I met Anita Sarko back in August at Williamsburg’s Federal Bar, the Knitting Factory’s sister restaurant with the giant glowing globe in the back. I had tagged along with a friend who had been invited to try the menu at a tasting dinner before the place opened its doors to the public. We walked into the room and plopped down in two empty seats, shaking hands and nodding hello to the strangers with whom we were about to break bread (or, as was the case here, tuck into miniature waffles and fried chicken livers). Within five minutes of cracking a joke about the portion sizes by way of introduction, Sarko, far more glamorous than the rest of us in a little black dress and a constant, eye-crinkling grin, showed no filter, no mercy, and no end to her warmth and enthusiasm. She revealed herself to be the kind of storyteller capable of squeezing three decades’ worth of New York City nightlife — iconic performances, character assassinations, and the glitzy, greasy, grimy birth of the dance floor — into a dinner conversation, one that somehow still left you not wanting but needing more.
By dessert, we had received an education in NYC pop-culture history from one of the forces that fueled it. Sarko had casually recounted the tale of Jean-Michel Basquiat crashing on her couch by the time a bowl of poutine made its way to the table. She passed the mac ’n’ cheese and spoke of Warhol’s Factory days, her contempt for Keith Haring, and the sets she would spin at the Mudd Club, Danceteria, and the Palladium’s Mike Todd Room. A hand flew to her chest upon her hearing that I worked at the Voice: She crowed about her treasured friendship with Michael Musto, who in his columns wrote of her DJ sets and the debauchery they inspired. The opportunity to gush about her partner in nocturnal crime was one she relished, and the admiration was mutual.
“She would spin little-known imports and offbeat mixes, not your standard fare and never Top 40,” Musto recalls in an email to the Voice. “She loved Marc Almond (Soft Cell) and was a personal friend of his, and she was really tuned in to British goth, dance, and house music. She liked the unexpected segue and the little-known oldie (‘Incense and Peppermints’ by Strawberry Alarm Clock). She not only played clubs, but DJ’d for designer fashion shows by Vivienne Westwood, Marc Jacobs, and others, always coming up with a steady stream of surprising music that enlarged one’s consciousness rather than pandering to the tastes of the moment.”
And then the record stopped. Musto broke the news of her passing on October 23. Posting a touching tribute to Facebook that spoke of her searing style, her indomitable verve, and her accomplishments as a DJ, culture journalist, and devoted community fixture, Musto revealed, with the consent of Sarko’s husband, that she had committed suicide.
From Musto’s post: “She was a tough broad who didn’t like being mistreated, and was vocal about those who’d done her wrong. And she knew what she liked; I was with her at a tasting when she sent back the cassoulet five times because it wasn’t hot enough — and I guess it wasn’t! But the letter she wrote before ending her life last weekend was full of love and gratitude toward those who passed her test and were special to her…. Five years ago, Anita was diagnosed with both ovarian and uterine cancers, but she was operated on and not only survived, she was declared in the clear earlier this year. But she suffered some lingering pains and also complained of the results of the hormone depletion caused by her hysterectomy. More of an issue, though, was the fact that she couldn’t find creatively satisfying work and worried about her career, feeling that various projects had reached an absolute dead end for her. I helped her with her résumé and job possibilities, but she found that nothing clicked, since employers were looking for recent college grads, not old-timers with history and personality. Rejection turned to despair and, though Anita was doing work and paying her bills, she feared for her future and felt discarded and unappreciated. The last time I talked to her, I made a point of telling her she was ‘legit.’ She was so much more than that. A brilliant woman, and I loved her more than I can say.”
One of the many times Sarko appeared in the pages of the Voice came by way of a Musto-helmed feature in September of 1986 called “The Downtown Makedown,” in which Sarko — instantly recognizable for her ball gowns and piles of jewels — was transformed into the Eighties version of today’s basic bitch, a lawyer-type in an ill-fitting, blasé suit with hideous sneakers to match. The feature was hilarious — this bizarro version of Sarko couldn’t be further from the dynamo who dominated the decks and refused to settle for any sort of casual look, let alone soundtrack to a night out.
Beyond the turntable, Sarko wrote about music and art for a handful of publications, including Interview and PAPER, and appeared onscreen in Rachel Getting Married (she gushed about working with the film’s star, Anne Hathaway, that night at the Federal Bar) and Downtown 81, the surreal film following a magical day in the life of Basquiat.
In art, in life, and standing at the intersection of both, Sarko was the rare talent who could out-articulate the critics while giving them all something to talk about. If God is a DJ, here’s hoping he knows what’s good and steps aside for one of the best to define the dance floor.