What Kind of Bench?

by Tom House

Fans of the movie Almost Famous will remember Kate Hudson as the groupie Penny Lane, and the moment she discovers the B-list band lead singer that she’s in love with has traded her in a poker game to Humble Pie for 50 dollars and a case of beer. In a series of gorgeous, lingering close-ups, she pauses long enough to register her broken heart before asking, “What kind of beer?” Then chuckles softly and brushes a tear away.

While reading The Star’s July 2nd article about the Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee’s plans for the new park on the corner of Montauk Highway and East Gate Road, and its idea to dedicate one of its proposed benches “to the L.G.B.T.Q. community because it is relevant to the history of the property as a former discotheque,” I was grateful for the efforts of the late Mr. Del Mastro, the Friends of Georgica Pond Foundation, and the East Hampton Town Board to preserve that storied acre as a community space. And I was heartened to learn the committee doesn’t intend to relegate to obscurity the fact that tens of thousands of lives were intimately entwined with that property, known as the Swamp, for a generation. But I was also as  crestfallen as Penny Lane, taking it all in before asking, “What kind of bench?” Will it look the same as the others? Will it be, like a case of Heineken, utilitarian and interchangeable? For as loved or disparaged as the Swamp was–sometimes by the same people–it was unique, memorable, and, time has proven, irreplaceable.

To say that spot is significant as a former discotheque was, if not meant to be reductive, incomplete. I can tell you; I tended bar from every corner of it for 20 years. True, the nightclub building, Club Swamp, was a black-box ’70s disco, replete with chrome railings and smoked mirrors. But next to it was an open, barnlike bar and restaurant called The Annex, with a greenhouse extension at its far eastern end, and the two buildings were connected by a red-brick courtyard to form a snug complex, all facing away from the highway and surrounded by tall trees and a high fence, in part because of the need for privacy in a more homophobic past. But where “discotheque” really falls short is that in the course of its nearly 25 years, the Swamp became the only, the most long-lived, and probably the last, of the exclusively gay, year-round meeting places and businesses on the East End. In fact, the Swamp’s disco is the longest-running nightclub of any stripe in Hamptons history, and, for better or worse, was in its day at the heart of gay life here.

History is written by the living, and many of the voices that would speak for the Swamp are long gone. And now in their absence it seems some of those writing the next chapter have lost a sense of scale, partly because they’re forgetting the area’s history. Or because they’re reluctant to acknowledge that the Swamp’s many continuous years of operation are by far the most meaningful and relevant history that spot has known, and that its new incarnation as a park is on a psychic gay burial ground so deep it approaches the literal.

Or maybe they just never knew the stories–that, for instance, nothing stood on that spot until Bill Higgins acquired the property in 1976 to extend some of the culture, the fun, the brazen gayness of the Fire Island Pines to the Hamptons. Bill lived oh so locally in a sprawling contemporary house he built a block south of the highway within walking distance of the club, a walk, by all accounts, many took, the party continuing well after closing time around the Hockney-esque pool and hot tub. From his home and his office in the loft of the Annex barn, he ran his Swamp–acronym, he liked to say, for “So what’s another monthly payment?”–until his death in 1990 from AIDS. He didn’t witness the full, faceted legacy the space he created would have, including its inglorious end at the turn of the millennium when it succumbed to the economic and emotional zeitgeists that gay had gone mainstream, that in a post-gay world designated spaces were no longer needed or desirable, or that a club had to be “mixed” to survive.

As it turned out, some of the prophets were false. The first year after the Swamp closed, the extravagantly redecorated complex had a fraught and disappointing season as the rechristened SWA, which few could understand or pronounce, and before long, professional peripatetic promoters, mostly twenty-something Manhattanites with no spiritual or ideological connections whatsoever to that particular spot, were enlisted to save the financial day. And save it they did with the last-gasp reinvention of the decidedly straight Star Room. It began with an ugly clash of cultures: The new bouncers waved mixed-sex groups and groups of women right in, but standard nightclub wisdom held that groups of men without women were bad for business. And so when some of the former, predominantly male Swamp patrons were turned away, it approached a small scandal that reached city papers and New York magazine. The East End Gay Organization was enraged, the loudest cries coming, maddeningly, from those who hadn’t set foot in the club for years. Some said it was a betrayal that I continued to work at the Star Room. It felt just the opposite to me; I couldn’t bring myself to leave the spot I’d come to know so intimately. To steal from The Great Gatsby, I felt married to it, that was all.

Five frenetic summers followed, with a parade of new-millennium A-listers. I had no idea who most of them were, and usually didn’t find out: They were all much younger than I was, they were playing for the other team, and they were running wild and oblivious over hallowed ground. This cash cow could’ve been anywhere; there were four or five clubs just like it not far away. Why come here, too? I mostly kept my head down, making drink after drink after drink. Until suddenly those promoters, co-owners, operating partners, God knew–there was a dizzying, shifting number of interested parties–vanished, taking their followings with them, the business quickly died, and the complex, now thoroughly trashed and abandoned, listed and decayed for another decade, a sorry sight indeed, before the bulldozers came.

