Imagine Andy Warhol trading barbs with Halston in one room while artists Chuck Close and Willem de Kooning mix it up in another. At the same time, Lou Reed, Diana Vreeland, and Janis Joplin drink, gossip, or hook up with whatever bright young things catch their fancy.
This isn’t some star-struck fever dream from beyond the grave. It’s a snapshot of an average night at Max’s Kansas City – club-house to the coolest people on earth during New York’s most out-there era, the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“Max’s was the place where those who stood at the tip of every pyramid hung out,” says Danny Fields, the legendary manager, writer and p.r. man who spent many a night there.
While the original location of Max’s (near 17th Street and Park Avenue South) now bustles with ritzy restaurants and high priced lofts, back in the day you could roll tumbleweeds through the area after work hours. “There was no street traffic after the insurance companies closed up for the night,” explains Fields. “So no random people showed up. People came there as a destination – and for a real reason.”
Mainly the reason was to mingle with other hipsters of the day (if you were established), or to try to pry your way into that company (if you weren’t). Young wanna-bes Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorp hung around the club’s less exclusive areas hoping to be invited into the inner sanctum: the back room. As observers tell it, the club’s front and back rooms had very different characters. Crowding the front was what Fields calls “the abstract-impressionist heterosexual alcoholics” – like Pollack. The back got the more androgynous, and outrageous, Warhol “superstar” crowd.
While both the front and back room scenes involved lots of booze and sexual hook-ups, drugs were a no-no. “You went around the corner to smoke a joint – out of respect for the club,” says Fields.
Owner Ruskin got the artists to come to his club by wooing them at earlier Village bars he owned. He kept them there by setting up a barter system in which they could drink on an endless tab in exchange for works of art. Later came the Warhol crowd. Ruskin credited Fields with bringing in the music people, from Jim Morrison to The Velvet Underground.
Ruskin, who died of a drug overdose in 1983, abandoned the club in ‘74, at which point it became a very different place. In the late ‘70s, Max’s functioned as a kind of adjunct to CBGB, hosting many of the same punk and new wave bands. At the same time, Studio 54 became the new star petting zoo. Which leads to the inevitable question: Can a place like Max’s ever happen again?
“Only if there’s a huge cultural revolution,” Kasher says, “The model of cool would somehow have to shift from Western models to Japanese or African or Middle Eastern models. Whatever happens, you can be sure New York would be the last place it would happen.”