She was born Rachelle Zylberberg in Belgium as the Great Depression struck: a Jewish child abandoned in infancy by her unwed mother and left alone at 12 when her father, a drunken Polish refugee, was arrested by the Nazis in France. She hid in a convent, where she was beaten. After the war, she sold bras in the streets of Paris and vowed to become rich and famous someday.
In 1957, calling herself Régine, she borrowed money and opened a basement nightclub in a Paris backstreet. She could not afford live music, so the patrons danced to a jukebox. Business was bad, and the young proprietor, in a decision that would have social historians wagging for decades, concluded that the problem was the jukebox.
“When the music stopped, you could hear snogging in the corners,” she told the BBC, using British slang for kissing and necking. “It killed the atmosphere. Instead, I installed two turntables so there was no gap in the music. I was barmaid, doorman, bathroom attendant, hostess, and I also put on the records. It was the first-ever discotheque, and I was the first-ever club disc jockey.”
And so began Chez Régine, widely regarded as the world’s first discotheque. In the 1970s, its owner built a $500 million empire of 23 clubs in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, including Régine’s in Manhattan, the most famous nightspot of its era, catering to the stretch-limousine crowd of arts and entertainment stars, society celebs, princes, playboys and Beautiful People.