All Into That Moment: A Conversation With Don Epstein

by Alexander Cheves

Don Epstein is Co-Owner and Managing Director of Cornerstone Media Group, one of the nation’s leading media rep firms. He worked for the Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation’s largest and most effective mainstream LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations, during its most pivotal growth years, expanding the organization from its roots as a fund for pro-fairness congressional candidates to being an organization fighting for the equal rights of all queer people. Before that, he worked for CBS in New York City where he was a card-carrying member of the The Saint, the legendary “Vatican of disco” in the East Village. I talked to him about his memories from the dance floor, the notorious Grace Jones performance, the impact of AIDS on our community, and why an overwhelming feeling of togetherness is so important — now more than ever.

So a little bit about what I’m trying to do. I’m working on a blog, a new site for The Saint Foundation. I’m collecting interviews, oral histories. 

Sure. 

I’m specifically seeking people who have some experience either in New York around the time of The Saint or even even at The Saint itself. I’d love to ask you about your experience.

Absolutely. Anything specific or you just want me to free float for a little bit?

You said that you attended the club since ‘83. How did that start? 

Well, I was a lawyer in Boston, and then I ended up going to grad school to get my MBA in Boston from ‘81 to ‘83. I had friends living in New York and would visit New York, and while I was in business school, maybe in ‘83, I had a summer job that was based in New York. So in the early years, I would just go a couple of times a year. Then I moved to New York in June of 1983 and worked for CBS. I don’t remember if I started going that summer, whether they were open that summer, or sometime in the fall. I am sure I probably got a membership card and started going pretty regularly on Saturday nights. But then it was just open Saturday nights. And then I think they added Sunday night, and then when they opened up Friday nights for everybody, I remember bringing straight friends there on Friday nights to show it off. I was so proud of it. It was so spectacular. And then I went pretty regularly until it closed. I was there the closing night, for two nights, Saturday and Sunday, and three days. It was a big one.

So you watched it evolve. I understand the club culture changed a lot.   

Very much so. Because so much of it evolved around HIV in New York City, and they intertwined completely. The first discussion of HIV was that famous New York Times article in June or July of ‘81, about rare cancer. That article saved my life. 

Tell me about that, if you don’t mind. 

When I got admitted to Harvard Business School, I’d never had a business course, but I had done some work for Mike Dukakis in Massachusetts in higher education and that showed enough leadership skills that Harvard decided to take a chance on me. So I got admitted to Harvard, I was their affirmative action candidate for a liberal arts person for that year. And with that I got a summer Harvard ID that allowed me to use the facilities across campus. And, lo and behold, that Monday I got my copy of the New York Times and saw the front page story about this rare cancer, this undiscovered illness. And I freaked out because I had sex in Boston and I had sex in New York City. That was one of the few times in my life that I really panicked. I really freaked. I called my office and said I was taking the day off. Then I literally ran across campus and went to the Harvard infirmary and said I need to see a doctor. This is just an hour or two after that article was on my doorstep. And I got a doctor and explained my situation. I said I was a gay man who had sex in Boston, sex in New York. And he wanted to know if I had more sex in Boston or New York. And he said, ‘I know very little, I read the article this morning in the Times, but I have friends who work for the New York City Department of Public Health and we’ve been talking about this for a little while.’ And he said, ‘All I know is that my gut tells me this thing is spreading.’ And I said, ‘Doctor, if I was your brother, what would you tell me? What advice would you tell me?’ And I swear to God, he said, ‘I think it’s passed through the exchange of bodily fluids.’ This is when we still didn’t know it was exchanged through bodily fluids. So much was unknown. And there was no test for it or anything. You just waited to see if you had symptoms or not. So I went back, told some friends about what the doctor said, and then went back to normal life. This is before they knew condoms would do anything. So I just abstained from bodily fluids. I could have been the first person practicing safe sex in the country after he told me that. You know, I would do mutual jerk-off, that sort of thing. I still went out in Boston, still hit the bars and all that. What made it a little easier for me is, that summer is when I started business school, it was not easy for me because I had no business background at all, so I really just buckled down and studied and rarely went out. I went out a little bit, but my time in the gay bars in Boston really diminished. When I met somebody, I just explained my situation. So lots of mutual jerking off, and so be it. And when I moved to New York full-time in June of ‘83, right away, there was a sense of panic in the city. There was somebody at CBS who had acknowledged having AIDS and looked it, and the number of straight people who — they wanted him to use a a different water foundation, use different bathrooms. All the bullshit stuff like that. And I really got a sense of panic in New York at the time. I still went to out to gay bars, and again it was the same thing. If I met somebody and went home with them it was pretty boring sex. Which is tough at that age.

