A New York City icon, Susanne Bartsch is the golden thread that ties the city’s nightlife past to its present. The fabled party provocateur is one of the main reasons it’s the city that never sleeps, having gotten everyone from Andy Warhol to Billy Porter on the dance floor over the past four decades.
Moving to New York from London in the late 1970’s, the Swiss-born Bartsch spent her formative years in the city at the infamous discothèque Studio 54 and hanging out in a far more transgressive Times Square than the global attraction it’s become today, with adult theaters and sex clubs on every corner. As a party promoter, she soon became known as the “Queen of the Night,” rubbing shoulders with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Madonna and Faye Dunaway, all of whom were regulars at her events. A Susanne Bartsch party is as much of a cultural experience as going to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a rite of passage for so many New Yorkers and new arrivals to the city, who enter her scene for a weekend—or stay for 10 years…
I met with Susanne at her home in the Chelsea Hotel—where Warhol shot Chelsea Girls and where Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jane Fonda, Stanley Kubrick, Mark Twain and Tennesse Williams are all but just a few of the building’s former tenants—to discuss New York City nightlife and where it’s headed post-COVID.
How has the city’s nightlife evolved over the decades?
The first thing that comes to mind is the way you get the word out about the party. In the ‘80s, I would hire flier boys to stand on the corner and hand out fliers. Actually, the artist Kaws used to be one of my flier boys. I had forgotten, and he reminded me when he was designing one of the trophies for the Love Ball. Then I remember asking the kids to come over and fax fliers and make phone calls to promote. Now, though, especially because of the pandemic, it’s all more global. I had people promoting and coming to my Zoom parties from Japan, Italy, Australia and all over the world.
That being said, the ‘80s were such a pool of inspiration. There were so many creatives coming together to see the next look or trend. There was such a fusion of artists from Warhol, Haring to designers and musicians all on the dance floor. Basquiat used to DJ. Artists would be commissioned to design the space. It was less restrictive. There was so much freedom.
The ‘90s were when businessmen started to get involved in nightclubs as hobbies and it all became expensive and a bit tacky. They were thinking that supermodels and the superathletes sitting in the corner of the club made it cool, but the creativity was being neglected.
Nightlife in the ‘00s became more about full bottle service in many places. It felt very corporate. But there was also a shift: Going to parties started to be about becoming a nightlife personality. The club became like a gallery to present yourself and become famous; it suddenly became like a business or occupation to be a nightlife personality.
Then in the ‘10s, social media made it possible for anyone to be the next nightlife and internet star. Also, the idea of bridge [Brooklyn] and tunnel [New Jersey] shifted. The concept of the bridge changed because all the cooler parties and events were happening in Brooklyn. I would have never imagined that in the ‘80’s.
How do you think nightlife will reinvent itself post-COVID?
I think we are all ready to dance. It’s going to be a really spiritual moment. A lot of people are going to want to go out and put their phones down, live in the moment and dance with one another. I think people are going to be more appreciative and want to go out. The basis of New Yorkers letting their hair down to come together and dance will remain the same, if not stronger. Also, nightlife is a constant; it adapts. With the AIDS epidemic, it became less about going to the club to get laid and more about showing off your looks and dancing. I think it’ll be similar post-COVID–for example, all the performance artists and drag queens making money through doing digital shows. I think that this push towards online was always going to happen; the pandemic just made it happen faster. Though in the end, nightlife has always been about a great space, good music and the mix of people. It’s about the dance floor. You could do the Zoom party in your living room with a few friends, but there’s no experience like the dance floor.
Recently there’s been talk about New York being over. What are your thoughts on that?
New York is an adventure, and that will never change. New York has a pulse, and the heart will keep beating. You feel alive and energized from this city with very little effort. It does not exist anywhere else, and that will not go away. It’s easy to get things done here because it’s up and down, left and right. I love the architecture of New York. London is like a jigsaw puzzle: To make an outfit, you have to go to one area to get the buttons and another area to get the fabric. In Los Angeles, you need a car and there’s no spontaneity. In New York, things are designed to work. What takes your whole day in London to complete takes a quarter of the time here in New York because it’s laid out very efficiently. Yes, it’s more corporate in Manhattan with a Starbucks on every corner and all the lawyers, accountants and real estate agents, but New York is bigger than Manhattan.
