Steve Ostrow, the owner of the iconic Continental Baths which operated at 230 West 74th Street in the Hotel Ansonia from July 1969 to 1976, has written his memoir Live at the Continental, and he alleges that the Colombo family provided his gay bathhouse with protection from a rival mob family after he agreed to install its vending machines on the premises.
The gar bar and bathhouse industry long had been dominated by the Mafia, and it didn't take the wise guys long to figure out that Ostrow had opened a competing establishment in the Upper West Side neighborhood where the Genovese crime family otherwise had carved out its turf. On a Friday night in the dawning 1970s Ostrow recalls a visit from two guys "dress in black suits and fedoras with bulges under their jackets," and he alleges they made an offer to buy the place with the threat that Ostrow should not refuse:
Mr. Nice Guy grinned and raised one bushy eyebrow. "I wouldn't be so cocky if I were you, sonny. You know, some Saturday night, someone might just throw a stink bomb into your joint with everyone in it. That wouldn't be too good for business now, would it? So why don't you just think it over? We'll be back in a week." * * *
The visit of the men in black was disturbing, to say the least. We had just gotten free of police harassment, and now something even more sinister seemed to be threatening us. I thought back to the preopening days of the Continental, when we were warned that you just don't contemplate opening up such an operation in the city of New York without the proper protection, police and otherwise.
The next morning Ostrow claims he confessed his predicament to his barber Joe during a haircut in lower Greenwich Village, and Joe allegedly said that he had a "regular customer . . . who might be able to help you out." According to Ostrow that "regular customer" turned out to be Barry Slotnick who was Joe Colombo's lawyer, and Ostrow alleges the following in his book:
"Okay, Steve, let's get down to business. I'm your lawyer now. I'm a specialist in criminal law, but my office will handle all your legal work from here on. How's that with you?" he said, handing me his business card.
"Sure, Barry, but did Joe [the barber] tell you about the problem, and the two--"
"Oh yeah, well, if and when those guys come back, just show them my card, and I don't think you'll have any more problems . . . you see, I represent a lot of important people, trust me."
* * *
"Oh, by the way," Barry said . . . "my friends who I represent would like to do a little business with you."
Oh shit, I thought, from the frying pan into the fire.
"What do you mean a little business, what kind of business?"
"Well, now that we've kind of established the territory, they would like to take over the garbage removal, the cigarette machines, the jukebox, and any other vending machines in the place."
"What do you mean take over, Barry?"
"Well, whatever deal you got now they'll give you 5 percent more, plus you'll get better service and newer machines."
"So what's the catch?" I said incredulously.
"No catch, they're just good people to do business with; and not only that, you'll also have a friend as a bonus. See, they like nice clean cash operations like vending machines and things."
Apparently they do their own laundry, I thought.
"Okay, I don't see why not."
"You won't be sorry," said Barry.
And you know what? I never was.
Indeed, Ostrow claims that on one occassion his new friends ponied up $17,000 cash for him to pay delinquent sales tax to New York State revenuers who were at the door with a padlock, and he alleges:
When Barry had introduced my new friends to me, they had goven me a number to call in case there was ever any difficulty. They had been meticulous in all their business dealings with me and indeed had updated all the vending machines with the latest technology and even given us brand-new garabage bins. I had no complaints. But now I did have a desperate problem.
* * *
"Look, I've got state agents padlocking my place and demanding cash for back sales tax or they close the place down. Now there's plenty of money in the bank, but they won't take a check, and the banks are closed, so I can't get the cash out, and I got a big weekend happening and--"
"Hey, take it easy kid. Just tell me what you need."
"I need $17,000 in cash, and I need it in one hour."
* * *
"Okay, wait outside," he [Angelo] told me. "We're sending one of our drivers. Look for a black Cadillac. He'll hand you a package to take care of things till Monday. Got it?"
* * *
"Steve Ostrow?" came a voice from the driver's seat.
"That's me!" I yelled, running to the car.
"Who's your lawyer?" the voice asked.
"Barry Slotnick," I replied.
"Who were you speaking to before at the office?"
"Here. Angelo says he'll see you Monday when the banks open," the voice with the dark glasses said, thrusting a brown paper bag out the window.
