"I don't think you can think of another gay man who went undercover and put away the head of a major crime family," Michael Blutrich said when I reached him by phone, and he's right—I can't.
Scores is the title of his new memoir, but it's the subtitle that manages to sum up Blutrich's wild career: "How I Opened the Hottest Strip Club in New York City, Was Extorted out of Millions by the Gambino Family, and Became One of the Most Successful Mafia Informants in FBI History."
Recently released from prison, Blutrich has lived an incredible life of secrets and contradictions. At the height of his career, he was a gay man working in the straightest world imaginable—but running Scores, a multimillion-dollar Manhattan strip club, meant dealing with the mob, which attracted FBI attention. Blutrich found himself torn between his business, the Mafia, and law enforcement agents that had detected one of his other closely guarded secrets: He was embroiled in an extensive insurance-fraud scheme. Using the threat of prosecution as bait, investigators pressured Blutrich into secretly recording his criminal associates; after they were convicted, Blutrich himself was locked away in a witness protection unit in prison for 13 years.
Blutrich's tell-all book is part confession, part cautionary tale, and strangely funny (like the time he says he extracted confessions from unwitting mobsters during a proctological exam). But it reads most of all like a long sigh of relief from a man who carried more secrets than anyone should, now free to reveal just about everything.
It all began in a law office. In the 80s, Blutrich was a successful Manhattan attorney, working in a Park Avenue office alongside future governor Andrew Cuomo. One day, a client approached him with a proposal that was, at the time, a radical proposition: help open a topless bar in Manhattan. His client envisioned an upscale, expensive alternative to the Time Square dives that were then the industry standard. He asked Blutrich if he would be a co-owner.
"The last thing I want in my life is to own a club filled with naked women, catering to a homophobic straight crowd," he told me he remembers thinking. But they forged ahead, opening Scores in the early 90s. Even the New York Times reported that topless bars had emerged from their grimy reputation to offer something approaching, well, class.
It soon became an unbelievably lucrative business, but Blutrich felt like an alien within it. His sexuality had always been a source of stress: "For most of my life, I couldn't be myself," he said. "I thought, as a teenager, I was the only person who had these feelings. I suppressed it and got married."
That didn't last. "She got bored with me," he said. His marriage crumbled just as the AIDS epidemic hit, and though he talked to a few friends about coming out of the closet, "I went running back in. It was so frightening," he continued. "Nobody knew how the disease was transmitted. It was just pinned as a gay disease."
Though he was having flings with men, he never allowed them to become romantic, and he even avoided gay neighborhoods. And to his surprise, his sexuality became an advantage in his aggressively heterosexual industry. Dancers at Scores would offer sexual favors in exchange for lucrative shift assignments—they could expect to make $5,000 on a Thursday night, compared to $1,500 on a Monday—which he refused. He avoided physical temptation and focused on the business instead, buying beers for 15 cents a bottle and selling them for $17.
But it was his dancers—many of whom were queer women themselves—who would ultimately figure out that he was gay. Rumors spread. "I finally said, 'Fuck this, what am I doing? I'll be dead one day. The girls know, the people at the club know. Nobody gives me a hassle. I'm done.'" He decided to come out in 1998, seven years after Scores first opened.
To his relief, coming out wasn't as difficult as he feared, and it didn't hurt that he had money and power. He made a circle of gay friends, and he recalls growing so comfortable with his sexuality that he was able to visit a gay strip club in Montreal, an eye-opening experience—the first time he came to understand what attracted the straight clientele to the club he helped found.
But pressures were building back in New York. As the Mafia became inextricably entwined in his business, Blutrich's insurance-fraud scheme grew. After helping three of his clients purchase an insurance company in Florida with a fake check, they then became close investors in Scores, using the company to embezzle funds and defraud investors and the government. The FBI had a strong case against Blutrich for those crimes and approached him about wearing a wire to inform on the Mafia. Fearing jail time, Blutrich agreed, risking extreme physical danger in the process.
"I'm not brave! I'm not a brave guy," he said. "I just did what was asked." On more than one occasion, he was strip-searched before Mafia meetings and barely managed to conceal recording devices in the folds of his clothes. "The first time I almost got caught was on the second mission," he said. His mark insisted on searching him, taking him to a bathroom to strip. Blutrich carefully shifted the recording device into a pant leg as he undressed, then "sauntered over to him and started giving him a lap dance. He's screaming, 'Put on your fucking clothes!' I was like, 'No, you embarrass me like this? You're gonna give me a hard-on.'" He knew he'd never search him again.
On another occasion, when a pat down by a Mafia lawyer came close to a recorder concealed by Blutrich's crotch, he says he grabbed the lawyer's crotch in return, shocking the man and instantly ending the search.
Blutrich lived in constant fear for over a year as he accrued conversations for the FBI. In the end, the recordings helped put 35 Mafia defendants away for various charges related to organized crime schemes. Blutrich was then sentenced to 16 years in prison for his role in the insurance scheme, reduced from 25 years, longer than the sentence of many of those he'd helped put away.
"I went from coming out of the closet, feeling better about it, having friends who were gay, to an environment where I had to be closeted again," he said. "When you're high-profile like me, you really can't get involved and have a boyfriend [in prison] and be sleeping with somebody."
After his release, Blutrich found himself in a world transformed. "The openness that gay people had achieved was spellbinding," he said. "The gay thing was a nightmare, in some ways, in jail, but glorious when I came out. For the first time in my life, I didn't have to gauge what people would say when I came out."
These days, Scores is still around, under new management. It hasn't even lost its reputation. In 2004, it was revealed as the site of a highly coordinated credit-card fraud ring by its dancers. Meanwhile, Blutrich is still piecing his life back together and suffering under the weight of having kept so many secrets for so long. He's adopted an assumed name in his day-to-day life and keeps only a small band of friends to evade retribution.
But of all the subterfuge he's perpetuated, it's the closet that seems to pain Blutrich the most. There was only one point during our hour-long conversation when his voice slowed, and it was when he was reflecting on how long it took him to come out. "I wish I'd been born in a time like now," he said, "when I could have had a whole life for myself."