Co-owner of Sahara with Leslie Cohen, Barbara Russo and Linda Goldfarb
July 18, 2018, 12:30pm (By phone, New York to Florida)
Gwen Shockey: I so appreciate your being willing to talk to me. I had such a fantastic conversation with Leslie [Cohen] and she urged me to reach out to you and Barbara [Russo] in order to get a comprehensive history of the Sahara club.
Michelle Florea: Well of course. Anything I can do to help. If you’ve talked to Leslie than you know that she cares a great deal about the fact that there is no archival information about Sahara and she’s beyond passionate about it. To be honest I am a little less passionate about it than she is…maybe that’s because she has dedicated herself to to making this happen I do it as much for her as I do for the archives. Sahara was an amazing, and expansive time of my life and a great point in lesbian history. I went on to own a very successful catering company in East Hampton, FOOD & CO. which became my next great passion.
GS: Even that is really lovely to me and the bond that you all formed through Sahara is really meaningful.
MF: Well you know when you go through something like that together and you come out the other end a lot stronger. We were in our 20s! (Laughing) It was like “Oh my god! Look what we did?” You know? We dared to do it and we did it and we will never forget each other.
GS: It sounds like you really went through a lot together from the club’s conception, to gathering finances, to Sahara’s closure. I usually start these interviews with kind of a personal question: I wanted to know what the first lesbian bar or all-lesbian space was that you ever went to and what it felt like to be there.
MF: Actually, it was way back. I’m 71 now so for me it was a club called Two. It was on the Upper East Side and was a tiny piano bar and a place that even Judy Garland would go to play once in a while. It was mostly women and the clientele was a bit older. At the time, somebody kind of brought me out. I didn’t really come out. I had been in a relationship when I was 18 or 19 with a woman and what I discovered was life itself. She was my first love, we were inseparable for four years until she decided she was going to get married and that she couldn’t really deal with the [lesbian] life. The fact is, we didn’t even know there was a life. We just thought it was the two of us and we’d be alone in the world! I was kind of ok with it but she couldn’t deal. So, I went into therapy to try and get straight.
I was doing that for a while and finally my therapist said to me “Well, I can help you get straight or I can help you be happy with who you are!” In any event, I was confused and dating men. I didn’t know what I was doing. Then at one point somebody at work (a woman) came on to me, and I was like “Well, what’s that?” It was kind of alluring. I had a thing with her and she was the one who took me to the bar. From there I met people who said “Have you ever gone down to Kooky’s? This is where the older people hang but there’s a bunch of people our age down at Kooky’s!” Kooky’s was on 14th Street in Manhattan. I discovered people my own age, and immediately moved in down the block so I could spend practically every evening there.
GS: When you first went to Two where Judy Garland would play what did it feel like to be around so many lesbians all of the sudden after struggling with your identity and experiencing therapy as you did?
MF: There weren’t a ton of women and like I said they were 20-30 years older but it was revelatory, “Oh my god! I’m not the only one!” Honestly! I couldn’t believe I could go out and be with other people like myself and that there were places just for us! It was life changing, as was my trip to Kooky’s, because then it wasn’t just a bar but a bar filled with people just like me.
GS: Did you grow up in New York?
MF: I was born in Manhattan but I grew up on Long Island and knew nothing about Long Island gay bars because I wasn’t out. As a side note, Linda Goldfarb, one of my other partners also grew up in East Meadow, and we became really close friends at that time. When I graduated from high school my family relocated to NYC. I was attending the Fashion Institute of Technologly where I met my first love. It was through a conscious decision on my part to look for a woman, as I had never made a heart connection with a guy. I did date men, and even got engaged at one point, but it just wasn’t all that. I remember looking around FIT’s cafeteria for likely female hook-ups, I remember, finding, pursuing and ultimately seducing my future partner. We spent 4 years together before she felt some pressure to marry a man that she was dating (we never stopped dating) and she married him, and raised a lovely family. I was devastated for some time, cried myself to sleep for ages.
