by Yvonne Sewell-Ruskin
Max's Kansas City was the exact spot where Pop Art and Pop Life
came together in the sixties--teenyboppers and sculptors, rock stars
And poets from St. Mark's Place, Hollywood actors, checking out what
the underground actors were all about, boutique owners and models,
modern dancers and go-go dancers--everybody went to Max's and
everything got homogenized there.
Everyone who was anyone was there. Max's was the place to be and be seen. It quickly became the new drug of the sixties and seventies counterculture scene, and its effects were lasting. Just as popular culture was poised on the brink of a remarkable shift, the legendary restaurant/bar/hangout opened its doors in December of '65 at 213 Park Avenue South off of Union Square in New York City. The mere mention of Max's conjures up images of chic and outrageousness. There never was a place like it before, and there never will be again.
Mickey Ruskin, owner:
My places have always been my living room and every night I throw a party. That's what it really amounts to, but at Max's it went from an ordinary little salon and turned into magic.
Mel Brooks, director/actor:
Billy Wilder used to tell me about the coffeehouses in Vienna, and Max's was like that for me. I never knew any other place you could talk with writers , performers, various wandering gypsies, and bullshit about the ways of the world.
Abbie Hoffman, political activist:
Max's was allowable. All the worlds could meet there, and I guess you were kind of gossip proof. Whatever happened there was off the record so there was a certain amount of protection.
Lawrence Weiner, artist:
Max's was the only place you could go and find out how you really stood in the world.
To enter Max's was to confront a heady mix of faces and personalities. To enter the notorious back room was an act of bravery. It was the longest running party in history, and the home away from home for an influential group of artists, filmmakers, musicians, poets, models, photographers, writers, movie stars and socialites. Young people clamored to get into the joint. The raucous mix led to revolution in every facet of the arts. The action was always shifting and intense. In many ways Max's exemplified instant gratification: drugs, sex, music exhibitionism and voyeurism-which is not to say that Max's was lacking in intelligent conversation.
Myra Friedman, publicist/author of Buried Alive, a biography of Janis Joplin:
Max's was a lot more than a magnet for sex, games, and drugs. It was an earthy, invigorating hangout, and the people who Mickey let stay there for hours and hurs were definitely a breed apart, when being "apart" had real meaning in the world. I remember it for lots of conversation with lots of people who had lots and lots to say, and looking back on it now, the hum of the place strikes me as sort of the last hurrah of a genuine American bohemia. Like a great piece of writing, it was airborne from the minute it opened. It had beautiful wings; it soared.
The key to the energy was the explosive chemistry among the participants. A veritable who's who of the famous and infamous adorned the place: Mick Jagger, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Roger Vadim, Faye Dunaway, Bruce Springsteen, Allen Gingsberg, Jim Morrison, Betsey Johnson, Roy Lichtenstein, Abbie Hoffman, Mel Brooks, Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper, Patti Smith, Timothy Leary, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious, and Andy Warhol are a sampling. Debbie Harry or Emmy Lou Harris might have been your waitress before each got their big break. The quality of the mix led to such meetings as Andy Warhol and Valerie Solanis, Abbie Hoffman and Janis Joplin, Candy Darling (said the be the most beautiful transvestite) and Divine (tar of John Water's movie, Pink Flamingos), and rock stars David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Where else but at Max's could you find the brilliant feminist Germaine Greer wondering who had surreptitiously unsnapped her bra, while at another table transvestite Jackie Curtis shared make-up tips with Kennedy family member Sargent Shriver. Or the elegantly dressed Duke and Duchess of Windsor perusing menus within earshot of leather-jacketed Patti Smith and Sam Shepard. While up front the earth artist, Robert Smithson, might be sitting in a booth with Brice Marden, Dorothea Rockburne, and Carl Andre arguing over his theories of conceptual art, too busy to notice Cary Grant and his party in the booth across the way.
Ed Koch, former mayor of New York:
People came there came from every walk of life, from college kids to punks to the literati and the idle rich, as well as some politicians like myself. In fact, Mickey offered to open my campaign for Congress in an unused space above the restaurant. I was delighted to accept the offer. And indeed the cheap rent, combined with a good and inexpensive place for the campaign workers to have dinner, as well as to listen to occasional good music, probably contributed to the success of my campaign.
