From the 1960's until the 1970's, MAX'S KANSAS CITY was the quintessential night club in New York City. Anybody who was anybody came to Max's..musicians, poets, artists and politicians all gathered there. Many of the era's great rock bands got their start at Max's. YVONNE SEWALL-RUSKIN is the widow of MAX'S founder Mickey Ruskin. She has seen it all and has established The MAX's KANSAS CITY PROJECT in memory of the her late husband. The project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, provides emergency funding and resources for individuals in the arts in crisis and empowers teens through the arts.
I had the great pleasure to speak with Yvonne recently from her Woodstock NY home...
MICK: When did you first meet Max's Kansas City owner Mickey Ruskin?
YVONNE: I met Mickey when I went for a waitressing job interview in the August of 1967. I graduated college from the University of Connecticut in 1967. That was the Summer of Love. I went out to Haight Ashberry in San Francisco to hang out on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. Then I hitchhiked back to New York because I was running out of money. I wanted to travel around Europe though my family wasn't wealthy and I grew up in Westport, Connecticut. Earning money to do some traveling before I started a career was important so I thought waitressing for a year would allow me time to save up the money. My friend, who had been going to Pratt Institute and was a photographer, told me about Max's.
Mickey and I became very enamored with each other over the interview. I think it was probably because we looked alike! There was a lot of electricity in the room. I went home and said I met the man who is going to be the father of my children! I didn't know he owned Max's and didn't know anything about him. I had seen him out on the street prior to the interview while I was waiting outside and thought to myself "Who is the Ichabod Krane type guy?". I think it was meant to be!
MICK: What would you consider one of your fondest memories of Max's?
MICK: I guess that is pretty obvious! Did you have a favorite celebrity who frequented Max's?
YVONNE: A lot of the big celebrities like Mick Jagger, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, people like that didn't come there all the time. Those type of people are very interesting. Then there was Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol. I was more of a music person so when the music started upstairs, I was more interested in someone like Lou Reed. I was always into music and Mickey was the art person. He introduced me to the art world and I kind of introduced him to the music world. He was very shy and I was very outgoing. It worked really well!
MICK: What would you consider the strangest thing you saw at the club?
YVONNE: I was only 21 when I first started working there. At that time, it was a world of denizen characters, transvestites, the Theater of the Ridiculous, the Warhol crowd. It was the cornucopia of the cross pollination of all of the arts. Being in the ladies room with a couple of transvestites and them talking about having their menstrual cycles was a little strange because realistically these were males. That was all new to me because I grew up in Westport CT. When I would visit NYC I would encounter that on occasion but now I was in the thick of it. It was a positive awakening and a growth experience for me in more ways than one!
MICK: How did you get the ownership of the Max's Kansas City trademark?
YVONNE: When Mickey passed away, we were no longer a couple. He was married to Kathy but we did have our children in common whom he did see all the time. When he died, there was a life insurance policy in the corporation's name. The will stated that the children would each get a share of the policy but it went to the corporation and we never got it. We were in a lot of pain because Mickey had died suddenly. There were a lot of vultures out there that were going to exploit the opportunity. So getting the trademark was more of a responsibility to the children and I was the only one with the children. A friend of mine said I should trademark the name so that is what I did to protect the family.
MICK: Please tell me about the Max's Kansas City Project!
YVONNE: I established the non profit in Mickey's memory. In 1996, the 30th anniversary of Max's, we did a very huge event for homeless people living with AIDS. It was an art auction/party. Gagosian and Castelli owned a gallery down in Soho that was empty and up for sale so they let us use their gallery for that event. It was a fabulous event with lots of artists who donated their works to be auctioned off. There was another gallery across the street where we had the party. That was very successful and the money raised was donated to The Friends House, a place that still exists and is for homeless people living with AIDS. So when I got ownership of the trademark, I decided at that point that I was given this name for a reason and I had to do something good with it. I established the non-profit 5013c in Mickey's memory to provide emergency funding for individuals in the arts in need.
MICK: How do you raise money for the Project?
YVONNE: We do fundraisers. I sold the trademark six years ago so I could give all the kids the money and pay off my mortgage but kept some of the rights for the film I am working on, the foundation and my book that I have out. Someone has actually just finished a screenplay based on the book. I worked with them for five years as a consulting producer. I made a deal with the company that bought the name that they donate so much money each year to the non-profit. That,the fundraisers and getting the word out seeking donations. That's how we keep it going! We really need some heavy hitter donors to come on board to keep this going! My documentary that I am now finishing on Max's is now in production and the will bring visibility to the Project. My big vision for the non-profit is to align with a global organization and then I won't have to be the big chief! I'd like to become a good will ambassador and travel to give talks to teens.
MICK: When do you think the documentary will be finished?
YVONNE: Soon! There's a lot of interest in it. There is a very good law firm that is representing it. There is a rough cut already. I just have to decide which way I will go with it now because there is an opportunity for a partnership. Realistically, it should be completed in around six months.
MICK: Do you keep in contact with any of the great bands that played Max's?
YVONNE: Yes I am in contact with a lot of people because of the work on the film and just in general because I like them! I'm friends with Lou Reed. Bruce Springsteen played Max's in the beginning but I don't really know him personally. He was part of a double bill at Max's with Bob Marley and the Wailers when he made his debut. We got in touch with his people about doing an interview for the film but his management declined. If I had been able to get in touch with him personally it might have been different. I'd still like Patty Smith to do an interview for the film.
There's a lot of fascinating stories. Sargent Shriver met Jackie Curtis (a transvestite) in the back room at Max's Kansas City! Anybody who was anybody came to Max's. Bobby Kennedy came there. The favorite of the waitresses was Cary Grant. He came regularly when he was in NYC working on a film.
MICK: These days, what do you do for fun when you're not working on the project?
YVONNE: I go to the theater. I just saw Matthew Broderick in 'Nice Work If You Can Get It". Great show! I go to the Bearsville Theater up here in Woodstock and they have some great bands there. I saw Joe Cocker at Bethel Woods with Bruce Hornsby opening up. I'm very active! I go to art openings, I go bike riding.
MICK: You live year round in Woodstock?
YVONNE: I live primarily in Woodstock but I'm in NYC pretty much every week. I have a house for sale up here when when that sells, I plan to come back to NYC part time.
MICK: What bands do you listen to these days?
YVONNE: I like Dylan's new album. I still love REM even though they are now broken up. I'm looking forward to Radiohead's new CD that will be coming out soon. I love Norah Jones and Sheryl Crow. I love Blondie!
MICK: Do you see a lot of concerts?
YVONNE: Yes I do! I see a lot of music because there's a big music scene up here. I'm been to several of Levon Helm's Rambles. I used to hang out with Levon in the 70's. After Mickey and I separated, I lived here in Woodstock with my children. That was from 1976-1979. Paul Butterfield was here and so was Eric Anderson. I hung out with all those greats!
Yvonne still hangs out with many of the greats and her Max's Kansas City Project continues to flourish through her valiant and thoughtful efforts. Long live Max's Kansas City!!
For more information, please check out:
Max’s Kansas City Project PO Box 53 Woodstock, NY 12498