- Historic Sites
It began in the Paris underground of World War II and evolved over thirty years into a phenomenon that so overturned cultural norms that it could not survive
November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
At war’s end the French discotheque acquired its quintessential form, borrowing freely from its illicit past and from the postwar French infatuation with American jazz culture. In 1947 Paul Pacini opened the Whisky à Go-Go in Paris as a celebration of American tastes in music and drink, “Go-Go” evoking an image of the go-getting, speed-driven American lifestyle. This first “Whisky,” a club name (and concept) that would later appear in America, highlighted the American affinity for cocktails and hard liquor over French wine. The walls of the club were covered with lids from cases for such whiskeys as Dewar’s and Haig & Haig, and the sound system piped in le jazz hot for French “hepcats.” At the same time other postwar French discotheques, such as Chez Régine, demonstrated the degree to which the elite club culture already took its identity from the profane and the proscribed. One marker of Chez Régine’s exclusive status was its speakeasy-style anonymity. The in-crowd of discotheque initiates, which included Louis Malle and Françoise Sagan, learned of the club through word of mouth. The discotheque itself was located in a cellar, where a midget dance floor conferred on the revelers an almost conspiratorial intimacy.
This French template for the high-level nightclub—based on an underground sensibility expressed through hidden locales and exclusionary, almost xenophobic admission policies—arrived, virtually intact, in New York City in the early 1960s. The man most responsible for bringing it to America was Olivier Coquelin, a French expatriate whose heroism during the Korean War had earned him American citizenship. Coquelin sized up the languishing early 1960s New York nightclub scene and decided that the era’s wealthy jet-set clubgoers needed an alternative to the staid environment of the Stork Club and El Morocco. Thus was conceived Le Club, the first American discotheque, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1960. As its name suggests, Le Club simply took the French discotheque and transplanted it to New York’s upscale Sutton Place. Built in a converted garage on East Fifty-fifth Street, Le Club was not meant to be discovered during an evening walk. Its entrance was, in typically furtive style, barely discernible from the outside. Its admission policies, which included a two-hundred-dollar “initiation fee” plus “dues” of sixty-five dollars a year, suggested an overly bureaucratized, arcane tax system more suited to medieval France than 1960s New York. This Continental orientation was fortified by Le Club’s interior design, described by Time magazine as suggesting “the living room of an impoverished baron in the family castle—glowering big game, crossed swords, a fireplace, and a half-acre tapestry.” As one commentator put it, Le Club “was a French playboy’s dream of the ultimate seduction pad.” But while the discotheque may have seemed a refreshing novelty relative to older, adult-oriented New York clubs, what with its tiny, crowded dance floor and music programmed by an all-powerful “platter spinner,” Le Club remained an elite sanctuary, its appeal restricted to the likes of Henry Ford II and the Duke of Bedford.
The Nazis banned “swing” dancing and jazz.
Le Club provided the model for subsequent discotheques in New York City, which by late 1963 included L’Interdit, Il Mio (an Italian discoteca ), and Shepheard’s, a discotheque in the Drake Hotel decorated with Cleopatra -inspired sphinxes, pharaohs, and desert tents. But all these clubs subscribed to Coquelin’s code of exclusivity—Il Mio boasted hundred-dollar-a-year membership dues—and were therefore dubious remedies for the ailing nightlife of mid-1960s New York. As reported in a March 1964 New York Times article, the city’s cabaret business had “dropped off to the lowest point in years,” a downturn variously attributed to the JFK assassination, the new IRS rules on expense-account spending, and speculation that older people had stopped going to clubs. The discotheque, as the newest club concept to hit New York, might become the shot in the arm that revived New York nightlife, but discotheques like Le Club were intentionally antidemocratic, their impact limited to a small, tony clientele. As late as winter 1964 the future of the phenomenon hung in the balance. Nonetheless there were creeping indications that it was here to stay: Lyndon Johnson, as part of his 1964 presidential bid, converted the club El Morocco into a “Discotheque for L.BJ.” Dubbed “the first political nightclub” by its sponsors, the fund-raising disco provided a venue where club-hoppers could mingle with celebrities campaigning for the President, and even the occasional Goldwater supporter showed up to dance.