Disco pioneer Regine, holocaust survivor and 70s nightclub queen, dies aged 92

She embraced celebrities: Salvador Dalí, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Joan Collins, Andy Warhol, Milos Forman, Mick Jagger, Anthony Quinn, Brooke Shields. Nobodies were admitted for stiff cover charges after the New York State Liquor Authority threatened to sue her for “social discrimination”. She managed publicity masterfully.

She once wore a live boa constrictor, a gift from Federico Fellini.

On a given night, you might see Franςoise Sagan, Brigitte Bardot, Diane von Furstenberg, Ben Vereen, Hubert de Givenchy and Stevie Wonder in a crowd with Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Robert Mitchum, with Jack Nicholson and John Gotti conspiring at a table. Régine was strict about enforcing her dress code. Her friend Mick Jagger was once refused entry for showing up in sneakers.

Regine danced all night with Gene Kelly, then disappeared with him for 15 days. “Yes, we had private relations,” she told Elle in 2011.

Regine, pictured at her New York disco in 1977 with a Russian ballet dancer, made exclusivity an art form. Credit:NY Daily News

By the late ’70s, Régine’s expansion was peaking. Besides flagships in Paris and New York, she had clubs in Monte Carlo, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Saint Tropez, London, Düsseldorf, Los Angeles, Miami, Cairo, Kuala Lumpur and many other cities. All were in prime locales. Her marketing analyses included lists of each city’s elite, to be cultivated as clubgoers and financiers.

Asked about financing her clubs, she insisted that all she invested was her name, never her money. Some of her clubs, she explained, were franchises owned by local entrepreneurs who paid up to $US500,000 and gave her cuts of the action to use her name. She also owned restaurants, cafes and a magazine; sold lines of clothing and perfumes; and sponsored dance classes and ocean cruises.

She was an entertainer on the side, with small roles in films, including “The Seven Percent Solution” (1976), a Sherlock Holmes tale with Nicol Williamson and Laurence Olivier, and was a moderately popular singer in Paris and New York. She had a hit with a French version of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive in 1978, and she made her singing debut at Carnegie Hall in 1970.

The popularity of Regine’s in New York and around the world gradually faded in the 1980s, overtaken by trendier clubs like Studio 54, the Manhattan disco founded in 1977 by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. It, too, drew the celebrities but also a sex-and-drugs clientele and crowds of hangers-on surging for a glimpse of decadent chic.

“By the end of the decade, the party began to wind down,” New York magazine reported in a retrospective on Regine’s in 1999. “A new generation of clubgoers deemed her club staid and stuffy, and even Régine’s most faithful devotees found it hard to resist the sexy lure of Studio 54.”

“You didn’t feel like you could start doing cocaine on the tables at Regine’s,” Bob Colacello, an author and social critic, told New York. “She wasn’t giving out quaaludes to movie stars. She didn’t have bartenders with their shirts off. She didn’t have what people wanted when the times changed.”

The woman behind Régine’s mystique was born in Etterbeek, Belgium, on Dec. 26, 1929, to emigrants from Poland, Joseph Zylberberg and Tauba Rodstein. In an unhappy, unstable childhood, she never knew her mother, who abandoned the family and went to Argentina, but recalled her father as a charming gambler and drinker who ran a small eatery in Paris.

As a child, she waited on tables in her father’s restaurant near Montmartre. After the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, her father was arrested and sent to a prison camp. She hid for two years in a Catholic convent, where she said she was beaten by other girls because she was Jewish. Her father escaped, and by one account she was taken hostage briefly by the Gestapo.

After the war, she dreamed of a glamorous life and occasionally glimpsed what it might be like.

When she was 16, she married Leon Rothcage. They had a son, Lionel Rotcage, and were divorced after a few years. In 1969, she married Roger Choukroun, who helped manage her properties. They were divorced in 2004. Her son died in 2006.

Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

By the end of the 1990s, Regine’s international empire had dwindled to a handful of clubs in France, a place in Istanbul and a restaurant-lounge in New York called Rage.

In recent years, she lived in Paris, managed her affairs, supported charities, gave occasional parties and saw old friends. In 2015, she published a book of photographs and reminiscences, Mes Nuits, Mes Rencontres (My Nights, My Encounters”).

“My son is the only thing I miss,” she told Women’s Wear Daily. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. That doesn’t interest me. I want them to laugh with me and to be happy.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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