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Happy Days

Eighties party icon Susanne Bartsch returns to save nightlife from bottle service and Paris Hilton.


Susanne Bartsh dancin at Happy Valley.  

The makeup guy is a total absolute geeenius. Just look at the way he swoops and orbits around her pale, narrow face—a surgeon with the glittery periwinkle eyeliner, his hands seemingly laser-sighted as he carefully crimps a pair of very long, very fake eyelashes. Over the years, legions of theatrical boy-men have hovered over her face with their tiny wands and top-secret compacts, but she digs Bruce like no other. The man is a guru. A magician. With Bruce around, you would never guess that Susanne Bartsch is 55 years old and has, minus a brief hiatus to give birth to a child, been going out nightly for the past four decades.

“Bruce, seriously, you are a total, absolute geeenius,” she says, sitting amid the shabby clutter of her apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. And then, into her cell: “Junior! Are you still there, Junior?”

Junior is Junior Sanchez, the D.J., “an amazing person, very connected with Madonna, whom I adore.” Tonight is a Tuesday, the evening of Susanne’s party at Happy Valley, a club on East 27th, where she is trying to wrangle Junior to spin later. Consider it a testament to her prodigious hostessing powers that until recently, Happy Valley was a nocturnal no-man’s-land: desolate and struggling, not talked about by the people who talk about these things. Then Susanne decided to throw a party, something she hadn’t done since the late eighties. Suddenly, you started hearing the expectant murmurs: Susanne Bartsch—the fabled underground iconoclast, the promoter whose decadent nights cured New York of its post-disco hangover, the woman once anointed the “Pied Piper of nightlife”—had emerged from the exile of motherhood to indulge in a long-awaited encore. “Of course people are buzzing about Susanne,” says her friend Ian Schrager, the Studio 54 owner turned hotelier. “Throwing parties is in her DNA. She is a true icon of the night, someone who goes down in the nightlife hall of fame.”

Getting ready for an event is, for Susanne, an event in itself: multiple phones ringing, music blaring, people coming and going as if moved through her apartment via conveyor belt. Rarely does anything go according to plan because rarely is there a plan to go by. Take Junior: He is supposed to spin later, but, then again, he was supposed to spin last week. “You better not be stuck in the stooodio with that bloody Shakeeera again,” Susanne scolds him over the phone. She is from Switzerland, ended up in New York by way of swinging London, and her Teutonic accent remains severe, every third word drawn out like a piece of taffy, something to savor and flaunt. As she speaks, in comes Charlie, her hair guy, who starts grafting a flowing black synthetic wig onto Bartsch’s head with the precision of a topiary artist.

“Trust me,” he says. “The profile is going to be fierce.”

“Oh, Charlie, that’s geeenius!” And to Junior: “Promise you’ll be there? You will? Geeenius!”

The desire to throw a weekly party again first came on like an itch, a tickle of loneliness. It’s not that Susanne had disappeared from nightlife completely—there were fashion parties, Halloween balls, New Year’s Eve in Miami—but she hadn’t been a regular fixture in years.

“I missed being out,” she says, “missed seeing people.” There are more altruistic motives for her return as well: “The state of nightlife today, it’s dismal!” she says. “The clubs are soulless, dollar-driven. There is no energy, none of the mixing that I love.” She despairs of what’s become of her beloved nightlife, co-opted by post-frat players standing in line at Marquee with masochistically tweezed postpubescent girls. While she was gone, clubs morphed into slick terrariums of exclusion, segregated by who could access the VIP area, who was trust-funded or hedge-funded enough to drop $300 for a $15 bottle of vodka, who was moderately famous. It made Susanne depressed, which, as with any artist, is when creativity strikes.

She started wondering if she could re-create something like the venerated nights she hosted nearly twenty years ago, something like her notorious monthly Thursday-night party at the Copacabana, which is where you went to witness Marc Jacobs and Malcolm Forbes mingling in an undulating sea of trannie hookers and, as Susanne wistfully remembers, “a stripper who smoked cigarettes with her pussy.” Anita Sarko, a D.J. and onetime Copa regular, remembers Susanne as the ringmaster presiding over a lawless carnival: “She had a way of taking all these weirdos, giving them a place to congregate, and as a result she turned them into icons.” The parties were one of the reasons that Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys New York, devoted a chapter of his book Wacky Chicks: Life Lessons From Fearlessly Inappropriate and Fabulously Eccentric Women to Susanne. “I used to tear up to the Copa after finishing the windows at the store,” he recalls. “She had another stripper named Lady Hennessey Brown who could lactate! It was fabulous! Susanne is really the first person to make sleaziness groovy. She’s a visionary that way, you know?”

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