God willing, at this very moment someone is scrambling eggs on a stove in an apartment overlooking the East River while at the same time gazing up at someone’s buttocks, pressed against a see-through Plexiglas bathtub, sunken, by design, into the floor above.
In the early 1980s, the late Paul Rudolph, noted architect and onetime dean of the Yale School of Architecture, incorporated such a tub into his dream apartment on the top three floors of 23 Beekman Place. The tub was still in working condition a few years ago, when hotelier and noted bathing enthusiast André Balazs had his birthday party there. “Of all the incredible bathtubs I’ve heard of in this city, that one takes it,” Mr. Balazs said.
At a gallery opening some four years ago, socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein, known about town for sparing no expense on plastic surgery, confessed another extravagance to this reporter: Keeping a pet monkey in a big Plexiglas cage installed above her gold-plated bathtub.
It stands to reason that in a city that has long been teeming with extremely rich, unabashedly decadent and hedonistic individuals, many great bathing tubs would exist, hidden from sight, behind the closed doors of mysterious, fabulous apartments. Finding them, alas, proved a difficult task.
The great Elaine Kaufman has seen a lot of characters walk through the doorway of her hallowed restaurant on Second Avenue. On a recent Friday evening, I pressed her on the subject of bathing and great bathtubs. After scrolling through the vast Rolodex of her mind, Ms. Kaufman said that the owner of Tavern on the Green, the late Warner LeRoy, used to have a great big tub in the middle of a large, windowed room in his penthouse apartment, with a commanding view of Central Park, which he liked to show off to guests.
She had little else to say on the subject. In her judgment, men who favored tubs have been lazier than their showering counterparts.
Indeed, only recently have we begun speaking openly about our growing love of a well-appointed bathtub, sufficient in depth and legroom. To this day, bathers have a bad rap, perhaps due to a pernicious rumor that soaking is somehow “less clean” than standing under a spray. (It doesn’t help that MSNBC’s Keith “Bathtub Boy” Olbermann is one of our icons, or that forgotten actor Craig Bierko is interviewing celebrities from his bathtub in his new column, superdeluxe.com.)
But this may be about to change. As Mr. Balazs puts it, Americans, and New Yorkers in particular, are in the midst of “a profoundly deep awakening about the pleasure and relaxing qualities of a bath.” A four-person tub in every apartment is one of the main selling points of his Wall Street residential development the William Beaver House, and he is currently building what he believes will be the city’s first true spa hotel, yet unnamed, on West 14th Street.
Mr. Balazs is one of the few people around willing to boast of his practice of ending his day with a relaxing tub; after returning from a tour of the legendary bathhouses that dot the peaks of Mount Fuji in Japan, he is completing the installation of a steam room in his Soho apartment.
Alas, in New York, only the very lucky or very rich even have a living room, let alone a nice bathtub.
But times are changing. High-end brokers and interior designers report that it is not uncommon for members of the growing multimillionaire club to spend upwards of $100,000 refurbishing a bathroom; residential developers say that in the past five years, a great bathtub has become a requisite accoutrement to luxury apartments, and Japanese soaking tubs are now de rigueuer at high-end hotels.
Interior designer Miles Redd thinks his cast-marble tub is the best in the city. He had his entire bathroom, originally built by Chicago architect David Adler, transported from a warehouse there to his Nolita townhouse. He says people are always surprised to hear he bathes in the mornings.
And Ann Leary, the gorgeous writer wife of actor Denis, proudly showed us the spacious tub where she conceptualized much of her forthcoming novel, Outtakes From a Marriage (Random House). Hubby is strictly a shower man, though.
A certain taboo still hangs over public discussion of bathing rituals, especially among men. When was the last time you heard a fellow say, “Sorry, I’m late. Had to take a quick bath”? No, while the Shower Guy is able to flaunt his technique in casual conversation, the Bath Man enjoys his suds in private.
