Kissing Cynthia Heimel Good-bye

Heimel on the Lower East Side, 1973. Photo: Michael Longacre

Cynthia Heimel, who died on February 25 at 70, was probably best known for her books of funny, sparky writing, much of it done for The Village Voice, especially the hilarious “Problem Lady” advice column. But from 1978 to 1983, she wrote some of the wittiest party stories and profiles in New York. We offer here a too-brief selection of her work.

At a Party Full of Celebrities

“Don’t be scared,” Debbie Harry said.

“Help me, Rhonda,” Richard Price said.

“There’s Richard Gere,” Diana Ross said.

“Who’s that blonde girl?” Gloria Vanderbilt said.

Paul Schrader looked helplessly around the room. “I knew the invitation should have read, ‘Bring somebody who will listen to you,’ ” he said.
“But no one did.”

He was right. Nobody was listening to anybody else; everybody was nervous … It was Paul Schrader’s “celebrity” screening of American Gigolo, and the place was lousy with faces. Every time you turned around you bumped into Rob Reiner or Martin Scorsese or Lauren Hutton holding hands with Diana Vreeland …

Then there was a party at Diane von ­Furstenberg’s place on upper Fifth Avenue.

Susan Sontag, wearing pink cowboy boots, rode up in the elevator with other nervous people. Susan was the bravest; she went in to case the joint. “You’ve gotta go in, if only for five minutes,” she reported. “The place is incredible.”

The place was incredible. It was like an exceedingly comfortable museum. The great big windows had a glittering view of Manhattan. During the evening almost everybody at the party pulled a friend over to the window and said, “Someday, darling, all this will be ours” … Steve Rubell told me how he was supposed to go to prison in Allentown. “So I said to my mother,” he said to Diana Ross, “Ma, if I can deal with it, you can” …

On the way home in his limo, Richard Gere told stories about the mutant alligator who used to live in his bathroom.

—“A Nervous Splendor,” February 18, 1980

At a Strip Club for Women

“Give me some meat,” a blonde screamed.

The female clientele was getting hungry for action. Whistles were blowing, buttons were popping. An all-girl band came on and played a few insipid jazz numbers, then the Chez Elle theme song boomed over the loudspeakers: Chez Elle, Chez Elle / Where all the ladies stay up late / To see us charm and scintillate.

Chez Elle is a slightly sleazoid, cavernous club on East 62nd Street. The joint is owned by Olivier Coquelin, perpetrator of such past spots as Le Club, Ondine, the Cheetah, and Hippopotamus. The invitation promised us an adventure—“the first strip club for women who love men …
a club with attractive male ecdysiasts performing for the delectation of a female clientele …

A toreador pranced onstage. He had greased black hair and a pencil mustache. He burst into “Love Me With All Your Heart” and slithered my way, grabbed my pen, and used it suggestively. Somebody grabbed his thighs. His ornate pants, held together with Velcro, came off. Zip zip …

A future-type guy appeared in silver lamé. He was black, had an incredibly beautiful body. But I couldn’t get over his pink lip gloss, glittered eyelids, and subtly shaded blusher.

Oh boy, a boxer. Almost Rocky. He jumped rope and pulled off his satin shorts. His black mustache bristled. His G-string runneth over …

Marty sat down. “I really am a boxer,” he said. “I won the Silver Gloves in ’79. I don’t do it anymore … I want to get into acting. I also do displays for J.C. Penney.”

—“The Women’s Room: Beefcake on the Hoof,” April 14, 1980 

At a Belly-Dancing Club

The best place of all is the Egyptian Gardens. You walk upstairs past the life-size belly dancer painted in the hall. Somebody has drawn a balloon over her head and has her saying obscene things. Then you go into a dim room dotted with fake palm trees.

I went there with a dentist once but he got flustered when the belly dancer rammed him with her hip. Now I go with a photographer who stuffs bills into the dancer’s cleavage.

“It’s all about the belly,” the photographer said mystically one Tuesday night, as he stuffed a dollar down Katina’s costume.
People shower money on her and then a waiter sweeps it up with a broom …

Katina the belly dancer sat at our table and gestured at the male dancers. “Look at them,” she said contemptuously. “All they need is a little sand on the floor and a couple of camels.” Katina’s from Reading, Pennsylvania; she’s been here eight years. Jemila, the other dancer, is actually from Turkey.

“Why do you wrap your veil around men’s heads?” I asked Katina.

“It gives them strength,” she said, “to find some other woman and the strength to keep her.”

“Wrap it around his head,”
I said, pointing to the photographer.

—“Confessions of a Kitsch Freak,” March 10, 1980

*This article appears in the February 19, 2018, issue of New York Magazine.

Kissing Cynthia Heimel Good-bye