Regine’s Last Stand

The ones in the men’s pee-pee room are gone, too!” shrieks Regine, descending the curving oak staircase at Rage, her new restaurant-lounge on Park Avenue. Stuffed into a form-fitting black blazer, her once-winged red bob now a lacquered shell, the club’s legendary proprietress crosses the peach-lit dining room very, very slowly and sits down on a leopard-print chair, brushing away the creeping leaf of a potted palm. “I own nightclubs for 50 years,” she growls, “and never once have I seen someone steal the seat from a toilet.”

It’s six o’clock on St. Patrick’s Day, way too early for Regine’s Eurocentric regulars, but late enough that a few flushed New Jerseyans, continuing their libations, have found their way to her canopied door. One by one, they stumble past the white-and-red Andy Warhol portrait of Regine and down to the blue subterranean bar, where they perch themselves on wrought-iron stools, crumpling their green-and-white-striped hats on the marble counter.

Regine suspiciously cases her clientele with cat-green eyes. Which one of them made off with her expensive toilet seats, the shell-shaped Art Deco ones with glitter on top? “I am going to make a big inquiry,” she warns, throwing up her hands. Her customers look at her quizzically, turning back to their apéritifs. Grinning madly, she lets out a deep, throaty laugh.

A decade after she shuttered her famous club in the Delmonico Hotel, stolen toilet seats are but one of the indignities that Regine has suffered in her attempt at a U.S. comeback. At her peak, the Jewish-Belgian impresario plastered her name on nineteen clubs in more than a dozen cities, including Paris, Monte Carlo, Rio de Janeiro, Saint-Tropez, Santiago, Cairo, Kuala Lumpur, London, and New York. A tireless entrepreneur, she built up an empire that included cafés, a prêt-à-danser collection, three perfume lines, a magazine, sponsored cruises on the QE2 – even dancercise classes. In the early eighties, you could party at one of her clubs on three continents for 17 hours out of every 24. That is, if you could get in.

Like the supermodels who front for the Fashion Cafe, Regine sells her moniker to local businessmen; at one point, her endorsement was worth up to half a million dollars and her discos grossed close to $500 million per year. Even now, the mention of her name conjures up a Dynasty -era image of gold-plated glamour: champagne flutes, heaps of caviar, suspiciously titled playboys, and white stretch limousines. All around the world, there were ways to know you were at a Regine’s – the famously selective peephole, the flashing full disco sign, the gold membership cards in Cartier cases. The New York Post dubbed her “Queen of the Night,” and in more expansive moments, she still refers to herself as the “Queen of Hearts, Clubs, and Diamonds.” But in the nineties, thanks to changing tastes and bad business decisions, the queen, twice decorated by Jacques Chirac, presides over a fast-dwindling empire.

Nowadays, in addition to operating four clubs in France, she has one in Miami and another in Istanbul. But she spends the large bulk of her time trying to shore up her New York flagship on East 54th Street. At 69, she is still as exuberant and agile as a Veruka doorman: By day, she is constantly barking into her cell phone, practicing her Tae-Bo, and manning her own Website: Night after night, she slips on a gown and plants herself hopefully in a corner banquette at her mirrored club. She is never asleep before 4 A.M.. Fluent in five languages, Regine greets her guests with outstretched arms, a drink always at the ready for VIPs. These days, however, they are slow to arrive. The ones who do, like Nikki Haskell, Michael Douglas, Julio Iglesias, and Rod Stewart, are, like her club, remnants of an earlier era. Rage’s highest-profile event of the spring season may be an 86th-birthday party for Anthony Quinn.

But Regine isn’t worried. “America is what feels the best for me, for my character, for my mind,” she explains. “In America, you can make a comeback anytime you want.” Her latest attempt began two years ago in Miami, where she opened a club she named Jimmy’z, after a favorite old haunt. Rage debuted in New York this winter. On the club’s opening night, old friends like Reinaldo Herrera, Ivana Trump, and Ron Perelman came in droves, though few bothered to follow the mandated silver-only dress code. By 11 p.m., the place was so packed that the fire marshal closed it down. “What’s it like in there? Is it the way it used to be?” trilled Dominick Dunne as he waited outside the velvet ropes. The answer, it seemed, was no. Some said Regine had fallen behind the times. Others insisted the times had fallen behind her. “With all this ridiculous Giuliani stuff, Regine didn’t get a cabaret license, and I think there was disappointment about that,” says nightlife veteran Carmen D’Alessio. “People expect dancing from Regine.”

