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Nell's place and what it says about New York.

Nell's Place

The word is exclusive. If the street isn't packed with the desperate hordes of the excluded, then a nightclub isn't worth going to. And some of the excluded would rather die than be left outside. The week I was in New York, a 44-year-old man excluded from Rascals, a club on First Avenue, pulled a gun. The doorman shot him dead. It seems that half the fun of going to a top club is proving to your friends that you have the social pull to get in. It's referred to as table-power.

These are not kids' discos. These are not teenage groupies hanging around without the price of admission. These are grown men and women. They stand on the sidewalk behind the red velvet ropes and desperately shout at stonyfaced bouncers: "But I know the manger! He's my best friend!"

I know a man who went to a favored club with his wife. She was let in. He wasn't. When it came to the crunch, she couldn't bear to pass up the glory of sailing past the crowd and through those magic doors. So she left him outside, where, in an altercation with the doorman, he was clubbed on the head with a baseball bat.

Money and success are indivisible in New York. The allure of Manhattan has always exerted a strong pull on status-seekers. The nightclubs are where the stockbrokers, lawyers, hot journalists, television producers, and advertising executives come to "play." Native New Yorkers are rarely part of the crowd. Expatriots in their own country, the newcomers have a keener need to show attachment, belonging, knowledge of their whereabouts. "I was at ---- last night," "Have you seen the ---- exhibit?" are sentences uttered at cocktail parties in the same way other people, in other places, wear badges of honor. These activities are their proof of success. This insecurity pervades every aspect of their life, from their kitchen appliances to their VCRs to their automobiles.

In New York nothing is worth having unless it is hard to get. When everyone has so much money, it no longer counts for much. Scarcity value has to be created in other ways. Trends change faster in New York than anywhere else: the place to dine, the clothes to wear, the club to dance. When the historian R.H. Tawney mocked those who insisted on the freedom to dine at the Ritz, he hadn't considered the more complicated question of dining at The Odeon, Indochine, or Cafe Luxembourg.

New York's cafe society is not quite the same as high society, which revolves around benefits-- the $1,000-a-plate dinner in aid of the world's anodyne causes like ballet or opera (or the Republicans). The New York Times is perhaps the world's most serious newspaper that also gives solemn space to chronicling the goings-on at society functions. Its "Evening Hours" column covers the doings of the rich and not-so-famous with groveling politeness. It smacks of the small-town gazette dutifully covering debutante balls at the local country club. Still, these New York benefits are more democratic than the clubs because they are easier to buy into.

Dressed in rubber

An extraordinary phenomenon of New York cafe society is that it is dominated by the British. New York is still quaintly Anglophile. Four of the top restaurants and the hottest nightclub are owned by a couple of East End brothers, Keith and Brian McNally. They have the magic touch. Whatever they open generates lines twice as long and twice as smart as anyone else's.

Their newest venture is Nell's, a nightclub, which Keith owns and runs together with Nell Campbell, the Anglo-Australian actress of The Rocky Horror Picture Show fame. Nell is the Queen of New York's night. The hordes outside her door lean over the barricades and shout, "But Nell's my friend! I know Nell! She said I could come in!" Nell peeps through her spy hole and gives the thumbs up or down to her black-jacketed team of heavies at the door.

She's an extraordinary character--plain, with cropped red hair. Sometimes she's glitzy in a red rubber dress, but the night I was there she looked scrubbed and eccentric in a tacky sixties outfit with a transparent blouse baring her breasts. She doesn't have to try if she doesn't feel like it. She just is. She is sharp, funny, sometimes outrageous, and very English. And she is now the arbiter of who's in and who's on the ropes in New York City.

"You couldn't run a place like this in London, or not quite like this," she says. "People are too sensible." She looks back to England with growing nostalgia. After living in London for 15 years, she was, much to her surprise, thrown out. She thought of herself as English, but the immigration authorities said she was Australian. She had lived in London since she was 8 and had been a member of Equity. And there was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. She could have gotten herself officially naturalized, but she never noticed the change in the immigration laws until she went to India for a vacation and was shocked not to be allowed back in again. "I have a flat there, my life is there, everything is there, but I can't go back," she says. "Not to live and work." Luckily she landed on her feet in New York. "But I couldn't live this way forever. Not here."

Her club is large. Its faded Edwardian splendor, with old gilt mirrors and chandeliers, slightly decrepit overstuffed velvet sofas, old wood paneling, and heavy dark velvet drapes, gives off the air of a boarding house. It looks as if it has been there forever, and that, she says, is the trick. Upstairs an 87-year-old mortician from Harlem quietly plays jazz. Downstairs there's pop music and dancing. And all around are beautiful people, mainly but not exclusively young. Nell is there every night, all night, from ten until five. What's on sale here isn't food, drink, music, or even ambiance. It's social cachet. And if Nell invites you over to her table--well, that's paradise.

There is no sign outside, only a large black door. "We wanted it to be recognized only by the crowd on the ropes," she explained. The key to success is crowd control. There are some members with little golden keys, but even they cannot always get their guests in if the doorman doesn't rate them. Then there is the guest list of people who have phoned ahead to get the big OK. Even that isn't a guaranteed entree.

So how does she decide? "It's incredibly embarrassing," she says. "But you can't just let the first ones in until it's full. I like people who look interesting. English accents are a plus. Chic Japanese too. I look through my peep hole and see how they look. I know English people find it really offensive, but it's the accepted way in New York. Awful, isn't it?"

The trouble is, if she lets in the B & T crowd (the people who drive into Manhattan over the bridges and through the tunnels from Brooklyn, Queens, or worst of all, New Jersey), then none of the high-flyers want to be there. And if none of the high-flyers are there, even the B & Ts stop coming. On a given night the rejects outside are either too got-up, which is uncool, not dressed in black, or just plain suburban. Some people are always kept out there, even if they look all right, because there always have to be people behind the ropes to make the people going in feel good. They just hang around, hoping. They seem quite stoical about this social order and their demeaning, though vital, role in it. What's exclusive, after all, if you can't get to see people being excluded?

A club like this might last three years or so. "I'm not going to do this forever," Nell says. Although she's the Queen of Gotham, Nell wrinkles her nose at New York. "It's alarming. Horrible," she says, even as she arbitrates through her wicked spy hole. "I hate it. You know, people are even like that about friends. They're disposable." I was reminded of the new filofax I saw in a New York shop. It's address pages were spongeable--instant eradication of friends who fall off the success ladder.

"It's not civilized," Nell says, "No one entertains at home in New York. No one cooks, the kitchens are too small. You can't sit four in an apartment. If you do have more than four, than you get in caterers. Who's doing your dinner is the big thing."

In the middle of pondering the horrors of New York high life, Nell stops to wonder if it's wise to say such things about her craven clients. But since social flagellation seems to be the name of the game, she decides it's all good for business. It's her distaste for the New York success scene that makes her the big winner in the game. Her approval is the ultimate unattainable. She's the Queen because she despises them for caring so much. She wouldn't beg to get in anywhere.

Curiously, New York's fast set doesn't find this at all silly. Even New York's intelligentsia seem caught up in the game. Their approval shows such immense vanity, and oddly enough, a desire for humiliation too. The big-shot achievers purposely set themselves up for massacre at the whim of doormen. As if money and success and power wern't enough, they have to prove themselves once more in the lines outside the hottest night-clubs in New York.
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Title Annotation:Nell's nightclub
Author:Toynbee, Polly
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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