While marriage equality may be on the election agenda now, back in 1960s New York it was illegal for two men to even be seen dancing together. It was in this climate, one year before the Stonewall riots of 1969, that Steve Ostrow opened the Continental Baths on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Boasting the largest indoor swimming pool in the world at the time, the notorious venue was a mecca for gay men that sparked a sexual revolution. It also launched the careers of Barry Manilow and Bette Midler, earning her the nickname ‘Bathhouse Betty’.
The Continental’s 81-year-old American founder now lives in Sydney, and is the subject of a Canadian documentary screening this month at the Possible Worlds Film Festival. At the forefront of the gay liberation movement in NYC, Ostrow moved to Australia 27 years ago and founded Mature Aged Gays (MAG) -the largest organisation of its kind in the world- and this year was acknowledged with a NSW Seniors’ Week Achievement Award in the field of Health and Wellbeing.
Housed at the former site of the legendary Ansonia Hotel on 74th and Broadway, Ostrow and his wife Joanne provided a safe environment where closet gay men could check their everyday lives into a locker with their coats and have hot anonymous sex without fear of being arrested.
A highpoint of hedonism, the baths were open 24/7 with 400 rooms, a sauna, a steam room and two large orgy rooms. There was also a disco, rooftop bar, hair salon, boutique and upscale restaurant to entertain guests in between orgasms. Concerned about health risks, Ostrow installed a medical clinic where people could be tested for STIs, and there was a room for rabbis and priests on Fridays and Sundays to hold religious services.
When the Continental first opened its doors there was a line around the block, and Ostrow says 20,000 customers came through each week. But the venue was also subjected to constant police raids during the first year.
“You didn’t open a bathhouse in the city of New York at that time without paying off the police and the mafia,” Ostrow says.
“They’d send a good looking undercover cop into the bathhouse, he’d get into a towel, go into the steam room and wait for someone to touch him. Then he’d pull out the handcuffs from underneath his towel and arrest that person, and everybody else in the place.”
Tired of bailing his patrons out, the Brooklyn-born entrepreneur resorted to bribery, buying $4000 worth of tickets to the ‘Policeman’s Ball’ every Friday night off a plainclothes cop. Ostrow was also afforded protection from the mob by agreeing to install vending machines on his premises that they could launder money through.
An accomplished opera singer himself, Ostrow opened the baths to the general public for performances from stars like Patti LaBelle, Sarah Vaughan and opera diva Eleanor Steber, making it the place to be on a Saturday night for high society.
“You could come in, see the show, but then at two o’clock in the morning the lights would go up and you either got into a towel or got out,” says Ostrow. “And you’d be surprised at how many people got into a towel.”
Ostrow and his wife were instrumental in decriminalising homosexuality in NYC, gathering 250,000 signatures from petitions held outside the Continental and marching on City Hall in 1972.
“Two years later we had homosexuality removed from the American Medical Association’s list of pathological disorders,” he says. “So homosexual people were no longer criminals and no longer sick.”
Ostrow was glad to get out of the sex industry before the advent of AIDS.
“I didn’t want to make a dollar out of anybody dying,” he says.
He moved to the other side, volunteering for the AIDS Council of NSW for 22 years and founding MAG in 1991, which provides a platform for older men to address issues of isolation, loss of partners and fear for the future.
What first began as a business venture transformed Ostrow, a man who was coming to terms with his own sexuality. Although he had male partners, Ostrow remained married to his wife, who became a nun in the last 10 years of her life.
“Joanne was my best friend my whole life, we have two children, three grandchildren, one great grandchild,” he says.
“I’m not gay, I’m not straight, I’m not bisexual… I’m a sexual person, and for me it’s either good or bad, so why give up 50 per cent of the population? To me the important thing is love.”