Plato’s Retreat

In 1976 Larry Levenson was in his mid forties, a fat Jewish guy who was unemployed, going to school to become a manager at McDonald’s and scratching out a living selling ice cream and sodas at Coney Island.He was a square. A sex-once-a-month-with-his-wife square, though he was now twice divorced. That is until he met Ellie, a very married, adventurous housewife, who introduced him to the subterranean clubs of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Places where couples arranged intimate encounters at alternate locations. Levenson, the pushy, obnoxious guy who was always unsuccessfully trying to get laid found that at these parties now matter how old, fat or gross the host was…if it was his place he always got laid.

Busting a nut can be heavy motivation, and Levenson scraped together money for his first fuck club . “I wanted to make things more convenient,” he explained. A caterer with organized-crime connections took notice of Levenson’s soirees and inserted his claws. “Right now you got a grocery store,” said the caterer, Frank Pernice. “I can turn it into a supermarket.”

Levenson took the bait, and in 1977 moved his shenanigans to the Ansonia Hotel, a majestic building on Broadway that had formerly housed the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse where Bette Midler used to sing. The club operated a “member’s only” establishment which required strict adherence to the Club’s rules. Couples could be straight only – no homosexuals allowed. Drugs were not allowed. Alcohol could not be consumed on the premises. Plato’s Retreat featured a pool room, steambaths, disco dance floor, an in-house sauna room, and a swimming pool with waterfalls, as well as the infamous mattress covered orgy room and 20 "mini swing" rooms for one to three couples. Levenson ensured that the number of women outnumbered the number of men – couples only were allowed and the woman’s male counterpart was required to accompany his companion. Sexual activity between men was strictly prohibited but lesbianism was always welcome.

Once inside, couples participated in an unspoken tango. “If you wanted to make it with somebody, you reached over and caressed their leg,” said Levenson. “If your hand was not removed and the leg did not move away, you knew you were in.”

Larry’s rules and hospitality propelled the Club to icon status in New York City. Plato’s Retreat became a phenomenon just a week after opening. Unlike Studio 54, located a mile south, Plato’s Retreat did not have a discriminating door policy. “I did not turn people away. I’ve always believed that there’s someone for everyone,” he said. “I had some uglies there. A girl could come in and say, ‘Hey, if she can get undressed, so can I.’ If you had all beauties there, it would be very intimidating.”

A hands-on proprietor, Levenson took particular pride in introducing timid neophyte couples to his lifestyle. “I’d introduce myself and show them around. I never wanted anyone to feel any pressure to do anything,” he recalled. “Forty-five minutes later, they’d be going at it in the mat room. Plato’s had tremendous pull.”

The club pulled in its fair share of celebrities, but they were not the stars of the party. “They just blended in,” said Levenson. "No one was there to see celebrities." Sammy Davis, Jr. was the exception. When he danced with the ladies, he created quite a stir. “Everyone loved Sammy,” said Levenson. After their shows, screenwriter Buck Henry and the Saturday Night Live crew popped in. Henry was amused by Plato’s hot-and-cold buffet—an offering Levenson extolled as if it were a feast fit for Dionysus. “The food there was great,” he insisted. “We had barbecued chicken and spare ribs. We had salads: chicken salad, shrimp salad, egg salad. We had everything.” Richard Dreyfuss, who lived at the Ansonia several floors above, took more interest in adult performer Jamie Gillis (male star of Deep Throat) than the cuisine. “He really wanted to meet Jamie,” laughed Levenson. “You’d think it would be the other way around.” Future governor (then grappler) Jesse “The Body” Ventura strutted the Plato’s premises. (He was so taken with the club that he reportedly wore his Plato’s T-shirt in the ring.) But radio DJ Wolfman Jack didn’t care much for the salacious scene. “I introduced him to everyone at the Jacuzzi and they gave him a standing ovation,” recalled Levenson. “He was stunned. He did not say a word for the rest of the night.”

After Dan Dorfman featured Plato’s in a New York magazine cover story, throngs from around the world descended upon Levenson’s dimly lit, adult fantasy land, where there were no clocks, no windows, and no velvet rope pretense. “Once you take your clothes off, everyone’s the same. Nudity is the great equalizer” said Levenson. “Bus drivers were partying with doctors and Wall Street people. No one cared about materialistic things or how much money you made. It was all about having a good time and making each other feel good. Levenson added a hot and cold buffet and charged $25 per couple.  Viewing areas were added to allow "non participants" access to the show.  The “no drugs allowed” rule was frequently violated which further added to the "hip factor" that promoted the surge in Plato’s Retreat’s popularity.

Levenson became a mini-celebrity, appearing on talk shows like Donahue. “I was a regular guy that just wanted to have fun,” he said. “People related to me.” Back at the club, he put on sunrise shows. Adorned in a velour robe and jeweled crown, Levenson lip-synced Elvis’ “The Wonder of You.” After he turned on the lights to signal the club’s closing, he served breakfast. “After experiencing Plato’s, you can’t just go out to the real world. You gotta wind down,” said Levenson. “If any employee asked someone to leave, they were fired.”

Back in the real world, things were going awry for Levenson. In 1981, he and his two not-so-silent partners, Frank Pernice and Hy Gordon, and the Plato’s accountant stood trial for skimming $2.3 million from the club. When the prosecutor asked Levenson—who was the only owner to take the stand—why Plato’s kept its accounting records off the premises, Levenson replied, “Where would I keep them, in the swimming pool?” He got some laughs—as well as eight years at Allenwood federal prison, a haven for ex-politicians and white-collar convicts in Pennsylvania. “It was camp,” recalled Levenson. “I sucked up the benefits. I joined every team. I won the pinochle tournament. I joined AA and I don’t even drink.”

When he returned to Plato’s in 1984, the party was just about done. AIDS was on everyone’s radar and attendance was in freefall. “People were scared,” Levenson said. After witnessing high-risk sex acts on Plato’s premises, law enforcement padlocked the club on New Year’s Eve 1985. It never reopened.

Levenson wound up driving a cab and living in solitude in a modest studio basement. An optimist at heart, he was wistful rather than bitter. Right until the end—before he passed away following quadruple bypass heart surgery in 1999—he recalled Plato’s fondly. When we would discuss the mat room, he got a particular gleam in his eye. “The people in the mat room would just gel together. All you saw was 40 or 50 bodies—silhouettes,” he remembered. “It was some sight.”

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