My club career was successful because I was lucky to have worked for and learned my craft from so many brilliant operators. As Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” I worked for Ian Schrager and his partner Steve Rubell at the Paladium. They operated Studio 54, which was without doubt the greatest club of all time. They were giants. In the world of clubs, they are our Babe Ruths, our Michael Jordans, our Peles. There has not been a club since their era that comes close to the experience they orchestrated. The times were different then. Disco was the music and nothing could be more fun. The sexual revolution and New Age drugs rocketed nightlife and the mix of fabulous gays, straights, rich, and poor to legendary frenzy. We clamored to hang with Steve, Ian, and their infamously famous friends. On the menu were Halston, Liza Minelli, Mick and Bianca, Truman Capote, Warhol, Calvin. Anything could be seen, had, heard, and done, and often. But the partiers had not yet seen the bill and danced to the beat oblivious to all the downsides. Then Steve passed and Andy Warhol passed and it was never the same.
Ian for his part never stopped moving, creating and changing the landscape of creativity. He grew utilizing his vision and his talents to create hotel empires. Morgans, The Paramount, The Royalton, The Hudson, and the amazing Gramercy Park Hotel are his local contributions. The Delano in Miami, The Sanderson and St Martin’s Lane hotels in London, The Clift in San Francisco and the Mondrian in Los Angeles were game changers. He is considered the creator of the “boutique hotel” concept. Now he’s partnering up with Marriot International for a hundred new projects.
When I worked for Steve and Ian I felt privileged. While the Palladium was highly successful financially, it was always squarely based in its glorious mission. It was there to be the creative nexus for New York. We spent money to make money and attention to every detail was the first order of every day. Until this interview I hadn’t talked to Ian for a long time. For awhile he lived around the corner from me in Nolita and I would see him on his bike or moving about. We had become distant over the years. I would read about him in the newspapers or magazines or hear a first-hand account from our mutual friend Arthur Weinstein. Talking to him for this interview was like we never lost touch. It brought back a zillion memories, echoes of joints and people and an age that defines so much of who we are today, who I am today. Ian showed me the way and I showed some others after that and so on and so forth. He is not done showing us how it is done. Wow! A hundred new joints!
Hi Ian, how are you? I’m fine, how ya doing?
I stayed at the Gramercy, as you know, recently, and it was an incredible experience. I really enjoyed myself. Well I’m glad you liked it buddy, we go back a long way. I’ve known you a long time. And I’m happy for your success. Very inventive.
Thanks, I keep you in mind also. I watch everything you do, and it’s pretty amazing how you play with those big boys and knock them off their feet. It’s amazing. Well thank you kiddo, thank you.
I went to the Hudson, which by the way is still beautiful. I went there the other day, they opened a new room and I wrote about it. The property is just amazing, timeless. It’s just beautiful. How was it downstairs? The new room down in the basement.
Good Units is very nice for events because it’s a blank page. It’s the emperor’s new clothes, so you can paint any picture you want on it. The new room Hudson Hall opened on the main level is really nice. They gave me a tour and I saw the ancient swimming pool, and that’s amazing. When they get that open it will be incredible. That’s great. It’s funny, at the time, the Hudson was done maybe ten years ago. I have some hotels done thirty years ago, never been changed. Everyone used to always think that they were trendy and they wouldn’t stand the test of time, but of course they do.
The key in design is balancing the new with the classic and the timeless. If you just do new, you’re a failure. If it won’t stand the test of time, then it’s a failure. I did Butter eight years ago, and the design and the place is just as relevant today. I didn’t know you did that. It’s just as hot today as it was then.
How do you think nightlife has changed since the days of Studio 54? From the business point of view, it’s completely changed. It’s completely upside down. When I was in the club business, and a lot of our friends were in the club business, everything culminated with you owning the space, and running the nightclub, and loving it, and being in the room there, and making sure everything was perfect, and so on and so forth. Now, nobody owns anything. Other people own the rooms, and you come in and you’re a promoter for the night. It’s just a completely different business. I think when we did it, it didn’t really take a lot of capital to do a club. There was some spontaneity and innocence involved with it. If you had a good idea, you could throw a party. I did my first nightclub for 27,000 dollars.
