Depending on your point of view, American culture either peaked or hit rock bottom in the era between the end of the war in Vietnam and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. People felt a collective sense of power and liberation that spilled out all over the place. NYC in the 70’s was a true hedonist’s paradise: peepshows, Studio 54 and Plato’s Retreat – the subject of the documentary feature American Swing.
Plato’s Retreat was a Manhattan swinger’s club owned and operated by one Larry “the King of Swing” Levenson. And, it was a scene, man. The hot tub. The mattress room. The free and open exchange of ideas and bodily fluids. Many of the people who frequented the club (and there were thousands – PR was once referred to as the McDonald’s of sex) recount those halcyon days. The strange thing is, it doesn’t sound that bad. Everyone respected and liked each other. “No” was the safe word and people abided by the rules. Everyone was accepted, and for a lot of people, the swinger’s scene gave them a sense of pride and self-respect. But, nothing good ever lasts. Levenson cooked the books and went to prison for 2 1/2 years. And then it was the 80’s. Cocaine was everywhere, and a newer, more reckless crowd moved into Plato’s Retreat. And then there was AIDS, and an anything-goes sex club started to seem like a bad idea.
Two things really surprised me about American Swing. First, I am stunned that such a place operated out in the open – they even advertised on television. Secondly, I am amazed that people have such fond memories of the time and the place. To see former swingers who are now in the 50’s, 60’s and maybe even 70’s talk unabashedly about their youthful indiscretions is almost sweet.