Before strict noise-ordinance enforcement, before Spotify, there was CLUB Swamp—not just the destination for after-hours carousing, but the East End gay version of Cheers for almost 25 years. Jamie Bufalino talks with some of those who remember the glory days of the Hamptons’ most legendary club
In 1977, the same year that Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” cracked the top 10 on the Billboard charts, Bill Higgins, a businessman and a former college football player, realized his dream of opening up a gay disco in Wainscott. His plan was to create a Hamptons home for the kind of thumping dance parties he used to frequent on Fire Island. He purchased more than an acre of land off Montauk Highway, bankrolled the building costs, enlisted the help of some friends, and soon the Club Swamp discotheque was ready to welcome tank-topped revelers into its chrome-and-mirror-accented interior.
Club Swamp, or just the Swamp, was not the first gay bar scene on the East End. There were furtive predecessors, such as the Elm Tree Inn in Amagansett, which was not specifically aimed at a gay male clientele but had become a popular gathering place, thanks to its reputation for being all-embracing. There was the Millstone, a bar located in the deep, dark woods of Bridgehampton north, which was apparently so clandestine numerous customers got lost trying to find it. In 1970, a bar called the Attic opened in Wainscott and became the first club in the area to brazenly flout the New York State Liquor Authority’s edict that dancing with a member of the same sex constituted “disorderly conduct.” >
The Swamp, however, was the first (and quite likely the last) gay bar to become ingrained in the larger Hamptons mythology. Gay men and lesbians, who had been rebuffed by uptight bars and restaurants whenever they arrived en masse, flocked to it, but so did throngs of straight people in search of a raucous night on the town. “One straight couple told me, ‘We love coming here because you guys have more fun,’ ” recalled Brent Newsom, a friend of Higgins’s who helped him launch the Swamp and who ran the Annex, the club’s sister restaurant, which opened in 1978. The Swamp became so popular that the parked cars of its customers would stretch for a mile up and down Montauk Highway.
“The disco and the restaurant had quite a following in their day, but the end was not terribly pretty,” said Newsom. In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis started to take its toll on the Swamp’s clientele. With his business plummeting, Higgins quietly started trying to sell the club. Years went by without any takers. Then, in 1990, Higgins died. He bequeathed the Swamp to Newsom, who kept the place afloat until the turn of the millennium, when the property was sold. What followed were two clubs, first Swa (pronounced sway) and then the Star Room, that sought to attract a more mainstream crowd.
Since the Star Room’s demise, the structures that Higgins had built for the Swamp and the Annex have remained dormant and derelict for nearly two decades. In January, the Town of East Hampton bought the parcel for preservation, and will soon remove the last traces of the club when it demolishes the buildings. Although the physical vestiges’ days may be numbered, the legacy of the Swamp lives on with those who launched it, loved it, and let loose in it.
From Brent Newsom, who ran the sister restaurant, the Annex, and later founded a wildly popular catering business:
I met Bill in New York in probably 1963 or ’64. I sort of fell in with a family of gay guys who caroused together. That’s how I met Bill, and we stayed friends. He was a big guy. He was the kind of guy that if he were to walk through an airport, no one would have assumed that he was gay, but put him in a dress on Halloween and you might surmise. He could do a Carmen Miranda number as well as anybody.
In 1977, I was working in California and decided to come out to the Hamptons to help him open a disco—what could be more fun? I had every intention of going back to California, but Bill said, “Hey, if you stick around, we’ll open a restaurant, too, and you can run the restaurant.”
Bill thrived on being a host for gay guys. And it was in an era when gay bars and restaurants were needed. Really young gay guys don’t know what it was like as recently as 40 years ago.
One of the horrors of being a disco owner, however, is trying to cope with deejays. You always had to worry about, “Was the deejay going to be on uppers or downers tonight?” But somehow we managed to get incredible deejays.
We also had shows. We had Grace Jones perform the first year we were open. We set up a stage at the foot of the deejay booth and we had Grace brought in on a couch carried by four bodybuilders. Kind of campy, but fun.
We had Cissy Houston perform for three years in a row. And, as luck would have it, the last time we had her out, she had a surprise for us: She had a daughter she wanted us to listen to. Whitney sang at the Swamp and it was before the world knew there was a Whitney Houston. She was attractive, she had a great voice, and Bill kind of nudged me and said, “I think we’ll be seeing her again.”
It was far more fun than I was really entitled to.
BEST OF TIMES
From Steven Gaines, the best-selling author of, among other things, Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons. He owns the Modernist house Bill Higgins built near the club:
It was a pretty wild time from the day Bill opened up the bar. He came up with the idea on Fire Island, where anything went. There were no great bars or discos here, and Bill enjoyed being around gay people, and that was what he wanted to do. Also, you can make a lot of money running a gay bar, which I think he did.
Lots of things have changed since the Swamp was open. Wainscott wasn’t built up like it is today. There weren’t complaints about it. In fact, people loved the idea that there was a place to go and dance.
The Swamp formed a real sense of community. It was a great place to go for gay people. Now, gay people don’t need a gay bar. You can go anywhere, you don’t have to be sequestered in some special place. But back then you did, and it was a place where you could be yourself.
The dancing was great, the food was terrific. I wouldn’t have sold my townhouse in Manhattan and moved out here full time if it wasn’t for the Swamp, because it really was a place where you could meet other people. There were just so many great nights, and it was so crowded that it was unbelievable. I really remember the camaraderie, and I did meet a boyfriend there, he was a bartender, and we were together for six years.