Oliviero Toscani, creative director of "Talk":
I was twenty when I won a Pan American photographic competition , and they flew me to New York. Max's was New York at the time. It was to me like an abstract painting, a place where you mix dreams and reality. It was so much an event. All the time Bob Dylan on the jukebox, "Knockin On Heaven's Door." That song was very much Max's Kansas City.
Alice Cooper, rock musician:
I was like a social vampire. I'd get up around seven p.m., watch tv, leave around midnight and stay at max's until the sun came up. I probably lived on chick peas and Black Russians. We were pretty much established at the time. I liked it there because all of my friends were there. Iggy was there, Bowie was there, and the Dolls. We were all in the same place so that was the place to be. Mickey used to always treat us right. He would make sure we had the right table·not that we knew what the right table was, but that was the great part about Max's.
Max's owed its incredible success to the late Mickey Ruskin, its owner and founder. The name Mickey Ruskin is synonymous with Max's. Mickey was happiest in the company of painters and sculptors; his freewheeling attitude and generosity nurtured the budding careers of many now renowned abstract expressionists including Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Brice Marden, Sol LeWitt, and Carl Andre, and Pop Art Superstars such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Ruskin gained his loyal following with a string of artist-oriented bistros, previously having owned the Tenth Street Coffeehouse, Cafˇ Deux Megots, the Ninth Circle, and the Annex before opening Max's. He nurtured the New York underground scene from before the beginning. But Max's was his crowning achievement. He provided a libertine atmosphere in which the unconventional could flourish.
Robert Povlich, painter:
Mickey pulled together a scene that was the closest thing to what you would call a salon. It wasn't like walking into a bar for a shot. It was like a living room where you didn't know who you would see. That was the atmosphere he gave it. You got artists, and writers, and poets, and a bunch of bohemians, sitting around bullshitting, exchanging this and that, and you got some guy like Mel Brooks standing right behind them, and all of a sudden, you start attracting people from 57th Street, because that's now the place to be seen, because these people follow the artists. That's what happened.
Mickey issued "max's charge cards" to his artists friends and allowed them (many unknown at the time) to barter artworks for food and drink. This enabled them to wine and dine the art dealers and critics in style when often they "didn't have a pot to pee in." Max's served as an art gallery as well as a meeting place. It became an extension of the art market and in later years a music venue for unsigned acts. Every musician or band trying to get a record deal performed upstairs at Max's. Bob Marley and the Wailers made their debut in New York upstairs at Max's with Bruce Springsteen as a double billing. The B52's made their debut appearance at Max's. Even Madonna performed there before she became a superstar. Mickey also cashed checks, loaned money, and offered advice. There were notoriously ridiculous bar tabs that reached into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Gerald Laing, painter:
I was one of the handful of artists who Mickey invited to trade work of art for food. In all, I gave him two pieces, and for that I received $8000 in credit, a very large sum to spend in a restaurant in 1966. It also made it extremely difficult to eat at any other restaurant in New York, and if we did, the result was inevitably disappointing, for no other place had the drama, the excitement, and sense of purpose that Max's did.
Showtime, a nightly back-room event, often involved a striptease by Warhol superstar Andrea "Warhola Whips" Feldman, that was part performance art and part drug induced psychosis. Max's regular Danny Fields said, "It's no cover, no minimum, for the greatest show in town." As far as Mickey was concerned, "If I liked somebody they had an absolute right to do whatever they wanted." And they wanted a lot. The age of consent in the back room was the age at which one could say yes. After all this was the sixties and Max's was the place where you could not only confront the values of the next generation-you could go to bed with them. Perhaps Jimi Hendrix said it best: "Max's Kansas City was where you could let your freak flag fly."
Yvonne Sewell-Ruskin was a waitress at Max's for four months. She is also the mother of two of Mickey Ruskin's children.
See more about Max's, the scene, and the forthcoming book at the Max's Kansas City website.
Photos by Anton Perich