Not long ago, celebrities and socialites jostled one another to pose for pictures in her foyer. These days, old friends like Joan Collins are slow to return her calls, and dismal turnout may force her to discontinue lunch at the restaurant. No matter. She plans to turn Rage into an upscale chain, expanding it to Houston, Dallas, Boston, and Chicago, and will open a new Regine’s disco in midtown within a year. Soon, she says, she will open a boutique hotel chain and produce a Broadway musical about her father, The Light of Belleville. “Every morning, I wake up with something else I want to do,” she explains. “I am a survivor.”

But first she must survive New York. Regine chokes up when she remembers how effusively she was greeted here in 1976, when she opened her club, Regine’s, in the brief period between the waning of El Morocco and the waxing of Studio 54. “Everyone said, ‘You’re crazy to open in New York; the whole place is going to go plop in the river,’” says Regine. She signed a fifteen-year lease anyway, and from the first night, her place was a smash success. “I am the one who saved this city from bankruptcy. I made it happy again,” she says. “New York owes me.”

When her New York club closed in the midst of the early-nineties recession, Regine retreated for a while to Europe, where she lived in Paris and Gstaad with her second husband, Roger Choukroun, a onetime computer engineer eight years her junior. She has one child from her first marriage, a son who was raised by his father. Over kirs one night at Rage, I read her a quote she gave to New Yorkmore than twenty years ago: “My work is my passion above all. I never loved a man that way. If Roger was ever the cause of my not succeeding, I would leave him and he knows it.” Does she still feel that way? “Yes,” she says. “Absolutement.

“People at my age are ready to die, but I am like a night flower. I bloom only after midnight,” declares Regine a few days earlier. It’s noon, and the queen is sitting in a spare York Avenue apartment, shouting over a noisy humidifier. Naked under a frilly pink robe, her thin red eyebrows not yet penciled on, she looks pale and strangely childlike. “I come home at eight in the morning, say ‘Hello, bed!,’ and my bed says, ‘Hello, Regine!’ Then I fly to Paris on the Concorde.” She laughs so heartily that her little Maltese, Melodie, takes to the foot of a plastic-covered couch in fright.

As much a celebrity as most of her patrons, Regine has always cultivated her life story carefully. Spend an hour with her and she will regale you with tales of the twelve-foot pet boa constrictor given to her by Federico Fellini, the weeklong fasts she undertakes before opening a club, her abilities as a judo master and turbojet pilot. To this day, she visits three different psychics to rid herself of the unwholesome residue of her nocturnal pursuits: “I meet 400 people every night,” she explains. “I’m the one in the middle. Everyone thinks something about me – maybe good, maybe bad, I don’t know – but they’re all thinking about me. So I like to be clean.”

“This life is all about fate,” she says, selecting a prune from a big white bowl. “Even when I was a little girl, I would tell everybody that I would one day have a big nightclub and rule the world. I always knew I would be a legend.” She’s trying to drum up interest in a TV movie of her life – Stefanie Powers, Bette Midler, and Joan Collins would all be suitable to play her, she says. An occasional chanteuse, she is best known for her French rendition of I Will Survive, and is something of a frustrated actress. In all of our conversations, the only time I ever saw Regine tear up was when we discussed her attempts at movie-stardom, which resulted in only a few bit parts in films like The Seven Percent Solution and Claude Berri’s Marry Me, Marry Me.“It is good to be the darling of the jet set, but I wanted to be the darling of the public,” she says wistfully. “My whole life, I wanted to have my name on Broadway. All I got was Park Avenue.”

Even so, Regine has managed to mold herself into a global celebrity. When she was arrested with her son in 1996 for smoking on an airplane, the story made headlines around the world. In New York, strangers yell her name as she walks down the street; in France, where she is a beloved icon, sixteen of her Madame Grès and early YSLs are displayed in the collection of the Louvre. “Once, I flew with her to Paris on the Concorde, and she was the only person I ever saw who didn’t have to show her passport at Customs,” says Diane Von Furstenberg. “It was just, Bonjour, Madame Regine.

