Robert N. DeBenedictis -- the businessman who since at least 1974 has been behind many of New York City's private clubs used by gay men as sex venues according to some previous media reports -- had a verdict returned against him last November for over $50 million by a California jury in a class action lawsuit involving his role at Global Vision Products, Inc. which until recently marketed and sold the hair loss remedy Avacor as reported by Kate Moser for The Recorder. The jury's verdict form reflecting its decision is here.
In 2003 Global Vision Products and others, including DeBenedictis, were sued for unsubstantiated, false and misleading statements in connection with Avacor. Download Class Action Complaint A verdict was returned in the amount of $36,979,373.00 after a four-week combined bench and jury trial in January 2008. However, that trial did not include DeBenedictis because the action against him, another co-defendant, and the company had been stayed due to an August 2007 filing for bankruptcy by Global Vision. After the stay was lifted, the plaintiff class proceeded to trial against DeBenedictis and his co-defendant.
Winning a verdict is one thing; collecting on it may be another thing. In a September 2009 filing with the court, lawyers for the plaintiff alleged:
In 2007, DeBenedictis testified that he had approximately $70 million in assets. * * * He now claims less than $20 million. * * * DeBenedictis has given away as much as $50 million of his personal assets to his own foundation and his own trust in contemplation of an adverse judgment in this litigation. Moreover, DeBenedictis has transferred much of the remaining $20 million in corporate interests into limited liability companies so that the assets cannot be accessed by judgment creditors.
Lawyers for DeBenedictis responded: "While plaintiff's accusations and innuendo are not lost on defendant, defendant will note only that there is currently no outstanding Judgment against Mr. DeBenedictis relating to this lawsuit, and he is entitled to handle his finances and business interests as he sees fit in accordance with the law."
Of course, now that a jury has returned a verdict against DeBenedictis, the issue of the alleged asset transfers may become front and center. Last November the class action lawyers filed an action against DeBenedictis and others under the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act "seeking to avoid and reverse certain transactions executed by" them, and further alleging that they "conspired to violate the UFTA."
While fending off the plaintiff class action lawyers, DeBenedicts also is defending against an adversary proceeding commenced by the bankruptcy trustee for Global Vision which alleges he and others engaged in "sustained and pervasive raiding of Global Vision's coffers." Download Adversary Proceeding The adversary proceeding was initiated following the filing of an April 25, 2008 report by an examiner appointed to investigate whether Global Vision's sales were in compliance with legal requirements and whether there were potential claims against company insiders. Download Examiner's Report
For decades Robert DeBenedictis has been involved in the gay bar and night life industry in New York City, and a website concerning the Robert N. DeBenedictis Foundation states that some of his "successful business which you may recognize are: The Townhouse (Bar), Townhouse Restaurant, Next Magazine, Shout Magazine, Film Center Cafe, Julie's Bar, Service Station (Salon and Spa), Regents (Bar & Restaurant), Lips (Drag Restaurant), Better Bodies Gym, [and] Heaven (Bar Dance Club)." However, the website, although stating that "some of the fields in which Robert ran businesses with his various partners, during the seventies, eighties and nineties" included "Gay Health Clubs & Spas," does not reveal his ownership interests specifically in the Wall Street Sauna, the East Side Sauna a/k/a East Side Club, the West Side Club and the River Street Club which according to prior press reports and other sources have been frequented by gay men looking for action.
A. Wall Street Sauna
Wall Street Sauna, Inc. was incorporated by Robert DeBenedictis and Anthony Mascioli in 1974, and then in 1978 Wall Street Sauna Club, Inc. was established with its initial directors identified as DeBenedictis, Masciolo and Roy Schillinger. The Wall Street Sauna operated at One Maiden Lane in the financial district, which Betty and Pansy's Severe Queer Review of New York stated was "owned by the same folks" who owned the East Side Club and the West Side Club, and was shuttered by city officials in 2004.
Arthur Bell wrote in a 1976 article ("The Bath Life Gets Respectability") for The Village Voice that "at present . . . nine bathouses exist in New York," and "essentially, the baths are where gay men go for sex." Among the nine he identified in the article was the Wall Street Sauna which was "where businessmen get their rocks off during the lunch hour (it's called 'funch')."
The 1994 edition of Betty and Pansy's Severe Queer Review of New York states:
The 12th floor is the lurkiest, with a bathroom, TV area, and about two dozen different "rooms" for sex and what not. I imagined the crowd would be older businessmen. I was off by a generation or two. * * * I overheard two regulars chatting about a third and the ever unpopular gays-in-the-military debate. It appears that the third regular's son is a general or some other important figure in the U.S. Armed Services. Eerie, huh?
And the 2003 edition states:
Although you might imagine the place would be filled with dashing, hot young businessmen, the crowd actually made me wonder if a nudist colony and an old-age home had collided, and then a bathhouse had been built around the accident site. * * * The only times it is busy are weekday lunchtimes and right after work. One source tells us that straight businessmen do come here right after work to get off before taking the train home to the wife and kids.