“You’re in the bath?!” my male friends shriek when I inform them of my surroundings. They are equally shocked when I speak of my twice-daily practice while fully clothed, under so-called “normal” circumstances. And many young males I’ve spoken to say that it has been years since they’ve enjoyed a good soak.
Good God, man, have yourself a bath!
“How dumb do you take me to be?” Christopher Hitchens wrote in response to my e-mail asking his take on the state of American bathing, as well as his own. “If you can find anybody else to fall for the Mencken hoax, let me know,” continued the noted author and Vanity Fair columnist, who recently completed a series of personal essays exploring, among other things, modern male hygiene and grooming techniques. “If you haven’t heard of it yourself, get an education. I’ll keep score.”
What is he talking about, you ask? In December of 1917, H. L. Mencken published a gem of an essay titled “A Neglected Anniversary” in The New York Evening Mail. The piece, a “tissue of absurdities” as Mencken was later compelled to explain, documented an imaginary history of the bathtub in America, and the tragic neglect of the 75th anniversary of its invention, which he attributed to an enterprising cotton merchant, Adam Thompson, of Cincinnati. Mencken noted as well the introduction of various laws and taxes that confronted the new form on its journey to prominence. Journalists have reprinted excerpts from the piece as “fact” on countless occasions. As recently as February 2004, The Washington Post noted in a travel column, “Bet you didn’t know that … [Millard] Fillmore was the first president to install a bathtub in the White House.” In fact, it was in the 1850s, during the Franklin Pierce administration, that the first permanent tub was installed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The hoax’s success underscores our national ignorance on the subject of bathing.
“We are as Americans very slow on the uptake in terms of bathing,” Mr. Balazs said, “as we are on all things sensual and pleasing.”
He blames our Puritanical roots. Indeed, according to the Smithsonian, “Colonial America’s leaders deemed bathing impure, since it promoted nudity, which could only lead to promiscuity. Laws in Pennsylvania and Virginia either banned or limited bathing. For a time in Philadelphia, anyone who bathed more than once a month faced jail.” Jail!
Mr. Balazs said that while bathing culture is on the rise, it still has a way to go. He envisioned a future in which bathing, as in Budapest, is a social event, offering the popularity of a co-ed bathhouse at his Standard hotel in Miami as evidence of what’s to come.
New York the bathing paradise is a fine thought, but for now us bathists—and indeed I hope that our numbers are growing—face ignorance at every turn.
My fiancée’s go-to story whenever she wants to embarrass me in front of friends is about an experience at the Village Inn hotel in Napa Valley, Calif. The room wasn’t cheap, but the concierge had me at “giant bathtub.” He also promised lavender bath salts. When we got to our room, we rejoiced at the sight of the tub, which was giant. Then I began cursing violently and snatched up the phone to report the absence of the lavender salts. Ha-ha-ha! If that one goes over well, which it invariably does, she’s prone to follow it up with the tale of how a few weeks back I was suckered into spending $40 at the Lush store on lower Broadway when the saleslady mentioned that a “citrus wedge” worked well in a “bath cocktail” comprised of a bath “bomb” and a “melt.”
The truth is, I only recently discovered my passion for bathing. It all happened when I moved into the lovely lady’s apartment and discovered a tub five feet long and two feet deep. Previous to that, I had been dealing with a converted closet shower in the kitchen of my studio apartment on East 10th Street.
My relationship with the porcelain behemoth has been one of pure pleasure. My time in the tub is productive, both psychically and physically. Sometimes I read in there. I jot notes! I crack the window to get a cool breeze going.
It is only when I get out of the tub that the drawbacks present themselves, in the form of social scorn. Why is it that women have long been able to enjoy the bath, but for the man-beast it has been deemed an indulgence?
One can only hope the onslaught of luxury tubs in fancy apartments will produce a batch of new male converts, and the wisdom behind a glorious soak will trickle down, as it were, to the sweaty masses.