He entered Syracuse University with the intention of becoming a dentist, but failed his courses, and switched majors, studying finance and history. He was not a good student, reportedly, but managed to complete his studies, going on to complete a master's degree in finance. While attending college Rubell met Schrager, which turned into a lifelong friendship and series of business partnerships.
Rubell joined the National Guard, and after a tour of duty in a military intelligence unit, he returned to New York and worked at a brokerage firm. He decided to start his own business and opened up two restaurants, one in Queens, New York and the other in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1974, Rubell teamed up with his friend Schrager to run a chain of steak restaurants, and after spending some time in the NY night club scene, the two decided to open a club of their own.
They opened two clubs to start with, one in Boston, the other, called The Enchanted Garden, in Queens. In April 1977, they opened Studio 54 in an old television studio on West 54th Street. Rubell became a familiar face in front of the building, turning people down at the door and only letting in those who met his specific standards. Sometimes he would dismiss unwanted patrons by telling them that they were ugly, or that they should go home and change their clothes. Rubell also dealt with the club's celebrity patrons, ensuring that they were thrown lavish parties and given gifts. His tactics worked, and the club made $7 million during its first year.
In December 1978, Studio 54 was raided after Rubell was quoted as saying that only the Mafia made more money than the club brought in. In June 1979, Rubell and Schrager were charged with tax evasion, obstruction of justice and conspiracy for reportedly skimming nearly $2.5 million in unreported income from the club's receipts, in a system Rubell called "cash-in, cash-out and skim." A second raid occurred in December 1979. The pair hired Roy Cohn to defend them, but on January 18, 1980, they were sentenced to three and a half years in prison and a $20,000 fine each for the tax evasion charge.
Rubell and Schrager went to prison on February 4, 1980, and sold Studio 54 in November for $4.75 million. They were released from prison in January 1981, after handing over the names of other club owners involved in tax evasion.
Once released, Rubell and Schrager purchased the Executive Hotel on Madison Ave and renamed it Morgan's. Rubell later opened the Palladium, a large dance club famous for displaying art by Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, and considered central to the New York club scene in the 1980s. The Palladium was recently demolished so that New York University dorms could be built in its place.
Rubell was also the subject of a Biography episode called "Steve Rubell: Lord of the Disco".