Thirty years after opening New York City shut down the Wall Street Sauna. A July 9, 2004 article ("Court Shuts New York Sauna Over Gay Sex") by Mark Goebel from PlanetOut Network states:
After reportedly ignoring warnings of high-risk sexual behavior on its premises, a New York City sauna frequented by gay men was ordered to close on Thursday. An appeals court in Manhattan granted a petition by the city to have the Wall Street Sauna shut down after undercover inspectors from the health department reported seeing more than 30 acts of high-risk sex in the club since June 2003, in violation of the city's health code. The current laws governing sexual activities in saunas and other public places were enacted more than a decade ago in response to the AIDS epidemic and resulted in the closing of numerous bathhouses and pornographic shops in the city. The city said the sex acts continued at the Wall Street Sauna even after it sent a warning letter to the sauna's owners in September 2003, the Associated Press reported. The health department first closed the sauna on Feb. 2, 2004, "as part of its ongoing efforts to combat AIDS." Part of the sauna was reopened on Feb. 11, 2004, on the condition set by the court that all sexual activity would be barred. However, in April a city health inspector reported seeing more high-risk sexual behavior at the sauna. "The closure of the entire facility represents an important win for New York's efforts to protect the health of its citizens," said city lawyer John Hogrogian. Thursday's ruling reversed a lower court order that allowed the partial reopening of the club, as long as the club owners promised to bar sexual activity onsite. In shutting the sauna completely, the appeals court said that previous legal proceedings "establish to our satisfaction that high-risk conduct was so pervasive at this establishment that the new management's promises cannot be deemed a sufficient safeguard against their continuation."
The appellate court's opinion in City of New York v. Wall Street Sauna, Inc., 9 A.D.3d 298, 778 N.Y.S.2d 883 (1st Dep't 2004) provides:
In this nuisance abatement action, the order appealed from granted plaintiffs a preliminary injunction against high-risk sexual activity, in violation of the State Sanitary Code (10 NYCRR 24-2.2), at the premises of defendant Wall Street Sauna, Inc. (WSS), but denied plaintiffs' motion insofar as it sought an order closing the premises pending determination of this action. Since that order was rendered, the IAS court, by order dated May 26, 2004, has granted plaintiffs a closing order with respect to the upper floor of WSS's premises. The partial closing order was granted on the basis of evidence showing that high-risk conduct was continuing at the premises, notwithstanding the preliminary injunction against toleration of such activity and WSS's promises to the court that new management would take steps to address the problem effectively. On our review of the record on which the order appealed from was rendered, we reverse the IAS court's original denial of the City's application for a closing order, and grant such relief to the extent it has not already been granted. The record of proceedings on the original motion establishes to our satisfaction that high-risk conduct was so pervasive at this establishment that the new management's promises cannot be deemed a sufficient safeguard against its continuation. We note that the IAS court's limitation of the closing directive in its subsequent order to only a portion of the premises would probably cause the high-risk conduct to migrate to the portion of the premises permitted to remain open, especially in view of the demonstrated unreliability of WSS's prior representations.
Management for the Wall Street Sauna was shocked by the closure, and in a July 9, 2004 article ("Order Health Club Shut Over Gay Sex") Jonathan Lemire and Helen Peterson report for the Daily News:
The manager of the club, which charges $11 for lockers and $14 to $17 for admission to its changing room, said he was disappointed with the decision. "These crazy sex acts that the city is claiming happen here do not, and I am really shocked and appalled that they are trying to shut us down," said manager Ancil Brown, adding it was unclear whether the owners would appeal. He insisted the sauna is a safe place to meet people and said it draws a mix of locals, including bankers and downtown residents.
However, there was no love lost for the Wall Street Sauna from others, and its closing was the topic ("Destructive Behavior") of a Daily News editorial on July 12, 2004:
The Wall Street Sauna, a downtown health club catering to gay men, has been ordered closed by the Appellate Division of Manhattan Supreme Court. Reason? The place was consistently used for high-risk sexual encounters. Unsafe sex. AIDS-inviting sex. Shocked? You should be. While there is certainly the need for continuing, and expanded, AIDS education worldwide, this case proves that while you can lead a man to information, you can't make him think. You can't make him give one little damn about himself or other human beings. If there is any group on Earth that already should know about HIV/AIDS, it's the Manhattan gay community. Yet there's the Wall Street Sauna, refuting conventional wisdom - two decades into the epidemic. Right now, the 15th annual International AIDS conference is underway in Bangkok. The agenda includes discussion of accountability among nations that have pledged to help fight the pandemic. A legitimate concern. Last year, 38 million people around the world were living with the disease - up from 31 million in 2001. But anyone who is involved with the fight against HIV/AIDS had better focus, too, on individual accountability. Education and funding go just so far. If a person is not willing to heed the warnings, if a person is willing to expose himself and his partner(s) to a devastating disease, no one else bears any blame for the consequences. Let's see that behavioral and emotional problem addressed.
