The Mystique Private Club at 256 East 49th Street: “the club has the potential of becoming the most exclusive organization catering to homosexuals in Eastern US”
The Stonewall Inn may be the most famous Mafia-owned queer bar from the 1960s but it should not serve as a monolithic example of the social spaces which the wise guys offered to the gay scene. Queer culture was socially diverse in the 1960s, and the capitalistic mobsters created places to serve every market. The downtown kids may have made the Stonewall their home but the dingy joint with its watered-down drinks hardly was an appropriate venue for the A-list gays. In the Midtown East section of New York City the Mafia was behind many places which catered to upscale queens, and allegedly among them was the Mystique Private Club at 256 East 49th Street which operated out of the entire four-story townhouse whose “homosexual clientele are reported to be wealthy and influential homosexuals.”
The Mystique Private Club apparently was the reincarnation of the Mystique Lounge. In 1965 Gambino soldier Eddie DeCurtis and his brother Guido allegedly took over the operations of gay bar Mystique Lounge at 45 West 56th Street after it “ran into financial difficulties” under the prior owner according to an August 1966 FBI memo: “These individuals are members of the Italian criminal organization and have a history of previously operating homosexual night clubs in the Greenwich Village area. Also involved in the operation of this lounge on a higher echelon was VINCENT BELMONTE, brother of SALVATORE BELMONTE.” However, “[d]uring November, 1965 the liquor license for the lounge was revoked and the place closed down.”
The Mystique Lounge allegedly was re-booted by the Gambino family as a private membership-only club chartered under the name The Mystique Private Club, Inc. with an initial filing date of February 8, 1966. The Mystique then moved from 45 West 56th Street to 256 East 49th Street to replace the Lions of Third Avenue or Lions III which was another gay joint reportedly controlled by Vincent Belmonte, and the Mystique also allegedly became “partly owned by CHARLES BARCELLONA . . . and MICHAEL PINETTI . . . both ‘button guys’” in the Gambino family. Although early “efforts [were] made by the NYCPD to uncover violations and illegitimate practices at the club,” the “attempts have failed primarily due to the fact that the club has no restaurant or liquor license.”
The reincarnation of the Mystique as a private club was perhaps one of the Mafia’s most sophisticated alleged ventures for the discriminating homosexual, and the club operated in the entire townhouse at its new address according to the August 1966 FBI memo:
The club is housed in a four story building and presently has a paid membership of 300 card carrying homosexuals. [Redacted] The first floor of the premises houses a bar and lockers [redacted]. The second floor houses a dining room and bar, and the third floor a dance floor and bar. A four piece band appears at the club. [Redacted] The club’s [redacted] homosexual clientele are reported to be wealthy and influential homosexuals. The club offers its membership financial and legal aid if arrested on homosexual charges. [Redacted] homosexuals visit the club weekly. It is believed that the club has the potential of becoming the most exclusive organization catering to homosexuals in Eastern US.
The “successful operation” of the Mystique was attributable to many factors according to an FBI informant including “the requirement for being employed or being a member is being reputed as a homosexual” with “strict screening” to ensure that “no outsider is permitted,” and “attendants at the door are constantly on the alert to insure that no law enforcement officers or unknown persons are admitted undetected.” The FBI has a list of “well known individuals [who] were alleged to be members of this club” but the names were redacted in the released file. The Mystique was “managed by a homosexual,” and his name too is redacted but an August 1969 FBI memo identifies him as the same man who operated gay bar Top of the Town on the penthouse floor of Shelton Towers on 49th Street and Lexington Avenue which is now the Marriot East Side:
The Mystique Club, East 48th [sic] Street. This homosexual after hours club is again open despite the fact it was “hit” by NYCPD on opening night. It is allegedly doing close to $10,000 per week. A man named [redacted] LNU and other man who was with [redacted] in the Top of the Town (Shelton Towers) run this club. One [redacted] (PH) who was with [redacted] in the Top of the Town (Shelton Towers) run this club. One [redacted] (PH) who was also in the Top of the Town [redacted] was and may still be [redacted] of an important hood.
Of course, no gay joint, even if operating as a private club rather than a licensed premises, was successful without payoffs to the dirty cops, and an FBI report from August 1966 alleges the Mystique “is presently making monthly payments to the NYCPD on the boro and division levels and no interference has been noted from the NYCPD in recent months.” The danger which still existed for the club’s wealthy members, however, was blackmail by the Mafia, and the February 1968 issue of The New York Hymnal put out by activist Craig Rodwell who founded Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop expressly warned “that the membership lists of some of these clubs are used to further extortion and shake down schemes.” The NYPD did make at least one raid on the Mystique resulting in criminal charges notwithstanding its status as a private club and the alleged monthly payments, and it seized the club’s records including, presumably, the membership list; however, defense lawyer Barry Slotnick who represented many notorious mobsters in New York City swooped in to save the day by successfully arguing before the Criminal Court that the police officers had illegally trespassed onto the premises and unlawfully seized the evidence which resulted in dismissal of the case.
Curiously, the four-story townhouse out of which the Mystique Private Club operated once was the offices for acclaimed architect Morris Lapidus who designed the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, and while the Mystique Private Club was the tenant from 1966 through at least 1969 Lapidus’s wife Beatrice seemingly owned the 256 East 49th Street property according to real estate records.