The Enchanted Garden? Right. Now, with all the regulations—exiting, and fire alarms, and sprinklers—which I’m sure are necessary, and I’m not saying they’re not good ideas, but with all those things, it requires, in some cases, several hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars, to do a night club. So therefore, young people get disenfranchised and can’t do it, and so the business has changed. I went into it because I had access to it. You didn’t need a lot of money, you just needed a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of passion, and a good idea. On the public side—I hope this isn’t too cerebral—but I think the demographic has changed somewhat. There was much more diversity when we were doing nightclubs. When my friend Arthur and myself were doing them it was a mixture of old and young, and rich and poor, and black and white, and straight and gay. And you don’t really see that anymore. It’s a lot more of a homogenous kind of thing, and more of a pickup place kind of thing. So I don’t think you have that kind of energy, that kind of electricity floating in the air like we used to.
I agree 100 percent. When you did Enchanted Garden, you were partners with Steve Rubell. You did Studio 54, you did Palladium with him. and these were some of the greatest clubs of all time. What was your role as opposed to Steve’s role? We were partners, and like all good partners, we were 50-50 partners. There were areas of influence obviously, but they weren’t mutually exclusive. I wasn’t the inside guy and Steve wasn’t the outside guy. I don’t think that’s constructive to the relationship. Primarily, I was involved with conceptualizing the places, and building them, and doing the parties, but Steve was involved in that too. Steve was out front, dealing with a lot of the people, but he wasn’t doing that exclusively. For instance, when Studio 54 opened, I might go to Steve and say, Steve, there’s Halston, go get friendly with him. When you’re partners and you share half the cake with your partner, you’re both making the contributions. Steve and I knew the division of responsibility, but it’s hard to define. It wasn’t simply inside/outside. I was more interested in the building and creating of it and Steve was more interested in the social end of it, but I wasn’t merely an inside guy, and Steve wasn’t merely an outside guy. I think it’s a long-winded explanation to go through exact, specific things, but there were not areas of specific exclusivity, I can tell you that.
When that horrible movie, 54, came out, Calvin Klein was at that club I was running, Life, at the time. And I walked up to Calvin and I said, have you seen the movie? And he said, no he hasn’t, and he won’t go. And I said to him, it’s a shame that the only image that the public sees of Steve Rubell was the Mike Meyers version of it. Which was certainly not what Steve Rubell was about. Calvin said to me that he had traveled the whole world, and he has met kings and queens, and CEOs, but he has never met anybody more charismatic, or more intelligent, than Steve Rubell. In a couple of words, who was Steve Rubell and what was it that set him apart from the rest? I think whenever you do something that you’re really good at, and you really love it, it’s a gift. Steve really loved people. And he was really empathetic with them, and he was incredibly enthusiastic and compassionate about life, and I think it was contagious. When he talked to someone, he really and sincerely was truly interested in what they were saying, and people react to that, they gravitate to it. Andy Warhol was one of the first people who realized that Steve was a star when we first opened up Studio 54, because he had that kind of presence, that enthusiasm. He was fun to be around. when most of your life you’re occupied by being around boring people or social-climbers. Combining that with a razor-sharp intellect made him really a special guy. We’d be talking business at three o’clock in the morning, and you wouldn’t think that he remembered what he said that night. But the next morning he’d get up, and no matter what he would remember. I think in the last several years, there are certain times when people pass on, they touch you. And they have an impact on you. When Andy died, who would’ve thought, that when he passed, he touched people. And they responded to him. He was fun to be around, and he never thought of himself as being bigger, or more important than the person he was talking to.
When I ran clubs, in my mind every day when I went to work, I said to myself, I am going to run this club this night as if Steve and Ian are walking in, or Andy Warhol. Those were my icons. Every night when I looked around, I said, is my club ready if you guys walked in? That was my standard. I felt when Steve and Andy died, that was an end of a certain era. You of course moved on to hotels, but the club era died. That was when the music actually died for me. I think it had a lot to do with all of that. Not in the way people saw it, but when you think of things culture-wise, and the way things evolve, and the sexual revolution that started in the late 60s. And gay people were emerging, and gay people were starting the cultural trend. During this melting pot there was this incredible enthusiasm where you could really do whatever it is you wanted, and there were no consequences to be paid. When AIDS came in, it changed everything. There were consequences, there was a bill to pay. So that indulgence stopped and it all went away. I think it’s funny because when Steve passed is also when your right to music changed. But that’s when disco music and everything seemed to come to a head stop.
