National News

Stephen Saban, Chronicler of New York Night Life, Dies at 72

Posted July 20, 2018 4:21 p.m. EDT

To aspiring artists, musicians and fashion influencers who clustered at era-defining New York night spots like the Mudd Club and the Palladium in the late 1970s and ‘80s, a mention in a night life column by Stephen Saban, alongside the likes of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Madonna, was more than a fleeting stroke for the ego. It was a signal they had arrived.

“A write-up in his column validated you on the scene, and provided the ignition for you to wear 100 more headdresses at one thousand more parties,” Michael Musto, the former night life columnist for The Village Voice and a close friend of Saban’s, said in an interview this week.

As a social chronicler for The SoHo News and Details during the flowering of the city’s hedonistic demimonde, Saban (SAY-ben), who died June 26 at 72, was as influential in downtown circles as Liz Smith, the New York gossip institution, was uptown. New York magazine once called him “the Boswell of the night.” Newsweek called him “the Noël Coward of the ‘80s.”

In his heyday, Saban was a star maker among the cognoscenti who became a star himself, playing a featured role in Musto’s 1986 book, “Downtown,” a Who’s Who of the city’s cultural underground.

“Saban doesn’t need to make a spectacle of himself; the spectacle is all around him, and his job is to report it, drawing the line only when he feels the information might interfere with his readers’ future fun,” Musto wrote. “Sometimes Saban seems like Marcello Mastroianni in ‘8 1/2’: besieged by swooning and pleading people cooing his name as he calmly tries to figure his next creative move.”

Even in an era when partying until dawn was considered a form of performance art, Saban’s endurance stood out. “Saban goes out every night of the week, only rarely awarding himself a night off, which means going to only one or two parties instead of the usual three to five,” Musto wrote.

Saban’s daughter, Chloë Saban-Mayor, said he died of pancreatic cancer in a hospice facility in the Hudson River town of Rhinebeck, New York.

Stephen Vaughan Saban was born in Hertfordshire, England, on Dec. 17, 1945, to Anne and Geoffrey Saban. His father was an insurance executive with a maverick streak, his daughter said, and his mother was an eccentric socialite who in her later years would mingle with celebrities on nocturnal romps with her scene-making son.

His family moved to the United States when Stephen was a child, settling for periods in Savannah, Georgia, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

With hopes of becoming an artist, Stephen studied painting at art colleges in Atlanta and Philadelphia. He ultimately moved to New York with his wife, Joanna Mayor, and worked as a graphic designer before turning to journalism.

His column for The SoHo News, an alternative weekly, quickly became a must-read, and after that paper ceased publication in 1982 he helped another Soho News veteran, the editor and publisher Annie Flanders, found Details, which in those days was considered an insider’s chronicle of New York’s avant-garde.

Saban remained at Details in the 1990s, but left as it transitioned from an irreverent underground journal to a slick men’s style magazine, Saban-Mayor said. He eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he ran the blog for World of Wonder, the production company behind the television shows “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Million Dollar Listing.”

After Saban learned he had pancreatic cancer in 2014, veterans of the New York club scene, including RuPaul, Karen Finley and Dianne Brill, banded together in an online campaign to raise money for his treatment.

“It’s really weird, because I didn’t know anyone even liked me,” Saban said of the campaign, employing his customary world-weary deadpan, in an interview in The New York Times in 2015. “I’ve always been considered snarky and disapproving.”

In addition to his daughter, Saban is survived by a grandson and a sister, Marie Ramsden. His marriage to Mayor ended in divorce.

This past November, Saban briefly slipped into a coma, inspiring a move to Saugerties, New York, to live with his daughter. He spent a few happy months at the house, she said, making art projects with his grandson, Julian, and befriending townspeople at a local bookstore.

He moved to the Rhinebeck hospice as his condition began to deteriorate. Even confined to bed there, Saban — who had once boasted that he never entered any room without a lit cigarette — was unwilling to surrender the last vestiges of the high life.

“He would whisper to me, ‘Can you please bring some B-E-E-R?'” Saban-Mayor said. “I warned him that the nurses could most likely spell. I found a social worker who got a doctor to write a prescription for beer so the nurses could dispense it legally.”

He was two bottles through his final six-pack when he died.