That being said, I feel like there’s going to be a little bit of a renaissance in New York, especially with how many people are leaving. We’ve already seen the city become a bit more gritty and grungy. Maybe the creatives will be able to come back into the city because rent will hopefully go down for art studios, too. It’s a little run-down and unorganized, which reminds me of the ‘80s a bit. But we are in a new era.
What have been some of your favorite venues to host in New York City over the years? My very favorite club, which I didn’t host at, was Gilded Grape in Times Square. I’d go there when I was underage in the 1970’s. They had drag queens flying on trapezes handing joints out to people – without a safety net! I know Ian [Schrager] was inspired by it for Studio 54. It then became GG Barnum.
The first club I worked in was Savage. Then I worked at the Copacabana across from The Pierre Hotel, and it was incredible. It was very mafioso. I always love a sunken dance floor, and they had one that felt very glamorous.I loved Happy Valley, which Jeremy Scott designed. The stage was made of tiers of steps to mimic a wedding cake and the bar had these massive burlesque legs hovering above it that moved. The bathroom had a light-up dance floor that was very Saturday Night Fever. I loved Vandam and the Palladium. Right now, I love Elsewhere in Brooklyn and doing the party ON TOP on the whole floor at Le Bain and the Boom Boom Room. This would have been my tenth anniversary at ON TOP.
Who have been some of the most iconic people to host at your parties from the ‘80s until now? [Sighs] Can I send you a list? I mean, hands down, Leigh Bowery. My ultimate favorite performer ever. I love people who express themselves, and all these kids who put these looks together are amazing. I always love the drag queens. I had the drag queens at the Love Ball in 1989 pouring Champagne to the guests and corporate sponsors. Drag was looked down on by many people at the time, and I brought them to the party that major corporations paid $10,000 a table. Now when one of RuPaul’s queens shows up to my party, everyone idolizes them. They’re such stars now. It’s fantastic.
What’s the wildest party you ever attended? Gosh. I have so many it’s hard to remember. The Love Ball, for sure. My birthday party on top of Rockefeller Center. It was on top of the Rainbow Room. My friend Steven Greenberg had the whole floor as his office on top of Rockefeller Center, and he gave me space for me to throw myself a birthday party. It was incredible. The office had two terraces with a middle room area. One side was salsa music, the other side was jazz, and inside the middle room was disco. Everyone was there. It was unbelievable. From Basquiat to Warhol, many actors, New Yorker socialites and downtown scensters. So many actors, and people went wild. It was so crazy. All my Halloween parties mean a lot to me, too. There are themes and they’re very special.
Where will your first trip be post-COVID? I really want to go back to Switzerland to see my family. My sister and brother live there, and all my nieces and nephews, too. I miss them so much. I have to go to Los Angeles for some work that got put on pause because of the pandemic. Also somewhere exotic – maybe in South America. But mostly Switzerland. I miss my family.
The thing you can’t travel without? My sunglasses!
What is your room-service indulgence? French fries and soup. Also the kids’ dishes. I like the kids’ menu.
I know you live in the Chelsea Hotel, but if you could live in any other hotel, which would it be? I’m not sure I’d want to live in another hotel. I love the Chelsea Hotel. Maybe a hotel in Paris? No, no. I’m staying in the Chelsea Hotel…
Who is your ideal travel companion? Someone who doesn’t chew my ear off! But honestly, somebody who is into adventure, flexible and not afraid. A person who is open and able to entertain themselves so I don’t have to babysit. Or a hot guy. I’ll take a hot date with me.
Where is the next destination you’d like to bring your parties to? I’d love to bring a fusion of my show Bartschland Follies and parties to Asia. Similar to what I did in the 1990’s in Japan. I had plans to bring the party to many places at the beginning of the year, but of course it all got sidetracked. I was supposed to do some big projects in Paris, Los Angeles and Vegas, so I’d like to pick up where I left off.
Andrew Tess is a New York City-based photographer, artist and writer. His work has appeared in Interview Magazine, Dazed & Confused, L’Officiel USA, GAYTIMES, the CFDA, and W Magazine. He previously worked as a Studio Manager to the esteemed fashion photographer, Sebastian Faena, and commercial retoucher, Justine Foord. He also previously served as US Photo Editor for Time Out Magazine.