My Journey To The Continental Baths In 1970

Here I was at a gay bathhouse trying to figure out how to be straight.
03/22/2017 04:24 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2017
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James Hart—business executive, writer, publisher, and former husband of singer-songwriter Carly Simon—chronicles his life from a rough-and-tumble Irish-American family through life on Martha’s Vineyard with Carly—a life of fame and privilege—in his new memoir. One small slip-up ultimately leads to a years-long relapse into active addiction and the painful process of “coming out” to be true to himself. “There is grace, love, crack, straight sex, gay sex, bold-face names, heartbreak, and triumph in almost impossible circumstances―the kind of life-stuff that suggests we are in for a major ride, and then delivers,” writes journalist Carl Bernstein in the book’s forward. This excerpt from a then straight-identified Hart describes his first surprising visit to the Continental Baths in 1970.

Lucky Jim comes out on April 11th, 2017.

 

He decided to take the George Washington Bridge to cross the Hudson so we could see Manhattan before us. A haze from the sultry night air surrounded each lamplight on Riverside Drive and made the darkness glisten with moisture. His Volkswagen Beetle had a feel of soft luxury as we careened into the city, and our laughter echoed with abandon into the open night sky. His tiny car seemed to be the center of happiness. We parked near Lincoln Center and found The Balloon. An undercurrent of sensuality permeated this bar, and it seemed largely about men. Nureyev and the corps de ballet drank there, and Brian was excited to see it through my eyes. I thought this might be the world I should be living in, and as each lithe and perfectly contoured man walked by, I felt even closer to Brian. I knew it wasn’t a lie that I probably liked women a great deal. My deception was my refusal to admit how much I liked men and, sitting there that night, I was thrilled by them. After a few more martinis, we were ready for the night’s adventure. The Balloon was just the overture. He warned me not to be wary, that no matter what I thought or felt, it would be one of the most unusual nights of my life.

Moments later, I was placing my wallet and house keys in a miniature strongbox. I was given a key with an elastic band and a towel with “Continental Baths” inscribed on it. The bathhouse was located on the ground floor of the Ansonia, a landmarked Beaux Arts hotel that had been turned into an apartment building. As I moved away from the entrance, the receptionist screamed in a high-pitched voice, Hey you, you didn’t sign in. I returned to the table and began to shake as he shoved the sign-in sheet toward me.

With this signature, I thought, I might forever be exposed as a fag.

Probably thanks to the large amount of gin I had ingested, I signed anyway and entered. The main room had a pool, showers, and a bar. At the other end, an unattractive and foul-mouthed girl was singing idiotic dirty songs. I couldn’t see why the towel-clad boys standing in front of her liked her so much. The girl was named Bette Midler—it was her opening weekend at the Continental Baths. I tried to find a place to take all this in, but I couldn’t find my bearings. A sort of shimmering vapor separated me from the other boys. I knew I wasn’t like them; I just couldn’t be.

Brian soon disappeared into the Baths’ labyrinthine maze. My heart broke as he walked away. I tried to follow, but I lost him. There were long corridors with small cell-like rooms without ceilings. The pungent aroma of amyl nitrate permeated the space, and I was surrounded by heavy breathing, moaning, and the insistent sighs and yelps of men on their way to orgasm. I couldn’t get accustomed to the sounds and rhythms, and I roamed aimlessly, stunned by what was going on around me. Some of it was behind closed doors, and some was out in the open. As it turned toward morning, I longed to express something of myself in this strange world. I walked by a room where ten or so very good-looking young men had formed a circle and were stroking each other. I thought this was an activity I could participate in, nothing definitive. It lasted only a few minutes; I was too excited for it to last longer. I went home confused, but not unhappy. I felt that I was just a bit of a homo, as exemplified by my restrained activity.

I don’t know how I processed all of this at the time, except that my father had an expression that no one seems to use anymore. Whenever I was late for something that didn’t send him into a rage, he would ask, as though it were possible, What took you so long? Did you go by way of Canarsie?

Canarsie in this expression represented a place beyond the pale: a location near the ends of the earth. It turns out that Canarsie is only 18.9 miles from Long Beach, and yet it seemed so far away that you could only get there or return from there with immense effort.

My sexual confusion and many other parts of my life were also right under my nose, yet so far away. Here I was at a gay bathhouse trying to figure out how to be straight: an odd place to discover my love for women. I guess as my father might say I was going by way of Canarsie.

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