A Night at the Continental Baths

Bette Midler at the Baths: “a cross between Jagger and a Jeep, a touch like Ethel Merman.”

By Richard Goldstein

“…In the past year, the Baths has emerged as New York’s most Weimarian nightspot, a sort of City of Night à gogo…”

What to wear?

Nothing too inviting—I don’t want to be mistaken for David Bowie—and nothing too sedate—I don’t want to be mistaken for a salesman at the Harvard Coop. I settle for my lumberjack look: Bean Boots and a tight-fitting Western shirt over jeans which are baggy in the rear (I know, but they only cost me $3.98). At the Wrangler Wranch on Greenwich Avenue, they will not let you out of the dressing room if your seat is not snug in the saddle, and once I asked a clerk there why cowboys never have short arms, and he looked at my overhanging sleeves as though they were sanitary napkins.

Two friends have invited me along for an evening at the Continental Baths. The Baths is one of New York’s more ingenious hustles: a gay club during the week, and a discothèque on Saturday nights, when you can rent a cabana for $15, or roam the grounds for $5, to mingle or just to watch. I can think of less exploitative entertainments, and many gay people have come to spurn the Baths for its ambience as well as its cost. But the floor is crowded nightly, and at show time you are likely to find some of the most unusual entertainment anywhere—Lillian Roth singing “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” while Mick Jagger looks on. Scenes like that began to attract the curiosity of many straights. In response (and sensing, perhaps, that its gay clientele might provide just the draw a New York pop audience requires these days), the Baths began admitting straights on Saturday nights. It was a sure-fire formula for notoriety: and in the past year, the Baths has emerged as New York’s most Weimarian nightspot, a sort of City of Night à gogo, where straights may move among gay people without necessarily feeling gay.

We meet for dinner in the Village. My friends are wearing overalls and dirty leather jackets, which leaves me feeling overdressed and somewhat effete. We make our way uptown to the old Ansonia, part of that argyle axis which stretches from Cleopatra’s Needle to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, where the Ham & Eggs on Broadway and 72ndused to serve as a sort of leather Sardi’s. Not far from that landmark (now an asexual Blimpie Base, and onion-y at that), they have a blue door with a simple plaque announcing The Continental; shades of post-war Paris and Juliette Greco smoking under the gargoyles. You walk downstairs into a shapeless gymnasium. There is a swimming pool in the center of the room, and the entire place feels heated to the approximate temperature of a sauna at the Y. Except there are no tiles on the walls, and there’s a refreshment stand and potted plants and wicker swings and deck chairs and softly agile lighting and loud music and an Exercycle and weights and pulleys set into the corner of the room like props.

I’m sucked in, absorbed by the crowd, which is perhaps 95 per cent male, although the Continental welcomes ladies on Saturday night. They do seem a bit peripheral, though. Many come clinging to their men, like folks from Indiana hoping to be mugged as an experience. Others crouch politely by the bandstand, and a few dance, with none of the panache of the males, who are dressed for the most part in bath towels, fitted ever so snugly around the hips, so different from the way I look in a towel, all crusty like a dirty dish.

How exciting to be here tonight, to see without touching, stealing glances but feeling insulated by my own identity. This is 1973, year of the transvestite-father-of-six. It is okay to visit a gay bar now and then, just to see how the other tenth lives. Those of us who have been intrigued by Sunday, Bloody Sunday may even consider a brief foray into gay life without feeling stigmatized. Nevertheless, for me it is sufficiently threatening to warrant a certain apprehension. I do not believe heterosexuality is a “natural” state.  Most people win their status as heterosexuals after profound inner struggles. Once achieved, that status is anything but invulnerable, and anyone who threatens it must be punished or rendered ridiculous. I don’t think the intensity of the threat which gay people pose to straights has diminished behind the new etiquette of tolerance, and why should it? How can I ignore the yearning mixed with dread which comes of watching someone spurn the very status which I have had to struggle to attain?

I hand my coat to an old black man who gives me a tag and a look of utter boredom. He doesn’t look gay. Nobody does. Mostly they look like me. Men in bath towels or overalls, or those baggy forties trousers where your basket doesn’t show. No one is exactly flaming here tonight, or at least there is little dazzle in the room, except for the persistent traces of the stimulant amyl nitrite hanging like vinegar in the air. Some men are in the nude, especially those grouped around the pool, and some are wearing their towels with little patches of buttock  exposes. But I feel no sense of enticement, no ambience of the cruise on Central Park West where guys peer out of the shrubbery like leopards in a Val Lewton movie. Something inexplicably blasé about this audience makes me feel like a proper tourist, 6 a.m. in the peasant markets of La Paz, they’re bringing in freshly slaughtered llamas and you stand there, breathless from the altitude, feeling exotically out of touch.

