The Ansonia Hotel Building in 1904
Another of the Ansonia’s attractions was the world’s largest indoor swimming pool in its basement. By the mid-1960s, though, like much of the hotel it was in a desperate state of disrepair. No one visited the basement any more apart from the rats. The previously pristine facilities were cracked and unusable, all covered in a ton of dust. Successive owners had stripped the hotel of many of its facilities and failed to maintain it to even an acceptable standard. Grand apartments had been refashioned into single or duplex units. The owner wanted to sell the whole building and erect a skyscraper in its place, but the residents mounted a campaign resulting in City Hall naming it a building of historical importance. The Ansonia was not going anywhere.
In an effort to generate additional cash, the owner leased the basement with its pool and Turkish baths to an aspiring opera singer, Steve Ostrow and his wife. That one action was to become a pivotal moment in the developing history of gay liberation for Ostrow was also something of an entrepreneur. Whenever he passed the city’s long-standing Everard Baths (converted from a former church!) he noticed long lines of men standing outside waiting to get in. Although in 1968 homosexuality was illegal in New York, Ostrow knew that most if not all of the Everard’s clients were gay. It was not without reason that the Everard had been nicknamed the “Ever-hard”! As he said to himself, “If a business can create a desire that fulfills a need, how can you lose?”
Ostrow set out to find a space where he could open a similar club. Not just another bathhouse for men but one that would provide a spotlessly clean refuge for gay men that boasted a variety of community relaxation facilities in addition to the more usual outlets for anonymous sex. In a relatively short space of time, he converted the huge Ansonia basement into The Continental. The Continental was different from most of the other bathhouses which were opening in America in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In addition to the swimming pool, it included a sauna, 400 private rooms, an STD clinic, vending machines for KY and eventually drinks laced with acid and ecstasy – and a cabaret room with a dance floor. Gay or straight. Your sexuality didn’t matter as long as you enjoyed yourself. Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Rudolf Nureyev, Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock were among the many famous personalities who were seen at The Continental.
Not all guests were as welcome. As Ostrow recalls in the documentary "Continental" made in 2013 –
Very good-looking policemen would come in, rent a room, get into a towel, go into the steam room and then wait for someone to touch them. And then, from underneath the towel, out would come handcuffs. Then they’d arrest everybody in the place.”
Were patrons put off?
“They were in the beginning, but after they were loaded on to the trucks in their towels and all taken to the jailhouse, I would go down there and bail everybody out. They knew I always would, so they kept coming in.”
Ostrow estimates The Baths were raided at least 200 times during their eight years of existence. As in Thailand, payments to the police were essential if The Continental was to stay open. The mafia also needed its cut. But times were changing. As a result both of The Continental’s success and the raids, the club organised a petition against New York’s anti-gay laws. With over 250,000 signatures, this was handed in to City Hall. A direct result was that the laws were changed.
When Babylon opened in Bangkok around 1990, it obviously took the idea of week-end ‘live’ music in its main restaurant from The Continental. But its New York counterpart went much further than just a pianist or guitarist.
As disco music hit the charts, The Continental brought in DJs to pump out Donna Summer and Patti LaBelle. Even before then, though, Ostrow had realised that The Continental had become a welcoming sanctuary for gay men who would spend entire evenings treating the Baths as much as their own private club as for sex. Up to 20,000 crowded into its facilities every week.
So Ostrow started a cabaret room and engaged many popular acts of the day. Ostrow remembers that Alfred Hitchcock would come in, undress, swim in the pool, look around, dress, hear the show and then leave. He never had sex. As the performers performed, their audience was made up mostly of men in towels or sometimes nothing at all! The roster of those who were soon appearing at The Continental included many famous artists of the day, including Chubby Checker, Yvonne Elliman, Gloria Gaynor, The Pointer Sisters, Elaine Stritch, Patti Page and Connie Francis.
None, though, was more important or became more in demand than Bette Midler. Then starting out on her career and often accompanied at the piano by Barry Manilow (sometimes dressed merely in a towel like the patrons), she became a huge favourite. It was not just that she was a wonderful singer who belted out the standards with plenty of guts and finesse. She was a true ‘performer’ and a superb raconteur. Bette spat out the gay jokes nineteen to the dozen, never allowing the laughter to subside before she started on the next one. It was here that she earned the sobriquet “Bathhouse Betty”. In 1998 she even released an album that she lovingly titled “Bathhouse Betty”! And it was here that she created her more regular persona as “The Divine Miss M”, making that the title of her hugely popular and successful 1972 debut album on Atlantic Records. As Ostrow said of Bette’s performances at The Continental -
“Here is the spirit of Tin Pan Alley out there strutting like nobody’s business, and the guys in the audience are seeing the last bastion of true blue hetero pop crumble in the face and body and nuance of Bette Midler… the audience at The Continental loves her and honors her.”