B. East Side Sauna
The East Side Club a/k/a East Side Sauna Inc. was incorporated in 1976, and its certificate of incorporation does not identify its incorporator, shareholders or directors; rather, it simply identifies Patrick Simonetti at 162-49 Crossbay Boulevard in Howard Beach, NY as the agent for service of process. However, in a document filed with the court in the class action proceeding against him, DeBenedictis admitted that he had an ownership interest in East Side Sauna Inc., and that the company now is East Side Club, LLC. The Operating Agreement of East Side Club, LLC, filed in the UFTA action against DeBenedictis, identifies its capital contributing members as Robert DeBenedictis, Anthony Mascioli, George Bohot, Angelo Sperrazza, Charles Vozzi, Bruce Fogel, Ancil Brown, Robert Castillo, and Anthony Fernandes. The East Side Club operates at 227 East 56th Street in New York City which is a property in which DeBenedictis has held an ownership interest since 1981.
It has been reported for decades that the East Side Club has been used as a meeting place for gay men to have sex. Even in the middle of the AIDS crisis as the city closed down most bathhouses, the East Side Sauna remained open with a reported "orgy room" according to Jim Schwartz as reported by Jane Gross in an October 14, 1985 article ("Bathhouses Reflect AIDS Concerns") for The New York Times:
Mr. Schwartz said he viewed the East Side Sauna as ''so much less intimidating than gay bars'' and thus a more sympathetic meeting place. ''We do not condone multiple-partner sex,'' he said. ''If we found somebody being a real pig, we would ask him to leave, which we've done. From a business point of view, we make as much money from one person having sex with one person as one person having sex with 40.'' * * * At the East Side Sauna, which occupies parts of three floors in an office building, there is a steam room and sauna, television and video lounges and what is known as ''the group room.'' ''How do you say this nicely?'' said Mr. Schwartz. ''Basically, it's an orgy room.''
Hal Lipper wrote a first-person account of his visit to the East Side Sauna ("Visit to a New York City Bathhouse") for the St. Petersburg Times on January 15, 1986 in which he describes the establishment as follows:
Saturday is the East Side Sauna's busiest night. There's a 10-minute wait for a room. * * * An attendant . . . escorts me through a maze of dimly lit hallways to a small cubicle . . . . * * * The room is as long as its cot and perhaps 24 inches wider. * * * Wood partitions between the roomettes are only seven feet high -- the ceiling is at least 10 feet -- so what goes on next door can be heard above the pop music that's piped throughout the club. * * * There are 24 cubicles on this middle floor. Nearly half the doors are open, revealing their occupants in a variety of Blue Boy poses. Each man looks through his doorway, waiting, watching the silent parade outside. Potential partners roam the halls, peering in each room, pausing, evaluating. Most men make several rounds before choosing a partner. * * * Two men go into one roomette. Farther down the hallway, another man is fondling himself while standing just inside his room.
The 1994 edition of Betty and Pansy's Severe Queer Review of New York states with respect to the East Side Club -- included within the guide's "sex clubs/baths" section -- the following:
Despite frequent announcements by the management, we did witness the use of cocaine and poppers by patrons. Despite the fact that condoms are distributed with towels at the front door, we did witness guys engaging in activities without even ripping open the seal. Hello?
The 2003 edition of Betty and Pansy's guide states:
The crowd isn't as pretty as at the West Side Club, but these guys are much more friendly, more diverse, and actually want to have sex. * * * It'd be hard to leave the East Side Club without finding at least someone to play with if you're there during prime hours (Friday and Saturday nights from 10 P.M. to 2 A.M.). If you want a room you need to arrive before 8 P.M. or you'll have to wait quite a while. Best to arrive between 7 and 8 P.M., get a good room while it's moderately busy, and then when the crowd peaks you're good to go. The later you're there (like after 1 or 2 A.M.), the more likely you'll encounter bar patrons who are a bit drunk or altered.
More recently, a September 13, 2006 article ("NY's gay baths become sex clubs of last resort") by Matthew Verrinder for Reuters states:
Nearing midnight on a Saturday at the East Side Club, dozens of middle-aged men roamed the labyrinthine hallways, hoping to have anonymous sex. Downstairs, five men waited to get in from the lobby, looking as ordinary as any group of suburban fathers waiting at a dental office. Peter (57) a construction manager with silver hair, goes to the East Side Club once every two weeks and has for years. "You have that itch, and it feels good to scratch it," said Peter, who also did not want to give his last name. "There is still a place to go for it. You should see this place at 6pm before all of the guys go home to their wives."
Business at the East Side Club must be good. As of 2002 the East Side Sauna, Inc. was paying nearly $500,000 annually in rent. Before the AIDS crisis in the early-1980s Jim Schwartz told The New York Times in an October 14, 1985 article ("Bathhouses Reflect AIDS Concerns") that the East Side Sauna averaged 2,000 customers week, and after the virus hit business declined to about 1,500. However, the 25 percent decline in business apparently was short-lived. In a May 3, 1987 New York Times article ("4 New York Bathhouses Still Operate Under City's Program of Inspections") Schwartz told reporter Scott Bronstein that business "has gone up 20 to 25 percent since last year,'' and customers were then paying $10 for a one year membership plus an $8 locker fee or $10 room fee per visit. In 1987, at 2,000 visits a week, that's about $1,000,000 a year from room or locker fees alone without considering the revenue from membership sales.
