It is written in Plato’s Apology that the unexamined kootch is a kootch not worth licking, and unapologetic hetero male Larry Levenson opened Plato’s Retreat in the late 1970s in order to help as many Upper West Side kootches receive full examination. As portrayed in the cheerfully nostalgic American Swing, Levenson’s brainchild, a heterosexual swing club, was the product of its era, the natural if tacky spawn of both 1960s sexual upheavals and 1970s consumerism. A staunch advocate of the female body, Levenson snatched the hedonism of New York’s gay clubs, while steadfastly refusing to tolerate any male-male contact within his shrine, and maintained an atmosphere where adventurous women felt they weren’t being objectified, but celebrated…and if a few of them wanted to trace their french-manicured fingers along each other’s sugarwalls, all the better. Which is to say American Swing is to the likely true story of Plato’s Retreat what Vivid Video is to real sex: an antiperspirant, fartless fantasy.
As a member of the demographic who never knew sexuality without the spectre of AIDS, I crave the advancement of any notion of sexuality as essentially innocent and angst-free, but I can never fully trust such a proposition, and it’s almost disheartening to see so many of Plato’s clientele retreat from the underlying truth of what the orgy house was really all about: Levenson, an autodidact bon vivant, consuming money and pussy in equally voracious measure, pathologically avoidant of every form of culpability. (The only thing that meant less to him than the stultifying grind of monotony was the necessity of paying income tax; he tried to claim that Plato’s Retreat was a non-profit organization.)
And what of New York’s disco-era gays? They’re written out of the story here just as decisively as they were written out of Levenson’s version of utopia. Yet there are scattered hints of the sort of mutual acrimony—a newspaper headline has gays taking credit for closing the Retreat for good as the AIDS crisis came to a head—that illustrate, in microcosmic form, the cultural war that erupted, some have said, out of escapism. With its bubbly interview subjects, vintage clips of the club’s disgraced bookkeepers appearing (while on the lam from the mafia) on a game show, and collective opinion that Larry Levenson represents a moment that has passed, American Swing is another testament to domesticated hedonism.