Mark Fleischman, Studio 54 owner, dies by assisted suicide at 82

NEW YORK CITY - NOVEMBER 18: Mark Fleischman attends the party for Chita Rivera on November 18, 1981 at Lombardi's Restaurant in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images) (Ron Galella via Getty Images)
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Mark Fleischman, a nightclub impresario who purchased the hedonistic New York nightspot Studio 54 from its imprisoned founding owners and was its self-described "ringleader" in the early 1980s, died July 13 in Zurich. He was 82.

The death was confirmed by Dan Fitzgerald, a former business partner, who shared a text message from Fleischman's wife, Mimi.

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Fleischman announced his plans to die by suicide on in an interview published last month in the New York Post. He had an undetermined degenerative condition that left him unable to walk or dress himself. He said he had attempted suicide two years ago, with an overdose of Xanax, but was revived at a hospital.

Because there are limits on assisted suicide in California, where Fleischman was living, he and his wife, Mimi, found a Swiss organization, Dignitas, that, after careful screening, assists terminally ill people seeking to end their lives.

"They want to be certain that I am making the decision for myself," Fleischman told the New York Post. "After reading my material, they asked me some questions to make sure I was serious. I had to provide a notarized affidavit, stating that I want to die. I had to go to a psychiatrist, and he confirmed that I am of sound mind."

"There is no shame in what I am doing," he added. "It is proper and reasonable at my age. I have done everything and been everywhere and met everyone I want to meet."

Early in his career, Fleischman owned and managed hotels in New York, Florida, Virginia and the Virgin Islands. He was in his late 30s when he joined the party scene at Studio 54, which opened in Manhattan in 1977 and became a prime hangout for celebrities.

The nightclub became notorious for is decadence, sexual encounters and open use of drugs, particularly cocaine and quaaludes. The nightclub's two founders, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, became almost as famous as the rock stars, actors and models who indulged themselves at Studio 54 and danced the night away. The clientele included Elton John, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Freddie Mercury, Rod Stewart, John Travolta, Andy Warhol and cast members of "Saturday Night Live."

"The key to a good party is filling a room with guests more interesting than you," Rubell once said.

Rooms were set aside for group sex and other encounters, and nude trapeze artists and motorcycle riders added to the ambience. The club's spirit of excess was encapsulated in an episode involving Bianca Jagger, then married to Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger. She spent years denying that she once rode a horse into Studio 54. In fact, Rubell knew of her love of horses and had one waiting inside when she and Mick arrived at the club on her birthday in 1977.

"It was a beautiful white horse that reminded me of mine," she wrote in a 2015 letter to the Financial Times, explaining the incident, "and I made the foolish decision to get on it for a few minutes. . . . No doubt you will agree with me that it is one thing . . . on the spur of the moment, to get on a horse in a nightclub, but it is quite another to ride in on one."

In February 1980, the first incarnation of Studio 54 came to an end after Rubell and Schrager were convicted skimming money from the club and evading more than $700,000 in taxes. Both went to prison.

Fleischman arranged a jailhouse meeting with the two owners through lawyer Roy Cohn, who had been a key ally of the young Donald Trump. Fleischman ended up buying Studio 54 in a deal in which he sold an aging hotel to Rubell and Schrager.

Studio 54 reopened in 1981, with Fleischman as its new impresario.

"I was the ringleader for nearly four years and I became intoxicated with the scene," he wrote in a 2017 memoir, "Inside Studio 54." "Every night, celebrities and stunning women made their way through the crowd to sip champagne and share lines of cocaine with my golden straw or rolled up one-hundred-dollar bills."

One employee's job was to cut even lines of cocaine, as many as 40 at a time. To avoid the crowds, Michael Jackson would go to the DJ's booth and dance alone. At 5 a.m., Fleischman had a cab arrive at the door to take Robin Williams, Christopher Reeve and other members of the "dawn patrol" to after-hours clubs for more partying.

Fleischman said he took Valium to fall asleep, then used cocaine to clear away the grogginess when he awoke in the afternoon.

In 1984, friends staged an intervention and helped Fleischman seek treatment for his addictions at the Betty Ford Center in California and later at a facility in Mexico. He sold Studio 54, and it closed for good in 1986.

Rubell and Schrager, in the meantime, found new success in opening exclusive "boutique" hotels. (Rubell died in 1989.)

When visiting Rubell in prison to arrange the purchase of Studio 54, Fleischman recalled to the New York Daily News in 2017, Rubell said, "The pressure of having to entertain people all day and all night every night was really getting to me. I'm glad that's over with.' I didn't know what he meant. But after 3 1/2 years of owning Studio 54, I felt the same way."

Mark H. Fleischman was born Feb. 1, 1940, in New York City and grew up in the Long Island community of Great Neck. His father owned hotels, and his mother was a homemaker.

He was 10 when his parents took him to New York's Copacabana nightclub, "and it colored my world forever," he wrote in his memoir.

Fleischman graduated from Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration in 1962, then served in the Navy for two years, managing an officers' club. He was in his 20s when - with a loan from his father -- he bought his first hotel in Forest Hills, Queens, near the U.S. Open tennis venue. He later owned other hotels, restaurants and ski resorts.

After Studio 54, Fleischman opened Tatou, a New York music club and restaurant, then established other branches in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tokyo and Aspen, Colo. From the 1990s to about 2007, he operated the Century Club, featuring hip-hop music, near Los Angeles.

"We'll always have stars, we'll always have stars' friends," Fleischman told the Las Vegas Review-Journal 2001. "I know how to take care of them. That's how you keep a club hot and fresh."

In later years, he ran a chain of fitness studios with his second wife.

His marriage to Laurie Lister ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1994, the former Mimi Leonard, of Marina del Rey, Calif.; a daughter from his first marriage; and two stepchildren.

In 2016, Fleischman said he noticed that his left leg was dragging as he walked, and his condition steadily grew worse. He said his father had the same malady and lost the use of his legs.

"Doctors originally thought he had a form of Parkinson's," Mimi Fleischman told the New York Post. "But it is not that. Nobody knows what he has."

Fleischman said his wife would be at his side in Switzerland when he drank a solution that would put him to sleep, then lead to his death.

"At 82, I decided, why keep it a secret?" he said last month. "I lived on my own terms. I am not afraid of anything. Not even death. I look forward to it. I don't believe in the hereafter. But I want to know what happens when I die. I'm curious."

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