A Conversation with STEVE LEWIS
A Nitecap with Brian Newman
Mr. Lewis once tweeted a quote from the late great Hunter S. Thompson: “In a nation of frightened dullards, there is always a shortage of outlaws. Those few who make the grade are always welcome.” This is a perfect testament to his emphatic nature, air of refinement and good taste. He is a man of distinction in a sea of mediocrity. He is an innovator of traditional entertainment and a nightlife icon. His forward thinking designs consistently create an ambiance that is always classic and fresh. We met recently at a space designed by the man himself, Hotel Chantelle, to talk about fashion, music, design and life in general.
Brian Newman: Mr. Lewis, you are a true design genius and icon in the nightlife scene here in New York City. I would love to hear about some of the history of you growing up in Queens and coming to New York, going into the parties. You know, all the great things that you have done and continue to do.
Steve Lewis: Well, I grew up in Queens, as you said, and Manhattan was the Empire State Building–which was silhouetted by two buildings from when I was a baby. I think I was 17 when I ran away from home–well, I guess you don’t run away from home when you’re 17 but I could see the Empire State Building outside my window and so growing up I knew that was where I wanted to be.
When I was old enough to move, I guess like 9 or 10, I started to go in to Manhattan on my own. I took the train, I was a couple of blocks from the M train, I’d go in and get off and just explore all around, back then when I was growing up it was common to see kids running around. The world was a lot safer, or at least it seemed a lot safer then than it does today, and I guess kids wanted to roam the streets. I basically was hanging out in Manhattan from a very young age on my own and I’ve always been like a loner–I mean I don’t really take to people that much even though I’m in the people business. I spend a lot of time by myself and I like it that way. I’m sorta like a Clint Eastwood type if you will. My values are such and my opinion of people is not very high. I try to see the good in all, as I was brought up to see it, but I find that most people are a little disappointing.
Growing up in Queens, I wanted to be in Manhattan. I wanted to be a lot of things. The last thing I wanted to do was get involved in clubs. The first club I went to in Manhattan was a place called Adams Apple, which was an old nightclub in the 60s and 1st Ave. And Maxwell’s Plum, which was owned by one of my heroes, Warner LeRoy. Jenny LeRoy, his daughter, is my friend and I learned my business by sitting with a girl named Barbra in Maxwell’s Plum and looking at the detail and the way this man had ran his establishment, because I think he was the best operator ever. Maxwell’s Plum was the most unbelievable nightclub of its generation–models, Joe Namath, all that–it was ALL that. They served food, and it was a restaurant and a bar scene. It was really sexy. He also owned Tavern On the Green, which he just lost. The family just lost in a ridiculous fight with the city. He also owned the Russian Tea Room. So, he’s a pretty much a New York (if not an American) icon.
I learned my business by watching him before I knew I was even gonna be in the business. I started going there with this girl Barbra, got a little taste of it, and then I went to Infinity (a club owned by my friend Maurice Brahms). I went there and I wasn’t impressed by it, although he swears it’s the best club ever, and that I missed it on that night that I went.
So I moved into Manhattan and started to go out to Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s–and Max’s to me was a thousand times better that CBGB’s. I was a rock-and-roller. I mean ever since I was a little kid I had ripped jeans and, you know, moccasins, even back then, and I had the long hair. I was a rocker. I was into like the Stones beyond belief and then I developed a taste for punk. I grew up a few blocks from a guy named Johnny that became the lead guitarist of the Heartbreakers: Johnny Thunders. Him and I had beef when we were little kids, but when I grew up I ran into him at Max’s and we became good friends. Anyways, Queens was a good establishment for me because, it set up the values which I took with me for the rest of my life. Sorry for the long-winded answer, but, ya know, that’s a broad question…
BN: Well, that was a wonderful answer. You mentioned your work ethic and the values that were instilled in you growing up in Queens. You’re a writer, you design all the hottest clubs in town, and we always run into each other at the best parties. What goes into a day in the life?
