Night Time To Jail Time
The Studio 54 Ex-Con Who Launched New York's Hottest Hotel
Ian Schrager famously co-created Studio 54. After a spell in jail, he reinvented himself as a hip hotel magnate with his most recent build, NYC’s The Public, now open for business.
Neighbors of Ian Schrager’s new Public Hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side are apparently affronted by sexual goings-on spotted through the windows.
There has been, predictably, no comment from Schrager (and, despite my request, he did not wish to comment for this article either). The Public is only the latest chapter in an ongoing remarkable career of boldface nightclub and hotel-designing which Schrager likes to conduct as the Man Who Isn’t There.
As has been his MO from the beginning.
They had opened a disco in Queens, Enchanted Garden, which had done well. Manhattan was the obvious next move and Studio opened on April 16, 1977, with Rubell very much as the front man.
“Steve was very connected to the press and he loved telling them every morning on the phone all the gossip,” Carmen D’Alessio says. She was there close to that beginning. A Peruvian-born promoter, D’Alessio would become the principal ringmaster of the bold-faced-name-studded special events which powered the club’s giddy rise.
Schrager was not as outgoing as Rubell. “He was a recluse,” says D’Alessio. “He took care of the look of the place.” That included production details. It was he who procured a white horse for Bianca Jagger’s birthday party there, stayed till she was mounted, then took off into the night.
Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, and Jerry Hall were all Studio 54 habitués. “At one time I knew all the major politicians, stars, artists, athletes, singers,” Schrager told the London Times in 2010. “The one disappointment was seeing them behave like everyone else.”
Studio 54 took off and would become the most famous club ever, but if it was Bianca Jagger’s ride that launched them it was Steve Rubell’s garrulity that undid them.
New York magazine quoted him saying they were “making more money than the Mafia” and that he didn’t want the IRS to “know everything.” The feds raided at 6 a.m., found millions stashed in the ventilators and famous names scribbled on baggies of cocaine. Rubell and Schrager got three years.
They had to sell the club. Mark Fleischman, a hotelier who had already discussed a Studio franchise in the Virgin Islands with them, was a contender and paid them several visits in the Manhattan Correctional Center while they awaited transfer to jail in Alabama.
How were they? “Ian was depressed. Steve was always Steve. Some people were saying Studio 54 is all over. And Steve was saying no, no, no! Everyone loves it! Bianca (Jagger) and Calvin (Klein) and Andy (Warhol) will all come back. Steve was very up and Ian was very down.”
D’Alessio attended one Fleischman visit. “They wanted us to meet because they insisted that I was the soul of the Studio 54,” she says, “because I was the one who organized all of the events. So that magical historical moment when I met him happened in jail.”
From the MCC Rubell and Schrager were sent to a minimum security jail in Montgomery, Alabama. This was mostly for those convicted of white collar crimes, but by no means entirely.
He told a reporter that their fellow cons had included Frank Lucas, the druglord, and a man who had killed somebody with a bowling ball. They took pains to befriend him.
“Jail robs you of the dignity we have as human beings,” Schrager told the London Times in 2010. “It was terrible. I lost everything. After I came out I couldn’t get a liquor license, or even a credit card.”
In due course they got their sentence reduced to 20 months by “co-operating,” namely dishing other club owners to the feds. Four were convicted. One, the late, great Arthur Weinstein, who was running the piping hot after-hours joint, the Jefferson, was coerced into wearing a wire against cops and firemen who were on the take.
Carmen D’Alessio, who had been operating as the main celeb wrangler for the Fleischman Studio 54, rejoined Rubell and Schrager after they got out in 1982 when they plunged back into Nightworld with Palladium. “Ian took care of all the part that had to do with interior design, lights, sound systems. He developed a taste for that.”
The place became huge but the pair had been permanently deprived of their liquor licenses and were only management, with no ownership stake. “So they were losing interest in the nightlife,” she says.
Hotels were of interest to both though. In the disastrous New York interview which had tipped off the IRS Rubell had also confided that he wouldn’t mind owning an Upper East Side hotel. Nobody had been willing to back them in anything other than another club though until Mark Fleischman suggested that they buy his hotel, the Executive at Madison and 38th.
