"Screwing Their Brains Out": Plato's Retreat and the Rise of Swinging
"Ten years earlier, everyone was rolling around naked at Woodstock, you know, and smoking pot and screwing their brains out in the meadows. This was just an indoor version that was accessible to New Yorkers." Introducing the basic concept behind Plato’s Retreat, the artist and model Matuschka is smiling. A club for "swingers" that opened on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1977, Plato’s was part of the same disco-fevery, anything-goes milieu that produced Studio 54. Certainly, the sex was exciting, as well as controversial. But the club also represented an effort to think through the mores behind monogamy, to challenge assumptions and imagine an alternative.
Inspired by gay clubs, Plato’s was conceived by first owner Larry Levenson as a site for heterosexual couples to meet and swap partners. According to American Swing, Jon Hart and Mathew Kaufman’s entertaining documentary, Levenson was an ambitious, not especially careful entrepreneur, imagining that he could call his business a "nonprofit" to avoid paying taxes, and that he could separate "sex" and "love" to claim a commitment to his girlfriend and business partner Mary. Though he was unable to sustain these ideals (AIDS intervened, along with the IRS), both Larry and Mary promoted their "lifestyle" vigorously, appearing on Donahue and David Susskind to defend their choices. "No one is monogamous," declares Levenson. When Phil suggested the practice of swinging ran contrary to "common sense," Larry argued otherwise -- marriage was backwards and unsophisticated, a remnant of old property laws and limited thinking.
For the most part, the film is less interested in Levenson’s theorizing about sex and free thinking than it is in the club’s sensational aspects, as well as Levenson’s increasingly messy self-aggrandizing. Photos and footage show multiple bodies engaged in various sex acts (Juggs editor Dian Hanson says, "There were maybe 200 bodies in there on a busy night, and just writhing together like a bucket of worms"), and several interviewees remember their "first times." Mike says, "Everybody was so nice to me, everybody made you feel at home," and Miles, a model, says he was impressed by a redheaded girl’s enthusiasm: "She was a maniac," he recalls, and kept saying, "Oh! Pussy loves cock!"; in turn, he thought, "This is my kind of place."
If such anecdotes indicate the likelihood that Plato’s helped some men to fulfill fairly traditional fantasies, the club made sense for many women as well. Sex therapist Bryce Britton notes that the swinging at Plato’s challenged some gender stereotypes, saying, "Women were really in a position to be assertive to approach men for sex, to try out a lot of things that we had been on the receiving end of." And a club-goer remembers, "I was this normal housewife person. My husband left, his girlfriend was having a baby." She decided to give Plato’s a try, she says, and once inside, she was sold. "You don’t believe what you saw, it was like a page in a magazine and you were sitting in it. And then you make up your mind, you’re into it or you’re not. And I was into it."
Others who were "into it" include Charlie and Annie Grippo, who managed and even lived at Plato’s Retreat for several years. As they reminisce, quite happily, they’re struck briefly by the fact that the club was once the Continental Baths, "a gay bathhouse." "As a matter of fact," Charlie notes, "Better Midler sang there." Annie nods, furrowing her brow in thought. "And what’s his name… the piano player." Ah yes, Barry Manilow. While the film insinuates that Levenson did his best to distance his business from the more numerous and older gay clubs, Annie and other women suggest that they did some swapping beyond husbands. As Charlie remembers it, Annie got to "know" Mary much better than he did: "I think she was your first [woman]," he says. Annie shakes her head, no. Ah, those were the days.
Some Plato’s habitués were concerned that they be perceived as "normal." One big-haired woman in vintage footage insists, "We all have jobs, we all pay mortgages, just because we’re swingers, we’re not freaks of nature." A couple of others pass judgment on the $25 all you can eat buffet: Annie lists the options as if they’re grand (chicken, lasagna, potato salad, chow mein), while Fred Lincoln, who took over the club when Levenson went to prison on tax charges, says the food was "horrible." Still, food wasn’t much on the mind of most attendees; there was too much else to do and see. Photographer Donna Ferrato (who calls herself a "shy girl from Ohio") says on her first night at Plato’s, she jumped into the pool and swam the length, only to come up and see a line of men "all jerking off, coming in an arc over the pool." She smiles, looking vaguely shy. "That is one of my biggest regrets, that I didn’t get that picture."
If the scene was lively -- or at least arresting -- Levenson was less compelling. Screw magazine editor Al Goldstein puts it bluntly, saying that Levenson "was boring. His whole world was sex. His world was genitalia. He never read a book, he never had a thought." The film winds down as films like this tend to do, with the sad story of Levenson’s fall (he ended his life doing crack, having heart trouble, and driving a cab), Mary’s institutionalization, and the end of sex in the ‘80s. A speech snippet by Ronald Reagan signals the world-changing consequences of AIDS, and with that, the "revolution" of Plato’s Retreat and the gay clubs it emulated was over. Still, a customer named Betty insists, "I’m an old lady with no regrets because that period was very special." American Swing does well to recover even a little of that.