SL: I wake up at 7 am everyday. Sometimes I go back to sleep for a half an hour. But I have to write for Blackbook magazine at that time. Before 7 o’clock I’ve gathered my thoughts and the last hour or so of sleep is sort of restless and I start to think about my writing. I’m putting together sentences for the articles, but generally speaking–I mean like today–when I wake up at 7 am I have no idea what I’m gonna write about. I have post-it notes around the computer and things in my phone that are topics, and sometimes there’s an interview floating in there, and sometimes there’s a serious piece coming up. But most days there’s nothing planned, so I write and it takes me til like 10 o’clock–3 hours of writing and editing myself, and then I send it in to the editors, and at the same time I’m starting to answer the early morning phone calls from contractors on various job sites of the design part of me. At any given time, I’m working on 4 or 5 jobs–mostly small these days. I’ve been low key designing for the summer, but I have a project coming up in September which will take up all my time. I don’t really wanna talk about it now, but it will be all-consuming, so I can’t take on anything too big right now. But I’m working on about 5 jobs right this minute. They range from a really cool office downtown to finishing Hotel Chantelle (where we’re sitting right now), and there’s a bar or two, you know, a restaurant.
So I’m working on all that, and then I guess while I’m doing that I’m just listening to music because today as I was writing I had to get my set together cause I’m DJing tonight. This afternoon I’ve been signed with 4AM, I’m gonna be one of their stable of DJs. I’m actually getting good at it. I’m gonna do Serato as of today and I’m gonna be a DJ. So I have that.
I market a champagne called Beau Joie and as I go out at night to various venues where the champagne is sold, I’ll sometimes put down an American Express gold card that they’ve given me for this purpose and I’ll buy a bottle and share it with the promoter types or pretty girls or celebrities or whatever. My job there is to associate my brand with the champagne which is really, ya know, a brilliant champagne, and it falls at the price point between Veuve and Dom Perignon. There’s a big gap between those two famous champagnes and this one fills that gap. Although personally I’m not much of a drinker, but I drink champagne once in a while and I think as far as I can tell this is as good as any as I’ve ever had. It’s great champagne and I’m really proud of the product.
Besides all that, I’m also working on some secret stuff that I can’t talk about, the media stuff, the television radio type stuff that I’m working on, and that’s in the back of my mind. It’s just a busy, busy life. Ya know, it keeps me busy, if not rich.
BN: You had mentioned being signed to 4AM. Congratulations! What a fantastic crew of killin’ DJs–all cool cats in general. They are leading the way in the party music scene. New York needs someone like you driving the Music Bus. I recently interviewed, Queens native and my good friend, Jonny Lennon, who is one of the four owners of 4AM. Do you see any other people in this generation in New York that you really dig that are throwing parties?
SL: I like Ruben Rivera from Travertine. I think he’s a real up-and-coming guy. I don’t typically hang out with straight people. I’m straight, but it’s really been a bane to my existence. I prefer the company of gay men and women. I just find it to be more fun, better people to hang out with.
So, ya know, you’ll find me at Paul Sevigny’s party and it’s hard to say that Paul Sevigny is up-and-coming, but I don’t think he’s really gotten as far as he can go. He’s just the next big thing. I really love everything that André Balazs is doing and what he’s building. I’m really in love with what Sal is doing over with the Morgan’s Hotel Group. I really like what’s going on in the hotels. The Gansevoort is to me a little bit more mainstream, but it certainly has value and now you’ve got Noah at the Dream that’s setting up this sort of empire.
I think that nightlife is very vibrant right now. It’s gotten very specific and many people don’t embrace it because it’s not diverse, but I find diversity by going out to different types of parties. I mean I think I go to more parties–different types of parties–than anybody. I’ll go to Latin parties, black parites, gay parties, ya know, rock-n-rollers.
I love what Luc and Andy are doing over at White Noise. I love White Noise, I love that crowd. But you mentioned Jon Lennon, and I think Jon and I are very similar people. We both grew up in Queens. I hung out in the neighborhood he grew up in so I must have seen him rollin’ around when he was a little kid. You know, I guess the key word is: respect. So many people right now lack that word or ignore that word. I generally try to be respectful, or at least to the point where I’m not. I know when not to be respectful and I’m very good at being disrespectful. And Jon is too. We grew up in a place where being disrespectful was not tolerated. Not by anybody. So I don’t know any other way. Jon and I are kindred spirits, and we’re great friends, that’s why I’m signing with their agency. I think it’s gonna be fun. It’d be great to travel around the world with 4AM to build an empire over there. Do I have to do that?
BN: No, you don’t have to. You could probably just stay in NY…
SL: Yeah, I don’t really like to travel. Not so much. I don’t leave in the summer. I like it when it’s quiet when people leave. It’s nice and quiet. It’s the greatest thing in New York. Walking. Everybody I don’t really want to hang out with is gone, and I get to walk my dog.
BN: Yeah, we bump into each other a lot on the street in the summer over in Nolita.
