Bathhouses, Bette Midler, and the Construction of a Gay Sensibility
in the 1970s
Author: Jason James
Bathhouses, Bette Midler, and the Construction of a Gay Sensibility
in the 1970s
Legendary actress and singer Bette Midler is perhaps best known
for beginning her career in the early 1970s by performing to an
audience of men draped only in white towels in one of New York City’s
premier gay bathhouses. She jokes in her 1980 semi-autobiographical
memoir A View From a Broad that “whatever I may do in my life, whatever
I may achieve, the headline of my obituary in The New York Times
will read: ‘BETTE DEAD, Began Career at Continental Baths’” (38-39).
While Midler may not wish to be remembered exclusively for this
reason, she cannot ignore the fact that she owes a great deal of
her success to the unique atmosphere of gay bathhouses and the changes
in the sexual mores and attitudes of people that characterized the
late 1960s and early 1970s. The bathhouse itself was a major social
force that shaped gay sensibilities in America during this time.
Midler was a product of the bathhouse culture, and she in turn became
yet another social force that influenced gay insights. This paper
will explore the history of public bathhouse space, the elements
of gay baths that helped to shape them as a social force, how Bette
Midler’s career flourished in that space, and what contribution
she made to the gay community that helped mold the ways in which
they approached and responded to American society.
bathhouse became one of the first establishments in the United States
tailored exclusively to gay men for the purpose of building a sense
of pride in themselves and their sexuality despite historically
embedded concepts of homosexuals as perverse, diseased criminals
(Bérubé 188). The baths represented “a major success
in a century-long struggle to overcome isolation and develop a sense
of community…, to gain their right to sexual privacy, to win their
right to associate with each other in public, and to create ‘safety
zones’ where gay men could be sexual and affectionate with each
other with a minimal threat of violence, blackmail, loss of employment,
arrest, imprisonment, and humiliation” (Bérubé 188).
It was only at the turn of the 20th century that bathhouses began
to evolve into gay institutions. During that time all sexual relations
between men were considered illegal and those who partook in those
activities were persecuted. Therefore, men stole away to anonymous
semi-private public areas such as parks, restrooms, train and subway
stations, and YMCAs to have sex despite the dangers of being arrested
or even murdered. Many men began to congregate in bathhouses, however,
as they were a nice alternative to the streets, offering higher
degrees of safety and anonymity. While not exclusively gay, some
baths of the 1920s and 1930s began to allow sex in locked cubicles,
although they were not safe from intrusions from the police. It
wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s and the advent of the gay liberation
that bathhouses catered solely to the social and sexual needs of
homosexual men with little or no police interference (Bérubé
Samuel Delany, a black gay author who had been accustomed to sexual
experiences in public restrooms and inside pitch-black trucks parked
on the docks under New York’s West Side Highway, was astonished
when he first set foot in the St. Marks bathhouse in 1963 (Scott
397-8). When he walked in, he discovered a wall-to-wall spread of
naked men illuminated by dim blue light. It was not so much the
space that astonished him, but “rather that the saturation [of libidinous
activity] was not only kinesthetic but visible” (qtd. in Scott 397).
The fact that patrons of the bathhouses could actually see what
was happening inside made them realize that “there was a population…of
millions of gay men, and that history had…created for [them] whole
galleries of institutions…to accommodate [their] sex” in light of
the prevalent interpretation of gay men as “isolated perverts” (qtd.
in Scott 397-8).
Gay bathhouses therefore became “erotic oases”—locations considered
“physically and socially safe from threats to exposure” where “sexual
expressions [were] not only permitted, but openly encouraged” (Tewksbury
79). They were “institutions where gay men were encouraged to appreciate
each other,” and where they “learned to prefer sexual partners who
were also gay” (Bérubé 195). Until that time, heterosexual
men preferred “servicing” straight men in parks and restrooms and
generally frowned upon sex with other homosexuals. Modern bathhouses
allowed “freedom and homosexual camaraderie” (Bérubé
191) and featured secure facilities that were conducive to physical
intimacy, such as steam rooms, swimming pools, and cabins. They
became safe havens due to their identification as gay baths and
people who were affronted by such behavior therefore did not frequent
them. In addition, employees of the baths offered a degree of protection
to their clientele from violence and blackmail (Bérubé
In light of this, the bathhouses created a fusion of both public
and private worlds that was highly influential in shaping not only
the behavior but also the culture of gay men at that time. The world
of the baths was a private world of sexual relations and interactions
exclusively for gay men and was therefore isolated from the general
public. Although bathhouses were private spaces where men could
feel safe from interference from heterosexual society, within their
walls both the private and the public worked hand in hand. They
were places in which private sexual encounters were happening all
throughout a very public environment where patrons gathered together
and socialized with each other (Bérubé 191-2; Chisholm
76; Tewksbury 79). Another way in which the baths fused the public
and private was by housing “work, residence, business, and leisure
under one roof, employing a staff of maintenance and service workers
and offering hospice to any man needing a room for the night” (Chisholm
71). The home, which had been thought of as a private vicinity,
became enmeshed with the public worlds of work and leisure. This
“convergence of public, private, and ritual space lent the bathhouse
an aura of belonging” (Chisholm 73).