The official version of her rise is reprised almost annually in Paris Match: her mother’s abandoning her as a baby (the deeper reason why she “cannot bear to let the night end”); her lonely childhood in Belleville with her alcoholic father, the manager of a bistro. In 1941, she hid from the Nazis in a convent for the two years she calls “the worst of life.” Then there were the après-war years peddling bras on Paris street corners, and her brief stint as a scullery maid. In 1953, when she was 23, she landed a job as a hat-check girl at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. A high-spirited tomboy with flaming-red hair, she quickly caught the eye of playboys like Portofino Rubirosa, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, and the Rothschilds. The last helped finance the first club to bear her name.

Placing the bowl of prunes on the kitchen table, she suddenly begins to hum, pantomiming the lengths she went to attract attention. She dances with a glass on her head, slipping rings over her gloved fingers. Standing on a chair, she waves her hand over a lightbulb to demonstrate how she created a strobe-light effect over the dance floor. “I am the person who made the modern way of nighttime,” she says proudly, climbing down. “I am the first, and only, Queen of the Night.”

Her first club, Chez Regine, which opened in Paris in 1958, was certainly an original: The world’s first discotheque, it was the spot where customers like Premier Georges Pompidou, Brigitte Bardot, and Rudolf Nureyev first danced to recorded music instead of live bands; where they first bought bottles of liquor instead of cocktails (250 francs got you a bottle of White Label); where they first did the twist to Regine’s imported Chubby Checker records. “One night, I got a call at home from the Duke of Windsor,” she recalls giddily. “He wanted me to come to his house, to teach him the twist. I told him, ‘No. You come to my club – I teach you there.’ “

“Everybody, just everybody, knew Regine from these incredibly decadent nights in Paris, which was considered the height of chic by New Yorkers those days,” says jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane. “We would dance until dawn to music that wasn’t around here back then – rumbas, tangos, merengues – and then there you were, heart open and gay, stepping into a waiting limousine in Paris at sunrise.” Regine specialized in “happenings,” like the Jean Harlow night where the women wore white satin dresses and painted their Rollses white for the night, stepping out of them onto a white carpet that covered the sidewalk – Dalí turned heads by arriving on the arm of his lover, Amanda Lear, rumored to have once been named Alan. “Working as a journalist covering the jet set in Paris at that time was extremely easy,” admits Robin Leach. “You’d just go to Regine’s every night and wait for the princesses to file in.”

In 1968, when radical students pushed through barricades to confront the police near her club on Boulevard Montparnasse, Regine led frightened guests like Dior’s Marc Bohan, Taki Theodoracopoulos, and Francoise Sagan through the tear gas and up the back stairs to her apartment above the club. Recollects Regine: “Taki complained, ‘I want to go outside! I want to see the war in France!’ Two minutes later, he was back, and banging down the door – ‘Let me in, Regine! Idiot!’ ” While the sirens blared outside, the whole group whiled away the night, dancing and drinking champagne.

In 1975, eight years after her first whirlwind visit to the United States, Regine decided to move to Manhattan. She packed 200 pounds of Vuitton luggage and 800 pairs of shoes into a steamboat and moved into the eleventh floor of the Delmonico Hotel, which she decorated just like her clubs, all Art Deco mirrors and brocade couches and snake-wrapped lamps. A 20,000-square-foot space on the building’s ground floor became home to Regine’s New York outpost. Long before the doors opened, she had sold 2,000 “memberships” to the club – for $600, patrons avoided the $10 cover charge and, more important, were guaranteed entry for groups up to eight.

Not everything went smoothly. When the city cited Regine for plumbing violations in her first week, she simply piled her dirty glassware into three limousines and drove a few blocks to Le Cirque. “Suddenly, there she was, this little lady at the door with all these dishes,” recalls the restaurant’s owner, Sirio Maccioni. “Of course, we opened the kitchen. For Regine, you did anything.”