When I completed school and eventually got a job as a buyer for a large retail company, I was easily seduced by an extremely attractive and very flirty vendor, and into my life came bars like The Two, and Kooky’s.
Once I started going to Kooky’s I was going four or five nights a week. I couldn’t get enough of it. Somebody told me years later that I was sitting at the bar at Kooky’s and I turned to them and said “You know? This is what I should do for a living! If I’m going to spend all my time at a bar why don’t I open one!” My father was an entrepreneur, my mother a business woman, so nothing like that ever really scared me. It never really left my head until I did it!
GS: Leslie has told me a little bit about meeting you, Barbara and Linda. But I’d love to hear about your experience meeting them and then conceiving of and opening Sahara.
MF: Leslie and I met at a birthday party she hosted for a mutual friend. Leslie had just come out, and I was one of the first people to arrive to this party. I went early because I didn’t really know her and wasn’t great friends with any of the guests, so I went to pay my respects, and I was going to leave, I think I had another party to go to.
I walked into this party with somebody that I had been living with at the time, and there was Leslie. She was a total Bohemian wearing a wool, multi-colored, sleeveless, hippie dress that went all the way down to-the-floor. She had this huge neckless of plastic jujube beads around her neck and some kind of wild scarf wrapped around her head and she was barefoot. We introduced ourselves. She had probably just come out – maybe an hour before (laughing) so I sat down on her couch and she turned on music and just started dancing! She looked so free and had this great sense of rhythm (she loves to dance to this day) and I just said “Wow.” Very shortly thereafter, I told my lover that I wanted to go, we left, and when we got in the elevator and I said to her, “I just want you to know that I’m going to have an affair with Leslie and it’s going to be really serious.”
GS: Wow! (Laughing)
MF: I just knew it! (Laughing) It’s really true! At the time Leslie was seeing men and women. She was just dating her brains out and having a ball. She had discovered women but hadn’t given up men yet. I found out from somebody that she was going to be at the Lib one night and so I made sure I was there. We chatted and I was trying to think of a way to get her to meet me outside of the bar (laughing). This is a true story but I don’t know if she’s going to want me to include it! I went over to some friends and then came back over to her and said “Hey listen some friends and I are going to have an orgy later, would you be interested?” and she said “Yeah, ok!” Then I went back to my friends and said “We’re having an orgy!” and they were like “What do you mean we’re having an orgy? How do you have an orgy?” I didn’t have a clue. My friend said “So where and when are we having this orgy?” I said “Tonight at your house!” Pretty soon, all of these people showed up at my friends house including Leslie. We played spin the bottle and made out and other teasy things, with my current girlfriend. After that I didn’t want it to end, and I think we went right to Jacob Riis beach where we hung out all day, until I we drove her home. I immediately started seeing her and we really had a good thing. Within two weeks she called her cousin and said “Ellen, I think this woman moved in with me! Her clothes are in my closet!” We were living together within a month.
We had separate jobs. I was producing TV commercials for a guy who suggested that we open a club together (he was fascinated by all things lesbian.) I was intrigued and I went home to talk to Leslie about it. We asked ourselves what we needed him for and it was really just the money. There were a lot of problems that went down initially. One of our partners fathers said that he would back the entire club which is how she became a partner in the first place along with her then-girlfriend Barbara. So that’s why Leslie and I said ok, if your father is doing all of the financing you have 50 percent and we’ll have 50 percent. Well, that never came to fruition, and we went through a series of strange encounters for a while. Leslie will tell you about the porno guys that were going to back us financially for a while (Laughing)! That was a huge eye opener for a middle class Jewish girl from Long Island! It was never dull.
