Steve Ostrow, the founding father of the Continental Baths — an extravagant homosexual males’s intercourse membership and efficiency house that flourished on the flip of the Seventies within the basement of the Ansonia Resort, a Beaux-Arts landmark on Manhattan’s Higher West Aspect, and launched the careers of Bette Midler and Barry Manilow — died on Feb. 3 at his residence in Sydney, Australia. He was 91.
His dying was introduced by Toby Usnik, a pal.
Mr. Ostrow’s marketing strategy in 1968 was to create a homosexual fantasia, a palace dedicated to hedonism. The Ansonia, constructed on the flip of the century by a copper inheritor named William Earl Dodge Stokes, was excellent for his enterprise.
Occupying a full block on Broadway, from 73rd Road to 74th Road, it’s a florid wedding ceremony cake of a constructing, with cupolas, balconies and gargoyles. When it opened, there have been Turkish baths and an unlimited pool within the basement, billed because the world’s largest; seals within the foyer fountains; and, on the roof, an city farm with goats, chickens and a bear.
Its illustrious tenants included Babe Ruth, Florenz Ziegfeld and Theodore Dreiser. For many years, even because the constructing’s fortunes light within the post-World Warfare II years, performing artists and music academics referred to as it residence. (The seals and the farm had been gone since 1907, by order of the Well being Division.)
Mr. Ostrow, an aspiring opera singer and the cantor in his native temple, was on his method to a voice lesson on the Ansonia when he found that the constructing’s large basement, with its pool and baths in disrepair, was for lease.
Because it occurred, he was trying to find a spot to open a homosexual bathhouse, a spot the place males might have intercourse with different males. There have been only some within the metropolis on the time, however they have been soiled and miserable. They have been additionally packed, with traces across the block.
Mr. Ostrow, who had a spouse and two kids, noticed not only a market however a chance to discover his personal sexuality. In 1968, it was not solely unlawful for 2 folks of the identical gender to have intercourse; it was unlawful for them to bounce collectively. Bathhouses and underground homosexual bars just like the Stonewall Inn, run by the Mafia, have been the uncommon locations homosexual males might congregate, albeit precariously.
The Continental Baths have been raided 200 occasions that first yr, till Mr. Ostrow made preparations with the police to “donate” 10 % of his income each week to a fictitious “policeman’s ball,” as he recalled in a self-published memoir, “Stay on the Continental” (2022).
Mr. Ostrow was a showman at coronary heart, and his imaginative and prescient for the Continental Baths was expansive, a form of Roman fever dream. He constructed a mirrored disco and a black marble steam room. There was a restaurant, a chapel, a fitness center, a journey desk, a boutique and a V.D. clinic. There have been a whole lot of personal rooms and hundreds of lockers. There was a non-public elevator to the roof; Mr. Ostrow rented that, too, and constructed a seaside within the sky, trucking in sand and organising cabanas and umbrellas.
Males got here for the weekend, or longer. At first it value $5 a day. However Mr. Ostrow provided a particular “condominium charge,” as he put it, for many who needed to remain for months. His decorator rented one room and kitted it out with a water mattress, work and a tv set.
The Baths have been a haven for closeted males nonetheless married to girls, for younger males who had escaped restrictive upbringings and have been discovering themselves within the metropolis, and, inevitably, for celebrities. Rudolf Nureyev was a daily.
When Mr. Ostrow persuaded a younger singer named Bette Midler to carry out on the weekends on a tiny stage by the pool, the Baths turned a vacation spot for extra than simply intercourse. Her act on the Tubs, as she referred to as the place, was irresistible, and it quickly drew a straight, celebrity-strewn crowd — Mick Jagger one evening, Helen Gurley Brown one other.
Barry Manilow, then a struggling pianist and jingle author, was employed to accompany Ms. Midler. She belted and crooned and bantered and turned into fantastical costumes, sharpening the act that will make her well-known. Her model of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Launched” was gut-wrenching and lovely (grainy footage may be discovered on the web), an apt anthem for the struggles of homosexual folks on the time.
“Truly enjoying to this … do I dare name this place a home? … has been the most effective expertise on this planet, ” Ms. Midler informed Rex Reed of The Each day Information in early 1972, when she carried out on the Baths for the final time. “I imply, it’s a must to be good to maintain the blokes fascinated. Gawd! The second I bore them, nicely, they might go upstairs and bathe.”
