The Sex Machine
Despite its name, Hedonism is about more than simply getting off, the resort’s fans say. By shedding their clothes and their inhibitions, they escape their everyday lives and insecurities. Status markers disappear almost entirely; a mantra among Fluffernutters has become “Nudity is the great equalizer.” Women, especially, say that being surrounded by naked people of all shapes and sizes makes body-image concerns go on hiatus. Paradoxically, getting naked makes everyone less self-conscious.
Gross insists that going to Hedonism creates strong friendships. Fluffernutters often open their homes to other members after meeting only once or twice. After Hurricane Sandy, a Fluffernutters couple from Texas loaded a truck with building materials and a generator and drove to the New York area to help members who had been hit by the storm. In 2010, the Fluffernutters and Hedonism community raised about $70,000 to pay for travel and lifesaving medical care for Hedonism’s night manager, who had suffered a potentially lethal brain aneurysm.
As Fluffernutters members tried to explain what Hedonism means to them, they invariably reached a point where they gave up and said something like, You just have to go and experience it for yourself. The resort’s staffers greet every guest with the words “Welcome home.” “When I got there my first time, I thought, What kind of Kool-Aid are these people drinking?” Karen says. But now she understands the greeting—arriving at Hedonism, she says, feels like a homecoming. It’s the kind of sentiment you’d expect to hear from a true believer, which is what the regulars are. Gross acknowledges this with an impish grin, saying, “It’s kind of cultish.”
For Gross, that devotion ultimately paid off. In 2012, Hedonism’s owners put the dilapidated resort on the auction block. “I started to panic,” Gross says. “I thought to myself, If Hedonism goes out of business and becomes a family resort, what am I gonna do?” Then he remembered Harry Lange.
At the time, Lange had plenty of free time on his hands. In 2011, Fidelity had replaced him as head of the Magellan Fund, which failed to keep pace with the S & P 500 and its peers during Lange’s tenure. (Under Lange’s management, Magellan had fallen from $52 billion to a mere $17 billion, as investors withdrew money.) He knew that owning Hedonism would be toxic in the world of high finance, but that was no longer a concern. “When I lost the fund,” he told me, “it’s kind of the end of a career.”
When Gross approached Lange, asking if he wanted to save their beloved nudist Valhalla, Lange was interested. They agreed that Lange would be the money and Gross the talent. After closing the deal, Gross became CEO of Hedonism and took a minority ownership stake as compensation. “It was my favorite place in the world,” Lange says, “and I think 10,000 other people would say it’s their number one place.”
Still, the deal was not without consequences. When Lange’s term on UNICEF’s board of directors was up, he wasn’t asked back. Lange believes he lost his seat because UNICEF’s directors were put off by his new property. He also believes Hedonism cost him some of his more conservative friends. But Lange doesn’t regret the outcome. He spends as many as 200 days a year at Hedonism—staying in a guest room, just like everyone else—and hanging out at the nude pool or partying in the disco. “When I see him at the pool now,” Gross says, “with his arms around two girls, I ask him, ‘How’s the investment? How are those dividends treating you, Harry?’”
Since becoming co-owner and CEO of Hedonism, Gross has upgraded his digs back in New England. After working from home for years, he now conducts his business from a corner office atop one of Manchester’s two skyscrapers. From his desk, he sees a panorama of rolling hills and can nearly make out the storefront of the only remaining Grolen location. He manages Fluffernutters full time and organizes six annual trips to Hedonism, some attended by more than 500 guests. Now that he’s an owner, he rarely hosts events at other resorts anymore.
Gross opts for a calmer life these days, having spent more than a quarter-century swinging and swapping and throwing the wildest, raunchiest parties in the Western Hemisphere. When I met him on the plane in April, he complained of fatigue, not just from the previous four days of partying, but also from the three decades he’s spent carousing and having sex with other men’s wives. All he wanted to do was get home to Susan and stay put for a while. In October, he told me, “I’m not in pursuit of anything like that right now,” referring to sleeping with other women. As if to demonstrate, he pulled up his and Susan’s profile on one of the lifestyle social networks. He had 21 unread messages from couples in Newburyport, Andover, and Fitchburg. He didn’t intend to respond to any of them. “I don’t know if it’s just a phase and I’ll come back to it,” he told me the next day, “but it feels more permanent than that.”
After all these years in the lifestyle, Gross feels he’s reached the end of something, but it’s also the beginning of a new phase. The future, he says, will be more about building his businesses than racking up sexual exploits. He and Lange are in the midst of a $10 million renovation at Hedonism. In a few years, if all goes according to plan, virtually every part of the resort—from the cramped disco to the outmoded guest rooms—will be upgraded or replaced.
When the renovation is done, the plan is to expand. Gross and Lange envision Hedonism resorts all over the world, from Thailand to the Canary Islands, with Hedonism-branded lifestyle clubs or hotels in major American cities such as Las Vegas. Although the resort is profitable, Lange says, its cash flow alone will never generate great returns. The real upside is in leveraging the name.
As Hedonism expands, Gross’s role will naturally grow. He’s the figurehead, the pied piper, the guy who knows how to whip legions of homemakers and middle managers into a sex-fueled frenzy. If he and Lange want to export the resort’s culture—and not just the name—then Gross is definitely the way to go.