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Happy Days

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Getting ready to go out in her Chelsea Hotel apartment.  

By the early nineties, Susanne had carved out an eccentric niche for herself as the maternal figure to self-orphaned club kids living lives their real mothers didn’t understand. Then things got tricky. Susanne became a real mother herself. Among the bustle in the apartment is a precocious, curly-haired 11-year-old named Bailey, Susanne’s son with David Barton, her second husband, a man best known for a chain of gyms that bear a passing resemblance to his wife’s parties. Bailey was born in 1994, a year before the couple married in a Playboy-sponsored ceremony with Betsey Johnson and Ingrid Sischy among the 43 bridesmaids. It was then that Susanne retired from throwing regular parties: nothing formal, just a dignified fade from the scene. But Bailey is now a sixth-grader at St. Ann’s—mature enough that his mother doesn’t feel guilty leaving him with his longtime nanny on Tuesday nights when she undergoes her “transformation from housewife to glamourpuss.”

A few years back, HBO flirted with the idea of creating a reality show around Bartsch, her family, and her entourage of rakish groupies. (“Before The Osbournes,” Susanne likes to point out. “Before anyone, really.”) The show was nixed, but given the dizzying surrealism of the party preparations, it’s hard to understand why. Here comes Zaldy, her clothing guy, who lives downstairs and designs Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B. collection. “Oh, this is going to look fabulous,” he says, showing Susanne tonight’s outfit: a green velvet maiden dress, baroque gold-plated belt, cast-iron unicorn pendant, burgundy leather lace-up stiletto boots.

And here comes David Barton, who has a bodybuilder’s spring-loaded physique and spiky, frosted bangs falling over his eyes like stalactites. “Rufus is doing really well at the gym,” he says as his wife gets dressed—Rufus being Rufus Wainwright, the singer. Though the couple seems perfectly matched—both are guided by instinct, both are fond of praising one another’s bedroom technique to near total strangers—the relationship hasn’t always been an easy one. In 1999, the two separated, their mutual obsessions with work not mixing with their outsize personalities; they reconnected in the wake of September 11. All has been congenial since, though Susanne still refuses to give Barton back his closet space.

As for Bailey, he used to find his mother’s fashion proclivities somewhat dismaying (“Bailey would say to me all the time that when I got into drag I looked oooogly,” says Susanne), but now he describes her as “funny” and leaves it at that. At present, he wanders over and slumps into the overstuffed couch, his feet propped up on the driftwood coffee table where Awakening the Buddha Within sits atop The Economist.

“Hi, darling. How was school?” Susanne asks, talking simultaneously to the club via cell: “Yes, Junior swears he is coming . . . ”

“I read a poem in class that everyone loved,” says Bailey. “The assignment was to write a poem that made no sense but had a deeper meaning. Mine was about death. It was very dark. It was called ‘The Upside of Saying Good-bye.’ ”

“Oh, that’s excellent, darling.” And then: “Hey, Zaldy? Can we make the hem shorter?”

Zaldy drops to his knees for some ad hoc alterations.

“The whole celeb thing is getting on my nerves. People don’t even care about the décor. You can give them a toilet—if there’s a celeb there, it thrills. I like Brad Pitt, but he’s not going to make my event, you know? "

“Mom?” Bailey jumps in, yawning, the time nearing eleven.

“Yes?”

“Permission to go to bed?”

“Of course, darling. Give us a kiss good night.”

Another twenty minutes is spent on the hemline: pinning, furling, repinning, refurling. In the end, the dress has been reduced to such a flimsy scrap of fabric that it’s impossible not to notice that, at 55, Susanne Bartsch looks mighty fit in a black thong. With her pixie hips and alabaster skin, she looks pretty spectacular all around. Has she had any . . . surgical assistance? “Oh, I want to get it, but I don’t have the balls, darling,” she deadpans. “Hell, I’ve had a good life. It’s okay for people to see it in my wrinkles.” With that she bends over, gives her trim hips an ironic wiggle, and heads out to Happy Valley.

When I walk into the room, I get so inspired,” Susanne says as she approaches the club’s anonymous façade. The street is rain-slicked, deceptively deserted. “I see the right people, I see everyone having a good time, I see someone dancing on the bar. And everything just gels, right?”

But until that moment, she is consumed by an almost toxic anxiety. Probably it has something to do with returning after such a long absence, having a legacy to uphold. Walking down the dark corridor leading to the main room, the walls throbbing with bass, she can’t help but wonder: What if the first few Tuesdays were a fluke? What if nightlife has become resistant to her philosophy, and now her cynical children have migrated elsewhere, muttering that Susanne Bartsch isn’t what she used to be, and right now she’ll open the door and be forced to confront the dark reality that—


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