Mr. Reed was not bored.
“Magic is within the air,” he wrote. “Magic that removes the violence of the chilly, darkish streets. The insecurities, the hates, the fears, the prejudices exterior vanish in a haze of camp. It’s Mary Martin asking if we consider in fairies. Sure. We do.”
Mr. Ostrow would invite scores of musicians to carry out, and the place turned a bizarre, steamy nightclub, its mores excellent for the sexual revolution.
Patti LaBelle performed the Baths, as did Sarah Vaughan, Melba Moore, the Manhattan Switch and the comic Dick Gregory.
When Eleanor Steber, a former star of the Metropolitan Opera, carried out in October 1973, Mr. Ostrow billed the live performance as a black tie/black towel affair. Bloomingdale’s offered black towels, embroidered with the phrases “Continental Baths” in silver disco font, for $25. New York society varieties turned out for the occasion, The New York Occasions reported, noting that Felicia Bernstein, Leonard’s spouse, was there, wearing a cream-colored Adolfo shirt and pants. The ushers wore togas.
By the mid-Seventies, Mr. Ostrow was a public determine, a booster for the sexual revolution and a political operator, sought out for his affect among the many homosexual group. In 1976, the mayoral hopeful Bella Abzug and others held rallies on the Baths. Mr. Ostrow even contemplated a mayoral bid.
However by now the Baths have been slipping. Mr. Ostrow’s embrace of straight (and clothed) audiences for the musical performances didn’t sit nicely along with his common patrons, who felt more and more exploited, like toweled zoo creatures. Then, maybe inevitably, “pansexual suburbanites,” as Rolling Stone journal put it, changed the boldface names, earlier than being chased away by a extra harmful crowd. Drug use surged, and the place grew unsafe and run-down. The get together was over.
The Continental Baths closed in 1977. The backers of what turned Plato’s Retreat, a straight intercourse membership that will be as infamous because the Baths, took on the Baths’ lease, and its appreciable debt, and ran the membership out of the Ansonia for a couple of years earlier than transferring to a different location. In 1981, they have been arrested on tax evasion prices.
The basement of the Ansonia is now a parking storage. There are swaths of mosaic tile on the ground, ghostly artifacts among the many automobiles and concrete.
Stephen Allen Ostrow was born on Sep. 16, 1932, in Brooklyn. His Russian-born father, Louis Ostrow, labored within the promoting and format departments of newspapers and magazines. His mom, Nettie (Cooper) Ostrow, labored half time.
Steve studied voice on the Henry Road Settlement in Manhattan, hoping for a profession as an opera singer. However when he was 18, his father died of most cancers, and Steve stayed residence to assist his mom.
Whereas working for a mortgage firm, he joined a small opera firm. There he met Joanne King, his co-star in “La Bohème”; they married in 1960. Mr. Ostrow then began his personal mortgage firm, and the couple moved to Matawan, N.J., the place he was president and cantor of their native Reform temple.
However Mr. Ostrow was charged with mail fraud in 1966 (for issuing loans to out-of-state prospects, which was unlawful on the time), and his enterprise imploded. Two years later, he recalled in his memoir, he noticed an advert in The New York Occasions asking for traders to open a males’s well being membership and steam tub. His father-in-law lent him the cash.
Mr. Ostrow is survived by his kids, Scott Ostrow and Maria Jaul, in addition to 5 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He and his spouse largely lived aside after the Baths opened and divorced within the early Nineteen Eighties. Joanne Ostrow turned an Episcopal deacon and served as police chaplain for the Los Angeles Police Division. She died in 2001.
After his life as a bathhouse impresario, Mr. Ostrow sang with opera corporations in San Francisco, Germany and Australia, the place he settled within the late Nineteen Eighties and have become a vocal coach and based Mature Age Gays, a assist group. In 2021, he obtained the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to the L.G.B.T.Q. group and the performing arts.
“I feel the Continental Baths modified issues greater than Stonewall did,” Larry Kramer, the activist and playwright, informed New York journal in 1998. “They have been clear, and you could possibly speak to folks, and Bette Midler sang to you.”