the distinction between the public and private was central to the
experience of eroticism in bathhouses. By merely entering into the
world of the baths, patrons were made to strip naked and leave their
personal belongings in lockers. A man’s presence in the bathhouse
was taken by others as an “indication of one’s sexual availability”
(Tewksbury 95). Further evidence of this is in the situational acceptance
of touching in semi-public locations such as orgy rooms or steamrooms.
It was normal for patrons inside these spaces to touch and be touched
by others, whereas that physical contact was more rarely experienced
in other communal areas of the bathhouse (Tewksbury 95). Therefore,
the baths transformed the body (or, more specifically, the body’s
“private” parts) into public property.
As more homosexual men were becoming visible in society during the
gay liberation movement, bathhouses (among other gay settings) began
to “capitalize on the economic benefits that could be realized by
catering to this ‘new’ demographic market” (Tewksbury 77). Bathhouse
owners started to realize that their opportunities for profit were
expanding and consequently began featuring a slew of different services
and luxuries for consumers: cafés, bars, game rooms, video
screens showing pornographic films, disco dance floors, game rooms,
movie nights, parties on major holidays, voter registration, gymnasium
equipment, benefits for gay community drives, the gay free press,
safe-sex advertising, and testing for venereal disease (Bérubé
201-3, Chisholm 71-2). Most of these services came with the price
of membership to the particular bathhouses that offered them.
With the inclusion of these numerous products and services, the
world of the baths began to resemble that of a mall. They were no
longer places meant solely for the purpose of sex but also for “shopping”.
Consumption was right at the fingertips of bath patrons, offering
many of the same services, venues, and 24-hour activities associated
with their urban exteriors (Chisholm 74). In many ways, a bathhouse
was a one-stop shopping experience: where else, in one central location,
could customers work out at the gym, get a massage, grab an espresso,
see a movie, and have anonymous sexual relations with other men?
Capitalism is also reflected in a less obvious way at the baths,
yet one that is extremely important to consider when looking at
how it helps shape gay sensibilities: patrons sought sexual experiences
and interactions with others based on anonymity, depersonalization,
and objectification (Tewksbury 81). In this vein, the world of the
baths gives little regard to the individuality of people. Let’s
say, for instance, that two men possess very different characteristics
that make them both specific, unique beings. One may be a kind,
caring doctor with a house in the Hamptons, the other a pushy lawyer
with cheap bridgework. Someone looking for a long-lasting intimate
relationship may need to consider those differences carefully in
order to choose the right mate. Yet for someone seeking an anonymous
sexual encounter in a bathhouse, those distinctive characteristics
could mean very little. Essentially, they are overlooked and the
individuals are stripped down to their lowest-common denominator
(their only shared attribute), which would be a comparable amount
of, let’s say, “masculinity.” Therefore, the naked male body becomes
an object for consumption, and gay men who cruise in the bathhouses
“take on a commodity aura, even if they do not actually present
themselves for sale” (Chisholm 76).
While it was primarily the body itself that determined another’s
interest in pursuing sexual activity, it’s important to note that
all bodies are not the same. Men who “rank[ed] lower in patrons’
eyes in terms of cultural definitions of attractiveness” found themselves
at a “disadvantage in finding sexual partners” (Tewksbury 83). Even
in an environment with heightened levels of sexual excitement where
the importance of physicality seemed to be less important, older
or very overweight patrons had limited success in their cruising
escapades (Tewksbury 83).