On an unrelated historical note, the 227 East 56th Street premises has been home to the Little Hippodrome and La Vie En Rose supper clubs which were known for their drag shows during the 1970s. A Wikipedia entry states:
The [Little Hippodrome] club is famous for hosting the final live New York performances of the legendary Glam rock group The New York Dolls in March 1975, a month before the group disbanded. The show recorded at that venue appeared later as the group's Red Patent Leather album.
The Little Hippodrome subsequently was re-named La Vie En Rose, and the entertainment crew for La Vie En Rose included many alumni from the Blue Angel as reported in a Feb. 12, 1976 article from the New York Times:
The entertainment crew of the Blue Angel, which is no longer with us, seems to have found the right new quarters at La Vie En Rose, a new name for the Little Hippodrome, the supper club at 227 East 56th Street. Audience response earlier this week was enthusiastic to the spangled, helter-skelter revue, "Pouff," with its near-nudity and female impersonating and the whirling showgirls joined by the club's waiters, who peel down with them. * * * Along with its speed and joviality, this is essentially the same material from the burned-out club [the Blue Angel] down the street [at 123 East 54th Street]. * * * The other night, the muscular Brian Peterson hoisted the lithe Michele Frascoli into an overhead net, it sank within inches of a grinning bald patron, who ducked. Add to this the chorines on five trapezes swinging over the tables (with no net). The table-sitters took all this is smiling stride, along with the effusive chatter of Peter Jackson, the emcee-director, who also had to duck, depending on the show's traffic. The hit of the evening was a frenzied cancan chorus, sparked by an electric young soloist named Rodney Pridgen. There's disco dancing on the stage after the show which starts at 9:30.
C. West Side Club
West Side Club, Inc. was incorporated in 1994 by Robert N. DeBenedictis and William Hudson, and in 2009 was changed to West Side Club, LLC. In a document filed with the court in the class action proceeding against him, DeBenedictis identifies its "owners, officers or directors" as himself together with David Moyal, Ancil Brown and Paul Gallucio. The West Side Club operates at 27 West 20th Street, and it generated controversy from the day it opened its doors based on articles by gay journalists Jonathan Capehart for the Daily News and Gabriel Rotello for Newsday.
For example, a Jan. 26, 1995 article ("For Sale: State-of-the-Art Unsafe Sex") by Gabriel Rotello for New York Newsday states:
With little controversy, and under the very nose of the AIDS establishment, a huge new bathhouse opened in Chelsea this week. A bathhouse like the legendary bathhouses of old, those bustling hives of contagion that helped spread death throughout the gay male world. A bathhouse with eighty private bedrooms that can be locked from the inside, so that the occupants can have sex free from the prying eyes of safer-sex monitors. * * * And make no mistake. The presence of locked cubicles in sex clubs is inherently unsafe, which is why such cubicles are banned even in relatively tolerant places like San Francisco.
And a Feb. 6, 1995 article ("Getting Undressed, Going Undercover") by Jonathan Capehart for the Daily News states:
I visited a newly opened gay bathhouse that was filled with men looking for anonymous, and possibly lethal, sex. The West Side Club is on W. 20th St. in Manhattan. Its advertisements suggest that it is an exclusive health club. The ads tout private memberships, weight lifting and exercise. But that veneer is as thin as a mesh tank top the first hint being that the ads also say the facilities include "resting cabins." * * * My intention was to confirm whether the club is, in fact, the latest and most extreme representation of a tragic phenomenon: a resurgence in unsafe sex among gays. I discovered, with almost complete certitude, that the answer is yes. * * * Our first stop is the "gym." Ten pieces of equipment sit ignored in a brightly lit, mirrored room. Nearby is a lounge with couches, vending machines and a television. On a counter there's safe-sex material from the Gay Men's Health Crisis headquartered, ironically, just down the block. The lounge, too, is empty. Not so the hallways. They are a dark, mirrored maze lined with the doors of the so-called resting cabins. There are 48 of them. They are really cubicles, with walls about 8 feet high. Each is equipped with a nightstand and a lamp, clothes hooks, condom, lubricant and a door that locks from the inside. The bed is something from summer camp small with white sheets and a pillow. Walking the halls is an endurance test. Sex is the only item on the agenda, and the etiquette quickly becomes clear. * * * The door to room 218 is closed. Inside, there's a persistent moaning. Other doors are open. A man with salt-and-pepper hair stands just inside his threshold; a pudgy man sits anxiously on the edge of his bed; a black man reclines on his mattress showing off his attributes. In a number of rooms, men are masturbating.