In 2013, filmmaker Malcolm Ingram released his documentary “Continental”. As he stated in an interview in The Advocate -
“Before Lady Gaga you had Bette. Bette connected with the gay audience like few have before or since...and it all began at the Continental Baths in New York City."
News of her success at The Continental quickly spread. Soon her career developed along more traditional lines, including an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show. For 20 years she was to appear frequently as one of Carson’s favourite guests. In addition to being a singer who has released 14 studio albums, she also became a celebrated film and stage actress. Her film credits include “The Rose” for which she earned the Best Actress Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, “The First Wives Club”, “The Stepford Wives” and “Gypsy”. Yet never in her career has she forgotten nor felt anything other than gratitude for the opportunities she was given at The Continental by her gay followers.
Bette Midler was born in Hawaii in 1945. In 1965 she moved to New York to try and make a career as a performer. Her early 20s were spent eking out a modest living taking small parts in Broadway shows. Then along came the invitation to appear at The Continental in 1970. Since then she has never looked back. One of her most successful recordings was the single “From a Distance” which went on to win Grammy Awards for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year in 1990.
On one of half a dozen trips to Las Vegas over the years, my mission was to take in a couple of the amazing Cirque du Soleil shows. As I was booking my tickets online, I was thrilled to discover that Bette Midler would be appearing at Caesar's Palace in a one-woman show "The Showgirl Must Go On". As mentioned in the article about Christopher Isherwood, gay men have sometimes adopted members of the opposite sex as their icons – in that case Liza Minelli. Gloria Gaynor is another, although more for her iconic single “I Will Survive” becoming a gay anthem than a particular identification with the gay liberation movement.
Unquestionably Bette Midler is right up there at the top of the bunch for the reasons outlined earlier in this article. Apart from being a very fine singer, in her Las Vegas show the Divine Miss M proved to be a bundle of energy and also cracked non-stop jokes, almost all of a risqué and often gay nature. She was a machine-gun rattling off jokes rather than ammunition, many with a rapier-like punch line. I determined to remember some but so fast were they delivered only one stuck firmly in my mind. It was woven into a longer narrative that included one of her fictional companions. I’ll keep it simpler.
Miss M happened to be walking along the beach at Atlantic City on a warm summer's day. Surrounded by sunbathers and swimmers, she was startled when she came across a beautiful young man, all on his own, totally naked and sporting an enviable erection. Being of a curious nature, she went up to him.
"Excuse me young man. May I ask what you are doing?"
"Surely it must be obvious?" he replied. "I'm telling the time!"
That's a new one on me, thought Miss M.
"And, pray tell, what time is it?"
Looking down at his groin, the youth announced, "It's exactly 12:00 noon."
After thanking him, Miss M surreptitiously glanced at her watch. He had been absolutely correct. It was just seconds after noon.
Pondering this adventure, she continued her walk until she was surprised to see another solo gorgeous youth, equally naked and again sporting a boner. So she went through the same routine and received a similar response, only she was told it was by then seven minutes later. Another glance at her watch. How wonderfully accurate, she thought!
And then after just a few more minutes she came across yet another totally naked vision, only this time he had a broad smile as he was ‘pleasuring’ himself,
"Excuse me, young man," Bette announced. "Am I correct in thinking you are telling the time?"
"Telling the time? Of course I'm not telling the time! Why ever would you think that?"
Stupefied, Miss M then asked what exactly he was doing.
"Surely it's obvious! I'm winding the clock!"
The audience collapsed in hysterics as another joke, then another and another rattled forth! The Divine Miss M had hit the bull's eye yet again as she has for most of her stellar career. Over that long career she has proved she is without question a true gay icon.
The Ansonia went on to become the single most litigated residence in New York’s history! In 1990 its owner accepted a plan to buy out the unhappy tenants and turn the building into a formal condo block. Steve Ostrow finally closed The Continental in 1976. Patronage had diminished in part because too many straights were visiting just to see the shows. Even when they were discontinued, he felt that drugs had become too prominent. Running The Continental no longer held much fun for him. The Everard continued despite a major fire in 1977 when nine men died and its two upper floors were destroyed. The baths reopened but were finally closed by the mayor in 1986 as part of the city’s anti-AIDS campaign. Bette Midler keeps on entertaining her adoring public. Last year she starred in the revival of the musical “Hello Dolly”, her first leading role on Broadway for which she received the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. It is almost as though her career has turned full circle!