Donna Summer

Ian Schrager: Donna Summer Was the Star Who Kicked Off Disco Era

Hotelier Ian Schrager recalls his friend Donna Summer as a singer with an incredible voice who defined the disco era.

Boutique hotelier Ian Schrager, along with his partner, the late Steve Rubell, opened Studio 54 in 1977; it was hot stuff for four years, long enough to help define the disco era. Schrager’s friend, Donna Summer, was the queen of that era.

I was in a meeting when I heard she died. My office called, saying my phone was ringing off the hook. People like Donna Summer are bigger than life and we feel we’ve lost something when those people pass. I felt much the same way when Andy Warhol died. We always benefited from that fun era, and it kind of dies a quiet death. But it’s like being shaken into reality when someone like that passes. It’s like throwing cold water on your face.

I first heard her music probably in 1975, when she came out with the long-play version of “Love to Love You Baby.” It kind of ushered in discotheque music. She was working with good friends of mine, Neil Bogart, at Casablanca Records, and Peter Guber. My friend Norma Kamali helped her style and her wardrobe and helped with the design of her album covers. Donna had an incredible voice, and she went on to do a lot of the really great discotheque songs that were slickly produced by another friend, Giorgio Moroder. The bottom line is her music was good and she had a string of great hits. When I think about that era I think about Donna Summer. She was really the star that helped kick it off.

She was a stylish woman. She had her apartment in New York, off of Fifth Avenue in the 60s, and she also had a home in Hancock Park in L.A. She was fun-loving and very observant and smart. And she was a sophisticated person. She became a born-again Christian at some point. [In the mid-1980s, Summer was quoted as suggesting that AIDS was a punishment from God for the “immoral” homosexual lifestyle—a sentiment she ultimately disavowed.] I don’t believe she really said that because that’s not the Donna Summer I know and the person she was and the kind of life she lived. Being a born-again Christian doesn’t mean you have to say and think silly things. First of all, her music emerged first in the gay clubs. That’s where it came out of, and then it worked its way into the straight clubs as a mainstay. But it came from the gay clubs.

She would come to Studio 54 when she was in New York. Through the years, I had received some calls from her. We were thinking about doing some entertainment project with her but it didn’t happen and I lost touch with her. I didn’t know she was ill. When someone like Donna passes, it’s like the passing of an era. She was the soundtrack for a part of my life.

—Interviewed by Lloyd Grove