The club was so exclusive and exclusionary that the State Liquor Authority considered suing her for social discrimination. Long before Steve Rubell, Regine carefully maintained and pruned her 20,000-person guest list, and those who got on the proprietor’s nerves found themselves swiftly kicked out. Expelled by Regine for knocking over a table of wineglasses with her hoop skirt, Dewi Sukarno, the combative wife of the former Indonesian president, filed a $4 million lawsuit against the nightclub. She ended up winning one franc.

To attract the international jet set of Onassises, Kennedys, and Niarchoses, Regine presided over a steady swing of theme parties – Barbarella, fifties kitsch, les années folles, Russian New Year’s, Moroccan night. There was a disco contest judged by Warhol, and a thirties costume gala to celebrate Regine’s thirtieth anniversary in the nightclub business – Mayor Koch couldn’t come, but he sent a note saluting “the legendary Regine, the diva of bubbling nights.”

Though there was a no-necktie-no-admission policy, Regine installed pegs just inside the door with gold nameplates under them for a select few to hang their cravats, like Milos Forman, Mick Jagger, and Warhol. “Always in my clubs, there was not just one group coming, à la mode,” says Regine. “There was a mix. People with no names coming to see the people with the names.”

There certainly was a lot to see: Jack Nicholson and John Gotti drinking wine out of molded pedestals served by waiters in black tie; tables of earls from every imaginable – and imaginary – provenance dining on Michel Guérard’s cuisine minceur, presented on twelve-inch ivy-bordered dinner plates under sterling-silver covers. Diana Vreeland regularly popped in for a cocktail from her apartment around the corner; Anthony Quinn ran downstairs constantly to call the secretary he would later marry, while his wife, Yolanda, sat sullenly upstairs; regulars like Pauline Trigere, George Hamilton, Cornelia Guest, Diandra Douglas, Brooke Shields, Egon Von Furstenberg, and the octogenarian Jolie Gabor danced on the Lucite dance floor, decorated with heart-shaped neon sculptures that pulsed to the disco beat. It was where Shimon Peres met Phyllis Diller, Brooke Shields partied with Carol Channing, and Mary McFadden fell in love with her fourth husband, Armin Schmidt, at a party in honor of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. (McFadden has since moved on to her eighth.) For a while, Andy Warhol showed up every night and taped everyone on his tiny recorder.

But by the end of the decade, the party began to wind down. A new generation of clubgoers deemed her club staid and stuffy, and even Regine’s most faithful devotees found it hard to resist the sexy lure of Studio 54. “You didn’t feel like you could start doing cocaine on the tables at Regine’s, although it did happen once,” says society chronicler Bob Colacello, who accompanied Warhol on a tour of her clubs around the world. “She wasn’t giving out quaaludes to movie stars, she didn’t have bartenders with their shirts off. She didn’t have what people wanted when the times changed.”

The club’s business was further devastated by a yearlong picket line of union laborers. Regulars like Martha Graham, Anthony Quinn, and Joan Collins were pressured to cancel scheduled events, and celebrities like Ringo Starr refused to cross the line. Though the labor dispute was settled in mid-1987, there was no saving the club. The numbers of revelers plummeted, and in 1991, Regine’s finally shut its doors. Her discos in Saint-Tropez, London, São Paulo, and Rio were also shuttered, and her partner in Chile set off a bomb at the Regine’s in Santiago in an insurance scam. Regine took it all in stride. “He owes me money, that guy in Santiago,” she sniffs. “But he’s in jail now. I’ll wait until he gets out. I’ll get it back!”

Curfew may be midnight for the Broncos and Falcons, but at 3 a.m. on the Friday night of Super Bowl weekend, everyone else in Miami is drunk. Girls in string bikinis dangle cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon out of white convertible Mustangs on the limousine-choked streets of Ocean Drive, catcalling to tank-topped guys with shoulders so bulky that they’re forced to walk single file on the narrow sidewalks; in any case, it’s best to steer clear of the streets, since you never know when Sean “Puffy” Combs and friends are going to zip around the corner on their rented mopeds, their identical black jerseys making their possedom eminently clear.

