

Fleischman proves far more willing to dish about his own enthusiastic freefall into druggy decadence, and his candor does a lot of work to keep these tales of the very rich and very famous from becoming insufferable. He's happy to report, in minute detail, on his sexual escapades with hundreds of gorgeous women — he's just really, really happy to do that — but he's also up-front about a time when, as young-ish man in a serious relationship with a woman he loved, he experienced a prolonged bout of impotence. (Years later, as he's spiraling out of control, the impotence returns. One gets the sense that it's this, as much as the whole bottoming-out-on-whip-its-and-amyl-nitrate thing, that triggers his decision to enter rehab.)

Fleischman's tale of addiction and recovery is a familiar one. (Consulting the book's index finds 12 mentions of the Betty Ford Clinic and 12 for Rancho La Puerta, if that gives you any indication.) Less familiar, and more fascinating to process nerds like me, is how he relates the day-to-day (and night-to-night) experience of running Studio 54.

Fleischman bought the club in 1980, when much of the nation had already taken up "Disco Sucks!" as an anthem. (Throughout the book, Fleischman keeps insisting that Studio 54 was a nightclub, not a disco.) He transitioned the club's music mix from disco to R & B, which endeared him to VIPs like The Rolling Stones and his good, personal friend, Rick James.

He also instituted rules to manage the guest list:

"A movie star could bring unlimited guests, a prince or princess could invite five or six guests, counts and countesses four, most other VIPs three, and so on."

Come on, that's fascinating.

He introduced some semblance of order to the chaos of the dance floor by instituting theme nights. Thursday was Beautiful People Night, favored by modeling agencies. Friday was Preppy Night, frequented by the offspring of various celebrities ("Rip Torn's son Tony") (Tony Torn, people.). Saturday was when the SNL cast would sneak in after the show by clambering up the fire escape to the fifth floor. They'd then be ushered into a balcony dubbed The Rubber Room, because its many exposed surfaces were easily (and frequently, and very necessarily) washable.

If you do not find the study of celebrity logistics like this interesting, you will likely be unmoved by his description of Studio 54's vast and well-staffed mail room, or his daily practice of consulting the "Celebrity Bulletin" — a listing of what VIPs were in New York, where they were staying, for how long, and how to contact them — first thing in the morning. You will roll your eyes at Studio 54's nightly practice of dividing VIPs from the unwashed masses by hanging a scrim across the dance floor which dropped at midnight, allowing everyone to mingle (read: allowing the VIPs to bolt upstairs).

If you harbor no fondness in celebrity culture, you will likely cluck your tongue at Fleischman's practice of greeting VIPs who stopped by his office "with a gold straw or a crisp rolled-up hundred-dollar bill" and inviting them to sample the thirty or forty rails of coke awaiting them on Fleischer's desk. (He delegated the task of divvying up the drug to his assistants, he says, because "I had no patience for such stuff." Given his raging coke habit at the time: Story checks out.)

If none of the above details delight you in even the smallest ways, 1. You would do well to avoid this book, and 2. You are not me.

Fleischman's solid, workmanlike prose, certainly, isn't much of a draw in and of itself, but it does reveal him to be a man of his era. Terms like "bimbo" and references to "hot-to-trot stewardesses" can't help but give the reader pause.

I mean, you'd expect a book with this much cocaine in it to be more woke.

Just on principle.

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