Plato’s Retreat, the notorious swingers’ club, epitomized the free-sex atmosphere of pre-AIDS New York.
In 1977, Larry Levenson opened Plato's Retreat in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel, an ornate 19th century building on the corner of Broadway and West 73rd Street on the Upper West Side. The building had once housed the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse where Bette Midler and her pianist Barry Manilow provided musical entertainment early in their careers.
The members-only establishment required everyone to follow the club's numerous rules. Levenson didn't want the club to revert back to its former gay clientele. He insisted that only straight couples or single women be allowed to enter. If a woman left a room after a sexual encounter, her male companion had to accompany her. Sexual activity between men was strictly prohibited but lesbianism was always welcome.
The club had a disco, a house DJ, sauna rooms, and a swimming pool with waterfalls. In the Mattress Room, a small window allowed voyeurs to watch the show without joining in.
During its heyday, Plato's Retreat was considered the world's most infamous sex club and was popular with many celebrities, porn stars, and well-to-do couples. The clientele was described as "an assortment of kinky types from the suburbs: dry cleaners and their wives or fat men in toupees with their heavily made-up girlfriends." Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Dreyfuss, and the entire cast of Saturday Night Live were reported to have paid visits to Plato’s. Drugs, including alcohol, were not allowed, though they were frequently used despite the rule, adding to the hipness of the Disco-era scene.
Dan Dorman, the New York magazine writer, gave Plato’s a glowing review:
"When I arrived at Plato’s shortly before midnight, there were about 85 couples on hand, and I counted roughly 30 naked people among them. Later, at about 2 A.M., there were about 150 couples, and I’d guess there were about 70 people in their birthday suits. A variety of sexual feats were being performed nearly everywhere — in the pool, in the whirlpool bath, on the lounge chairs, and in a large, thickly mattressed swing room. Trio sex — usually two men and a woman — was not uncommon. I also spotted several women making love to each other."
A six-week membership cost couples $5. With over six thousand members and grossing nearly $100,000 a month (in 1970 dollars), Plato's Retreat was no small venture. In fact, in 1980, Plato's relocated to a larger facility at 509 West 34th Street. By the next year, 1981, Owner Larry Levenson went to prison for tax evasion.
Then AIDS hit New York. In 1985, New York City Mayor Ed Koch backed the New York City Health Department's decision to shut down the city's gay bathhouses. However, in closing the gay bathhouses while allowing the heterosexual swingers' clubs – most notably Plato's Retreat – to remain open, the city found itself in a dilemma. It realized such action would be a violation of the newly adopted anti-discrimination law. The Health Department, with Koch's approval, reacted by ordering the heterosexual clubs, including Plato's Retreat, to close as well. The club's Manhattan location was shut down on New Year's Eve 1985, ostensibly for violating public-health ordinances.
The era of free-wheelin 70s sex, and the club that embodied that pathos, ended.