Outside South Beach’s hottest clubs – Chaos, Liquid, Cameo, Shadow Lounge – restless banjee boys slip $50s to surly doormen; inside, the crowds drain G&Ts and rub rumps with celebrities like Daisy Fuentes and Gene Simmons, and sing along to the lyrics of this winter’s No. 1 rap song, Will Smith’s “Miami.” At Ingrid Casares’s new Bar Room, Jennifer Lopez is dancing so energetically that her tube top falls down; fleeing the sweaty crowds, Cameron Diaz makes out with new beau Ed Norton on the balcony; entering with a six-ten, platinum-tressed drag queen named Elaine, Dennis Rodman pronounces the weekend “the chillingest thing I’ve seen in a while,” rubbing his close-cropped skull. “I’ve never been to Carnaval or nothing like that, but what you got here is it, as far as America goes.”

But across town in a far quieter strip of Miami Beach, there’s one club where hardly anyone cares that the biggest sporting event in the country is only a day away. “We have our own version of football – I guess it’s what you call soccer,” says a British-accented Iranian who claims the royal name of Pahlavi, reclining in a leather banquette under a chandelier the size of a wrecking ball. With more wood paneling than the Oak Room, stone statuettes of Venus guarding the foyer, and a gold-plated MEMBERS ONLY sign prominently placed over a bouquet of orchids, this lavishly over-the-top, many-roomed restaurant and disco, Jimmy’z, is Regine’s Miami mainstay.

Tonight there are only a few goateed teenage boys hanging around the velvet rope, but Regine brushes by them. Outfitted in a tight leopard-print pantsuit with gold hoops hanging to her shoulders, she shuffles through Jimmy’z, past the mirrored aubergine lounge, past the life-size Harry Benson portrait of herself in the blood-red dining room, past an expansive VIP area lined with faux-stained-glass windows, all the while yelling at her husband in Paris on a tiny Nokia phone: “Two hundred people waiting to get in!” she yells. “This is crazy!”

She pulls open the heavy door to her walk-in humidor and starts reciting the engraved names off hundreds of locked boxes: “Michael Caine, Quentin Tarantino, Sylvester Stallone, George Hamilton, Matt Dillon, August Busch IV, Wilt Chamberlain. Last night, all of them come here,” she says, kicking off her brown suede pumps to do a little cha-cha in stockinged feet. All? “All! It was crazy!”

But tonight is a little less crazy. Tonight, the club is full of young men in shiny Armani jackets with their arms looped around blonde dates, spooning caviar and smoking cigars. They have not been to any of her clubs in Saint-Tropez or Paris, but their parents and grandparents have told them stories about watching Brigitte Bardot samba the night away at Regine’s club in Monte Carlo, about the sets Julio Iglesias would start at 2 A.M. in the São Paulo Regine’s. “I don’t care what they are doing out there with this Super Bowl,” she says. “Rubirosa, one of my great lovers, taught me the savoir-faire of the nightlife: People want to see you, let them come to the club to see you – with their money. You never go to another club.”

So that means that, tonight, she will clink snifters of the club’s infamous “Drop Your Pants and Forget Your Name” punch and lead a table of eight in the chorus of LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade.” All around her, customers speak rapidly in the Romance language of their choice: “I’m fluent in five languages: French, Italian, Portuguese, German, and Spanish,” explains a ruddy-faced 25-year-old investment banker from Rio, chewing on a Cohiba. “Yeah, right,” jokes his friend, the son of a Greek shipping magnate, spearing a piece of salmon. “More like Drunk, Wasted, Blitzed, English, and Cell Phone.”

Tonight, there are no friends like Charlie Chaplin or Gene Kelly to sweep Regine across the floor in a tango, no magnums of Moët to share with Aly Khan or toreador El Cortebez, no Niarchoses hanging around for impromptu spaghetti feasts cooked up around 4 A.M. en plein air at the Monte Carlo Jimmy’z, no scrambled eggs with caviar prepared at dawn for princesses of Monaco made ravenous by hours of dancing the twist.

All through the night, Regine pops up throughout the club, smiling, dancing, air-kissing, pouring champagne. But at 4 A.M., she disappears. A gray-haired manager pulls me outside, toward a running black Jeep with tinted windows. “I am only going home because of you,” says Regine, pulling her legs into the car as though they aren’t connected to her body. “Every other night, I am still crazy.”

Regine’s Last Stand