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Studio 54 Owner Gets Surprise Obama Pardon

You might not know his name, but Ian Schrager changed hospitality and nightlife forever

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[Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager at Studio 54]

Ian Schrager, the New Yorker who opened legendary ‘70s disco club Studio 54 and invented the boutique hotel, was one of 64 people who were granted pardons from President Obama on Tuesday. Schrager’s venues helped define the major nightlife and hotel trends of the last three decades — his influence can be found in every club with a bouncer holding a clipboard, and downtown hotel pumping dance music through the lobby. Now 70, Schrager is still very much in the game, with a slew of major hotel and real estate projects in the works in New York and beyond. This week’s presidential pardon closes the book on a dark chapter of his early career, right after he made it big.

Back in 1980, during Studio 54’s heyday, Schrager and his partner Steve Rubell were busted on felony tax evasion charges and sent to prison. As the story goes, they were making so much money from the club that they decided to stash some of it in Studio 54’s ceiling panels. After Rubell made some remarks in the press about how “only the Mafia made more money” than the 54 crew, the IRS decided to raid the club. Schrager and Rubell served their time (a little over a year) and reemerged on the New York scene, this time as hoteliers. The Times notes that immediately following his conviction, Schrager couldn’t even get a credit card in New York, and the SLA wouldn’t let him have a liquor license. Slowly but surely, Schrager opened a string of hotels in iconic buildings that incorporated design from top architects and works from prominent modern artists. Many of these projects, like the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City, also had popular nightlife venues.

[Ian Schrager at the opening of 160 Leroy in 2016]
Getty/Daniel Zuchnik

Now that he’s received the pardon, Schrager’s civil liberties will be restored — including the right to vote. But according to the hotelier, the decision to apply for the presidential pardon was largely motivated by his desire to be a good role model for his six-year-old son. Schrager tells the NYT: “I wanted it for closure. I wanted it for my family... It’s hard to be a good example for your kids when you did something like what I did, and you try to teach your kids to live by the rules and be an upstanding person.”

Of course, the President of the United States needs a reason to extend the pardon beyond someone living a cool and successful life after some time behind bars. Schrager’s lawyer, H.P. Goldfield, points to the fact that the hotelier has served as a mentor throughout his career, and he’s created jobs for thousands of people over the years. “He asked for forgiveness, and the president saw it in his heart to forgive,” Goldfield says.

Although he’s happy about the pardon, Schrager wishes that Rubell, who died of AIDS in 1989, could have celebrated this moment too. The hotelier remarks: “I’ll never have another friend like Steve... And now I am here bringing closure to this event, and it’s bittersweet — I can’t share that with him.”

On Obama’s Pardon List: A Hotel Magnate Who Owned Studio 54 [NYT]
All Ian Schrager Coverage on Curbed [CNY]
All Ian Schrager Coverage on Eater [ENY]

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