The most infamous sex club of the 1970s

Lots of legendary New York clubs were born in 1970s: CBGB on the Bowery, Studio 54 west of midtown, Paradise Garage on King Street.

But lets not forget Plato’s Retreat, the notorious swingers’ club that epitomized the free-sex atmosphere of pre-AIDS New York.

Opened in 1977, Plato’s Retreat held court in the basement of the then-crumbling Beaux Arts Ansonia Hotel on Broadway and West 74th Street.

Management laid out strict rules: No gay men, couples only (though women could have sex with each other), no drugs, no booze.

Celebrities indulged in orgies with regular joes and janes from the suburbs. A “mat room” was for exhibitionist sex. Clothes were optional. Guests could bump uglies in the disco, the Jacuzzi, and the huge swimming pool.

Of course, it wouldn’t last long. In 1980, Plato’s Retreat moved out of the Ansonia to a much bigger space at 509 West 34th Street. Owner Larry Levenson went to prison for tax evasion in 1981.

And then AIDS hit the city. Mayor Koch ordered the health department to shut down gay bathhouses as well as straight sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat. By 1985, it was over.

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22 Responses to “The most infamous sex club of the 1970s”

  1. fifilaru Says:

    Gee, that is a lot of rules!

  2. Lisa Says:

    Blech. I always imagined that this club was populated by farty, hairy Al Goldstein-types and their bullied wives. Judging from the body language of that chick in the tube top, I’m not far off the mark– she looks to be a rather unwilling “swinger”, doesn’t she?

  3. Lisa Says:

    I’m now fifteen minutes into a Netflix (“watch-instantly”) selection called “American Swing”– a documentary about Plato’s Retreat.

    The only celebrity Plato’s-regular shown thus far is Professor Irwin Corey– to give just an idea of how deliciously SEXY a scene Plato’s was, in its hey-day.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    I came across references to Sammy Davis Jr. and the cast of Saturday Night Live stopping in. Maybe that was just rumor?

  5. Marco Says:

    But Professor Irwin Corey was only on his way to pick the National Book Award for Thomas Pynchon;)

  6. Lisa Says:

    I finished the documentary– in addition to Prof Irwin Corey, we have Buck Henry (but, he seems to have gone there just to giggle & eavesdrop). certain male members of SNL, and yes– several people referred to the glorious night when Mr. Sammy Davis Junior stopped in. Abbie Hoffman went there once to check it out– but left a Plato’s virgin, the only man on record who couldn’t get laid there.

    The documentary was pretty enlightening– Larry Levenson & gang were totally L7– conventional, lowbrow squares from Long Island (only naked!).

    I guess I imagined the patrons to be just a little more sophisticated, my illusions are shattered. Al Goldstein seems comparatively suave & cultivated compared to the average member.

  7. wildnewyork Says:

    Al Goldstein is exactly the kind of guy I imagine frequented Plato’s Retreat. I think he used to reference it on his old cable-access show, Midnight Blue.

  8. Bowery Boy Says:

    Today, the clubs are much better and much more exclusive (they screen based on physical appearance), which shall go unnamed, but if you want that old school feel there’s still Trapeze, Carousel, and Checkmates.

  9. Barbara Amaya Says:

    I worked all over the city when I was a runaway…One night a john took me to Platos Retreat, I cringe now to think I actually took a swim in the pool. I guess it shows how young and stupid I was, swimming around in all those bodily fluids, I left the city in the early 80’s before crack and aids really hit, I dont believe in accidents someone was looking out for me for sure.

  10. Nicole Says:

    i absolutely love the ansonia… probably my favorite building in the city. i’ve always wondered what is in place of the baths/plato’s now? american swing said a parking garage but was referring to the newer location. does anyone know what the ansonia basement is now used for? i’ve never had any luck on google finding out. maybe i’ll take a walk over and ask a doorman… they probably don’t know though!

  11. Rev. E.M. Camarena Says:

    As a child, I spent many happy hours in Plato’s Retreat. But… it was not yet the notorious sex club, nor was it even the Continental Baths where Bette Midler shot to fame. It was just the Jewish Men’s Health Club in the basement of the Ansonia and my Boy Scout troop met there. Yes, New York CIty Boy Scouts.

  12. The Rickster Says:

    I, too, was in that Boy Scout Troop, and learned to swim in the very same pool where years later all those body fluids merged. I am tickled to have my recollections verified by the reverend. I think the Scoutmasters name was Roy, and the rumor was not to shower alone with him…

    • David Rosenblatt Says:

      I wonder if I’ve been there, too. As a kid in the early 60’s, I lived in a building that was behind the Ansonia. I remember going with my family a few times to some pool that had its entrance on the Ansonia side of W. 74th Street, between Broadway and West End. I recall there being a gym room off of the pool, of which the only thing I remember playing with was one of those old-fashioned vibrating belt machines.

      Could that have been the same place?

      • Rev. E.M. Camarena Says:

        Sounds like the same place. You describe exactly what I remember. The vibrating belt and there was some weird thing that people sat on as it rolled across their butt. The entrance was on 74th next to the barber shop.

    • Rev. E.M. Camarena Says:

      Rickster: I forgot the scoutmaster’s name but know what you mean. Given the future of that space, he was rather prescient! When I endured my only experience in Boy Scout summer camp, the numbers I wore for Troop 530 in NYC drew gasps and snickers from the other scouts. Word had gotten around.

  13. Spending Christmas 1971 at the Continental Baths | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Baths operated until the mid-1970s, when it was rebranded as swingers’ paradise Plato’s Retreat. Perhaps they too had a Christmas Day […]

  14. polapony Says:

    I saw quarterback Dan Pastorini there in 1980, Richard Dreyfuss, Garrett Morris from Saturday Night Live, and a lot of porn stars including Seka, Annie Sprinkle, Serena and amputee actress Long Jean Silver. Some gorgeous Europeans used to come in, and all of them were having sex. Goldstein just went there to eat pussy. We didn’t worry about body fluids then; that is a post-AIDS fear, though I did see one too many band-aids floating in the pool.

  15. BEN DOVER Says:

    No mention of the Club Nepenta, which was also a velvet rope club of the early 70’s.. One interesting comment I have to make is why they include Studio 54 as a sex club. I was there many times and never experienced sex there.Did anyone ever here of Club Nepenta?

  16. Forbidden Fruit (@BannedintheUSSA) Says:

    Never been to NY but I’ve been inside a sex club before. It was mostly fat, bald guys whacking it in dark corners with the occasional attractive couple going at it on the “main stage”. (I presume they were paid by the club to liven it up a bit, because they looked nothing like the other patrons).

    Lesbian couples weren’t considered “couples” & thus my friends couldn’t get their own space there. Lame. This was in Vegas, btw.

    1/10 wouldn’t go again.

  17. A Brief History of Sex Clubs, And Their Clandestine Predecessors - InsideHook - LimeLight Nightclub Says:

    […] vanilla, heteronormative and perhaps even exploitative. Plato’s notoriously laid out strict no gay sex, no threesomes rules for its patrons and took pains to make sure there were always plenty of young, conventionally […]

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