Mark Milano, a long-time AIDS activist in New York City, reports in an article ("How I Joined The Sex Police") for The Body that the position allegedly taken by the West Side Club during a mid-1990s court hearing in an unsuccessful attempt by the city to shut it down was funny:
One of the funniest moments came when the West Side Club went to court to stop its closure, saying it was not a sex club. The judge asked, "If you aren't a sex club, what are you? You have no license to be a gym or a sauna." "We're a conference center," their lawyers replied. "For who?" "Professionals: lawyers, doctors, ministers." "Why do you have all those tiny rooms with beds in them?" "For people to rest in between meetings." But the West Side Club had one tactic the city couldn't beat: hide all the sex.
The response by Paul Galluccio to the criticism that the West Side Club may be fanning the flames of HIV transmission? He reportedly told Jay Blotcher for an article ("Sex Club Owners: The Fuck Suck Buck Stops Here") in Policing Public Sex (South End Press: 1996) the following:
"If I were to get AIDS today, it's my own fucking fault. I deserve it." More fully:Galuccio prevaricates in explaining the nature of his private men's club, finally admitting that sex takes place on the premises, but adding, "We're not promoting AIDS; we're promoting a club for gay people to meet." The demographics of the club vary from professionals to weekend partiers. Galuccio dismisses GALHPA's [Gay and Lesbian HIV Prevention Activists] most heated rhetoric. "People say we're nothing but bloodsuckers in the community." But he points to his support of the Community Center and GMHC, plus the many gay men on his payroll. "I didn't give someone AIDS; AIDS started long before I was in the business." Sex between men is an inevitability, Galuccio says several times in different ways. A pragmatic businessman, he says he is merely providing a desired service, installing measures of safety which are cost-effective and also soothe his conscience. The West Side Club provides safer sex information, condoms and lubrication. GMHC volunteers come in occasionally to provide safer sex demonstrations. Monitors verbally admonish couples who choose to cavort in the open, directing them to private rooms. Beyond those policing measures, Galuccio allows patrons to make their own decisions about safer sex, adding that, at this juncture in the epidemic, blame now lies with the individual. "If I were to get AIDS today, it's my own fucking fault. I deserve it."
More recently, the West Side Club has been reported as a place where some gay men "tweak" on crystal meth. For example, a January 12, 2004 article ("The Beast in the Bathhouse: Crystal Meth Use by Gay Men Threaten To Reignite an Epidemic") by Andrew Jacobs for the New York Times states:
Bob looked haggard but was feeling fabulous. Chewing gum at a manic clip, circling the layyrinthine halls of the West Side Club on a recent Sunday afternoon, he had been awake since Friday, thanks to a glassine pouch of crystalline powder he had tucked beneath the mattress of a room he rented in this Chelsea bathhouse. The powder, known as methamphetamine, or crystal meth, had helped Bob conquer a half-dozen sex partners during a 35-hour binge. Like many of the men cruising the two-level club lined with closet-size cubicles, Bob, a 37-year-old advertising copywriter, was "tweaking," high on a wildly addictive stimulant that has been sweeping through Manhattan's gay ghettos. "The stuff is a wonder," he said, taking a pause from his prowling, his scrawny frame wrapped in a white towel. Asked about condoms and the niceties of safe sex, Bob shrugged. "Whatever," he said, turning away. At the club, there were plenty of condoms for the taking, courtesy of the management, but in conversations with a dozen patrons who acknowledged using crystal, only two men said they were following the rules of engagement in the age of AIDS. "Some guys just throw you out of the room if you pull one out," said one of the men, James, who, like everyone else, would not give his full name. "To them, rubbers are a killjoy."
Similarly, a 2003 edition of Betty and Pansy's Severe Queer Review of New York states:
It is true that there are a lot of hotties here, but there are a lot of non-Grade A people here too, and if anything, they get laid a lot more because the Grade A ones are so fucking picky they only want to have sex with themselves. Oh, and there are A LOT of tweaked queens here. It is definitely party and play central. The bloom is off the rose and the place is starting to look more and more like a bathhouse in any town -- a little run down, a little . . . unsterile.
In March 2005 Mark Honigsbaum shined a spotlight on the West Side Club in an article ("West Side story: a tale of unprotected sex which could be link to new HIV superbug") for the Guardian:
From street level it looks like the entrance to any other New York office block. But mount the stairs to the second floor and you suddenly find yourself standing in front of a glass booth from behind which an attendant is busy dispensing locker keys and towels to a line of eager young men. No Drugs or Poppers, reads a notice beside the fogged glass. No Sleeping in Public Areas. This is the West Side Club, a Manhattan bathhouse where both HIV-positive and HIV-negative men come to enjoy the steam and engage in anonymous and often unprotected sex with other men. * * * Unlike other venues where men meet for anonymous sex, West Side has a reputation for being a friendly and pressure-free environment. Many men undoubtedly visit the bathhouse simply to unwind after a hard day at the office. Others go there in the hope of finding sympathetic partners - or, in the phraseology favoured by crystal meths users, to "party and play." According to one regular attendee who asked to remain anonymous, the West Side Club is attractive to many HIV positive men precisely because "no one questions you about your HIV status" there. The result is "everyone assumes everyone is positive." He says that when he has offered to use condoms in the past he has been told by the men he has partnered not to bother. Instead, like many of the bathhouse's clientele, he goes "bareback" oblivious to the fact that even HIV positive men need to protect themselves during anal sex because of the risk of cross-infection with different strains of the virus.