As I mentioned, I stayed at The Gramercy recently and it was a great experience on every level. It reminded me of when I used to work for you at the Palladium. The attention to detail was beyond belief. You build empires now and with these empires and so many properties in diverse and faraway places, how do you stay hands-on? Have you learned to delegate? How easy or hard was that for you to do? It’s always an issue for me, delegating. Because everything I do I think is a personal reflection on me. I’m maniacal about every detail, and I think it’s very personal. For me, I never know what detail is responsible for pushing something over the top, and therefore every detail becomes a matter of life or death. I think that’s been the key. I’ve been fortunate to be successful, and I think anyone who is successful has that kind of mania. It’s not quite certain what it is that makes something so successful. So therefore every single aspect, every single element, every single fact, the height of the table, everything is important. It’s like something becomes combustible, and you put it all together and it makes a spark. And you can’t really talk about that.
Thank you for teaching me that. I’ve carried that lesson I learned from you throughout my endeavors. When one walks through The Gramercy and it’s Warhol, it’s Hirst, it’s Richard Prince, it’s Cy Twombly, Haring, Basquiat, and many others. They adorn The Gramercy like a museum or an art gallery—is it a matter of associating your brand with this work, or is it more of a design decision? Julian Schnabel’s and your vision, elevating the design to a level that no one can reach? It is after all, 50 to 60 million dollars worth of art. No, buddy, it has nothing to do with that. You know what it is? I want to say it quite simply: It’s always the ideas that interest me. Andy started it by taking the pretension out of art and making it accessible to everybody. It’s really that idea. To me, why should art be limited to just rich people who can enjoy it in their home? Or you go to a museum and you have to crane your neck like you’re in a subway station looking at the art. Why can’t it be in an environment in a public facility like a hotel? Where you can come in, sit down, and have a drink. You can be sitting and having a conversation with someone, and look over your shoulder and see some great art. It was just that idea that I found interesting. It has nothing to do with the art, it has nothing to do with branding—it’s just wow, what a great idea to make this kind of stuff accessible to lots of people. Whether they come in for a drink at the nightclub or they stay in the hotel, it just seemed like a modern, great idea—something that Andy started, and just making it accessible to lots of people. I actually think that making that art accessible like that is one of the greatest ideas to come out of The Gramercy.
How do you obtain the rotating masterpieces at the Gramercy? It doesn’t seem difficult to get people to lend us the art, because a lot of the modern pieces are quite large and collectors don’t have a lot of space in their apartments. They love the act of showing it at the hotel and giving it a good platform. So we keep rotating it and turning it around. So they were there, they move out, and others take their place. And it keeps moving like that.
At the Palladium, the Michael Todd Room was filled with these Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. In the end, where did they go? We were very much into the arts at the Palladium as well, as you know. And it was the same idea there as well. There, those two Basquiats that we had in the Michael Todd Room, the estate took them back because everyone thought those were museum quality. They’re quite large and his father now owns them.
What drives you now? Is it the art of creating something? It can’t be the money at this point. It was never about the money. The money is an interesting byproduct Steve. You want it so you can support your lifestyle, I suppose. But I could never be motivated just by the money. It wouldn’t be enough. The money is a natural consequence. I’m motivated by doing something that blows people away, and doing something special, and doing something that people have never seen before. It still turns me on. It’s still my reason for getting up and working. It was really never about the money. It never was and it never will be.
Retirement. I heard those words mentioned a few years ago. It doesn’t sound like you’re a person anywhere near retirement. I hear there’s a hundred hotel projects. What’s the end game? There is no end game. What you learn is it’s just a trip. That’s the only thing there is. There’s no destination, it’s just a trip. You enjoy the fame when you’re fourteen, or forty, or eighty, it doesn’t matter. I’m just enjoying the trip and I still love what I’m doing, so I’ll keep doing it. The minute that I don’t, that’s when I’ll stop.
Arthur Weinstein, you mentioned him. I understand that for many years when he was ill and dying you were helping out with the money. You do things like that quietly, as you’ve always been a very quiet person. You’re talking right now, but you always keep your cards close to your vest. Tell me about Arthur Weinstein. Tell the people who read me who he was. Arthur was like a Damon Runyon-esque kind of character in the nightlife business, but I don’t think people ever really understood the kind of character, and that he was a real gentlemen and a real mensch, and I don’t think people really got that. I always understood it, and I think the way he died and dealt with his illness was with such dignity. It wasn’t a surprise to me and it reinforced what I had always thought about him. You had to see through his scruffy persona and the way he might have looked from the outside, but on the inside there was a reason that I had been friendly with him for thirty or forty years. New York nightlife is the worse for his passing.