SL: That’s right. I’m a dogwalker. I think, I believe in dogs more than people.
BN: Haha. Nothing better than man’s best friend. After you walk the dog in the morning, you write for Blackbook magazine about all different nightlife energy, every day. What other things are you writing and working on, on the literary side?
SL: Yep, 5 days a week. And once in a while for public publication. I contribute to a lot of magazines. These magazine people call me up and I speak anonymously on the record, probably once a week, some reporter has some story. That’s about it. Some people like my opinions, or my sound bites.
BN: You’re a straight shooter, I’ve always liked that about you. Every time I read your Blackbook column, it’s always a critique, not a lot of writers do that these days. Lots of ass kissing, and stroking for the sake of business, especially when the product tastes stale. Your honest opinion is so apparent in your writing. What drives that strength?
SL: I don’t know how to be dishonest. I used to be really good at it, but then it got really complicated because I talk so much I can’t keep track of my lies. So the key is not to lie and then you don’t have to keep track of anything. And if you make a mistake, or you don’t remember something right, that’s an honest mistake. But I don’t really see the point in not telling people they’re assholes when they’re assholes, or telling people they need a little help when they need a little help. Whatever, it’s only my opinion, and that’s what I’ve always said in my articles. This is one mans opinion, if you don’t like it, don’t read it.
I feel really sorry for people that critique me because of my age or my point of view. I answer anybody saying: “Don’t read me.” I write everyday, but I don’t write for anyone in particular. I just write, and if you read me and enjoy me, that’s great. I’m gonna write it anyway, and I’m only gonna say it the way I feel. I’m doing Hotel Chantelle, for instance, I’m designing it, and today’s article is not very favorable to a party that they had here. I was here yesterday, and I didn’t like it, and I dissed it, and I told ‘em. I told them what was going on. “You know I’m not gonna write well about this because it wasn’t good.” I just try to write, and I can’t be bribed, so I mean I guess maybe that’s why I’m poor.
BN: Well, you’re a man rich with integrity and respect. Two things not passed around much anymore. It’s always a pleasure to hear those two things being practiced. Let’s talk a little bit about fashion. I know you have done some things for Moschino and other very famous fashion houses.
SL: I’ve done 400 fashion shows, and I guess that’s a precursor to my design and to the nightlife scene. My first entry into the nightlife was not necessarily promoting in the strict sense, or running clubs, which I ended up doing. It was these fashion shows. I produced fashion shows initially for friends, and then I ended up doing international designers. Franco Moschino, as you mentioned, first show. I met Franco, he was a great guy. He and I had the biggest fight–you wouldn’t believe–it almost came to blows, both of us had to be restrained. But then, a year later, we were hugging and kissing in the streets of Paris. I was extremely sad when he passed because the world really missed out on an incredibly vibrant man who was still so young and could have done so much more. But what he did was he made a mark and, of course, now the brand carries his name, but it has little resemblance to what he was. He was out there, and he was just so much fun.
You know, my generation lost about half of its creative people, and the world’s suffering from it. The great malaise that many people see in nightlife is caused by a huge gap in personnel, and I think I would not have been as successful in nightlife as I was if many people had survived. Unfortunately, most of the people that I was competitive with have passed. Becoming successful brought on a certain level of excesses, and back in the 80s those excesses killed you. So I didn’t have those excesses, I wasn’t so successful with drugs and sex as many were. And I lived so I was just lucky as can be. So I guess it was luck, or whatever happened, I survived. And I filled the void. I wouldn’t have been as successful a nightclub operator as Steve Rubell, Howie, and lot of people that many don’t know, if they had survived.
BN: Steve, you’re out all the time, writing all day, and other things behind the scenes that no one knows about. Do you read the newspapers? What books are you into?Authors? Heroes?
SL: I used to read the papers everyday; I used to read ALL the papers everyday. Now I very rarely pick up a paper. In fact, the only paper I ever pick up is the Times–but only if I see it in a doctor’s office or a dentist’s office or I find it on the subway. I don’t really read anything else. I go online and I read everything online. I try to get my news sources form CNN to Al Jazeera. I try to get different points of view. I think it’s important to hear what other people are saying about what’s going on.