In its 2009 "Sex" issue Time Out New York compiled its "perv's guide to New York," and notwithstanding the West Side Club's insistence that it is not a "sex club" the editors nevertheless included the premises as part of "the city's scintillating underground" in the "get off" category:
"Sex is not permitted here: "[If] we find out somebody does that, we kick them out," says one WSC staffer who asks to remain anonymous. "This is a social club, not a sex club." So what does a $40-a-year membership to this exclusive Chelsea locale buy? Round-the-clock access to showers, a locker room and suites (in which the only furniture is a bench). Of course, rumor has it that you go here for more than a steamy rub-a-dub-dub. We found several Craigslisters looking to hook up here and blog entries about sexual rendezvous at WSC.
D. El Mirage
El Mirage Corp. was incorporated in 1999, and although the certificate of incorporation does not establish any affiliation between the company and Robert N. DeBenedictis its principal executive office and address for service of process is identified c/o the accounting group at 227 East 56th Street which, of course, is the same building in which DeBenedictis has an ownership interest and out of which the East Side Club operates.
In a twist of irony given the status of DeBenedictis as a defendant in a class action, El Mirage operated at 253 Houston Street in a building owned by Paul D. Young who until recently was a partner in the class action law firm Milberg Weiss. El Mirage was shut down by New York City in 2006. A July 27, 2007 article ("The Attorney and The Sex Club") by Roger Parloff from Fortune magazine states:
A gay S&M sex club, closed down in November by New York City health authorities for allegedly constituting a criminal nuisance, operated for seven years out of a small Lower East Side building co-owned by a Milberg Weiss attorney, who also lived on the premises. * * * In 1999, Young and Hochschild leased out the basement and first floor to a newly formed tenant called the El Mirage, which held itself out to be a male nudist club. According to health authorities, it was a place where men went to have anonymous sex with one other. A club membership cost $40, each admission cost $22, and the fee for the mandatory clothes-check was $3, according to the affidavit of an undercover health inspector that was later filed in court. * * * That the El Mirage was a sex club was a fairly open secret, and blog entries and online gay tourism guides have been describing it as such since at least 2001. Several pornographic gay S&M movies have been promoted as having been filmed there. Culture critic Michael Musto of the Village Voice reviewed the El Mirage as a "sex club" in December 2005. Musto wrote that upon paying his fees he was handed a "frequent f—er's card" that would entitle him to one free admission after 18 visits.
Of course, Milberg Weiss, the firm at which Paul D. Young was a partner, is best known for getting indicted in 2006 on federal racketeering charges in connection with an alleged decades-long scheme in which serial plaintiffs were illegally paid to file shareholder class action suits. Several partners were convicted for their roles and sent to prison; however, the firm itself -- now known simply as Milberg LLP -- avoided prosecution by paying a $75 million fine and hiring a compliance monitor.
The 2003 edition of Betty and Pansy's Severe Queer Review of New York alleges with respect to El Mirage:
Any number of sex clubs and special events meet here . . . . One such club is Trench, which meets once a month. A visiting friend . . . says that at Trench everyone is a bona fide perv, and there is usually an S/M demo, some spanking, fucking, and sometimes fisting. He claims the space is about 1/16 the size of a S.F. sex club, so everything at Trench is in your face and it is basically whoretown. He hasn't been to a regular night at El Mirage, but heard it was filled with unsafe sex and drugs. We were unable to confirm the unsafe sex, but a couple friends who were tweakin' ended up here, which pretty much settles the drug question.
E. River Street Club
The River Street Club, Inc. was incorporated on April 22, 1999. In a document filed with the court in the class action proceeding against him, DeBenedictis identifies its "owners, officers or directors" as himself together with Jeff Wodicka and Neil Castro. The River Street Club operates at 540 River Street, Troy, NY although records filed with the New York Department of State provide its principal executive office at 227 East 56th Street, #400, New York, NY. There is little written about the River Street Club; however, some web sites and blogs identify the establishment as a gay sauna or bath, and private rooms reportedly are available. The Guide identifies the River Street Club in its "Saunas & Sex Clubs" category. Indeed, several Craigslisters previously have posted messages seeking others to hook up here. The River Street Club's website states that "you MUST not participate in any sexual act in public view. That means if you want to play, you must get a room." Moreover, "prostitution in any form is not permitted." The website further states that the third Saturday of every month from 6 pm until closing is the "Lights Out Black Out Party": "enjoy things that go HUMP in the Dark!! (during this event the gym area and tanning are closed)."