We all take seats on the floor. It’s crowded—so crowed it’s impossible not to touch or be touched. My friend finds a lap and asks permission to install himself, which, when granted, he does. I’m vaguely pissed, and hope he isn’t going to abandon me. I have my own phobias to contend with: what if I am corralled into a back room by 30 men who want to do a Lawrence of Arabia on me? What if I wind up like that guy in Deliverance, without even the consolation of a canoe trip? Even worse: what if I’m ignored?

“…The thought that I must suffer the same uncertainties here as I would at any fraternity dance seems insufferable…”

The room is indoor-pool humid, and nobody is offering me any amyl nitrite. I’d get up and walk around, but I’m scared to move too far from my friend, who doesn’t really seem too interested in the guy he’s sitting on. I wonder why not if he’s in his lap. But then I start thinking about the number of guys in that room who are touching each other, and how little it means, thinking how much it means when a straight man touches another man, how loaded a gesture that is, even among those of us who believe people should touch each other when they’re feeling tactilely disposed. I have touched dogs and cat with a vengeance, but I have never touched another person without feeling at least a bit momentous about it, like it’s some sort of landmark in my crawl toward liberation just to reach out in affection or anger or sympathy and tousle someone’s hair.

I think about the way most straight men behave around certified gays—I mean the protracted avoidance of physical contact—and how gay people themselves seem to have abandoned all the accepted gestures of affection between men—hugs and shoves, feigned punches and lingering handshakes. Not that these gestures are any more than superficial indicators, but I have often counted among the true liabilities of gay life that narrowing of the possibilities for friendship, knowing full well how difficult it is to maintain a friendship with another for whom sex was or could ever be an option.

The show begins, with Steve Ostrow introducing himself. Steve Ostrow runs the Continental, or anyway his name always appears over the entertainer’s, like Carol Denning Presents King Kong: Ostrow looks imperious and vaguely Viennese, like an old torch lamp you sit under to read The Saturday Evening Post. He tells people to clear an aisle, and then gets really von Sternberg for his intro…without further ado…Bette Midler begins to wind her way through the audience. She gets a mulch ovation, petals and poppers are thrown at her feet.

I’m told she comes from Honolulu, which surprises me, since I would have placed her on Bathgate Avenue, helping her mother sell fabric to the wool-hat matrons of the Bronx, who lost her own outstanding cherry one tarry night, and came down from the roof to find her mother sitting at the table with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, wizened, waving her daughter off to sleep with a tender, “Welcome to womanhood.”

Bette Midler is, well, she is present. She is there, folks. Built like a cross between Mick Jagger and a Jeep, she just chugs along, cakewalk and jutting finger, in a kind of silver shell and tight red pants, looking just a touch like Ethel Merman, yeah, but she’s got very intense eyes that mean to please. And she sings ballads and blues, some show tunes and some Dylan, singing him the way you’d maybe do Sammy Cahn: traditional. But her specialty, at least to judge by this performance, is the greaser sixties, the Shangri-las and Dixie Cups, dry runs under the El. And she does it so lovingly that you can’t help picking it up, moving with her patter and her sass.

I sit there thinking about Janis Joplin as Miss M. performs, thinking about how far we have come from naïve energy, from frizzle and from vibes. How appropriate it feels to live and work and dress and dance with that Stewart Brand perfectibility in one’s demeanor and one’s politics. I can do it. I can survive. Plain and righteous. I live in the spirit of Attica. My brain is the whole grain, with all vitamins restored. I am striving. I am striven for. I am instinctive, but I am also a pro.

Which is how I would describe Bette Midler. She works with a comedy writer. Can you imagine Joplin taking lines from a dude in clean boots with a paisley kerchief around his neck? Can you imagine Joplin working with three dark women in cocktail dresses, called the Harlettes? Or leaning over to tell her audience, in an utterly nuance-perfect imitation of gay parlance, “I’m here to vish and dish…” I’m shocked, the way I was shocked the first time I saw Hendrix squirting lighter fluid from between his legs, because here is a performer who violates all the proper lovechild rules of rock, the Joplin rules of needful naïveté. Here is the spirit of Tin Pan Alley out there strutting like nobody’s business, and the guys in the audience, who have spent a long time sequestering their taste, are seeing the last bastion of true-blue hetero-pop crumble in the face and body and nuance of Bette Midler, who is much more to the point than Alice Cooper, because she’s so real-live, so off the wall, and the audience at the Continental loves her and honors her because they know that she is Right.

The show lasts an hour, maybe—two encores and then the canned music begins. There is dancing and lounging and the whole room opens up. People are mostly hanging out. Nobody asks anyone to dance. You just get up and stand near someone you like and move around, like on the subway.

