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Gay Hotels, the Pride of New York: From Brooklyn’s St. George to Manhattan’s Out

Until not too long ago, gays trying to check into a hotel risked prison or the insane asylum: the story of the “pride” hotels

The view of Manhattan from the roof of the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn (Photo R.G.)

I have worked in hotels for about 20 years, and I love everything about them, but being gay helped me to understand that the complex relationship we have had with hotels in New York is, once again, a reflection of the evolving history of our minority.

In fact, until not long ago, being openly gay and trying to check into a hotel meant the risk of ending up in another type of dwelling, either a prison or a mental institution.

The St. George Hotel in Brooklyn in a post card from the early 20th century.

But we kept on trying because we knew that,  “As a child I knew/That the stars could only get brighter/Leaving this darkness behind.” Hercules and Love Affair.

So, the obvious choice for us queens was in Kings County at the luxurious St. George Hotel. This massive 2,632 room hotel complex was built in stages between 1885 and 1930 by Union Captain William Tumbridge and designed by famous architect Emery Roth.

It was a grand hotel in Brooklyn that could rival Manhattan hotels, with its enormous elegant ballroom and a rooftop terrace with sweeping views of Manhattan Island. Among its celebrity guests were Johnny Weissmuller – aka Tarzan – and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Between the 1920s and 1930s, the St. George gradually became a homosexual magnet, particularly the men’s room located at the subway stop beneath the hotel and the astonishing 120-foot natural sea-water swimming pool.

By the 1940s the hotel had a considerable gay clientele, including Tennessee Williams, who lived at the hotel in 1943 and Truman Capote, who was often seeing lounging by the pool and steam room.

Detail from the rooftop of the St. George Hotel

However, in 1903 the police raided the Turkish bath of the Ariston Hotel on Broadway and 55th Street and arrested 16 people for sodomy; they were sentenced with up to twenty years in jail.

Trying to find an alternative and a safer way to meet and live together, many gay people, between the 1920s and up to the 1940s, started moving into “rooming houses.”

These apartments had basic furniture and no kitchen, but also had little or no supervision from landlords who seemed to tolerate them out of business reasons or indifference.

One favored area of rooming houses was between 49th and 50th Streets and Third Avenue which was soon to become the “gay neighborhood “of those days.

The Art Deco swimming pool where Truman Capote splashed away.
(Credit Long Island Historical Society)

“Young man, there is a place you can go. It’s fun to stay at the YMCA. They have everything for you men to enjoy. You can hang out with all the boys.” (The Village People.)

While it may “take a village”, for gay people, it took the Village People to spread the rumor.

The YMCA was founded in the 1840s to host young single Christian men and save them from the moral danger of living in isolated rooming houses. Ironically it gradually started attracting a steadily growing number of gay men.

Entrance to the YMCA (Photo R.G.)

At the YMCA young men could share the room, the gym, the pool and showers with other “professional men” without the risk of being outed.

They were a safe haven in a dangerous world for gays.

Another popular place to meet was the Shelton Hotel (now the Marriott East Side).

Georgia O’Keefe the Shelton

Built in 1923 out of limestone and brick in a Romanesque Revival style, it has a multitude of gargoyles scattered across its façade, and was originally opened as a bachelor residential hotel until 1924, when it also opened to women and families.

It had a famous swimming pool (Houdini had himself locked in a coffin-like box and submerged in it) and like the one at the St. George, it was a popular gay meeting ground.

Tennessee Williams, who lived at the hotel in the 1940s, apparently liked to bring handsome young men from the pool back to his room, until he received a letter from the hotel stating, “it has been called to our attention that you have been in the habit of doing some considerable entertaining in your room.”

He replied, “I had a good time in spite of the bitches at the desk!” It was also where artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who depicted the hotel in one of her paintings, lived from 1925 to 1936.

The Shelton Hotel (Photo R. G.)

It was a long way from 1613 New Amsterdam, as New York was then called, where sodomy was punished by death.

The law remained in effect in New York until after independence when in 1796, the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

It took until 1973, however, for homosexuality to be declassified as a mental disorder.