A grand hotel this wasn’t, with just 154 minuscule rooms, but no problem. In 1978 Anouska Hempel, a London-based designer, formerly an actress in pop movies such as the Bond romp, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, had turned a similarly modest building in London’s scruffy South Kensington into the howlingly chic Blake’s Hotel. Then the Hotel de Costes pulled off the same micro-magic in Paris. Schrager had read about the phenomenon in jail. Simple. They would redo the Executive likewise.
D’Alessio met appropriate designers in Paris. “I’m talking about the top of the crop,” she says. “When I came back I said you have to talk to Andree Putnam, she’s the best right now. And Jacques Grange is the best furniture. Then I introduced Ian to Philip Starck. He did the Hotel Costes. It was that whole new look.”
She also looked over New York architects. “I had a lot of different people do presentations,” she says. “They went for Ron Dowd and Scott Bromley, who did a restaurant in SoHo called WPA, which was extremely minimalistic.”
Rubell and Schrager renamed their space, Morgan’s, as a cocky salute to a near neighbor on Madison, the Morgan Library, and Schrager got down to it.
“The hotel business is not like the nightclub business. It’s more like real estate,” Fleischman says. “And Ian’s qualities of being fastidious about colors and fabric and tile and everything that goes into a room, that’s very hotel oriented.”
It was an instant hit, the avatar of what was shortly a boutique hotel boom in the U.S. and the kick-off of what would surely have become a Rubell/Schrager hotel chain with the duo in their customary roles. “When he first got into it, Steve was the front,” Fleischman says. “Then all of a sudden Steve was dead. And Ian just picked up on it.”
Rubell died of AIDS in 1989. “My life profoundly changed,” Schrager told the London Times in 2015. “Almost as much as when my father died. It wasn’t emotionally as devastating, but my life changed totally the day he died.”
Schrager, who would never have an equally complementary business partner, oversaw the burgeoning of the Morgans Hotel Group. Travelers will likely know the names of those famous hotels.
In New York Morgan’s was joined by the Royalton, the Paramount, and the Hudson on Columbus Circle. The Mondrian was set up in West Hollywood and the Delano in South Beach—styled by Starck, as were many of the Schrager hotels—as glimmering, white antidotes to the peacock hues of the Art Deco hotels. Three hotels budded in London.
It was remarkable but no accident. Experience with Studio and Palladium had given Schrager a distinct edge. Hotel lobbies, agreeably sociable spaces in times gone by, had mostly become zones for business traffic only.
In nightclubs, such entrance spaces were about aura, about fueling expectations, and so it became with the Schrager hotels.
Thus Brian McNally, who both together with and apart from his brother, Keith, had created some of Manhattan’s most talked up restaurants of the time, was brought in to run the ground-floor eatery in the Royalton, which shortly became an unofficial canteen for Conde Nast, publishers of Vogue, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
“As I look back on it I got to work with a genius,” says Myra Scheer, Rubell’s assistant, who continued with Schrager. “None of us are surprised by what has happened. He was bold and fearless. It wasn’t about the money. He just raised the bar.”
And he knew he had. As Schrager told the London Times, when comparing his status alongside the likes of Hilton, Sheraton, and Marriott. “I think I have had as much impact, frankly. I think I changed the industry.”
There were hiccups though. The Clift in San Francisco, an older hotel refurbished, slammed by the double whammy of the popping of the Dot Com bubble and a post-9/11 travel deflation, went into Chapter 11 in 2003.
Feeling that a particular hotel moment was over, Schrager sold off the Morgans chain in 2005 and started a company to develop individual properties. He brought Julian Schnabel aboard as a designer on one of his new projects, the Gramercy Park Hotel.
As a social presence Ian Schrager had largely remained the Man Who Isn’t There, the man who told a Times reporter that he compared himself to Greta Garbo, that he positively enjoyed not being part of the action.
That had been Schrager’s Studio/Palladium persona, of course, possibly reinforced by his time behind bars. “He is a ghost. You can’t see him,” says Carmen D’Alessio.
But not so much a ghost as that old-fashioned entity a family man, perhaps. He first marriage to Rita Norona, a Cuban ballet dancer, came in 1994. They have two daughters, Sophia and Ava. In 2008 he married another ballerina, Tania Wahlstedt, formerly with the New York City Ballet, who came with two daughters of her own, Amanda and Lili. They have a son, Louis.
