She was born Rachelle Zylberberg in Belgium as the Great Depression struck: a Jewish child abandoned in infancy by her unwed mother and left alone at 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 in the streets of Paris and vowed to become rich and famous someday.
In 1957, calling herself Régine, she borrowed money and opened a basement nightclub in a Paris backstreet. She could not afford live music, so the patrons danced to a jukebox. Business was bad, and the young proprietor, in a decision that would have social historians wagging for decades, concluded that the problem was the jukebox.
“When the music stopped, you could hear snogging in the corners,” she told the BBC, using British slang for kissing and necking. “It killed the atmosphere. Instead, I installed two turntables so there was no gap in the music. I was barmaid, doorman, bathroom attendant, hostess, and I also put on the records. It was the first-ever discotheque, and I was the first-ever club disc jockey.”
And so began Chez Régine, widely regarded as the world’s first discotheque. In the 1970s, its owner built a $500 million empire of 23 clubs in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, including Régine’s in Manhattan, the most famous nightspot of its era, catering to the stretch-limousine crowd of arts and entertainment stars, society celebs, princes, playboys and Beautiful People.
Régine, whose chain of clubs peaked in the 1980s and faded in the ’90s, a victim of an open drug culture and radical changes in the club scene, died on Sunday. She was 92.
Her death was announced on Instagram by her friend the French actor and comedian Pierre Palmade, who did not specify the cause or say where she died.
A plump, effervescent empresaria with flaming red hair, Régine was known to everyone who was anyone as “the Queen of the Night.” With enormous fanfare, she opened her New York club in 1976 on the ground floor of Delmonico’s Hotel, at 59th Street and Park Avenue. She moved into the hotel’s penthouse suite. The city had just survived a fiscal crisis, but to her chic clientele that hardly mattered.
Régine made exclusivity an art form. She attracted privileged classes by selling 2,000 club memberships for $600 each, and by requiring tuxedos and evening gowns to get in. She installed a flashing “disco full” sign outside to discourage the hoi polloi and a slide-back peephole at the door to inspect supplicants for admission to the pounding music and gold-plated glamour of her Valhalla.
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.
Régine danced all night with Gene Kelly, then disappeared with him for 15 days. “Yes, we had private relations,” she told Elle in 2011.
She recalled John Wayne’s awed face at their first meeting: “Are you the Régine?”
And Robin Leach, chronicler of the rich and famous, told her that his reporting from Paris was a snap: “You’d just go to Régine’s every night and wait for the princesses to file in.”
Régine juiced up evenings with “happenings.” One in Paris was a “Jean Harlow night.” Patrons in platinum wigs arrived in white limousines, stepped onto a white-carpeted sidewalk, and strolled up in white tuxedos and clingy white gowns with white feather boas.
Saluting Bastille Day in New York, the patriots included Gov. Hugh L. Carey, Ethel Kennedy, Margaux Hemingway, Elizabeth Taylor and John Warner (at the time, the chairman of the United States Bicentennial Commission), and Senator George S. McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate.
“If anyone had second thoughts about celebrating an event that theoretically ended the privileged class, in a room some 40 times as crowded as the Bastille dungeon on that fateful day, no one made them audible,” The New York Times reported. “To be fair, it was somewhat difficult to make anything other than isolated words audible.”
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, São 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 club-goers 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 $500,000 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-Per-Cent 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.
“Although Régine has a strong, dark voice, she made little effort to use it as a flexible instrument,” Robert Sherman wrote in a review for The Times. “Régine’s pert appearance and vivacious stage manner cover a multitude of inflexibilities, and the sheer exuberance of her performance was, in itself, more than sufficient enticement.”
The popularity of Régine’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 Régine’s in 1999. “A new generation of club-goers 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, the 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. Rachelle, as she called herself in an interview with The Boston Globe, had a brother, Maurice, and a half sister, Evelyne.
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 I saw Rita Hayworth and Aly Khan, the focus of all eyes at the best table in a chic Deauville restaurant, I vowed one day to sit where they were,” she told The New York Post in 1973.
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, Régine’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”). Pictures showed her with Charles Aznavour, Oscar de la Renta, Diana Vreeland, Michael Jackson and many others.
“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.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.