There were few obvious reasons to celebrate in the New York City of the 1970s, an era defined more by grime and crime than glitz or glamour in the crowded hub. Every day seemed to bring new challenges as the city’s anxious residents slogged away; the Bronx was burning, violence was escalating, and everyone from cops and firefighters to garbage men were disgusted with conditions and life amidst the graffiti-scarred, litter-laced streets.
Despite that, however – or perhaps because of it – the weekends brought out a different New York. Manhattan and its clubs transformed into a hedonistic mecca, the promise of drugs, disco and dancing luring jaded workers looking to splash their hard-earned money on a nightlife marked by escape and fantasy. By the mid-1970s, the US had pulled out of Vietnam, and the devastating specter of HIV and AIDS had not yet terrified the public consciousness.
Saturday night ‘fever’ – destined to become a cult classic film of the same name – was a reality in the 1970s, a beacon shining amidst the fetid despair of a struggling and claustrophobic town. Clubs like Studio 54 flourished, as celebrities and average-Joe patrons let down their hair and dressed up their outfits.
And there to document the decadence was photographer Meryl Meisler, whose images capture a unique time in American history – along with the wild, free-wheeling antics of the people lucky enough to witness it firsthand.
‘I was a young woman who was going out and having a really good time, staying out late at night,’ Meisler tells DailyMail.com – adding that her presence on the scene even gave her glimpses of pop culture icons.
‘The Village People were around a lot and performing a lot,’ she says. ‘They opened a lot of clubs in the city and one of the nights I saw them, they were opening this club called Xenon.’
‘They were just getting ready to go in there, and I just walked right up to them in the hallway and asked if I could take your picture – and they said sure, no problem.’
Meisler notes that many Seventies parties were themed, prompting people to dress outrageously – further fueling the hedonistic vibe.
Studio 54 was perhaps the most iconic venue, enforcing strict regulations and ruthless admissions policies – but Meisler was a regular, along with more famous names and faces like Andy Warhol and Grace Jones.
‘They were like regular people,’ she says. ‘You know, once you got into Studio 54 and other clubs as well, celebrities were normal. A lot of nights out it was a mix; regular people happened to be in the club and so everyone was mingling.
‘Andy Warhol was just there, he was out a lot. He was really out and about.’
While Meisler skillfully pointed her lens and captured fabulous shots, she never fawned over the more well-known club patrons and would never ‘run and attack’ celebrities, she says.
‘I would get get a kick when I would see someone who’s famous, but they weren’t my focus,’ Meisler tells DailyMail.com.
‘I’m not someone who just, like, would run up and attack them. It was more interesting for me to see the regular people, who are just equally fantastic.’
And her images expertly showcase that ‘fantastic’ factor, capturing the frenetic atmosphere, flamboyant fashion and social diversity. She has preserved for history all of those elements, publishing books that reveal the various sides and stages of New York. A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick features disco images and accounts from historians, educators and disco divas; similarly, her book Purgatory & Paradise: Sassy 70s Suburbia & the City includes photos from Fire Island, Studio 54 and the Lower East Side.
The books – along with her other images – paint a vivid portrait of a risqué, wild time in a city both struggling and evolving but all the while, in keeping with its reputation, never sleeping. The photos leap off the pages – and, four decades later, still stir up the ‘fever’ as it was in its heyday.