Oct. 20, 2011, saw a launch party for The Marc and Myra Show, a weekly show on SiriusXM, hosted by Marc Benecke, the former Studio doorman, and Myra Scheer, which is built around interviews that channel the club (Disclosure: I’ve been on the show).
The party was held in the club’s former space, which is now occupied by the Roundabout Theatre Company. “We found his whole team… Scott Bromley, Karin Bacon, Chuck Garelick,” says Myra Scheer. “We found the moon and the spoon. “
The infamous moon, the cocaine spoon, that had floated above the revelers at Studio 54, that is. Where had they been found?
“Las Vegas,” she said. Well, of course.
The launch party was swell. Cameron Diaz was there, as were Keith Richards, Naomi Campbell, and a bevy of other bold-faced names, including Amanda Lepore.
Also there, somewhat to the surprise of those who knew him, was Ian Schrager. He had shown up with Tania and his children. “I’ve turned down Studio 54 parties for thirty years but I couldn’t miss this,” he told a reporter, “It was like a time capsule taking me back, very nostalgic.”
Myra Scheer says, “He was happy to be looking at a period of his life he had blocked out. He didn’t want to talk about it for years. He came with his family to the party. He stayed a long time. That was when he opened up. That was when he decided to do the book.”
In 2012 Schrager made a deal with the Marriott Group to participate in Edition, a new hotel chain. Schrager also attended the opening of the New York Edition, which is at 5 Madison, on May 13, 2015. There are other Editions in London, Miami Beach, and Sanyo, China, and there are plans underway to build a dozen more, in, for instance, Singapore, Shanghai, Bangkok, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.
He told the London Times in 2010 that he had not fulfilled his ambitions. “I haven’t created my masterpiece yet. I’ll know it when I do. It’s a very elusive, ethereal thing. I like to think I’ve had an impact on the industry and I’d like to do it again.”
Which brings us slap up to Ian Schrager’s recently opened, non-Edition enterprise, the one with the X-rated windows, on Christie and Houston in New York’s Lower East Side, the adroitly named Public Hotel.
Schrager has a strategy working here. As a hotelier he has always very successfully peddled luxury and chic, but the clubs were another story.
Studio had been open to both the nobs and to anybody else who could get past Marc Benecke. It was a time moreover when different groups had become curious about each other and Steve Rubell encouraged what he described as a mixed salad.
The Public, with room prices floating not much above $200, is a cheap hotel, healthy competition for Airbnb.
The most remarkable innovation at the Public though—and a reason for the low prices—is the stripping away of such old school folderol as bellmen and porters. And the front desk.
“You know how you check into this hotel? Through a computer, my dear,” says Carmen D’Alessio. “There is no reception desk. And then somebody comes to help you. On the second floor they have a private lounge. By reservation mainly. There is a Gobelin on the wall and a marvelous fireplace. That’s the only private thing.”
I paid several visits to the Public. The look downstairs is striking, what with the illuminated stairs, the hanging charcuterie, the stairs leading below with caged walls, as for a cage fight.
The gift shop has copies of lushly thick magazines with titles like Heavy, Cereal, and High Snobiety. Also Works, a fat picture book on Schrager’s various enterprises.
The Public’s rooftop bar is not quite as loud as that on the roof of SoHo House. I see men in cool hats, the microskirt is back big time, gouged and holey jeans, Eraserhead hair, and a woman cruising with a rucksack. A tattooed woman looking into her screen delivered a low-intensity glare when we sat alongside her table.
So down to the basement bar. There was a red velvet cord—supposedly a Rubell innovation—at the entrance but it wasn’t lifted for us by the woman standing there with a clipboard. This, she explained, was because a woman in our party was wearing flip-flops.
The Public’s quirky dress-code interested me less than the lack of a reception desk at the Public—the computerized check-in—that engaged my attention. After all, we live in the era of the Shadow Brokers and ever more sophisticated hacking. Well, let’s assume they have that covered.
Two further plusses for Schrager. Rizzoli has just published Studio 54, a picture book with his name on it.
Also the shadow of the jailhouse, an experience many throw off with aplomb, even exploit, had deeply affected Schrager, but this January he was among the 270 individuals who were either pardoned or had their sentences commuted by President Obama, one of his last official acts.
And so, Schrager, as invisibly as possible, continues in his life’s work of making everyone’s leisure time that bit sexier.