“The dimensions of my bathroom are very much like an Egyptian tomb,” Freeman Gunter says. “A noble tomb, not a royal tomb.” We are standing in the bathroom, and Gunter is moving among his glyphs: a limestone chip from the Valley of the Kings, a cornbread-colored towel, a reproduction from Saqqara showing a pair of priests circumcising some noblemen. “Hold him and do not allow him to faint,” goes the inscription on the original. “I will cause it to heal.”
A stranger’s bathroom is an excellent place to snoop in any apartment, but especially so if that stranger has occupied his bathroom since 1974. To have lived, as Freeman Gunter has, in one place for so long is both a luxury and a pain in the ass. A luxury because his one-bedroom in the Ansonia, a child’s doodle of a legendary building on Broadway and 74th, costs Gunter so little that he refuses to divulge his rent for fear that people will murder him. A pain in the ass because an apartment like Gunter’s can become inseparable from its occupant. Though for Gunter, the idea of a rent-controlled mausoleum makes him happy.
“Nobles who could afford a nice tomb fixed it up so that it either reflected their life as they wanted to live it in eternity or their life as it was,” he says. “I like to be constantly reminded of what makes me feel good: the voices I love to hear, the people who loved me, the people I love or just love to look at.” He points to the yellow towel. “I stole that from a little steamer the first time I went up the Nile. There’s nothing that my eyes fall on that doesn’t remind me of something nice in my life.”
What a thing to say. Gunter, a retired journalist who edited a string of gay porn magazines (Michael’s Thing, Mandate, Playguy, Honcho) starting in the seventies, is not famous, but he is an example of that mythical creature the New York City character, and his apartment is an illustration of what happens when a person of charismatic weirdness is allowed to stew in his weirdness for four decades. The place is jammed with souvenirs from trysts, crimes, and celebrity encounters. Here is the authentic funerary statuette acquired semi-legally from a museum that might not have known what it gave him. Here is a gilded panther. Here is Marky Mark with his junk out. There’s so much to see.
A 1974 photograph in Gunter’s bedroom shows Sarah Vaughan performing for a crowd of shiny men in towels. The picture was taken four floors beneath his apartment, at what was then the Continental Baths and is now a parking lot. The baths were what first got Gunter to the Ansonia and eventually prompted him to move in; they were opened in 1968 by Steve Ostrow, a businessman and opera singer, and they were decadent and clean, with fresh flowers, orgy rooms, a hamburger stand, and a mirrored sex maze.
For $5 per room, a visitor could stay as long as he wanted. Gunter went at least once a week. “Much of my life revolved around the baths,” he says. “It was an evening scene that doesn’t exist at all now. You could mix and mingle, have a drink, see a great show, and wander off in the shadows and have sex.” Because no natural light entered the baths, Gunter tended to lose track of time.
The Sarah Vaughan picture shows Gunter in the front row: handsome, paler than a cotton ball, in ecstasy. “Sass had the best weed, could roll her r’s, and liked her suite at the St. Regis, but she was just like a little girl,” he says. The two became pals. “Before going onstage, she’d pick up a bottle of Tabasco from the piano and take a swig. She said it opened up her head.” The Continental’s entertainment—Bette Midler, Barry Manilow—was originally a ruse to distract patrons from the threat of police raids. Gradually, the show-business aspect of the place overrode the utilitarian aspect, and by the time Vaughan appeared, there was a sense of mission creep. The baths closed within a few years.