The Saint was a pretty promiscuous place.

Oh, absolutely. That upper level. But I just went there with friends. Who still went upstairs to the top level, you know, and sometimes I’d be dragged up there, and I would just sit and watch. I never had sex up there. I was never into public orgies. Private orgies I was fine with. But that was just me. You know I remember going to the bathhouses in New York, and again, I’d go there and it would be plain, vanilla sex, and if people wanted to do more, it wasn’t going to be with me. It just wan’t my thing. And one of these days I want to go back to the doctor rand find him. He’s probably retired now and in his seventies or eighties. But I need to go to the Harvard infirmary and find out his name because I want to write him a letter and show him that I’m the father of 15-year old twins, and the great life I’ve had, and I want him to know, based on what he told me, that I took his advice, and that it absolutely saved my life. Because I lost a generation of friends. My closest friends got it, and in those days, they died pretty quickly. If someone lived a year after their first symptoms, it was amazing. And the quality of their lives was heartbreaking. You know, I had this friend who couldn’t visit his relative in the nursing home. It might have been his mother or father, and I can’t imagine how difficult that is. He was my closest friend in the world, and when he was dying of HIV up in Connecticut — this had to be when I was still at CBS, so in the early nineties — and in the last few week of his life, I used to drive up there all the time and see him. And the day before he died, the hospices in his apartment said he was really out of it, and the nurse said he’s not going to know whether you’re in there or not. But I climbed into bed with him, held his hand. I just said, ‘Michael, it’s me. I’m here. I’m here with you.’ And he squeezed my hand, and I got a little bit of a smile. He was in there, you know. Even though the nurse said that he’s out of it. The same thing happened when my father was dying. When you hold their hand and whisper in their ear, they know. We were not lovers, we were just as close as friends can be.

That’s a beautiful, heartbreaking story. 

Yeah. And it repeated. That one was really emotional because of our connection to each other, but so many other friends in New York — my first summer in New York, when I was there full time, I had a friend who was between his first and second year at the MIT business school, and they have a gay club at the business school, and there were some gay students from MIT that were also part of it.

Mhmm.

So I got to know him from that. And he was down here for a summer job in New York, and I gave him my safe sex lecture and told him my experiences, how I was doing it, avoiding all fluids. And he simply said that he had been looking forward to this New York experience his whole life. He was from Texas, big sexy guy, beautiful guy from Texas, real smart. And he was going to have his New York experience that he always dreamed of. And he did. Then he went back to Boston in September to finish the second year, got really sick by November, and died. I remember going to Boston visiting him at the MIT infirmary. And I think that’s where he died. In springtime. That’s the way it was back then.

Yeah. 

But The Saint was still there. Even though I didn’t go there to have sex, I still went there to party and have fun, and that was my objective going. And I loved every minute of it.

Can you describe what that experience was like? 

Yeah. I’m in San Diego now, which is a very young gay city, and when I meet people, especially in the younger generation, and tell them about the experiences of it, how they light up. I don’t know whether it could be replicated on the scale that it was.

It would be almost prohibitively expensive.

Oh, of course, totally prohibitively expensive. And in this age of Grindr and Adam, you know, if people are looking for sex, do they need to go out? It was first and foremost that sense of community that I remember. I mean, that geodesic dome. When you were in there, it was so different than going to any other disco in New York. I mean, there was Tunnel, and there was that one in a church? 

Limelight

Yeah. And Studio 54. And I know Thursday night was gay night at Studio 54. We used to work at CBS until 9 o’clock at night. And at Studio 54, I’d show my CBS ID and get in for free because these guys in security, they wanted walk-on roles, even though I was totally in the business side and had absolutely nothing to do with casting. So I would get in for free and go dance at Studio 54 until midnight and go home. And be at work the next day by 9:30. 

