|Location||New York City, New York, United States|
Fred J. Lincoln
In 1976, Larry Levenson, a high school friend of Al Goldstein and a former fast-food manager who was selling ice cream at Coney Island, was introduced to the swinging lifestyle by a woman he met at a bar. After organizing swinging parties himself for a time, he opened a club "for swingers" in 1977, in the basement of the Kenmore Hotel on East 23rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenue, and called it "Plato's Retreat." The same year, he moved it to the basement of the Ansonia Hotel, a 19th-century building on 2109 Broadway between West 73rd and West 74th Streets on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The hotel used to house Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse where Bette Midler, often accompanied by Barry Manilow on piano, provided musical entertainment early in her career.
Rules and premises
Plato's Retreat was a "members-only" establishment that required everyone to follow the club's rules. Levenson barred male homosexuals, and accepted only straight couples – and women, escorted or otherwise – in the premises. Once a woman left a room after a sexual encounter, her male companion had to accompany her within two minutes. This rule was intended to ensure that women nearly always outnumbered men. Levenson strictly prohibited sexual activity between males but welcomed lesbians. Drugs, including alcohol, and prostitution services were forbidden, though, by subsequent accounts, prostitutes did frequent the premises and there was "rampant" use of drugs (most often quaaludes) by patrons.
According to a 1979 advertisement in SCREW magazine, the club offered, besides a heated swimming pool, a sauna steam, whirlpool baths, disco dancing, free bar and buffet, "cozy living rooms and lounging areas", a "variety of swing areas", and a backgammon lounge.
During its heyday, Plato's Retreat was considered the world's most infamous sex club, popular with 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." Owner Levenson often partook in sexual activity on the premises, once winning a bet against Al Goldstein and 'Butch' Katz, owner of 42nd Street's Roxy Burlesk theater, that he could ejaculate fifteen times within a twenty-four-hour day.
Decline and closure
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, in response to concerns over the spread of HIV/AIDS. In closing the gay bathhouses while allowing the heterosexual swingers' clubs – most notably Plato's Retreat – to remain open, the city found itself in 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.
In 1981, Levenson and his by-then two partners along with Plato’s accountant were tried and convicted for tax evasion. When the prosecutor asked Levenson—who was the only owner to take the stand—why Plato’s kept its accounting records off the premises, Levenson replied, “Where would I keep them, in the swimming pool?” He served an 8-year prison sentence at the Allenwood federal prison. After serving his sentence, Levenson worked in various jobs, such as cab driver. He died in 1999 after a quadruple bypass heart surgery.
Plato's Retreat relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where it reopened under the name "Plato's Retreat 2." Located at 321 West Sunrise, the new location was in operation as an on-premises heterosexual swingers' club, open Monday through Sunday from eight p.m. until the last person left. Saturday night was for couples only. Plato's Retreat in Fort Lauderdale was a bring-your-own-bottle club, since no liquor was sold on the premises; however, it provided complimentary mixers, soft drinks, juices, and ice.
In 2006, Plato's Retreat 2 closed, and then reopened as a sex club "for men only," keeping the same location and bring-your-own format. The club at the Fort Lauderdale location currently operates under the business name "321 Slammer." In the 2010s, there are reportedly numerous on-premises swingers' clubs operating in South Florida.
In popular culture
In 1978, Joe Thomas released a disco single, "Plato's Retreat," with lyrics referring to the club. The 2009 documentary American Swing relates the story of Plato's Retreat with archival footage and interviews.
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