By the mid-1970s, the hippie “free love” notions of the ’60s had seeped out into the suburbs. Suddenly there were “swingers”: men in the most alarming period finery — disco chains, gull-wing collars, crotch-strangling bell-bottom trousers — and the women who loved them (who loved many of them, in fact, sometimes all at once). These people would gather on weekends to form flesh piles at one another’s homes. They had their own rites and recognition signals, their own publications. Finally, one of these plebian hedonists, a burly New York meat wholesaler named Larry Levenson, decided the time had come to take swinging public. Well, heterosexual swinging, that is — the gay bathhouse scene was already in full rut. So in 1977 Levenson rented a hotel basement on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that had once housed a famous gay pleasure dome called the Continental Baths (where Bette Midler launched her career, backed by Barry Manilow in a bath towel), and turned it into Plato’s Retreat, America’s first straight public sex club. For better and then, later, for worse, things would never be the same again.
“American Swing,” a lively new documentary by filmmaker Mathew Kaufman and journalist Jon Hart, captures the Plato’s period in all its raw glory. Over the course of three and a half years, the directors managed to assemble an archive of pungent footage shot inside the club. We see the fabled orgy room (wall-to-wall mattresses), the proletarian buffet (“disgusting,” one regular recalls) and the appalling pool, a chlorine soup thickened with the byproducts of aquatic coupling. (“It was like chemical warfare,” says porn-tabloid publisher Al Goldstein, another habitué.) There’s a lot of skin on view, of course, and some actual sex, too (the picture isn’t rated). But the editing, by Keith Reamer (his real name, I’d like to think), is remarkably artful — we see enough to realize what’s going on, but not enough to shift us into ogling mode. The picture doesn’t feel like a porn film — not one the porn moguls of today would want to distribute, anyway.
Levenson seems sincerely to have believed that swinging was a grassroots “movement” that promoted “social and sexual intercourse,” as he says here in an old TV interview. Unlike the fabulously exclusive Studio 54, Plato’s had no velvet-rope ritual at the door. No one was turned away for being too fat, too plain or (Lord knows) too hairy. Couples (and single women) of all kinds were welcome, and from the exurbs of Long Island and New Jersey and even farther out of town, they flocked. Celebrities of the day put in appearances, too, and visiting stars like [movieperson id="77809"]Richard Dreyfuss[/movieperson] and Sammy Davis Jr., are duly name-checked by a talkative array of Plato’s veterans, ranging from showbiz hyphenates Buck Henry and Melvin Van Peebles to Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, former New York mayor Ed Koch, a smattering of actual porn stars and an erotic specialist called Danny the Wonder Pony. Their recollections are refreshingly unvarnished. Feminist sex-book author Betty Dodson remembers “the smell and the sweat” of the club. Another woman relates contracting a major infestation of crab lice there. Another says, “It completely killed your idea of romance.”
It was, in any case, a party that had to end. There was the AIDS virus, for one thing, first identified in 1981, the year after Levenson moved Plato’s to a new Midtown location. But there was also a substantial flaw in the concept of swinging. Levenson and other enthusiasts saw multi-partner social sex as a way to accommodate men’s longing for sexual variety within the context of marriage or romantic commitment. As long as a man and a woman had sex with other people while in each other’s presence (or at least with each other’s knowledge), then it was “just sex,” with no emotional complications. This would seem to be a fundamental misreading of the human heart. Levenson’s own relationship with a longtime girlfriend and fellow swinger — a woman identified only as Mary in the film — was ruptured when she became romantically involved with another man, who may have been responsible for a beating that put Levenson in the hospital. (Mary suffered a mental breakdown and was later institutionalized.) Next, the “King of Swing,” as Levenson didn’t mind being called, was busted for tax evasion and sent to prison for nearly three years. In his absence, the club went downhill, and by the time he returned, business was so meager that prostitutes had to be hired to fill in the dwindling crowds. In 1985, with AIDS a full-fledged plague, Plato’s Retreat was closed down by the City of New York. Levenson was reduced to driving a taxi to sustain a newly acquired crack habit. He died in 1999, following heart surgery. Today, the site where Plato’s Retreat once did business is a parking garage.
“American Swing” is boldly funny, and it has an unexpected poignance. It’s oddly touching to hear surviving Plato’s swingers, now irreversibly middle-aged, looking back on their wild, lubricious youth. Would they do it again? Betty Dodson, who did it all, says, “I’m an old lady with no regrets.”
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