Ian Schrager was the genius behind Studio 54 — the greatest nightclub ever to have lived or died. 42 years on from its peak, the PUBLIC hotelier and serial entrepreneur shows little sign of slowing down. At his beach house in the Hamptons, the King of Clubs talks to Harry Shukman about long nights, dark days and bright ideas.
Studio 54. You had to be there. And even if you were, you’d scarcely believe it. Studio 54! The club that changed nightlife forever, where the crowds were so big they had to call in the fire brigade, where the brightest stars of the 1970s — Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones and Andy Warhol, to name a handful — snarfed mounds of cocaine, crunched cereal bowls of Quaaludes and danced past dawn. Studio 54 drenched New York nightlife in kerosene and set it ablaze, running for a discocharged 1,000 nights from 1977 to 1979, before detonating with a birthday party for Bianca Jagger (she rode in on a white stallion, naturally) and imploding with a police bust (more on that later).
Studio 54! Just hearing Ian Schrager, the club’s legendary co-founder and the shahanshah of Nightworld, describe it is enough to set off a tingle. He’s sitting on the gorgeous veranda of his Hamptons beach palace, built on a rarified stretch of seaside called Meadow Lane (or Billionaire Lane, as it is affectionately called by the New York Post: Schrager’s neighbours are Studio 54-regular Calvin Klein, investor Leon Black, and one of the hollow-eyed Koch brothers).
Schrager, wearing black T-shirt and jeans, the uniform of Summer Dad Running Errands, sits across from me at his dinner table. Waves are softly peeling onto the shore in front of him, and he’s reminiscing about Studio 54, his eyes shut. He’s back on the street in Manhattan, on a hot night in 1977, shortly after he and his partner, Steve Rubell, set up their club in an old Midtown TV studio.
The origins of Studio 54
Schrager tells me he captured “combustible energy” with Studio, and from his recollections of the entrance alone, this seems like something of an understatement. The movie reel of a night out is playing in his mind (White Lines, the disco classic by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is his custom soundtrack), and he can hear the bass pounding through the walls.
“There was a long hallway before you got to the dance floor,” he says, his deep Brooklyn accent like boulders crashing down a mountain. “You would start to hear the music, the bass, the beat of the drums, and as you got closer and closer and closer, it got louder and louder and louder, building up in anticipation. And you walked in and saw this incredible light shelf that was totally invigorating, with the music and the great-looking people all over the place…” Studio 54!
Schrager’s fondest memory is “a guy with jeans and no shirt on dancing with a woman in a ball gown and tiara.” That, and virtuoso concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz, then in his mid-70s, romping to disco with earplugs stuffed in, so the music wouldn’t damage his peerless hearing. “Some cities have a time, and it was New York’s time,” Schrager says. “It was just electrifying.”
Closing the curtain
But every era has an end. And Schrager and Rubell’s democracy, the great castle of Nightworld so adored by Israeli generals, Italian heiresses, drag superstars from Harlem, deposed royalty, hammered Eurotrash and teens from Queens, soon came tumbling down. The FBI had been looking into Studio 54, and were thoroughly egged on by an interview Rubell gave to New York magazine in which he boasted: “Profits are astronomical. Only the Mafia does better.”
“It doesn’t erase what happened. I don’t want to hide behind ‘Oh, I was much younger then...'
Investigators treated this as an open invitation to look more closely into Studio. In the club’s offices, according to Haden-Guest’s book, feds found a million dollars in cash stuffed behind ceiling panels, among pipes and in holes in the walls. That, and a lot of cocaine. Schrager and Rubell were discovered to have skimmed the club’s takings, and were sent down for a miserable year in prison for tax evasion. Six months in a concrete pit in Manhattan, then another six in Alabama, where their first job was to cut a two mile area of grass with just scissors.
On their release, Schrager and Rubell struggled. Prison had taken an emotional toll, and minor tasks like setting up a credit card and renting a flat were a challenge for ex-convicts. (The entrepreneur was given a presidential pardon by Barack Obama in 2017.)
Maybe it’s our location — a beautiful open-air dining room on a lovely summer day in the Hamptons, where the great and the good of New York come to escape the July heat — but I’m stunned by how remorseful Schrager is of the past. “I’m very embarrassed about what happened, still am,” he says uncomfortably. Even after all these years? “It doesn’t erase what happened. I don’t want to hide behind ‘Oh, I was much younger then.’ Whether it was intoxication or whatever, I did some stupid things that could have destroyed me. I think the pardon brought closure to it. And for my kids, it’s a little bit hard to be a role model when you did something like that. ”
He says he’ll always bear the regret. “It’s like having a really bad illness, you always have the scar. It never goes away, never,” he says, his low voice dropping another octave.
Down but not out, Schrager and Rubell achieved an all-American comeback. The duo stormed back into Nightworld with Palladium, another runaway hit of a club, and Morgans, their first hotel. “It took off like a bat out of hell,” Schrager says. (One of his favorite memories of opening day is Andy Warhol with his nose pushed up against the window, waiting anxiously for the door to open.)
Morgans, and then the Royalton, followed by the Paramount, were the boutique hotels that invented the boutique hotel — a design and business paradigm that has thousands of imitators today.
Today the sun does not set on the Schrager empire — the serial entrepreneur has outposts of his two ultra cool hotel brands, PUBLIC and EDITION, in New York, Miami, Chicago, London, China. More are coming to Bangkok, Abu Dhabi, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Reykjavik and Singapore, and all the time Schrager tries to up his game — he’s fascinated by integrating tech into hotels, working towards a not-too-distant future where iPhones can streamline your stay, cutting out the need for tedious queuing.
Despite creating the most famous club in the world and pushing ahead with global domination through his hotel designs, Schrager, who’s in his 70s now, says he expects his legacy to be much closer to home. He’s got five kids — four girls, grown up, and a boy, seven, by his second wife Tania Wahlstedt, some 24 years his junior.
So does he go out much these days?
“No,” he deadpans, joking that he might be about to damage his “swashbuckling reputation.”
“I’ve been there and done that. I’ve got it all out of my system. I love my work. I love my family. I don’t need anything else.” It says a lot that Schrager’s first date was a cycle-ride through the sandy roads of Long Island.
These days, he prefers to stay in with his family at his sprawling Hamptons beach pad, nothing left to prove. Rather than projecting the manic fried energy of groundbreaking entrepreneurs, Schrager gives off a serene professional vibe. “There’s a certain freedom and independence that comes when you’re satisfied with what you have and where you are,” he says.
And with that, the King of Clubs is off to pick up his son from summer camp.
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