What was Studio 54 like?

Studio 54 was more the Upper East Side, Upper West Side gay environment. It was more flashy, it was more showy, it was more flamboyant. Even though it was a mammoth studio, it was a smaller dance area, the dance area wasn’t that big. And you had the balcony, which was enormous, going up. I was never in the VIP area behind everything. The drugs and the dancing and whatever was going on behind that, I don’t know. But it was a different experience. You go there, you dance for two hours, then you go home. And that was it. The music was more traditional disco, whereas The Saint music was more of a mixture of many different varieties of music, which I loved. I loved more the alternative rock stuff, the alternative music, which The Saint played more of. You din’t get that at Studio 54. It was disco queen, classic stuff.

I think it bore the brunt of the backlash against disco pretty heavily as a result.

Yeah and I don’t know why that was. But it didn’t bother me because disco wasn’t really my thing. They created their aesthetic when the lights came down from the ceiling. There was one moment from Studio 54 that I remember: I had a straight friend from Boston visiting me on July 4th weekend, and he and I were sitting up on the balcony, and at midnight exactly when July 3rd became July 4th, they played Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For a Hero” and dropped the biggest American flag you ever saw against the whole back of the dance floor. And the crowd went wild.

Hah! That’s great.

And my thought was, if the freakin’ Republicans ever saw this, the queens of Studio 54 screaming up and down over the American flag and Bonnie Tyler. I mean, the patriotism that you saw on that dance floor that night. I wish I could have taped it and shown it on — well this is before the internet was invented. But The Saint was different. The Saint was more the downtown scene. It was a mixture of people coming in from Brooklyn, coming in from the Upper West Side, and more shirts off, more showing off the bodies, which was always wonderful to see. You had the lower level which was the drinking and chilling out, but once you went in the dome to dance, there was just a sense of community, and that’s what made it different. I have no clue to this day how many thousands of people could be within the dome at any one time. The music, the lights, the whole experience was something I’d never experienced in my life before and I’m telling you, there were times I was in there and not on drugs that I had the feeling of being on drugs, of being totally out of it.

Sure.

You thought you were just floating. It was almost like you were having an orgasm. You were floating. The way they handled the lights when the ball came down and the top half of the dome, lights were going right to left, and on the bottom half of the dome they were going left to right, and the lights would jump up and down and you just had the sense of, I’m losing my balance, I’m floating. It wasn’t every night, but there were times it was like having an out-of-body experience, just getting lost in the music and the lights.

It sounds almost religious.

It was! It absolutely was. That’s a great way of putting it. It almost was religious. And for someone who was working my ass off and putting in 60 hours a week at CBS, and was withholding my natural sex life to a large degree, it was a place to go and just let it all out.

Yeah.

And there were so many great musical acts. But one I will never, ever forget: Grace Jones performing one night at three, four in the morning, I have no idea. And she just sang her heart out. And this clearly was not planned — 

It was not planned?

No, no, she was there performing, but she came to the high point on her song, and I swear to god, she just jumped off the stage and people were holding her up. What do you call that?

Yeah, I know what you mean.

And she was still singing, and people were just passing her over the crowd and she got to almost to the middle of the dance floor, and she kept on singing! And the crowd went crazy. It was probably the loudest noise I ever heard. When she just threw herself into the crowd, as I’m sure she did because of appreciation, this was her audience. And that event was probably the all-time high point for me. There had to be a couple thousand people in there in the dome. And it was as though we were one. All into that moment.

That’s beautiful.

It was just a beautiful moment. And there were times I was being with friends, dancing with a group of friends, and other times I would go alone, especially in the summertime. At some point they started opening in the summer. I really loved the city in the summer when it was empty.

Everybody was on Fire Island.

Everybody was on Fire Island! So you could see shows with no problem, it was wonderful. And anyway, I always preferred Provincetown over Fire Island. I love Provincetown.

That’s where I am now, actually.

Oh, I’m envious. I used to go there with a friend who knew the guy who owned the Brass Key Guesthouse.

[Laughs] That’s where I’m staying.

The Brass Key Guesthouse? My friend Bob Anderson — I knew the guy who owned it and, one way or another, they always got me in to go to P-town for the weekend. So I was very, very fortunate.

Is Bob still around?