It’s important to keep in mind that even though the male body was
seen as an object of desire, having sex with someone did not mean
that they were the property of one particular person. It was common
for men to have several different partners during the course of
just one visit to the baths, which supports the idea expressed earlier
that the body becomes public property. Yet everything that was desirable
in the bathhouses, “from sex to social status, could be transformed
into commodities as fetishes-on-display that held the crowd enthralled
even when personal possession was far beyond their reach” (Chisholm
BATHHOUSE BETTE: CONTINENTAL APPEAL
Ostrow, owner of the Continental Baths (where Bette Midler made
her debut), was the first to feature live entertainment at a bathhouse.
He didn’t want the Continental to be just a place where men could
have sex, but “a very full living cycle, a total environment…and
after you’ve been here for twenty-four hours, you want to be entertained.
I do” (Baker 48; Spada 20). After seeing Midler perform at Bud Friedman’s
Improvisation nightclub in 1970, Ostrow hired her to perform two
cabaret-style shows a week at the Continental for $50.
She would burst onto the stage at the Continental Baths “looking
like a 1940s thrift shop gone insane,” sing pop standards from the
1940s, 1950s and 1960s and tell off-color jokes and stories between
numbers (Gold 31). Midler’s audiences were conditioned to the excessiveness
the baths provided, which is perhaps why they welcomed her wild
performances. As Ace Collins states in his Midler biography, “she
was so overstated that she almost looked like a man doing impressions
of a woman” (29).
Midler progressively made her act sharper and more flamboyant because
she realized that in order to win over an audience in a bathhouse
she would have to be more appealing than sex itself (Baker 56; Spada
26). Out of this desperation her stage persona, “The Divine Miss
M,” was born. “I was playing to people who are always on the outside
looking in…[Miss M is] just a fantasy, but she’s useful at showing
people what that outsider’s perspective is” (Bego 41). By presenting
a fantasy to an audience amidst a socially constructed one in the
baths, Midler was successful in capturing both their attention and
their hearts. Yet while Miss M’s stage world was rather outrageous,
her antics were tempered by a very real and very deep appreciation
for the music she sang, which made Midler all the more accessible
to her audiences (Gold 31).
Another aspect of Midler that made her so affable to the gay community
was the fact that she, being a Jewish woman who grew up in an all-Samoan
neighborhood in Hawaii, had been subject to the same types of oppression
and prejudice that the men in the baths were. She was an outsider
who was constantly mocked for her unconventional looks. “I just
kept trying to be like everyone else, but on me nothing worked.
One day I just decided to be myself” (Mair 48). It was this optimism
that she brought to her audiences. She was happy being “this freak
who sings in the tubs,” and the tubs were happy to have her.
Midler credits the gay bathhouse community for catapulting her to
stardom. “[They] treated me with more respect than I deserved. I
was able to take chances on that stage I could not have taken anywhere
else. Ironically, I was freed from fear by people who, at the time,
were ruled by fear” (Midler 39). Midler was one of the first heterosexual
performers to relate to these men on such a personal level. “By
doing so, she was telling them it was okay to be themselves, that
they weren’t wicked sinners who would be struck down by hell fire”
intimacy present between Midler and her audience brings to mind
one of the phenomena born out of gay culture: the “fag hag.” Dawne
Moon defines the term as a slang expression denoting a (typically)
straight woman who is extensively in the company of and relates
best to homosexual men, almost to the point of infatuation. Indeed,
Midler fits the prototype of a fag hag. She was extremely close
with a gay man named Bill Hennessy, who was highly influential to
her career at the Continental Baths. Midler’s first performances
there consisted of depressing torch songs that didn’t go over well
with audiences, so Hennessy encouraged her to be as daring and outrageous
onstage as possible. He worked tirelessly choosing songs, writing
jokes, and choreographing her movements. Midler thought so highly
of him that what ended up on the stage of the Continental was essentially
Hennessy himself, “with [Midler’s] insight and her perception in
mind. Her talent” (Baker 44-45). Midler basically became the female
embodiment of a gay man. As Hennessy once stated, “Bette has always
admired me… She liked who I was, and she took whatever she could
from me” (qtd. in Baker 46). What she did take was a repertoire
that consisted of material that was flamboyant and highly eccentric
and jokes that centered on gay issues.
