Cavorting, c. 1984-90
For Those Who Lived It, The Surf Club Lives On
Published in The New York Times, March 16, 1997.
by TRIP GABRIEL
TOBY BEAVERS, older and balder but still cavorting like someone recently bounced out of prep school, was back in town, and once again looking for the party. ”This town is so dead right now,” Mr. Beavers said over dinner at a nearly empty club on the Upper East Side.
But it was still early, 8 P.M., and for one night the town — or at least Mr. Beavers’s slice of it — was coming back to life in honor of the Surf Club, the infamous bar and dance club he once owned, closed now for seven long years.
Such is the Surf Club’s place in the mythology of urban night life that more than 200 former regulars showed up for a reunion and 43d birthday party for Mr. Beavers on March 6. For a few hours, it was as if the Dow had just broken 2,000, shoulder pads were the height of fashion, and everyone was too young to know the words ”recession” or ”rehab.”
Mr. Beavers, a scion of New York’s Old Guard who now lives mainly in Rhode Island, ordered the first of many beers as old friends began to stream into Decade, a new club on First Avenue at 61st Street that was the setting for the reunion.
Many of the men were in dinner jackets, and the women, who all seemed to be blondes, wore cocktail dresses or fuzzy sweaters and gold earrings. These days this set’s drug of choice is a cigar rather than the cocaine that some remember flowing freely at the Surf Club. Despite the years since their halcyon youth, they made brave efforts to dance. ”They all look like they have back problems,” one of Decade’s lithe young hostesses said.
If she’d only known them way back when! ”The Surf Club was a unique 80’s thing,” said John R. Maupin, a banker who had been a regular when limousines lined up for a block at 91st Street and York Avenue, and supplicants waved $100 bills at the doorman. ”For a brief, shining moment it was the hottest club in the world.”
Clubs come and go, burning brightly for a year or two if they are fashionable. Years later they may still inspire passion in the hearts of aging patrons, whose peak of youthful adventure coincided with a moment in the culture. Some clubs retain a more legendary aura than others, including the 70’s gay disco Paradise Garage, the early-80’s hipster scene at Area, and the faux-Victorian Nell’s of a few years later. The Surf Club, which opened on Christmas Eve in 1984, perfectly caught a wave of yuppie exuberance.
It was the heyday of New York dance clubs, coinciding with a booming economy, legions of young people moving to the city and a more naive attitude toward drugs. Where other clubs courted the downtown crowd, the Surf Club happily welcomed entire training classes of junior analysts from Salomon Brothers.
Indifferently decorated with a stuffed sailfish, striped umbrellas and white lattice that echoed a private beach club in Quogue or Edgartown, it instantly felt like home to young blue bloods with trust funds. Many already knew Mr. Beavers and his younger brother and partner, Angus, who were heirs to a fortune traced back to two old New York families, the Beekmans and the Devereauxs.
”Everybody seemed to have gone to the same schools,” recalled Laura Rossiter, who went to St. Paul’s and eventually married an Andover man. ”You would meet all the players in New York. This is where it was at.”
Despite the staid image of the crowd, clubgoers, by most accounts, behaved with abandon. ”The great thing about the Surf Club that doesn’t exist today,” said Doug Dechert, a freelance gossip writer who went there almost nightly, ”is that all we had to do was go there, and we’d go home with a different girl. Fact. A whole generation of Upper East Side guys went five years without ever having to take a girl out to dinner.”
Pure swagger perhaps, but Tinky Baeder, a nurse at the time who was an inveterate Surf Clubber, described herself as ”one of the few survivors” who ”didn’t lose my shirt two or three times a week.”
”Everybody was a trader, quote-unquote,” she added. ”They used to say, ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ and I’d throw their cards over my shoulder. I started going there when I was 24. It was one of the best times of my life.”
There was a wistfulness in her voice, as well as in the voices of many others who sounded nostalgic for their younger, wilder selves. It was hard to escape the impression that for many in the room, life had rarely been as thrilling since the Surf Club closed in 1990.
”Today, the entire Upper East Side is dead,” Mr. Dechert lamented. ”There’s not only no Surf Club, there isn’t even a thriving bar scene.” Contemplating the vaguely Art Deco dance floor of Decade, which also has a second-floor restaurant and glass-enclosed humidor, he predicted, ”My guess is in a couple of months it’ll be a catering hall.”
But much of the nostalgia seemed misplaced. For many, the Surf Club’s legacy was one of self-destruction.
”That place was cocaine central,” Terry McManus, a former doorman who did not attend the reunion, recalled a few days later. ”It was nuts, out of control. People who didn’t even smoke pot were all of a sudden doing cocaine. I saw a lot of careers go down the drain.”
He recalled how ”the crowd would separate like the Red Sea” when one Wall Street heavy-hitter would enter with an entourage. But drugs cost him his job, and he ended up driving others to the club in a limousine.
The most prominent casualty was Nick Beavers, the younger brother of Toby and Angus, who once cut a dashing figure at the Surf Club and the nearby Zulu Lounge, a less buttoned-down club that his brothers opened for him to run.
In the late 80’s, after repeated visits to the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota, Nick Beavers sobered up and took a job scooping frozen yogurt. He later opened a club in Minneapolis with a juice bar that attracted many fellow Hazelden graduates. Of his old Manhattan life, he told a reporter for The New York Times in 1993, ”The drugs were everywhere, and everybody was touched.”
Two years later, having fallen off the wagon, he killed himself with an overdose of antidepressants.
Toby Beavers’s response to the toll of club life is oddly blithe-spirited.
”The whole thing was just to have fun,” he said. ”Everything was fun. You can ask anybody who was a casualty: while they were at the club, they were having the time of their life. No one was slumped at the table depressed. It was when they had to go to work the next day and perform that they became casualties.”
Independently wealthy, Mr. Beavers never did have to go to work in the morning. Since the Surf Club closed in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash, he has moved with his wife and two children, now 4 and 5, between a family estate in Watch Hill, R.I., a plantation in Louisiana and a farm in Nova Scotia.
He has made some stop-start efforts to capture the Surf Club years on paper, including a screenplay called ”Moonlight Memories, or the Rise and Fall of a Party Animal.”
”I finished the last words right after I got out of jail in Nova Scotia,” he said at dinner.
His wife, Terri, shot him a dirty look. Although there was apparently a visit to a police station after a run-in with a pole while Mr. Beavers was driving while intoxicated, there was never any jail time, husband and wife agreed.
Mr. Beavers has also told his stories into a tape recorder for Michael Shnayerson, a contributing editor of Vanity Fair. The two originally planned a book, but that project is dormant, and Mr. Shnayerson hopes to write a screenplay of his own. ”The life of the party” is how Mr. Shnayerson refers to Mr. Beavers.
Mr. McManus, the former doorman, has written his own screenplay about the club and hopes to direct it as a low-budget film. His title: ”Existential Vacuum.”
Last year Mr. Beavers sold the family’s two-story maisonette on 93d Street off Fifth Avenue, where he and his brothers grew up, and where dozens of revelers would congregate after the club closed at 4 A.M., unwilling to go home.
Mr. Beavers still longs to be the life of the party. Past midnight, as the Beatles’ ”Birthday” pumped from the sound system, a circle opened on the dance floor and he tore into a spirited, loose-limbed solo, a beer bottle raised in one hand.