NEW YORK — At midnight last Tuesday, the Midtown nightclub Happy Valley was just getting crowded. A DJ was playing a remix of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and a gaggle of drag queens were dancing on a small stage in front of the bar. Above them, a woman in a black bikini was writhing around in a go-go booth. At the edge of the dance floor, a small group had formed around the party’s hostess, a 54-year-old woman named Susanne Bartsch. Decked out in a sexy, pale blue baby-doll dress and ripped black stockings, Bartsch looked very pleased that she’d managed to pack them in yet again.
“Michael Cunningham and Adam Moss are upstairs, Rita Schrager is here,” she said proudly. “Did you see Michael Musto? It’s better than two hours ago when John Waters was here.”
They say that everyone in New York gets at least one comeback, and Bartsch is having a big one right now. After several years out of the nightlife game, she made a return to the scene in November, turning a sleepy Tuesday night at a club no one had heard of into the hottest school-night dance party since Life closed its doors in 2000. Last Tuesday, the party practically spilled into the streets, as scores of fashionistas and hipsters ventured out after the new Versace store opening for a party in honor of club-kid designers Heatherette.
“I haven’t missed a week,” said Musto. “It’s like God has sprinkled us with a taste of pre-Giuliani nightlife.”
What inspired Bartsch to end her hiatus? “I missed dressing up, ” she said. “And nightlife is extremely dull. There are lots of parties that are corporate-driven, launching products, but there’s nowhere to just go dancing. It’s all about these f—ing celebrities, people who haven’t done anything in their lives and are famous merely for being celebrities. I hate it. It’s just unspiritual and uncreative. I wanted to have a place where people could come and there was a mix, where I could see people that I hadn’t seen in ages.”
It was largely being a parent — her son, Bailey, is 11 — that led her into semiretirement, she said. But last summer, she began to get antsy, and when the drag queen/promoter Kenny Kenny called her about a new club he’d found on 27th Street, she decided the time was right to return to clubland.
“I don’t want to be Mommy Dearest,” she said, sitting in a recent interview at her apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. “But I thought if I hooked up with Kenny, it could work because he’s out at night and then I could promote during the day.”
A cat (one of three she’s rescued) was curled up nearby and the walls are covered in drawings given to her by her son for her birthday, for Mother’s Day and for Christmas. (The dominatrix art is in the foyer.)
The telephone rang.
“Hello?” she said. “Oh, hi….Yeah, yeah….You should just go on Saturday….Yeah, they can only pay you a hundred, but you can always ask for more money afterwards. Just go and start the job….You know how to light now, right?” She said. “Cool, I’ll see you Tuesday.”
“That was the new lighting guy,” she explained coolly. “I think he’s homeless. I’m trying to help him.”
Naturally, Bartsch attributes acts of charity to her place on the Zodiac. “They say Virgo is a mother sign and I’m a Virgo,” she said in a heavy Swiss accent, turning the V into a W (“Wirgo”). “Well,” she said, reconsidering, “Virgos are also supposed to be really organized, and I’m not. I’m an organized mess. But I’m definitely a nurturer. I get a kick out of helping people.” And, unlike 98 percent of the people who work in the nightlife world, drugs and alcohol have never been a major part of her story. “I just don’t have the stamina for it,” said Bartsch.
So where does the allure of the club scene lie if not in drugs and sex? “I get energized from people dressing up,” Bartsch said, looking as if she’d just been asked the world’s stupidest question. “It’s more visual for me than sensational. And I love dancing.”
One might say she’s made a life of it. After growing up in Switzerland, Bartsch moved to London at 17, where she made money by working at the Swiss Consulate for her papers, and then later, by designing sweaters. By the late Seventies, she’d become a fixture on the club scene, along with drag queens and performance artists such as Leigh Bowery and Boy George. In 1981, Bartsch moved to New York, where she opened a boutique on Thompson Street that sold expensive club clothes by designers like John Galliano. “He was still in school then,” Bartsch said. She began to stage big theatrical fashion shows, and from there, moved on to party promoting.
In 1987, Bartsch threw her first party at a club called Sauvage. Drag queens with names like Lady Bunny, Sister Dimension and Taboo gave impromptu shows dressed as trailer-park housewives and sci-fi action heroines. It was “Valley of the Dolls,” East Village performance art, Studio 54 and Mardi Gras all rolled into one.
“It was an immediate success,” said Bartsch, who was equally outlandish at the time, wearing big headpieces and lots of black eyeliner. There were bodybuilders and club kids, strippers and tourists, businessmen and fashion people. Wherever her carnival-esque events went from there (Bentley’s, The Copacabana and the Roxy), the crowds followed.
At the end of the Eighties, Bartsch was married to a guy named Ty Bassett, but it didn’t last. “He was too young, like 19 or something,” Bartsch recalled. But, then, in 1992, the drag queen The Baroness took her to a new gym on 15th Street and it was there (“I was on the p—y machine,” recalled Bartsch) that she met her future husband, David Barton. He was also younger (by 14 years, to be exact), but she fell for him, nevertheless.
Shortly after giving birth to their son, she married him at the Manhattan Center at the end of a gigantic avant-garde fashion show called “Inspiration.” The groom wore a leather G-string and the bride was dressed in a Thierry Mugler flesh-colored bodysuit, flanked by 43 bridesmaids of the male and female variety (“One for each of my years,” Bartsch said). “I didn’t want a traditional wedding. This was more fun.”
Over the next few years, the nightclub scene became synonymous with heavy drugs and Bartsch retreated. “It fell apart,” she said, “and I just didn’t want to go out, and motherhood [played a part], too.” Then, in 1999, she and Barton split.
Had he fallen for someone else? “No,” Bartsch said. “It was nothing like that. He’s a workaholic, and I felt like I’d become a single mother in a way. I understand it. He’s younger. He was building his business. But leaving was a way of letting him know.”
During their separation, Bartsch became involved with a 22-year-old man named Rob Moritz, who was doing a documentary on her, but he was hit by a car and killed in the Hamptons while chasing after her son’s dog, who’d run off. “I’d prefer it if you didn’t go there,” she said, when asked about his death. In 2002, she and Barton reconciled and they’ve been together since. “He worked really hard to get me back,” she said.
Bartsch, for her part, is perfectly open about why she has a penchant for younger men. “They keep you with it,” she said. “Even with my son, who’s going to be 12, I find myself doing things I never would have done if I hadn’t had him. Crazy things like kids’ parties. When I was young, I went with older men, and when I got older, I went young. They’re exciting. They’re impulsive. They keep you on your toes.
“If there’s one thing I’ve never wanted to do,” she said, “it’s stand still.”