Long story short, not everyone believed that we could really make it happen, but I did, from the beginning. I quit my job and started looking for a space to house Sahara. Not too long after Linda quit her job as well, and when we finally found our future home, the occupant was going broke and wanted us to partner with him. The space was currently a two story restaurant and a bar. This could be the perfect solution… we wouldn’t need to raise any real money. Linda’s father (despite not helping us financially) was able to find us a very powerful attorney. He was a deputy mayor of NYC, and the four of us walked into his office without having a cent in our pocket and looking for a lawyer and he seemed to be amused by our sheer gaul, and ended up representing us. The first and best thing he advised us to do was to approach the buildings owner and try to negotiate a lease on our own, which we were able to do. Now we needed money!!
GS: Leslie told me that it was really hard for a woman to get a loan then without a male signer.
MF: That’s absolutely true! Leslie and I needed to get close friends with larger bank accounts than us to co-sign for us, and Linda’s father came through for her and Barbara, Linda’s partner at the time. It was worse getting a liquor license. At this point we had an attorney and we went down to the liquor authority. Leslie, Barbara and Linda probably asked me to take a tranquilizer before going in there because I was very hyper, and tend to be more effective when I’m less so. They asked us whether we knew all of these mafia people – they couldn’t believe we were opening a club with no mafia affiliation. At some point the guy asked us to sign that we didn’t know any of the mafia people and that our nearest male relative would be responsible for what we decided to do with the liquor license. Our attorney told them that was illegal and threatened to take them to court (laughing) it was insane, but thanks to our heavy weight attorney, eventually we got the liquor license in our own names.
GS: Did you ever have any problems with the mafia since I’m assuming you were taking some business away from them?
MF: Yes. That’s a funny story! You can see why there are a lot of tangents in this history. I was managing the club one night, and it was every early when our bouncer comes downstairs to get me. He was probably six foot-four and about three-hundred pounds but he was shaking and white and sweating. He managed to tell me that there was a mafia guy saying that if we didn’t let him in he was going to kill us or whatever. So, I go upstairs and walk outside and this man is standing there with these two guys in dark hats and sunglasses and this tall blond woman with him. He got all aggressive with me, so I took a deep breath and I asked him if he thought that the best way to get access to my club was to scare and bully the shit out of me! He asked me if I knew who he was and I said “Well I don’t know but I’ll call downtown and talk to Joey and see if he knows who you are!” I swear to god, I came up with that on the fly! He asked if this was one of Joey’s clubs and apologized to me. I told him we were empty at the moment and that he should come in and have a drink and then leave. He was embarrassed because he had a woman he was clearly trying to impress. So, they came in, he bought her a drink, left a hundred-dollar bill on the counter and walked out.
GS: Wow. That’s so scary! I wouldn’t know what to say. I can’t believe you came up with that on the fly.
MF: I think I just go into a different head space under pressure! it was very funny and this story will live on forever. (Laughing) That was our only threat really. Maybe word got around that we were working with Joey! (Laughing)
GS: Can you tell me a little bit about the beginning of the club and your role in conceiving of the space?
MF: I feel that my greatest role was in making it happen in the first place. I’m a producer by nature. I have often thought that I probably should have moved on after a couple of years and done something else, as putting it together is what keeps me engaged… but then there were the drugs, sex and rock and roll, and I was in my 20s! While we all had a hand in everything, Leslie was really responsible for all the artwork and most of the performances that took place at the club. Linda took care of the books and paying the staff. I was pretty good at managing the club. Barbara had a lot to do with the décor, and managed the bars. Her cousin did all the wonderful woodwork and logo design at the club. We had ourselves a beautiful, sophisticated space at exactly the right time!
Leslie would remember all of the details and logistics. I’m better at offering some color to the story I think.
GS: What did managing the space entail for you?
MF: Being there, making sure everything was ok on the floor and working with the staff (hiring and firing). Making sure that everyone walking in felt welcome, and the music and alcohol were flowing.