It was not only the fag hag that experienced feelings of admiration,
at least not in the case of Bette Midler. Dawne Moon says that it’s
not uncommon for women to be fully accepted as members of a particular
gay community, and Midler certainly was accepted and admired by
the men at the Continental Baths. In fact, it was she that brought
gayness to the world under the guise of a straight woman. By appearing
on television shows like The Tonight Show and The Mike Douglas Show,
Midler was bringing gay sensibilities into the conscious of heterosexual
society. Evidence of this is in the fact that straight couples would
line up outside the Baths for the opportunity to get in to see her
perform (Mair 52).
As comedienne Margaret Cho states in her one-woman show I’m the
One That I Want, “Fag hags are the backbone of the gay community.
Without us, you're nothing.” Indeed, homosexuality was once seen
as a “repressed desire, made to seem invisible, abnormal, and silenced
by a ‘society’ that legislates heterosexuality as the only normal
practice” (Scott 400). Yet homosexual desire cannot be repressed
completely, so it invents institutions (like bathhouses and, consequently,
Bette Midler) to accommodate itself. As Joan W. Scott puts it, “These
institutions are unacknowledged but not invisible; indeed, it is
the possibility that they can be seen that threatens order and ultimately
overcomes repression” (400). What Bette Midler did for the gay community
was to make gayness visible. She made room for it in straight America,
and by doing so made people recognize that homosexuals actually
existed; therefore, this visibility was helping to broaden the erotic
horizons of both homosexual and heterosexual people. This gave gay
liberationists more leverage in their movement towards “the complete
sexual liberation for all people” (D’Emilio 234, emphasis mine).
Midler made the world a more welcoming place for gay people and
created a “coming out” of sorts for gay culture in a straight society.
It can be argued that television shows like Will & Grace and
films such as The Object of My Affection may never have existed
if it weren’t for Bette Midler.
The mass appeal for gay bathhouses grew until the mid-1980s when
baths came under scrutiny from public health officials for promoting
alleged “unhealthy sexual practices” that contributed to the spread
of HIV and AIDS. Many baths closed down or were destroyed, and some
were converted for use in alternative ways. While bathhouses still
exist today, they do not hold the amount of public allure they once
did (Chisholm 70; Tewksbury 78).
In conclusion, there were many elements of bathhouses that made
them a very large social force and contributed to the formation
of a gay sensibility during the 1970s. Among these elements are
the fusion of the public and private worlds, the treatment of individuals
as commodities, and the capitalistic ventures of bathhouse owners
to create clean, aesthetically attractive facilities where gay men
were allowed to be themselves in lieu of the poor public image that
plagued their lives. And out of this world of excess, Bette Midler’s
professional career was born. The gay community shaped her into
an international phenomenon, and she herself became a strong social
force in the gay liberation movement by presenting gay sensibilities
to mass audiences across the nation. In so doing she challenged
the notions of heterosexual society and posed a threat to its place
as the dominant norm in America, giving gay people a leg-up on their
quest to liberate not just their own sexuality but the sexuality
Baker, Rob. Bette Midler. Great Britain: Hodder and Staughton,
Bego, Mark. Bette Midler: Outrageously Divine. New York: Signet,
Bérubé, Allan. “The History of Gay Bathhouses.”
Policing Public Sex. Eds. Dangerous Fellows. Boston: South End Press,
Chisholm, Dianne. “The Traffic in Free Love and Other Crises:
Space, Pace, Sex and Shock in the City of Late Modernity.” Parallax
5.3 (1999): 69 – 89.
Cho, Margaret, perf. I’m the One That I Want. Dir. Lionel Coleman.
2000. DVD. Fox Lorber, 2001.
Collins, Ace. Bette Midler. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making
of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940 – 1970. 2nd
ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Gold, Shanti. “Divinity: Bette of the Baths.” Daily News 14
June 2004, final ed.: 31.
Mair, George. Bette: An Intimate Biography of Bette Midler.
New York: Carol Publishing, 1995.
Midler, Bette. A View from a Broad. New York: Simon and Schuster,
Moon, Dawne. “Insult and Inclusion: The Term ‘Fag Hag’ and
Gay Male Community.” Social Forces 74.2 (Dec. 1995): n. pag. Academic
Search Premier Database. 8 Dec. 2004.
Scott, Joan W. “The Evidence of Experience.” The Lesbian &
Gay Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale,
and David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. 397-401.
Spada, James. The Divine Bette Midler. New York: McMillan,
Tewksbury, Richard. “Bathhouse Intercourse: Structural and
Behavioral Aspects of an Erotic Oasis.” Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary
Journal 23 (2002): 75 – 112.