F. Club 585
In 2001 Paul Galuccio and Craig Dix sued New York City in a federal district court "claiming they were the victims of a 'sex shop' smear campaign" when they tried to open Club 585 at 585 Eighth Avenue which otherwise was to be nothing more than a gym, dance studio or salon in the midtown section on the west side of Manhattan as reported in an article ("Gym Sues Over Sex Smear") by Peter DeMarco for the Daily News:
Craig Dix and Paul Galluccio said they sank $500,000 into opening Club 585 on Eighth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen last year. After initial approvals, Dix said, the community wrongly believed the gym would permit gay men to have sex and lobbied the Board of Standards and Appeals to withold a special permit. Last fall, Dix was ordered to halt construction on the gym, which had begun legally under a temporary permit allowing for a "dance studio," he said.
One of the members of the community against Club 585 was Joyce Brown, president of the Fashion Institute of Technology and wife of politician Carl McCall according to an April 18, 2001 article ("Duel Over Club") by Mitchell Fink for the Daily News:
In September, Joyce Brown, president of the Fashion Institute of Technology, fired off a letter to the city's Board of Standards and Appeals arguing against the planned opening of Club 585 - a gym and health spa at 39th St. and Eighth Ave. that was to cater to a predominantly gay male clientele. Owners Craig Dix and Paul Gallucio wanted their club to be open 24 hours a day, and planned for it to have a full gym, aerobics studios and rooms for facials, manicures, massages and tanning. However, Brown, whose school is 11 blocks south, suspected something a little more X-rated. "It is my understanding," Brown wrote to the BSA's chairman, James Chin, "that the owners of this proposed establishment do not intend to operate a health club, but instead utilize the premises as a sex club. "It is our understanding," her letter continued, "that this ownership has opened and operated sex clubs in the past." Brown's letter "had a huge domino effect, which tainted the entire application process," according to Thomas Shanahan, attorney for Dix and Gallucio. Dix and Gallucio had invested $500,000, said Shanahan, "when the BSA suddenly started imposing restrictions that made it too expensive for my clients to continue." So Dix and Gallucio gave up on Club 585. They then went to Shanahan, who said he will file a suit next week against the city, a number of its agencies, the FIT and Brown. "Her letter was defamatory because my clients have never owned and operated sex clubs," Shanahan said. However, a 1995 Associated Press report identified Gallucio as part owner of the West Side Club, a "1970s-style bathhouse with private cubicles where patrons' sexual practices couldn't be monitored." Shanahan said the West Side Club, also in Manhattan, has always been legitimate and "remains open to this day. If there was anything illegal going on there, it would have been closed down. "You cannot presuppose illegal conduct," he added. "You can't say there's going to be sex there because it's gay-owned. That's homophobia."
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska dismissed Messrs. Dix and Galluccio's complaint as reported by Prof. Arthur S. Leonard ("Gay Investors Lose Bid for Damages Due to Failed Plan for New Gay Sex Club") from the November 2002 issue of Gay/Lesbian Law Notes:
The slip opinion in Dix v. City of New York, 2002 WL 31175251 (Sept. 30), recounts allegations made both by and against the plaintiffs that seem unlikely to reach a fact-finder. In November, 1999, Craig Dix and Paul Galluccio "admittedly both homosexual males" in Judge Preska's words, incorporated Club 585 "for the purpose of operating a physical culture establishment servicing predominately, but not exclusively, the gay and lesbian community," and specifically, a "male clientele." They leased space at 585 Eighth Ave., and in May, 2000 filed a Special Permit Application with the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) for zoning compliance. * * * In September, the Chief of Operations for the Task Force wrote to BSA opposing the application. The Task Force letter cites the installation or partitions, sauna, and shower rooms without approval, and alleges that the business address for Club 585, Inc. is 227 East 56th St., a physical culture establishment named East Side Sauna, itself the subject of numerous violations since 1977, including installation of steam room and sauna without permits and operating contrary to certificate of occupancy and without public assembly permit. In 1999, states the letter, Department of Health inspectors observed unsafe sex on the East Side Sauna premises.
G. Club 82 a/k/a The Bijou
At 82 East Fourth Street is The Bijou gay porn theater which also is known as Club 82 with a couple of dozen closets with benches in which men allegedly can enter to pursue their passions behind locked doors. Although there is an entity called Club 82, Inc. which was incorporated on November 25, 1997 whose Chairman or Chief Executive Officer is identified as Robert N. DeBenedictis, and with its principal executive office is at 227 East 56th St., #400, New York, NY, there is no evidence tying this corporation to Club 82 a/k/a The Bjou. Indeed, the 2003 edition of Betty and Pansy's Severe Queer Review of New York states that the place "is owned by friendly Pakistani men who make money off gay sex." However, this blog mentions Club 82 here only to show that seemingly legitmate establishments such a porn theater perhaps may be coopted by gay men as venues at which to engage in sex. For example, Bettty and Pansy's describe Club 82 as follows:
Club 82, commonly called the Bijou Theater, is a place for men to go and have sex with other men in small darkened private booths. It is technically a theater, although the audience seating area is merely for refractory periods. * * * The crowd always ranges from guys you would give your eyeteeth to have sex with, to guys that obviously did. * * * The overintoxicated and obviously drugged increase markedly around 4 A.M. * * * Smoking is no longer allowed, although that is probably for the best, as the basement theater is surely a deathtrap. * * * Condoms are no longer provided, which means the management's motto must be, "We don't care if you get syphilis, but don't kill us with your secondhand smoke, please." The other bad part about going out to smoke is that now the straight dumbass Italian bars adjoining the Bijou have crowds of unhappy smokers outside as well. It makes for a fun conversation when they ask you what the party downstairs is.
