The State Pays for Sex

How a mob-run S&M club put your tax dollars to work

Anthony Marini was the manager at the Vault, the old S&M club in the meat-packing district on the western edge of Greenwich Village, during its heyday in the 1990s.

As such, he never lacked for entertainment.

There was the guy who wore a dog collar and little else and who insisted on walking on all fours. There was the wealthy executive who donned chains and loincloth and rolled in the dirt, pleading that he was a Roman slave who needed whipping. There were the wannabe goths who wore capes, capped their teeth with porcelain fangs, and clustered in the corners biting one another. On the celebrity side, there was Madonna, who was so fond of observing these hijinks that she had much of her photo book, succinctly titled Sex, shot at the club. Al Pacino came to study up for an acting role. Marini remembers him as an apt student.

Where the state took a beating: the Vault, circa 1994
photo: Efrain Gonzales
Where the state took a beating: the Vault, circa 1994


An interview with reporter Tom Robbins

Just watching was a big part of the attraction. Customers paid $50 a head and could stay all night and into the next day. The place didn't serve alcohol, so closing laws didn't apply. The house supplied chips, sold soft drinks, and had TVs showing porn flicks on a continuous loop.

The club started out in the basement of the triangle-shaped building at Ninth Avenue and 14th Street. Business boomed, so the owners decided to expand. They leased an entire building, a five-story property a couple of blocks away on Tenth Avenue between Little West 12th and West 13th streets. This allowed for a true palace of perversion: straight singles on one floor, couples on another, gay men on a third, lesbians on a fourth. The rooftop was a round-the-clock party until neighbors complained their kids were watching, goggle-eyed.

Marini was there almost every night, guarding the till, policing the biters, and helping to handle the occasional over-rambunctious guest, like bad-boy actor Mickey Rourke, who once got the heave-ho. Marini was there right up until the day when the State of New York stepped in and spoiled all the fun by condemning the property.

The state's problem wasn't the nonstop fetish displays or the uninhibited amateur performances. Mayor Giuliani had already tried to shut the place down for unsafe sex practices; club lawyers beat him in court. Rather, the Vault's downfall was an accident of geography, the club being located right where the state Department of Transportation had decided to let West Street broaden into a new six-lane north-south corridor formally known as Route 9A.

But this too had its perverse advantages. State condemnation laws demand full compensation for any such "taking," and the Vault's owners made the most of their situation. They hired a top lawyer and insisted on being paid for everything from the cloth banner that hung outside promising an "Afternoon Delight," to the improvised whipping posts tacked to the walls. This eventually led to one of the more fascinating performances that Marini got to observe during his always eventful tenure there: club proprietors and their Mafia partners sitting down to whack up more than $1.8 million in payments provided courtesy of New York's taxpayers.

Marini never saw his employers happier than when they got the state's money. "It was the biggest score they made from the place," he says.

He saw it all: former Vault manager Anthony Marini
photo: Tina Zimmer
One of the happiest fellows was Anthony Rotondo, a mob capo in the DeCavalcante crime family, the bumbling outfit that inspired HBO's The Sopranos. Rotondo was a second-generation gangster, his father having been gunned down in his own car outside the family home, a bag of squid beside him on the seat. The son had a reputation as someone who had inherited his mob standing, rather than earning it the old-fashioned way. But he had become a proud part-owner of the Vault after Frank Cooke and Janet Carpenter—the husband-and-wife team who founded the sex club—needed help fending off a troublesome motorcycle gang that had loaned them cash. Rotondo couldn't scare off the gang, so he took another tack: He got them their money.

Cooke was an ex-bus driver whose talent was creating and constructing the various sex toys strewn about the palace. Carpenter was considered the brains of the club, a tough-talking former banker who wasn't afraid to confront mobsters or misbehaving celebrities. To promote her anything-goes salon after its move to the new building, Carpenter got a mannequin, dressed it in black leather and matching mask, and hung it off the side of the building with a spotlight on it. Police soon burst in, assuming—not unreasonably—that some overeager customer had hung himself.

Also celebrating the state's generosity was another organized-crime figure, this one a genuine tough guy named Billy Perrotta. Rotondo recruited Perrotta to help out with the club, since he had experience with strip clubs and bars and thus was somewhat familiar with the sex trade. Perrotta, in turn, enticed his brother-in-law, a legitimate businessman named David Waxtel, to sink some $100,000 of his own money into the place.

Waxtel, the owner of a successful printing company, says he made the investment just to have something to do. "I was bored out of my mind," he says. "This was exciting, it was fresh. Madonna, Penthouse pets—they were all there."

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