We promoted fundraising events for various causes and candidates, that was an important part of our mission, especially women’s causes. On one night, Jane Fonda was coming to the club to speak on behalf of Elaine Noble, an openly gay candidate who was running for office. On this specific night, when Jane arrived we couldn’t walk her into the club and take her downstairs to the office because the club was packed, all the way out the door. So, I met her car at the curb, and ushered her into the coffee shop next door. We sat anonymously at a table (she had a big hat on and sunglasses) and she asked me if it was ok if she had a drink (laughing). She wanted their best whiskey and she knocked it back! I ordered her another one, she had a big smile on her face and said she was ready! I said “Let’s go!”
We also had the cast of Saturday Night Live at Sahara and Pat Benatar was our house singer – we watched her go from classical music, to pop, to rock in our club. That was amazing. Warren Beatty used to come in with a woman and they’d look for another woman to go home with. Salvador Dali came in one night on the arm of fabulous friend Alana G. I remember him waving his cape, and his fabulous moustache! The incomparable Bella Abzug often used come by and shake a leg upstairs in our disco. I mean it was just amazing. Leslie has pictures of all of this, thanks heavens!
GS: It seems like Sahara became so much more than just a lesbian club and that it opened up a world of possibilities for lesbian culture. Do you feel that way?
MF: It really was! We were having poetry readings and fashion shows. We screened Grey Gardens upstairs and the directors, the Maysles Bros. both attended. The first time the term lipstick lesbian was used was really at our bar. We were mostly uptown lesbians whether we came from downtown or not! We had fan chairs and bamboo tables, carpet – people felt really good being there! Our crowd wasn’t really the Doc Marten’s kind of crowd, women enjoyed dressing up for each other and wearing lipstick if it was appropriate and it just became really relavant! Anybody walking into that club couldn’t pick out a stereotype. We were just women of all kinds.
GS: What you, Leslie, Barbara and Linda did was just so revolutionary. You gave my generation this gift of appreciating and celebrating the beauty and diversity within the lesbian community and I’m just so grateful for that. It must have been scary and exhilarating to have this happen out of nothing almost – to be the first lesbian-owned club in this way.
MF: It was a little bit scary but most of us were just way too excited to feel scared!
GS: Could you talk a little bit about the emotional impact of Sahara’s closing for you Michelle?
MF: It was Christmas Eve when Leslie showed up to Sahara and found the doors padlocked. Long story short, we were betrayed by one of our attourneys, a greedy man who planted outside alcohol in the club several times and reported us to the State Liquor Authority. He was also a real estate whore and sold us out to a bigger, richer client that wanted our building as part of a development deal. We should have had this guy disbarred but he had some information that could have gotten us in trouble… so we had no choice but to walk away. Linda and Barbara walked away and ended up doing their own thing afterwards. We went our separate ways.
I was completely immobilized. I remained in bed and I wouldn’t get out. I was with Judith (the silent partner) at the time, and was really a mess. We were together in one form or another for thirty-five years, I always referred to her as my life partner. After about a month of my depression she booked a cruise for us. I was like a vegetable – a turnip. I started to come alive again on the cruise. When we came home, Leslie called and suggested that we go into the promoting business. Same thing we were doing with no overheard, and no way would women get tired of a space because we could just up and move it. It was a brilliant idea, and I needed something to live for again. She probably could have done it without me, but she always said I was the one with balls, so she probably felt safer doing it with me. We did these pop-up parties before anyone else in NYC. Gay men quickly caught on and there were lots of promoters around town after that.
GS: What was it liked switching from running a seven-day-a-week club to throwing parties at different locations?
MF: It wasn’t bad because there was rarely a slow night. Not only were there always lines out the door but often we had people standing outside selecting people to let into our parties. It was special because we’d do it once a week and move it around. People loved it! It was great. We did one club three or four nights a week and it was always packed. We had a mailing list from Sahara and each time we did another club we gained more names. I can’t remember if we did any advertising but with word of mouth we didn’t have to. It pulled a great looking crowd with great energy. It was a wonderful thing to do following Sahara and it helped with the loss we all experienced with it’s closure
GS: Thank you so much Michelle. I so appreciate your time and willingness to share these memories with me.