WORST OF TIMES
Steven Gaines, continued:
When the AIDS epidemic happened, we all witnessed the effect it had on the community. We were covered wagons pulled into a circle and we had no idea who was going to get picked off next. Not one by one, but two by two, and three by three, people would get sick. You didn’t know exactly what was causing it.
That’s another reason why the Swamp was important: It became a source of information, a source of comfort when things were at their darkest, when people didn’t want to be near gay people or be served by them. Brent Newsom was a hero, an absolute hero. If you were sick or needed a meal, you could go to Brent. If you didn’t have a place to live and you were sick, he took sick people in. He was a great friend to everybody.
So many people would say to me, “Oh, I hear you brought Bill Higgins’s house!” And they would say, “Oh I had the wildest sex there.” So, after about the tenth person told me they got laid in my house, I thought, Has everybody fucked in my house? This is really crazy. It was really annoying.
Soon after I moved in here, I bought a new washing machine, and the delivery guy—this big fat guy—comes rolling in the washing machine and he says, “I can’t believe I’m back in this house.”
I said to myself, Oh, my God, please tell me you didn’t have sex in this house, and he said, “No, I came here to buy cocaine.” That’s what happens when you buy a house with a reputation. Talk about provenance.
WHAT YOU DID IN 1975
From Ina Garten, chef extraordinaire, Food Network host, and the former owner of the Barefoot Contessa gourmet shop in East Hampton Village:
I may have been the first honorary non-gay member of the Swamp—I can’t remember if they said I was the first straight woman or just the first non-gay member. I met Brent in an unlikely way because when I first came to East Hampton in 1985, I took over what was then Dean and DeLuca, and Brent used to make food for that store. We had kind of a rough beginning because he didn’t like that I had taken over the store. I can’t remember how we got past it, but we really did, and we became very good friends. He’s one of the most remarkable people because he’s so giving and caring, in fact one of the guys who worked for him used to call him Mom.
Everybody from my store, all the people who worked there, we used to go to the Swamp all the time. That’s when I got to know Brent the best. We would go to the club and dance all night—that’s what you did in 1985.
A friend of mine [once] told me you used to be able to cross the street without looking both ways because there was nobody here. It was really a country town. It was before the sort of Bonfire of the Vanities era took over, it was a much more casual place. And at the time, gay people needed a safe place to be, to feel like they were with people who supported them.
From Joseph Aversano, resident of East Hampton Village and member of the East Hampton Historical Society’s board of trustees:
What nights those were, back in the day. The routine used to be: Go to the beach all day, play volleyball at Two Mile Hollow, then over to the Swamp for tea. It was a tea dance, but everyone just said “tea.” It would be 4-ish in the afternoon, you’d dance, and then they would throw hamburgers and franks on the grill, and make the drinks two-for-one. At around 6-ish, people would head home, rest, shower, hair, disco nap, then a late dinner. Then, after dinner, back to the Swamp, oftentimes in the wee hours. Bill Higgins did not cater to girls. There were a few reasons for that, but mostly he thought if the girls came the boys wouldn’t, and the men were better drinkers.
BOYS V. GIRLS
From Michelle Florea, the former owner of Food and Co., a catering business, who organized lesbian tea dances at the Swamp:
The Swamp was pretty anti-woman for the first I-don’t-know-how-many years. They didn’t want us. I had been in the club business and I eventually started throwing lesbian tea dances in the afternoon. We’d throw the party, and people would be streaming in the door. People were smoking, drinking, doing drugs. If you wanted to have a conversation with someone you’d go into the Annex, otherwise you’d be getting down in the disco.
Then a gradual filtering would happen, where the women would leave and the gay guys would arrive. There was absolutely no big deal between the gay men and lesbian customers, but Bill Higgins was tough and unbending.
From Lang Phipps, a journalist and content creator who often writes for East magazine, and elsewhere, about the East End:
One Saturday night in a summer of Saturday nights I spent with Fred Hughes and a group of our friends, Fred suggested a little wickedly that we all go to the Swamp. He was Andy Warhol’s longtime business manager and “Mr. Paradox,” a Texan who played the part of an English dandy, and a homosexual who always sported a girlfriend from a glittering background.
At the time our convoy was heading out to Wainscott, I was mid-flight on my first psilocybin mushroom trip. I had eaten the ’shrooms in an omelette four hours earlier, and then decided to sweep the terrace while the drug kicked in. Beethoven’s Eroica was playing on the boombox—I was still waiting to grok the whole Beethoven trip—and, as I swept, I noticed both that I was reading the fractal symmetry of the mold patterns on the bricks and that the music had become transparently legible to me for the first time. Okay, I’m officially tripping now, I thought.
Cut to the Swamp. Fred is holding court in his Dunhill blazer and Lobb shoes, and I’m feeling underwhelmed by what looks like a kind of flimsy, plywood-painted-black décor, a low-rent, flammable version of Studio 54, with the obligatory sub-woofer thrum and throb of disco, and everywhere the boys.
I’m staring at a boy myself, fascinated by the gleam of his tan and his Doric bone structure in the neon glare. Mark Giordano, an old prep school friend, is staring at me, and I can read his thoughts (‘Phipps is definitely gay”). I wasn’t particularly lusting for this guy, I was just fascinated with form, any form: musical, fungal, or human. It was a swampy evening I remember like it was yesterday.