Tales of New York City gay nightlife, before the 1980s HIV epidemic and the widespread gentrification that transformed the city, sound legendary to those of us who weren’t around to witness it. But a queer historian has given modern-day queers a close look at one of the most well-known gay leather bars of that era — the Mineshaft.
Historian Jack Fritscher interviewed Wally Wallace, who founded and managed the Mafia-owned bar in New York City’s Meatpacking District for nine years from October 8, 1976, to November 7, 1985. Fritscher published the interview (and many others) in his recently released book Profiles in Gay Courage: Leatherfolk, Arts, and Ideas.
When he first took it over, Wallace said the Mineshaft was unsuccessful and filled with lots of underage kids. At the time, two other local leather bars, The Eagle and the Spike, had become popular with non-leather-wearing looky-Lous who turned off the true leather fetishist. Other sex bars, like The Toilet, had a problem with pickpockets, Wallace said. Some pickpockets even worked for the bar’s owners.
Wallace intended the Mineshaft as a private club for leathermen. The club predominantly sold beer and had a notoriously varied playlist that included electronic variations on classical music, Ella Fitzgerald, jazz, space music, and new wave. The bar was also open from 2 p.m. to 10 a.m. on weekends (avoiding the usual 4 a.m. closing time for bars since it was a private club.)
The Mineshaft had a bathtub for water sports; a sling for sex activities. Wallace told Fritschr that it also had a backroom where there was plenty of oral, anal, rimming, fisting, “a lot of tit play” and S&M.
“Before AIDS, there were a good four or five years when people were pretty wild and abandoned. They did almost anything they wanted,” Wallace said.
Early into its opening, Wallace said turned away an attractive woman clad in leather who left with her entourage of hot leathermen. That woman turned out to be Camille O’Grady, a punk artist who dated transgressive queer photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
O’Grady became the only woman allowed at the Mineshaft. She reportedly sang an infamous “Toilet Kiss” song during its two-year anniversary event. She reportedly even went into the bar’s backroom when Wallace wasn’t around (though he said many other women lied about sneaking into the backroom). Mapplethorpe later became Mineshaft’s official photographer — most everyone else wasn’t allowed to film there.
Early into Wallace’s managing the bar, the Mineshaft’s patrons decided against a leather dress code because its young clientele often couldn’t afford full leather gear. The bar required shoes (in line with New York City’s fire code) and required members not to wear cologne or any scents, as most patrons preferred a natural smell of sweat and musk.
“We would allow jockstraps, raunch wear, torn T-shirts, that sort of thing — anything that would make a guy look or feel sexy,” Wallace told Fritscher. “We would not allow dress shirts and ties, suits, dress pants, sweaters. That was a big thing. People should not wear sweaters in leather bars, even though there is a hot military sweater. In the early days, in time, as the uniform clubs evolved, there were things like military tights and sweaters we could allow.”
The Mineshaft regularly held no-sex casino nights and various fundraisers, including a benefit for the nine male victims who died in the May 25, 1977 fire at the local Everard Baths. The bar also held a bodypainting contest, a “Criscomas Party” (honoring the then-popular sexy-time cooking oil), and even a branding (that is, a man having a design burned into his skin by a hot iron).
The anything goes club said that it hosted some scatological fetishists, though Wallace said the club was kept very clean with lots of bleach. European travelers in particular took advantage of low air fares and favorable exchange rates to party in gay New York City and come to the club, Wallace said. A 1978 adult film, New York City Inferno, was also recorded in the club.
Wallace noted that the club gained notoriety from the controversial and oh-so-hot 1980s gay slasher film Cruising. Although the film wasn’t shot at the Mineshaft, Wallace said that the film’s creators wanted to take photographs of the bar to use to re-create its atmosphere. However, Wallace refused to allow anyone but Mapplethorpe to photograph the bar.
Wallace said that security agents working with the film had connections to the New York City Police Department (NYPD), and arranged for the NYPD to illegally arrest Wallace and his employees in a raid over an alleged liquor license violation. While Wallace and his employees were taken downtown, he said, “a crew from the movie company went into the Mineshaft and photographed everything” — the charges were later dropped, Wallace added.
“We didn’t advertise because we were supposed to be a private club and the members were supposed to introduce us to new members,” Wallace said. “Of course, word of mouth was our best source. We got the people we wanted that way. ”
The club eventually hosted numerous leather groups at the time, including the Fist F—ers of America (FFA), the Total Ass Involvement League (TAIL), the Interchange (a biker club), and the Gay Men’s S&M Association (GMSMA).
The bar became so successful that it eventually expanded to take over an entire building. The bar could host up to 1,000 people and it even had a popular rooftop that had benches and hosted cookouts.
“Our guys had generally grown to a point in life where they were old enough to know what they wanted,” Wallace told the historian. “They knew what kink was. They were single guys. They weren’t out to blind date, nor to emulate the straight world in terms of sexuality, lovers, dogs, and family.”
Wallace said that rock star Mick Jagger was once turned away from the bar because he had hoped to enter with Jerry Hall, a female model. He also said closeted actor Rock Hudson, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, gay philosopher Michel Foucault, and Liza Minelli’s father Vincente Minnelli were among the gay luminaries who made it inside the legendary club.
The club was eventually shut down by the New York City Department of Health on November 7, 1985. Wallace said that the Department records made no mention of sex at the bar, and that the bar had handed out condoms and HIV-prevention literature like the department had asked.
He suspected that a self-policing gay group within the city government who were ashamed of the gay leather scene helped organize its shutdown, though the Mafia’s shady tax dealings with the bar certainly didn’t help, he added.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Vincente Minnelli’s relationship to Liza Minelli.