A Feb. 15, 1998 article ("Patrons of Gay Sex Club Report Attacks by a Man With a Knife") by Kit R. Roane for The New York Times states:
A gay advocacy group issued a warning yesterday to those who visit sex clubs in the city, saying a man had used a knife to sexually assault customers at one such club. The police have confirmed one attack, which they said occurred at Club 82, a large underground establishment at 82 East Fourth Street. Customers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the club is popular among gay men hoping to connect with others for anonymous sex. The club has no telephone listing, and attempts to find a number for its owners were unsuccessful. According to the group, the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, one attack occurred on the night of Feb. 1, when a 28-year-old man met a stranger at the club's bar and agreed to have sex in one of the private booths that line the walls. Once inside, the stranger shoved a sharp object into the man's rectum, said Sgt. Nick Vreeland, a Police Department spokesman. * * * When reporters asked Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani about the attacks yesterday at his daily news conference, he warned owners of city clubs that allowing ''explicit sexual activity'' is illegal, and that the city is vigilant in trying to ''close down clubs that operate illegally.''
On an unrelated historical note, from approximately 1953 to 1978 the premises at 82 East Fourth Street -- called even then Club 82 -- offered drag performances and later was a venue for the glam rock scene. Curiously, the individual behind Club 82 in its earliest days was none other Vito Genovese, and his then-wife Anna operated the place. Indeed, Vito Genovese controlled many of the bars and restaurants in the Second Avenue and Fourth Street vicinity. For example, Genovese member Ralph Polizzano allegedly owned the Squeeze Inn Bar on East Fourth Street, and Genovese member Vincent James Ciraulo allegedly owned the Stage Bar next door. The Bureau of Narcotics within the United States Treasury Department frequently observed Polizzano visiting Club 82 in the mid-to-late 1950s. Many of the Genovese-controlled bars and restaurants on the East Fourth Street strip were used as distribition centers in connection with his heroin trafficking operation for which he was convicted in 1959. Indeed, the processing plant where workers cut the imported pure heroin for distribution was located at 36 East Fourth Street. Of course, a night at Club 82 was not fun for everyone. Genovese frontman Stephen Franse who operated the nearby gay Club 181 at 181 Second Avenue was whacked on the orders of Vito on the night of June 19, 1953 after leaving Club 82. Franse had been assigned the duty of keeping Anna in line during her messy divorce from Vito, and he failed miserably as Anna had tipped off the feds to Vito's numerous gay nightclubs. It's hard to recall a time when the 82 East Fourth Street address didn't have a notorious reputation. During Prohibition it housed a gay speakeasy known as the Rainbow Inn, and was frequently raided. In the mid 1980s Dean Johnson -- the gay nightlife promoter who died in 2007 under mysterious circumstances -- attempted to operate the gay bar Uncle Bud's Amway in the neighborhood on East Third Street but claims according to a 1984 diary entry that "the local mafia chased us out."
H. HIV Testing and Research at the East and West Side Clubs
Patrons of the East and West Side Clubs can obtain HIV and STD testing at the premises through The Men's Sexual Health Project. Indeed, Dr. Demetre C. Daskalakis, a professor at New York University’s School of Medicine, "has been conducting HIV research in two Manhattan bathhouses—the East Side Club and the West Side Club—since 2006" as reported by a Jan 22. 2008 article ("Researchers Support NYC Bathhouse Regulation") for POZ Magazine: "so far, he has tested about 1,000 MSMs [men who have sex with men] for HIV and other STDs and has referred those in need of health care to Bellevue Hospital, which is funding his studies." The prelimary results from Dr. Daskalakis's research is not encouraging: "HIV positive MSM attending bathhouses represent an important group to target for HIV education and prevention since many continue to engage in high-risk sexual activities."
A July 2, 2009 article ("HIV Testing in NYC Bathhouses") by Kristina Fiore for MedPage Today states:
As the number of HIV cases in the U.S. soars -- especially among gay and black men, and particularly in New York City -- one physician is going where few have gone before in terms of prevention efforts: straight to the late-night gay scene. Dr. Demetre Daskalakis runs the first-ever HIV testing venue at a New York bathhouse in Chelsea. * * * Bathhouses are usually thought of as relics of a bygone era. After the start of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, their numbers began to decline. But a few still exist, and Daskalakis can find no better place to do his work. Today, some men come to the club just for the free test, not the sex. That, Daskalakis says, makes keeping the clinic door open into the wee hours of a Manhattan weekend morning worth it.
Never being boring, indeed.