She was born Rachelle Zylberberg in Belgium just as the Great Depression hit: a Jewish child abandoned as an infant by her single mother and left alone at age 12 when her father, a drunken Polish refugee, was arrested by the Nazis in France . She hid in a convent, where she was beaten. After the war, she sold bras on the streets of Paris and vowed to become rich and famous one day.
In 1957, calling herself Régine, she borrowed money and opened a nightclub in the basement in a Parisian alley. She couldn’t afford live music, so patrons danced to a jukebox. Business was bad and the young owner, in a decision that would have shaken social historians for decades, concluded that the problem was the jukebox.
“When the music stopped, you could hear kisses in the corners,” she told the BBC, using British slang for hugging and kissing. “It killed the atmosphere. Instead, I set up two turntables so there was no gap in the music. I was a bartender, doorman, restroom attendant, hostess, and I I also put the records in. It was the very first disco and I was the very first disc jockey in the club.
Thus began Chez Régine, widely regarded as the world’s premier nightclub. In the 1970s, its owner built a $500 million empire of 23 clubs in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, including Regine’s in Manhattan, the most famous nightclub of its time, welcoming crowds stretch limo arts and entertainment stars, society celebrities, princes, playboys and Beautiful People.
Régine, whose chain of clubs peaked in the 80s and died out in the 90s, victim of an open drug culture and radical changes in the club scene, died on Sunday. She was 92 years old.
Her death was announced on Instagram by her friend French actor and comedian Pierre Palmade, who did not specify the cause or say where she died.
Plump and effervescent empresaria with flamboyant red hair, Régine was known to all as “the queen of the night”. With great fanfare, she opened her New York club in 1976 on the ground floor of Delmonico’s Hotel, at the intersection of 59th Street and Park Avenue. She moved into the hotel’s penthouse suite. The city had just gone through a fiscal crisis, but for its posh clientele, that didn’t matter.
Régine has made exclusivity an art. She attracted privileged classes by selling 2,000 club memberships for $600 each and requiring tuxedos and evening dresses to enter. She installed a flashing ‘disco full’ sign outside to discourage hoi polloi and a sliding peephole at the door to inspect suppliants for admission to the pounding music and gold-plated glamor of her Valhalla.
She kissed celebrities: Salvador Dalí, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Joan Collins, Andy Warhol, Milos Forman, Mick Jagger, Anthony Quinn, Brooke Shields. No one was admitted on heavy cover charges after the New York State Liquor Authority threatened to sue her for ‘social discrimination’. She handled the advertising masterfully. She once wore a live boa constrictor, a gift from Federico Fellini.
On any given night, you might see Françoise 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 the application of her dress code. His friend Mick Jagger has already been refused entry for showing up in trainers.
Régine danced all night with Gene Kelly, then disappeared with him for 15 days. “Yeah, we had private relationships,” she told Elle in 2011.
She remembers the wondering face of John Wayne when they first met: “Are you the Regine?
And Robin Leach, columnist for the rich and famous, told him that reporting from Paris was a breeze: “You would just go to Regine’s every night and wait for the princesses to arrive.”
Régine energizes the evenings with “happenings”. One in Paris was a “Jean Harlow evening”. Patrons in platinum wigs arrived in white limos, walked down a white-carpeted sidewalk, and strolled around in white tuxedos and skin-tight white dresses with white feather boas.
Saluting July 14 in New York, the patriots included Governor Hugh L. Carey, Ethel Kennedy, Margaux Hemingway, Elizabeth Taylor and John Warner (then Chairman of the United States Bicentennial Commission) and Senator George S. McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate.
“If anyone had any doubts about celebrating an event that theoretically ended the privileged class, in a room about 40 times more crowded than the Bastille keep on that fateful day, no one voiced their doubts” , reported the New York Times. “To be fair, it was somewhat difficult to make anything more than isolated words audible.”
In the late 1970s, Régine’s expansion reached its peak. Besides flagships in Paris and New York, it had clubs in Monte Carlo, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Saint Tropez, London, Dusseldorf, Los Angeles, Miami, Cairo, Kuala Lumpur and many other cities. All were in privileged places. His marketing analyzes included lists of each city’s elite, to be cultivated as club members and financiers.
Asked about funding 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 $500,000 and gave her stock discounts 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 by the side, with small roles in films including ‘The Seven-Per-Cent Solution’ (1976), a Sherlock Holmes tale starring Nicol Williamson and Laurence Olivier, and was moderately popular singer in Paris and New York. She had a hit with a French version of “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor in 1978, and made her singing debut at Carnegie Hall in 1970.
“Although Régine had a strong, dark voice, she made little effort to use it as a flexible instrument,” wrote Robert Sherman in a review for The Times. “Régine’s sassy appearance and lively stage manners cover a multitude of inflexibilities, and the sheer exuberance of her performance was, in itself, more than enough to seduce.”
Régine’s popularity in New York and around the world gradually faded in the 1980s, overtaken by trendier clubs like Studio 54, the Manhattan nightclub founded in 1977 by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. It has also attracted celebrities, but also a sex-and-drug clientele and hanger crowds looking for a glimpse of decadent chic.
“At the end of the decade, the party began to calm down”, New York magazine reported in a retrospective on Régine’s in 1999. “A new generation of clubbers found their club stuffy and stuffy, and even Régine’s most loyal loyalists found it hard to resist the sexy allure of Studio 54.”
“You didn’t feel like you could start using cocaine on the tables at Regine’s,” said Bob Colacello, the author and social critic, in New York. “She wasn’t throwing quaaludes at movie stars. She didn’t have shirtless bartenders. She didn’t have what people wanted when times changed.
The woman behind Régine’s mystique was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on December 26, 1929, to emigrants from Poland, Joseph Zylberberg and Tauba Rodstein. In an unhappy and unstable childhood, she never knew her mother, who abandoned the family and went to Argentina, but remembered her father as a charming gambler and drinker who ran a small restaurant in Paris. Rachelle, as she was called in an interview with the Boston Globe, had a brother, Maurice, and a half-sister, Evelyne.
As a child, she served at the tables of her father’s restaurant near Montmartre. After the occupation of Paris by the Germans in 1940, his 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, according to one account, she was briefly held hostage by the Gestapo.
After the war, she dreamed of a glamorous life and sometimes glimpsed what it might look like. “When I saw Rita Hayworth and Aly Khan, in the center of all eyes at the best table of a chic restaurant in Deauville, I swore to myself one day to sit where they were”, he said. she told the New York Post in 1973.
At 16, she married Leon Rothcage. They had a son, Lionel Rotcage, and divorced after a few years. In 1969, she married Roger Choukroun, who helped her manage her properties. They divorced in 2004. Her son died in 2006.
Complete information about the survivors was not immediately available.
By the late 1990s, Régine’s international empire had shrunk to a handful of clubs in France, a location in Istanbul, and a restaurant-lounge in New York called Rage.
For the past few years, she’s lived in Paris, managed her affairs, supported charities, thrown the occasional party, and seen old friends. In 2015, she published a book of photographs and reminiscences, “Mes Nuits, Mes Rencontres”. Photos showed her with Charles Aznavour, Oscar de la Renta, Diana Vreeland, Michael Jackson and many more.
“My son is the only thing I miss,” she told Women’s Wear Daily. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I do not care. I want them to laugh with me and be happy.
Alex Traub contributed reporting.