Michael Musto Looks Back at His Life in Parties

The club chronicler, known for his exuberant style, reflects on New York City’s nightlife heyday.

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In the ’80s, Musto’s days were about figuring out what he’d do at night. “I would drag myself out of...
In the ’80s, Musto’s days were about figuring out what he’d do at night. “I would drag myself out of bed, start writing, and eventually get the mail. You would go through your invitations and your press releases. The evening would generally start with a six o’clock screening or an eight o’clock Broadway show. Then you could go on to a restaurant party, a nightclub party, an afterparty, and an after-hours club. Now people just stay home and binge The White Lotus.” Ron Galella/Collection via Getty Images.

One of the few times Michael Musto ever woke up early in the 1980s was to head to an interview for a gossip and nightlife columnist job at The Village Voice. “I was just a wreck, because I hadn’t existed in the morning for quite some time at that point,” he says. But he got the gig and continued a mostly nocturnal existence for the next few decades, documenting the dirt and glamour of New York City’s downtown scene. In the world of “La Dolce Musto,” as his column was titled, club kids, drag queens, and tabloid fixtures were every bit as noteworthy as pop stars and models. Often, they were partying together at the clubs Musto frequented anyway. “I’m not just always talking about the past,” says Musto, who remains a party fixture and writes cultural criticism for The Village Voice and other publications. “But I’m happy to do so, because I was there. I remember everything, and it was truly extraordinary.”

Musto with his parents at Tavern on the Green for their 50th wedding anniversary.

Courtesy of William Love

An only child, Musto wasn’t afraid to bring his parents out with him. “They were meeting really otherworldly personalities, and they got off on it,” he says. “Many times, the people they encountered in the clubs would visit for holidays at our house in Bensonhurst [Brooklyn]. My mother would prepare Italian feasts for them. Marc Jacobs came once with his boyfriend at the time.”

Courtesy of Michael Musto

As a child in Brooklyn, Musto could often be found with nuns by his side—namely, his aunt Sister Rosaria and her friend Sister Mary Faith. “They were not your stereotypical mean nuns,” says Musto. “They were lovely. My aunt was one of my rocks until the end. She was supportive, never judging.” They invited young Musto to the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, an important experience for him. “It took me out of the monotony of my everyday life.”

© Patrick McMullan

Andy Warhol loomed large over the downtown scene in the ’80s, and Musto found him to be generous, always offering quotes and even a blurb for Musto’s first book. “Basically, seeing him in a room validated the fact that you were there,” he says. “He once came to a birthday party of mine. It was right after I had already left for the afterparty at the Mike Todd room at the Palladium—an extension of the same evening. I was like, ‘Oh no!’ In the ’80s, that was the kind of thing that could really crush you.”

Ron Galella/Collection via Getty Images

Peter Gatien’s legendary club, Limelight, used to host an annual nightlife awards ceremony. “It was a completely made-up award, but it was an excuse to have another party,” says Musto. I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden was the guest of honor in 1992. “She was utterly delightful and came with her husband. He walked away for a moment to go to the men’s room. When he came back, he said that he had accidentally gotten lost in the sex room.”

Courtesy of John Simone

Long before becoming a TV glamazon, RuPaul was a star of the Lower East Side club scene. “She was an amalgam of Pam Grier and Cher and all kinds of divas, and yet very much her own creation,” says Musto. He once traveled with RuPaul to Atlanta for a performance, and the group stopped at Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Christian-themed amusement park, Heritage USA, on the way. “People were pointing at us like we were weird. I was like, ‘You should see what we look like at night.’ ”

Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Musto has never lost sight of the fact that chronicling the scene is his job. “I’m always taking notes,” he says. “I’d often forget to bring a notebook, so I’d just take any dirty napkin off the bar and start scrawling on it.” While Musto’s work often runs counter to that of more traditional gossip columnists, he still feels an affinity for legends like Cindy Adams (above left). “We’re both self-made New York personalities, and we both work ourselves to death.”

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The release party for Madonna’s 1992 book, Sex, was always bound to be a scandalous affair, but Musto decided to add a little meta fashion commentary by dressing up in a costume that referenced Madonna’s reaction to Sinéad O’Connor’s infamous destruction of a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. The Material Girl’s publicist caught wind and pointed it out to Madonna herself. “She was amused,” says Musto.

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If Musto is the official scribe of a certain segment of New York nightlife, party promoter Susanne Bartsch, pictured here at an event in 1992 with her then partner, David Barton, is its queen. “She truly brings together every aspect of New York society into a gigantic conga line that just will not quit,” he says. “She says I was the first one she saw walk into her first party, and that’s how she knew she’d made it.”

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Musto threw many parties of his own over the years, always with some form of campy entertainment. He once hosted a sit-down dinner at the Limelight and invited Brooke Shields and comedian Julia Sweeney (above left) to judge a look-alike contest for Sweeney’s iconic ’90s Saturday Night Live character, Pat. “I like to provide something; otherwise it’s just people sitting around.”

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“One thing I love about nightclubs is that you can get away with anything sartorially,” says Musto, who never developed a taste for designer wares. He scoured thrift shops or had costumes made, like the martini suit above, which he wore to promote his book Manhattan on the Rocks. “You could wear something like that to a club and no one would even notice, because they would be wearing something better.”

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Grace Jones was one of the first celebrities Musto ever interviewed. He would run into her often throughout the years: at Warhol’s funeral, on New Year’s Eve at Studio 54, and here at the Palladium in 1992. “One of the great stars, one of the great originals, and a fiery personality. Of course, she dragged me onstage for some schtick. Her publicist would tell her to do that. Her publicist knew how to stroke the press.”

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While glittering images of New York’s ’80s nightlife scene continue to populate designer mood boards, Musto points out that it was also a horrifying era. “AIDS started really in ’82 and became just some sci-fi horror film come to life. At the same time, money was falling from the sky, and nightclubs were providing venues for us to kind of get a release from the grief. I met activists at the Limelight and then joined ACT UP as a result. It was a schizo era of terror and rage mixed with the best nightlife.”

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In 2017, Musto (with Countess Luann de Lesseps) subjected himself to a roast to benefit Callen-Lorde, a health-care organization serving the LGBTQ community. “I even wrote some of the jokes for the MC and the celebrities. I figured if I write my own insults about myself, it’ll make it easier to take,” he says.

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For particularly special nights, like Bartsch’s legendary HIV/AIDS fundraiser Love Ball, in 1991, Musto would occasionally deck himself out in drag. “At the time, drag was subversive,” he says. “Drag queens were truly living on the edge. You were not an international star. You were not playing arenas. You were playing for 50 bucks at a time when homophobia was ramping up.”

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