Max’s Kansas City by Paul Taylor

Everyone who was anyone was there. MAX’S KANSAS CITY was the place to be. It quickly became the new drug of the late sixties and early seventies counterculture scene, and its effects were lasting. The legendary restaurant/bar opened its doors December of 1965 at 213 Park Avenue South between 17th and 18th off Union Square , just around the time popular culture was poised on the brink of a remarkable shift. The mere name Max’s conjures up images of chic and outrageousness. There never was a place like it, and there never will be again.

Max’s Kansas City was the salon of the psychedelic era, a living theater part Animal Farm, part Animal House. Outside was Vietnam’, inside a haven, at least for the devotees who called it home. If the ’60s “in crowd” had a clubhouse, you could say it was Max’s – a three-ring circus which opened in December 1965 and lost its spark when it changed owners in the fall of 1974. The impresario was Mickey Ruskin; born in New Jersey in 1933, died in New York fifty years later. Mickey had plans for a book about Max’s before his death, and Yvonne Sewall, the mother of two of his children and for four months a waitress at Max’s, is now completing it.

Max’s Kansas City was the salon of the psychedelic era, a living theater part Animal Farm, part Animal House. Outside was Vietnam’, inside a haven, at least for the devotees who called it home. If the ’60s “in crowd” had a clubhouse, you could say it was Max’s – a three-ring circus which opened in December 1965 and lost its spark when it changed owners in the fall of 1974. The impresario was Mickey Ruskin; born in New Jersey in 1933, died in New York fifty years later. Mickey had plans for a book about Max’s before his death, and Yvonne Sewall, the mother of two of his children and for four months a waitress at Max’s, is now completing it.

“Want to mingle with the underground jet set — movie-makers, avant-garde actors, chic society girls? Head for Max’s Kansas City, 213 Park Avenue South (near 18th Street) where, between 5 and 6 pm, magnificent free hors d’oeuvres (fried chicken, meatballs, cheese) are served (sometimes) along with the drinks ($1 to $1.25). Open daily.” So says an old $5-a-day guide to New York. What it doesn’t say is that, if you are a tourist, or an unsuspecting casual visitor, you will probably be seated upstairs, in “Siberia,” and miss out on the strange, unending party below.

As Andy Warhol said in his book POPIsm, “Max’s Kansas City was the exact place where Pop Art and pop life came together in New York in the ’60s . . . Everybody went to Max’s and everything got homogenized there.”

Up front were the heavies, the painters and sculptors who initially colonized Max’s, including John Chamberlain, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Carl Andre, and Larry Rivers, as well as the heady crowd that sparred with Earthworks artist Robert Smithson. Works of art punctuated the walls, and Forrest Meyers’s laser beam sculpture, shot through the front window from blocks away, skewered the interior of the restaurant.

In the back room Warhol presided at the famous Round Table, vastly different from the one Dorothy Parker’s crowd had traded jibes over at the Algonquin, while superstars, speed freaks, and transvestites vied for attention, drenched in the blood red of Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light sculpture. “Showtime” – Andrea Whips (Andrea Feldman) singing on the tabletops – was a regular, yet spontaneous, exhibition. The gossip circulated violently, but sometimes words failed. “I met Iggy Pop at Max’s Kansas City in 1970 or 1971,” recalled David Bowie. “Me, Iggy, and Lou Reed at one table with absolutely nothing to say to each other, just looking at each others eye makeup.”

Other than the waitresses, who are now among Max’s greatest chroniclers, the women were dicey; some were real and some were fake, and sometimes it made no difference. As Zsa Zsa Gabor said of transvestite Candy Darling, “She was one of the world’s most beautiful women.” Yet Max’s really was a macho scene. Here, in the back room, the producers of Midnight Cowboy recruited the extras for the film. And here Andy Warhol met his match in the butch Valerie Solanis, who later shot him.

Sandwiched between front and back was the pack-the regular celebrities, including Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, Peter O’Toole, Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim, Dennis Hopper, Berry Berenson, Bertolluci, and Warren Beatty; models such as Verouschka, Twiggy, A poll onia, and Andrea Portago; photographers like Toscani, Chris von Wangenheim, and Claude Picasso; politicos such as future mayor Ed Koch and Bobby Kennedy; the fashion crowd, including Maxime de la Falaise, Fernando Sanchez, Halston, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, and Betsey johnson; writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs; and a host of hangers-on. Here, Germaine Greer introduced Jackie Curtis, the transvestite performer and playwright, to Sargent Shriver, and the likes of Mel Brooks, Loulou de la Falaise, and jean-Paul Belmondo schmoozed with Michelangelo Antonioni, Penelope Tree, Marisa Berenson, and Marjoe Gortner. James Rosenquist talked art with future senator Jacob Javits, who was led into the joint by his wife, Man-an. The art dealer Leo Castelli was also taken on occasion. “Max’s Kansas City?” he quipped. “‘No, I went to Max’s in New York. The steak was terrible. ”

Even those exiled -upstairs got a taste of the scene sooner or later, thanks to performances by the Velvet Underground with Nico, the New York Dolls (featuring David Johansen), and unknown performers like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.

Max’s was Mickey Ruskin’s fourth venue. In 1957, while working up to junior partner status at his father’s law firm, Ruskin saw a newspaper ad: “Rent or Own a Coffee Shop.” Rent was $300 a month, and the Tenth Street Coffeehouse was born. It was followed by Deux Maggots, named after the St. Germain cafe. In quick succession followed the Ninth Circle and Max’s Kansas City. Although Mickey would have other venues, Max’s was his finest hour, his masterpiece.

At Max’s, pop art slowly mutated into punk, which was pop in a foul mood. From his position at the front of the restaurant, night by night, Mickey Ruskin witnessed the transformation. The patrons did too. “In the ’60s, ” as Marian Javits recalls, “the art world was looser and more expressive. Max’s was the place where artists could be themselves and exchange ideas. Everyone was infected by something, but it wasn’t drink. They were infected by what was going on in society. Then it began to decay.”

Ruskin summed up the change as the 70s progressed. “My job is to sort out the worst of the hangers-on from the best. That becomes a very hard job, and no matter what you do,, it’s still a hanger-on and not a star. The stars are gone. ”

In 1983, Mickey Ruskin died of a drug overdose. So many of Max’s patrons are gone-Diane Arbus, Tom Baker, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, Divine, Eric Emerson, Brian Epstein, Andrea Feldman, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Al Grossman, Jimi Hendrix, Freddy Herko, Eva Hesse, Peter HuJar, Jacob Javits, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Bill King, John Lennon, Charles Ludlam, Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, Tiger Morse, Barnett Newman, Nico, Lillion Roxon, Robert Scull, Edie Sedgwick, Robert Smithson, Tinkerbelle, Andy Warhol, Nell Williams, Tennessee Williams, and
others-and with their deaths an era passed away.

Paul Taylor

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