Of course, a good thing can't last forever. The Continental Baths was in its waning days by 1976, and Ostrow states that the place had become little more than a drug den. He writes:
I couldn't help noticing the paint peeling from the walls, the ceiling pipes leaking, and the dank smell everywhere, none of which would have been apparent if the old hordes of towelled predators had been teeming through the halls. But like an endangered species, their numbers had diminished, giving those still surviving a strange aura of futility. * * * But even as I was trying to recapture the past, to rekindle the spark in my mind, I was stepping over bodies passed out in the hallways. The smell of acid and the acrid taste of angel dust permeated the place. Stoned-out bodies were crashing into me as I walked. Needles and syringes littered the halls. The hard-drug era had hit New York City, and it was not a scene I could live with. The Baths had been turned into a battleground, with resident gangs ripping off customers to buy a hit or a fix. What had been a fantasia of love, art, and beauty was now a reflection of the depths of despair and depravity that the city had sunk into. This was no longer Steve Ostrow's Continental Baths.
Ostrow sold the place to Hy Rubin and Barry Levenson who converted it into Plato's Retreat, a straight swingers club, and the new incarnation lasted three years until shut down by the feds: "In the summer of 1979, Hy Rubin and Barry Levenson were each sentenced to five years in prison for tax fraud."
Meanwhile, Ostrow had moved to Montreal, QC Canada in 1977 to open a new bathhouse venture; however, he alleges that "after building the Montreal baths into a highly profitable enterprise, it was commandeered by the Canadian Mafia when Premier Levesque did away with bilingualism in 1978." Ostrow then headed to San Francisco for seven years where he "built the largest male escort service in the United States, the Golden Boy Agency" but "in 1984, we were raided by the San Francisco Police Department and closed down." Ostrow subsequently made his home in Germany where he "was employed by the US government and the USO to put on shows for the eight hundred thousand NATO troops and their families living in West Germany." Since 1987 the legendary Ostrow has made his home in Australia.
Barry Slotnick -- and keep in mind that Ostrow's uncorroborated allegations about dealings with the attorney are only his own, and the passing of time often has a funny way of coloring events -- "went on to become one of New York City's most respected attorneys." Indeed, Slotnick became a member of Governor George Pataki's Judicial Selection Committee, chair of the New York State Bar Association's Committee on Capital Crimes, and a former special deputy attorney general.
As for Joe Colombo? He did not fare so well. Colombo was shot by Jerome Johnson, a black mobster wannabe, during a rally of the Italian American Coalition at Columbus Circle on June 28, 1971. Following the shooting Colombo remained in a coma for nearly seven years until finally expiring. Many theories abound on the motivation for the hit, and perhaps it was the result of the violent war at the time between the Colombo and Gambino crime families for control over the Times Square massage parlors and strip joints. Jerome Johnson was attempting to become involved with the porn rackets through his friend Gambino associate and gay bar operator Mike Umbers -- the latter in turn was friends with Dog Day Afternoon bank robber John Wojtowicz -- and maybe Johnson was told that the price of admission for a piece of the action was the murder of Colombo. Johnson, however, was just a tool and fool, and he never reaped the benefits for his deed: he was shot and killed by a presumed Colombo bodyguard at the assassination scene.
01/05/11 UPDATE: Last year -- on January 20 -- Ostrow republished Live at the Continental in expanded form as Saturday Night at the Baths, and he claims that he was singing "The Star Spangled Banner" to open the rally of of the Italian American Coalition at Columbus Circle on June 28, 1971 at the moment Colombo was assassinated. Ostrow claims that he had been invited to sing at the event by Barry Slotnick, and in recounting the circumstances of the supposed invitation Ostrow alleges the following:
Barry's voice drifted lazily towards me.
* * *
"Well, as a matter of fact, my friends -- and yours, by the way -- are sponsoring the event."
"Oh, so it'll be a Family affair."
"You might look at it that way. You see, they want to try and correct the view that most people have towards Italian tradesmen, to show that there is no such thing as the Cosa Nostra or the Mafia. That's just a myth. * * * This way, the population will see that not all Italians are criminals just because they have a certain . . . heirarchy . . . in their business affairs."
On the day of the event Joseph Colombo was gunned down just as Ostrow was completing "The Star Spangled Banner" according to his account:
On the dais with me were Barry and a whole entourage of guest speakers including Mayor Lindsey and Carmen de Sapio. And there, in the midst of all, was a portly, somewhat balding man who looked familiar. Yes: none other than the Don himself, Joe Colombo, flanked by burly sons and burlier guards.
* * *
Utter pandemonium. Whistles blowing, sirens screeching, people screaming. The burly guards pushing everyone, including me, down. * * * Blood was everywhere. I lay prone on the wooden floor, but I could see people in the streets trampling over each other in a desperate effort to get away.
The expanded version of Steve Ostrow's memoir further includes detailed allegations concerning the circumstances in which he seemingly was squeezed out of his interests in a Montreal gay bathhouse in 1978.