As Netflix’s Halston reminds us, Studio 54 was a fever dream of excess. But the real-life nightclub—with its glamorous VIP guests, plentiful drugs, and balcony sex—was somehow more outrageous in actuality than could ever be conveyed onscreen. Halston, Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Mick Jagger, Cher, David Geffen, Jack Nicholson, and Michael Jackson regularly packed the banquettes. Scantily clad dancers gyrated on an automated bridge that moved back and forth over the dance floor. Club founders Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager provided premium guests with premium cocaine and spent up to $100,000 on a single night’s party decor. And sweaty attendees engaged in anonymous intercourse on the balcony—which was famously covered in rubber so that it could be easily hosed down at the end of each evening.
Anything went—so much so that, when I asked Halston biographer and Studio 54 regular Steven Gaines for his craziest story about the club, he offered an anecdote so risqué that we cannot print it in full here. (It involved bodily fluids expelled competitively in the Studio 54 basement. The prize: a paid trip to St. Barts.)
“Hey,” he said after my stunned pause, “you asked.”
“Nothing could shock me anymore,” added Gaines, whose book Simply Halston is the basis for Netflix’s limited series starring Ewan McGregor as the late fashion designer. “New York was very, very loose at the time. A lot of stuff was going on in New York City that you just couldn’t believe. It was really different. The fall of Rome, let me tell you. Studio was a reflection of all of that.”
Ahead, five outrageous anecdotes that paint a picture of Studio 54 in all of its gratuitous glory.
In Halston the designer learns of a person who died in an air shaft while trying to sneak into Studio 54. The anecdote seemingly stems from Studio 54 associate Baird Jones, who told The Last Party author Anthony Haden-Guest this had actually happened: “This guy got stuck in a vent trying to get in. It smelled like a cat had died. He was in black tie.” Jones added, “People would climb down from the building next door in full mountain-climbing gear…trying to get into the courtyard.”
Doorman Marc Benecke told the BBC, “At one point you could buy maps which claimed to show how to get in through tunnels up from the subway system. It was crazy.”
According to Studio 54 documentary filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer, the club owners “cleverly paid doorman Marc Benecke more than anyone else to make sure he wasn’t tempted to take bribes. He said he didn’t—but that didn’t mean people wouldn’t shove their hands in his coat pocket and leave drugs and money in there.”
Writing for Vanity Fair, Studio 54 regular Bob Colacello declared Taylor’s 1978 birthday the club’s “most amazing party of all…The Rockettes performed and then presented the movie star, who was standing on a float of gardenias between Halston and her then husband, Senator John Warner of Virginia, with a cake that was a full-size portrait of her. As Taylor gamely cut a good luck slice from the buttercream bosom, Warner fled the paparazzi.”
“A dozen well-endowed hunks, naked but for sequined posing-pouches, and some with joints dangling from the corners of their mouths, scattered gardenia petals in the couple’s path as they entered,” wrote Taylor biographer David Bret in The Lady, The Lover, The Legend. “The dancing and fun continued until the early hours, the atmosphere heavy with the stench of poppers and Elizabeth bebopping with a bevvy of gay porn stars, until Warner put his foot down and said that they were leaving.”
Andy Warhol also wrote a less-than-flattering recap of the shindig in his journal. From The Andy Warhol Diaries: “Liz looked like a—bellybutton. Like a fat little Kewpie doll…. Diana Vreeland was there, and people were being brought over to Liz—she was the queen. I met a quarterback. Bob was watching Bianca [Jagger] take poppers and he said to Diana Vreeland, ‘It really becomes more like pagan Rome every day,’ and she said, ‘I should hope so—isn’t that what we’re after?’”
That would be “Disco Sally,” a “sprightly thing in her late seventies who danced like a thirty-year-old, and was accompanied by a handsome young man named John on her arm,” wrote Mark Fleischman in Inside Studio 54. “She was a retired Jewish lawyer who became a judge and suddenly went crazy due to the combination of cocaine and the Studio 54 Effect. But back in the day, she would dance nonstop—from midnight to 5:00 a.m. many nights a week, taking only bathroom and cocaine breaks.”
As New York magazine reported at the time, “A tiny, 77-year-old lawyer named Sally Lippman was mourning the death of her husband when she happened upon the disco scene and changed her life. Dressed in tight pants and high-top sneakers, she became Disco Sally, a star at Studio 54 and Xenon who’d draw an audience of adoring fans as she got down on the dance floor.”
If you need video evidence of the woman herself, behold: Here is Disco Sally alongside her 25-year-old boyfriend-manager.
“Halloween was always the biggest night of the year, drawing crowds of over 2,500,” recalled Fleischman. “One year, we spent $50,000 transforming the main entrance hall into a haunted mansion that included live monsters jumping out at our guests as they made their way across rickety bridges through a graveyard, while howling and other very strange loud noises played in the background.” Describing one party, former model Kevin Haley told Vanity Fair in 1996, “As you came up the ramp in the foyer, you looked through little windows into little booths with midgets doing things. The one that sticks out in my head had a midget family eating a formal dinner.”
Ahead of Thanksgiving in 1978, Rubell attempted an audacious holiday event for which Valentino footed the bill. Rubell “had the waiters dressed up like Pilgrims and he was serving turkey,” recalled Warhol in his published diaries. “He said he had to explain to Valentino why he was doing it that way. He said he told him, ‘Well, you know America was discovered by an Italian’…The front of Studio 54 was decorated like the front of a boat. I lost Halston but I found him a little later eating a turkey leg, and he made me have some. The last place you want to eat meat from is a discotheque, but later I saw Stevie eating the turkey, too, so I guess it was okay.”
For Christmas, according to Inside Studio 54, Schrager put together disco-appropriate holiday gifts: “baggies of cocaine…each one had a ribbon on it, along with cards addressed to such famous names as Calvin Klein, Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, Halston, and so on.”
The night before Rubell and Schrager went to prison for corporate tax evasion, the duo threw a party at which Rubell wore a Frank Sinatra–style fedora and serenaded the club with “I Did It My Way.” “When I look back at it now,” Schrager said in 2018’s Studio 54 documentary, “it was so preposterous. What were we thinking?”
Per The Last Party:
Feds had previously discovered $600,000 in garbage bags, 300 quaalude pills, and cocaine during a raid of the club. The discoveries, which were reported in the press, disappointed Studio 54 regulars Warhol and Halston, but for surprising reasons. Per The Andy Warhol Diaries:
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