People here seem deeply involved with their own bodies, the way people at the Electric Circus seemed deeply involved with their own heads. If the ethereal has come down to the physical, it’s still the same feeling of isolation amid chaos that one comes away with, as though, overwhelmed by the light and the heat and the noise, one is free to display a certain vacancy in the name of self-absorption.

I for one am circling the floor with a growing desire to be noticed, feeling like a stray body to whom nobody is offering any amyl nitrite. I want to be appreciated, if not aroused. A friend of mine told me he was felt up at the Baths, and he said it with a faint tone of satisfaction which I can understand. You want to be acknowledged, especially by those who are presumed to be refined in the arts of masculine acknowledgement. Tell me with a glance that my boots are clunky and my jeans are baggy and my shirt is too tapered, exposing pockets of belly between the buttons…but you think I’m sexy anyhow.

Actually I have been felt up only once in my life, and that was in Istanbul where it doesn’t count for much more than a weather forecast. Out on Riverside Drive walking my dog, I have been propositioned only twice in five years, the first time by someone really ugly whom I ignored, and the second time by a pretty good-looking guy whom I rejected but thanked. I used to walk unnoticed down Christopher Street when it was called the Meat Rack, convinced I was being ignored because they knew I was straight, but suspecting that something much more fundamental was involved. But I sometimes wonder whether the limits of my own sexuality aren’t really based on the fear of being mocked, turned down, or tossed away.

I find myself cruising for approval. All around the swimming pool, and then upstairs, where I’m told the real stuff goes on. Upstairs it is very neat and sequestered, prim cabanas, some with open doors, even though I’d expected a sort of Kenneth Anger version of Rockaway. I pass a pitch-black room marked “dormitory,” but stray away. I tell myself it’s like the fun house at Rye Beach, but with phosphorescent penises jutting out from the dark. On the landing, I ask a young man where I can get a towel and he says downstairs, “But don’t go all the way outside, dear.” I shuffle down the stairs, and into a strangely familiar (if heterosexual) frame of mind. The thought that I must suffer the same uncertainties here as I would at any fraternity dance seems insufferable.

From a woman, I can receive such treatment with a surface equanimity, although it has taken me years to adjust to the immense power I have always felt women possessed; that is, the power of rejection. To extend to men as well as women that power over your own esteem is to open yourself to much more than the guilt which your first homosexual encounter is supposed to invite. It is to widen your range of suspicion indefinitely, to include the whole of humankind as the object of uncertainty. There would be no breathing space, no refuge from the anxieties which sexuality imposes on relationships. We would find ourselves sizing up every creature in the universe: friends, lovers, dentists, cops. Dear Sir, if you do not deliver seltzer to my door, I will know it is because you don’t care.

I decide to grin and bear it. This is, after all, a far more interesting way to hear music than the Electric Circus ever was, and perhaps the last outpost of genuine glamor in this recession-rutted town. Nobody comes to the Continental Baths looking like a hanging plant, and that is something of a relief, just as it is some brief contact with tradition to see a room full of people who look like flashes of celluloid, Fellini filigree. You feel like something out of Satyricon, and there is nothing to do but blend into the set, since at dawn we will all turn into frescoes and fade away.

I take off my clothes and plunge into the pool. Someone is doing an intricate ballet around the rungs of the ladder, slithering through the metal hoops, then leaping into the water in a really dazzling pirouette. I applaud, but he doesn’t notice me. Nobody notices me, even though I feel so eminently noticeable in the nude. I dive down and swim around the bottom of the pool, colliding with people’s ankles, then come up for air beside two lovers who are tangled in each other’s beards. I look around me. People are moving to no rhythm whatever, or swaying vacantly in wicker seats, or moving, casually, frantically, oblivious, engrossed. There is that magic ephemerality which exists in the best gay art, that feeling of great and passionate elegance which vanishes and then gets reviewed.

I look up at my friends, who are watching me from the side of the pool. I feel oddly provincial, and amazed. I want to say, gosh, aren’t the buildings tall? But they seem so blasé in their hangdog tenderness that I can only climb into my towel and put my socks back on. Later, we walk down Central Park West. The sewers are smoking. Guys abut the wall of Central Park. My friends rate them smugly, and I wonder, is there anyone who has hustled anything who does not bristle at the competition? We are talking quietly in the mist, and I realize that this is the first time I have been with gay people without feeling righteous and aloof. My voice softens, and I allow myself to slouch, the way I like to slouch late at night when I’m relaxed. It feels like we are just some guys walking down Central Park West. Except we aren’t. My friend, who is a full foot taller than I and who looks improbable in anyone’s lap, puts his arm around my shoulder. I like being held by him but I feel myself stiffen up, and I don’t return the gesture, and he takes his arm away.

*A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 1973 issue of New York Magazine.