No, no, Bob died of AIDS.

[Tells an off-the-record cruising story about Bob that involves The Anvil.]

In your experience, what were the cruisiest neighborhoods? Everybody seems to have have a different answer to that.

Well it’s true. Maybe it was a little more open down in the Village, and the East Village. Alphabet City was just turning around then and really adventurous guys were there. My first year I was at 108th and Riverside Drive, way up, and if I walked home through the Ramble, if you wanted to get your rocks off, you could do it there. Or pick someone up, meet somebody there, or go back.

The Ramble is coming back in COVID. People are back there again.

Oh, well that’s good to know. I remember my first experience, I was taking the rain home, and there was a really handsome guy across from the subway, and we were just staring at each others’ eyes, and he was clearly coming up from Wall Street. Pinstripe suit, briefcase and all that. He got off at 103rd, and I did too, it was just a couple streets short of where I was getting off, and I follow him off the train, and he waited for me at the top of the stairs, he saw that I had gotten off, and we walked together, and he said, “Boy that was the most intensive eye-fucking experience I ever had in the subway.”

[Laughs]

And that introduced me to the concept of eye-fucking. And we went back to his place, and again, it was hot and it was passionate but it was safe. And I never saw him again.

Our lives are filled with connections like that, right?

Exactly, you just never know. But the beauty of The Saint was, if you wanted to go there for sex, you could go there for sex, and if you wanted to go there for the religious experience of the music and the lights, you could do that too. And if you just wanted to hang with your friends and talk, you had the bottom level. And the times I would leave there at eight, nine, ten ‘o clock in the morning, there was a bakery just two doors down to the north, a Jewish bakery. I’d pick up some stuff and head back home to where I lived. It became a ritual.

I assume you got the mailers they sent out, which — they’re beautifully elaborate — 

Absolutely.

Were you surprised when they announced it was closing?

Again, what you had to realize is, by the time it got to — when I got to New York in ’83, ’84, there was few people who were so evident of having it. But five years later, you just saw people with the cancer scars, the skin cancer scars — 

K.S.

Yeah, K.S. And there were guys in their twenties walking with canes. And you’d hear stories, about, hey I’m in a restaurant and I have a gay waiter, and even if that waiter doesn’t have HIV or anything, but I don’t want that gay waiter, let’s go someplace else. It was that environment. I never met Bruce Mailman, even though I used to go to the baths at times, and to The Saint all the time. But clearly the expenses were enormous, they were open more nights to cover their fixed costs, the crowds weren’t as large, other discos had closed, and so if you thought about it from a business sense, I should have seen the writing on the wall. But when I got the notice, I was totally shocked. And one of the things that made New York happy for me was being taken away. There were bars that you could still go to after work, but I needed the high energy, the sense of community under the dome. You know, the same thing you have at P-town, the same thing you have at the Boatslip. I don’t know whether this year, but I’m telling you the only other experience where I’ve had that feeling is when the music is right at the Boatslip on a holiday weekend, at the end of tea dance, that gives you a sense of The Saint on a much smaller scale. But I left New York in ’93 and out of the blue I got offered a job in Minneapolis. They wanted somebody with some New York media experience. A friend and mentor told me to get out of New York, learn how the rest of the country really lives, and get out of the mentality of New York advertising. It’s all bout the big numbers in New York. But with TV switching to a digital medium rather than an analog medium, advertising is about to come out for the little guy. And boy was he right. And my other friend said that I’d avoided it and if I stayed I might — he said that in the gay community, HIV was just everywhere, and he asked me how much longer I was willing to take my chances. He saw what burying so many friends did to me.

Do you feel like you were part of a mass exodus?

No, no, not at all. Most of my friends who made it through were still in New York. But then I moved to Minneapolis, lived there ten years, started a company there with a friend, and then, thank you internet, thanks to the good work of people, I could move to California with my ex and we had kids.

[Speaks off-the-record about his ten years working at the Humans Rights Campaign in Minneapolis.]

I think it’s harder today with the internet. But going to The Saint every Saturday, it was a community coming together. And when you left there at six, seven, nine in the morning, you felt better. A weigh was removed and that’s the value of being able to party and dance and celebrate who you really are. And the importance of that is, it builds self-worth for everything else you do in your life.

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