Then bits of grass appeared in an open field. And soon, a park with benches.

It surprises even me that I became the one to have stayed in that spot the longest; after all, I was the guy that the waiter, ”Wilma” declared, my very first weekend, “all wrong for this place.” Yet I outlasted every owner, who passed me on, one to the next. After Bill’s death, I worked for Brent Newsom, his business partner and the Annex chef, until he left to focus on his booming catering business. Then I worked for a group of six gay men and lesbians from an array of New York City boroughs who endeavored to maintain the club’s identity and traditions—Linda Batiancela outdid herself each year with lavish Halloween parties and ever-more elaborate and ghoulishly hilarious dioramas. Finally, I worked for “The Scotts,” the gay couple who orchestrated the anomalous Star Room phoenix-rising, right to the final belly-up, when the bartending gigs, and Bill Higgins’ gay acre of land, left me.

I could tell you so many, yet only some, of the stories of that place–a dozen years preceded mine at the Swamp, its oft-touted heyday. I heard all about it. Performances by Grace Jones, Nathan Lane, Barbara Cook, and a teenage Whitney Houston accompanying her mother, Cissy. How you could have rubbed elbows with Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Calvin Klein, David Geffen, Bianca Jagger, Terrence McNally, Ross Bleckner, Sandra Bernhard. Or come upon Bill, an imposing former college football player from Illinois, carrying on as a much-larger-than-life Carmen Miranda. I could only imagine; I was still a young, wide-eyed provincial, and what I saw next was Bill growing increasingly sick. Then I was tending the Annex bar for his memorial, his enlarged portrait high on the wall below the rafters. Bill had “asked that there be no service, only a party in his memory at the club,” and his ashes scattered over Gardiner’s Bay (this from his obituary in The Star). What followed were more of the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic–hundreds of customers, staff, friends, lovers, taken by that relentless disease. One of the largest factors, certainly, of the Swamp’s eventual demise. And the countless stories lost, and the diaspora and fading of a community and its history.

As the Star Room collapsed in 2007, I did the math one night and confided to the bar manager, “I just realized this is my 20th summer.” I was Nick Carraway, remembering amidst the madness it was my birthday.

“No way.” Did I want to tell people? Have a party?

I considered the latter. “Can it be gay?”

He paused. Not on a Saturday. But in the vacuum that had now appeared, I could have the Sunday before Labor Day weekend. “You keep the door.”

“Really?”

He shrugged. How many people would come?

For weeks, I contacted all the old Swamp fixtures I could remember and painted a replica of its lost navy-and-gray swing sign, reinstalling it on Montauk Highway with the words “reunion party” at the bottom.

That Sunday at the gate, they stopped counting at 600. Some of the Star Room’s remaining partners got wind of the line outside and the cars along the streets and came by, wanting to know what had happened, and, in particular, who was getting the door. I spent most of the night behind the club bar–hosting wasn’t in my nature; I was at my best behind a counter. But I also knew my 20 summers party wasn’t finally about me. The Swamp’s disappearance had left a void that hadn’t been filled, and many wanted the satisfaction of seeing that plot of land in Wainscott become gay again, if but for a night–a night, I like to think, kindred in spirit to those of the ’70s and ’80s. A full-circle, Bill Higgins hurrah.

It’s nearing 20 years now since the Swamp closed its gates for good, yet I often hear the same incredulous question from people of various ages, and from different states and countries, “Why is there no gay bar in the Hamptons?” I take a deep breath. Which of the above reasons do I cite? Or which of the reasons I haven’t even gotten to yet? Each is a complicated story. “Well,” I say, ”I know there was once a number of them, before my time. Then there was one, especially, the last one, that held on quite a while. It was actually almost famous….”

And so, what kind of bench? I wasn’t the only one saddened by that idea. A letter by the Rev. Rob Stuart ran in this paper on July 9th, asking for something more. Rob was one of my first regular customers at the Swamp, and we’ve been best of friends since. If it’s a bench that commemorates our many years in that spot, we’ll probably come to sit in it and remember. But we both hope the committee’s well-intentioned nod to the extensive community who once had a home there will continue to be given more thought. There’s every reason to think so: Last week, the new committee chair and the executive director of the Friends of Georgica Pond Foundation invited us to tour the new green. As we walked over the footprints of the Swamp and Annex, they couldn’t have been more gracious or attentive to what we had to say, and they look forward to continuing a dialogue.

In the meantime, I’m collecting stories. I believe there are many others who could offer their memories, ideas, talents, and resources to make something more commensurate and special rise up. I’m all ears at mrtomhouse@gmail.com.

Tom House is a writer, teacher and resident of East Hampton. And a former bartender.

“What Kind of Bench?” appeared in the July 23, 2020 issue of The East Hampton Star.