Steve Ostrow, Founder of Ansonia’s Continental Baths, Dies at 91

Ansonia Building 1905

Though he hadn’t lived in New York for many years, the UWS nevertheless lost a legend Feb. 4 with the death of Steve Ostrow, the colorful entrepreneur and opera singer who founded the famed Continental Baths at the Ansonia Hotel in 1968.

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Mr. Ostrow, who was 91, left a lasting mark on the city with the groundbreaking gay men’s sex club and entertainment venue that became a storied chapter in the history of the neighborhood and LGBTQ culture in New York. He died in Australia, where he had lived since 1987.

It was happenstance that Mr. Ostrow discovered that the basement of the landmark hotel was empty and available. He regularly took singing lessons in the building and one day learned from a doorman that the empty and cavernous basement housed the neglected remains of a long-closed health club. He thought it would be the perfect spot for the men’s health club he’d been planning to open. It was a savvy business decision – he knew there was a need for it – but also a courageous one. In 1968, homosexuality was illegal and most gay bars in the city were run by the mafia, according to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. But the Continental Baths flourished.

The Baths quickly became a popular haven for the gay community and a springboard for rising stars like Bette Midler. In fact, Mr. Ostrow boasted that he discovered Ms. Midler and gave her her break into show business, a claim she seemed to support when she wrote in a blurb for his 2007 memoir “….. the headline of my obituary in the New York Times will read ‘Bette Midler dead: Began her career at the Continental Baths.’”

When it opened, it featured dozens of private rooms, massages, “color TV, chess, checkers, etc…” and a lavish 45-foot Roman baths-themed pool area with a stage for entertainment. Eventually, it had a restaurant, a gym, a disco, a health clinic, a labyrinth and even a rooftop beach. It drew a long list of entertainers like Ms. Midler, the Manhattan Transfer, Patti LaBelle and Barry Manilow. Attendees at the shows included such names as Rudolph Nureyev, Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol. Mr. Ostrow and others said it was as influential in the gay rights revolution as The Stonewall Inn, if not more so.

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It made Mr. Ostrow, who was bisexual, a public figure and leader in the gay community, so much so that he was sought after by politicians for his endorsement. He even considered a run for mayor himself. He said of the Baths that “It was the first gay establishment to treat gay people as equals and not exploit them. It was instrumental in having laws against homosexuality rescinded and gave birth, along with Stonewall, to a whole generation where gay was in.”

The Brooklyn native, his wife Joanne and their two children lived on West 71st Street just two blocks from the Baths. After they separated, Mr. Ostrow moved to an apartment on the 14th floor of the Ansonia where he lived until 1977, at which point he moved to Canada to open a similar club.

The Baths closed in 1977. A parking garage now fills the space that was once alive with music, laughter, camaraderie and revelry, along with a gay rights movement that was just taking off.

Mr. Ostrow leaves two children, Maria Jaul and Scott Ostrow, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His former wife, Joanne Ostrow, from whom he was divorced, died in 2001.


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  1. Ian Alterman February 16, 2024

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