Gayborhoods: Sutton Place

In the early 1980s, Sutton Place on Manhattan’s East 50s and 60s was very gay, especially after work when the bars would fill with the midtown business crowd. My office was at Park and 57th Street at the time, and after work I would go to one of the many bars nearby that offered the best happy-hour free-food spreads. It was a great way to save on money when I was making only $15,000 a year. The Cock ’n Bull (surprisingly, this was the name of a straight bar) and the Copacabana had tables laid out with sides of beef, ham, and turkey—free, as long as you kept drinking. Once full, I would head eastward to Sutton Place for a banquet of another sort.

Just under the 59th Street Bridge was Bogart’s, a piano bar. Early, on any weekday evening, the place would be packed—the sounds of a drunken chorus of gay men singing Laura Brannigan’s Gloria and Memory from Cats spilling onto the street at least once, every hour. There were other gay bars in the neighborhood—the Townhouse, with its sugar daddies and the young men who adored them (or in the words of a friend of mine “young entrepreneurs and older investors”), Regency East, Last Call and another half dozen social clubs whose names I have long since forgotten.

Sutton Place was unique in that it was home to a different type of gay than what I was accustomed to, a sort that harkened to an earlier era of gay. The stereotypical Sutton Place gay wore a sport coat with tie or, more often, an ascot. Fingers were usually well manicured, with nails polished and varnished, offset by heavy gold rings. Hair was blown, coiffed and sprayed stiff to the touch—often in a thinning comb-over. And always, there was a heavy scent of cologne.

Sitting one evening with an older friend in the Mayfair Restaurant, which as I remember, was on First Avenue around East 55th Street, I was schooled on a bit of gay lore. The Mayfair, he said, was THE original gay restaurant. It had been there for years. He told me that the regulars included Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, who both lived in the neighborhood, and that it was also the stomping grounds of Patrick Dennis and his indomitable Auntie Mame. As I ate a typical diner meal of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli, I glanced around, eavesdropping on conversations. Everyone seemed to know each other. There was an air of easy neighborhood camaraderie. If a large part of the crowd was gay, it was not so much the young rebellious gays of Stonewall, but a more reserved unspoken acceptance of a certain “flamboyance” of some of its clientele.

My friend told me that Sutton Place had been gay since well before World War II, when gays discovered this affordable neighborhood east of Third Avenue and next to the elevated subway, butting up against the more tony neighborhood that spread west from Park Avenue to Central Park. It was the gays of Sutton Place who serviced the wealthy clientele from this area in their stereotypical gay positions as interior designers, florists, makeup and hair stylists and in the fashionable department stores and boutiques. It was the gays that established Sutton Place as a desirable neighborhood to live in.

One of the first bars I had ever been to in Manhattan was in Sutton Place. It was located on East 53 Street between Second and Third Avenues. It was VERY discreet—there were no windows, just a few potted topiaries framing a plain door with a small window in the middle of it. Beside the door was a small brass plaque with the bar’s name, “Cowboys and Cowgirls.” It reminded me of a 1920s speak-easy. You had to ring a buzzer to get in. It was very different from the gay bars today with muscled boys spilling out onto the streets.

By the early 90s, most of the bars of Sutton Place had closed, as many of the younger gay men, including myself, were spending more time in the Village and the up-and-coming gayborhood of Chelsea. However, the one bar that outlasted most of the others was Rounds. It was here that I would return, maybe once or twice a year, just for the strange other-world quality of the place with its mirrored walls, vinyl banquettes and polished brass fittings.

Rounds was located just off Second Avenue at 303 East 53rd Street. It was a hustler bar (and restaurant) filled with young boys and older male clientele. Usually, I would stumble in there late, drunk, with friends, after making my way down from the gay bars on the Upper East and West Sides. As a bunch of 30-year-olds, those in my gang were neither fish nor fowl—neither selling nor buying. We were just hanging out—ogling the cute hustlers and chatting up the clientele.

It was there that I mingled with Egon Von Furstenburg (Diane’s first husband), Thierry Mugler, Calvin Klein, Jean-Paul Gautier (often wearing his signature kilt), and a menagerie of other East Side personalities,. They, like us, were probably not “clients.” They were just enjoying the unique ambience of Rounds, with its young buff boys in tight pants and skimpy tops, dancing and flirting, and running outside to the corner phone booth at the first sound of their pagers.

The police finally closed the place in 1994. The boys hung out on the street corner near the bar a bit longer, but eventually, they too faded into the past, as the Internet and cell phones made hustling on the street corner a thing of the past. Walking by the shuttered bar one day, I noticed a small, less-than-official sign tacked to the door, “Closed for serving alcoholics to minors.” I chuckled. It had been that, but so much more.—Tom Walker

 

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