As far as books, I don’t really have time to read books. If I do, recently I’ve been reading The Andy Warhol Diaries. Because I’m mentioned in it, in this crazy little passage, that his death was sort of a tribute to me, you can look it up in my blog, but Andy’s last diary describes me as being a mean person, which is not true. I didn’t understand what he was talking about, but he died after doing a fashion show with me. I thought he was going to die when I looked at him, but I didn’t send him home. So many people said, “Wow, why didn’t you send Andy home when you saw he was sick?” Ya know, like everyone else, I had people yelling at me, my partner was yelling at me: “You’re gonna send Andy Warhol home? Are you crazy?” Yeah, and he died. So I’ve been reading the diaries in general. You know, he’s my idol, I guess, if anybody is.
BN: You have partied with the best of them, at the best of times in New York City, and you continue to do so at all the new hip night spots in town. How has the age of technology changed the promotional game of at all?
SL: I always go back to Casablanca, which says that the fundamental things apply as time goes by. 2,000 years ago there was a guy who owned a little shop in Rome on the corner of Athenian Way and Gladiator Road. He had this little bar and he had an ex-gladiator as a bouncer. He had somebody playing some sort of music. He had drinks to get everybody drunk. He had waitresses who were hot that were serving them. Maybe other things going on slow nights. They had food and party promotions. He was doing exactly what we are today. Because the fundamental thing is that people want to hang out with each other. How the message is delivered has changed, but the fundamental things apply. People want to be in a comfortable place. When you design a place, which I do at a variety of places, I make them comfortable and create different energies so people will feel comfortable saying: “Oh, look over there!” This is something I learned from Warner LeRoy: creating visuals. So wherever you sit in any of my places there’s something to see. You’re sitting where you are. I never leave you alone. I give you things to look at. Where most places you’d be staring at a blank wall. You want to have visuals besides the person you’re talking to. And I have great visuals here (on the rooftop at Hotel Chantelle). Wherever you are in this room, in any direction, you’ll have something to look. That’s the Warner LeRoy way, and I did that at Tavern on the Green. I spun somebody around and said: “Where ever you stop, there’ll be something incredible.”
So everything is the same. The fact that you can call someone up and say “Come over here right now” is good. It means that places need to be held to a higher standard, but we have changed the way we go out. In my day, we used to go out to big giant nightclubs, or “dinosaur clubs” as they called them. They were big giant Tyrannosaurus Rex, or Brontosaurs, nightclubs where thousands of people gathered, all different diverse types of people. It was A-List for many crowds. Now it’s A-List smaller places. So people that go to Avenue A-List themselves. The people that go to LIT, they look at those people and go, “My God, they’re disgusting.” The people at Avenue don’t like the people at LIT. The people that go to gay bars on Ave A don’t like this, and people that go to Susanne Bartsch parties, etc. Ya know, everyone has their own A-List now. And instead of it being everybody in one giant club, now it’s specific and less diverse. We’ve become very specific in our tastes.
I call that specificity in taste SIN, which is Safety In Numbers. I believe that the phenomenon developed after the World Trade Center went down. People started not trusting or not feeling comfortable, and you need to feel comfortable. It’s people not feeling comfortable with people not like themselves. So they sought out places where they can hang out. When you go to certain bars, you know what you’re getting. You go to sports bars: you’re getting what you’re getting. Strip bars: you’re getting what you’re getting. People go to places where they feel comfortable and safe. Not people like you and me, because we’re out there. We have tattoos and weird hairdos, you know what I mean. But we’re different!
What I mean is that the majority of people out there desire to be around people just like themselves. We desire to be around people that are different. You don’t see drag queens dancing on bars anymore, and every club used to have them. GoGo dancers, all different sexes. Now you don’t have it. I was at Pasha for Patrick McMullan’s St Patty’s Day party, and there were GoGo boys, there were GoGo girls, transvestites, it was great. And it was a mixed crowd, and I love that. That’s just me. I think I could do it. I think if I opened a club I could create that diversity, but I’m not sure if anybody else out there has the experience with that kind of diversity. I don’t think operators today actually understand more than their own crowd. I mean the guys over at Provocateur are unbelieveable at their own crowd. Noah to some extent grew up through my system–he’s exposed to it–and Andre Balazs is doing unbelievable diverse things over at LeBain.
BN: It’s been really great talking to you Steve. I wish you all the best, and I know we’ll run into each other at the next party.
SL: Thank you Brian, always a pleasure.
Steve Lewis is an icon of New York nightlife.
Steve Lewis interviewed by Brian Newman
Written by Brian Newman
Photography by Coco Alexander
Design by Marie Havens
Steve Lewis, NYC, September 2011, Photography by Coco Alexander