And “Once Upon a Time in the America,” it was the Mafia that, ironically, allowed gay establishments in New York to exist and operate, as it protected gay people from harassment and imprisonment by the police.

In the 1980s, at the intersection between Christopher Street and the West Side Highway stood one of the sleaziest, crime infested single-room-occupancy hotels in the Village, “The Christopher,” where Jerome Johnson, who wounded mafia boss Joseph Colombo, was once a guest. Joseph A. Colombo gave mafia protection to the Continental gay baths of the Ansonia Hotel, and also gave the approval to Paramount Pictures to film “The Godfather”.

In the 1980s, betting on the city plan to gentrify the west side, the Christopher Hotel was renovated and renamed the River Hotel in the hope of attracting wealthier gays.

Sadly, it went on to become the first AIDS hospice.

Shelton Hotel

A friend of mine who, in 1984, worked at the River Hotel as a doorman, recalled guests hooking up and travelling from room to room, often remaining trapped naked in the stairwell with no re-entry and therefore forced to re-enter through the lobby.

He also recalled a wedding during Pride where the homophobic father of the bride started cursing against the “faggots” until he got a wet kiss by a seven-foot drag queen.

He threatened to sue, but relented upon being informed that the owner of the restaurant was a gentleman just released on bail after having stabbed a romantic lover (some thirty times) to death.

The Botel (Photo R.G.)

“I have to shout, that I am coming OUT. I want the world to know.” Diana Ross.

Fairies do exist on a magical island just off of Gotham: Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove. These fairies are not to be confused with “Radical Fairies” of the same family that can be found mainly in California.

Since the 1920s, celebrity fairies as well as their friends have visited or have houses in Fire Island Pines: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Liza Minelli, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, just to mention a few.

In Fire Island Pines you may stay at the Botel, which was built out of cinder blocks in 1960 by Ziegfeld girl Peggy Fears and named “The Botel” by her companion actress and model Teddy Thurman.

The Belvedere Hotel

Meanwhile going over from the Pines to Cherry Grove, suddenly, like a mirage, a grand Venetian palace appears, with an abundance of columns, vases, domes, fountains and gays: the Belvedere, an enchanted white palace built in a “fluid-style.”

Imagine Renaissance-style copulating with Palladium until Baroque and Gothic decided to join in making the design of each room as diverse as LGBTQ+.

Moreover, the ceiling of the lobby is inspired by Michelangelo’s fresco “The Creation.”  And while God is busy creating hot Adam, some clothing-optional gays waiting to check-in are busy flirting with each other and naked Adam.

The Out Hotel

Times have changed a lot, but I am glad to report that despite the potential fears, “No straight person was harmed in the opening of this hotel.”

In 2012 Ian Reisner and Mati Weiderpass transformed a low-key two-star two-story-high motel on 42nd Street into the OUT Hotel, the first openly-gay but straight-friendly hotel in New York. From the rooms facing the courtyard you could easily flirt with other guys by just pulling open the curtains.

The vibe, as well as the amenities, were wild: a popper-like-bottle, lube, post-hangover drink and condoms: SM, LG and XL, and since we like to “XL”, a mega club with a homonymous name, was also opened next door. It lured all kinds of gay icons: Madonna, Alan Cumming and endless naked go-go boys and drag queens.

Renato Grussu with his husband and in the background, the Empire State Building illuminated for Gay Pride

But the lights quickly went OUT when the owners hosted a party for Republican Ted Cruz and the gay community boycotted the hotel because, as much as we love to cruise, we really don’t love Cruz.

This was the short life of the OUT hotel, built about ten years after every other hotel in Gotham had already accepted either gay love or gay dough.

“We are family. I got all my sisters with me.” Sister Sledge.

As LGBTQ+ we are the most diverse of any minority, we represent everyone, we are everywhere, we are every sex and sexual orientation, every race, every social status and in every nation, and we are now openly present in every hotel in Gotham.

Happy Pride to all my brothers and sisters.

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