By Carter B. Horsley
Longevity in the New York City
restaurant business is rare and legendary status rarer still.
Elaine's is so rarified. It celebrated its fortieth anniversary
in 2004 and this book, written by A. E. Hotchner and profusely
illustrated with many photographs by Jessica Burstein and others,
well documents its "life" to-date.
Elaine's, of course, is the
domain of Elaine Kaufman, shown at the lower right on the book's
Elaine is the undisputed queen
of the city, a remarkably urbane, feisty, loving and lovable woman
at whose feet celebrities dance, if not grovel.
Saloons have generally been
commanded by men such as Toots Shor, Peter Kriendler, Dan Lavezzo
Jr., Sherman Billingsley (see The
City Review article on a book about The Stork Club), although Regine, the Parisian doyenne,
gave it a whirl for a few years. Elaine has surpassed them all
in "bold-face" mentionability and her "thereness"
would have awed Gertrude Stein.
The secret of her success has
not been the quality of her fare, which has often been unfairly
maligned, nor the decor, which almost imperceptibly changes as
new books by her regulars are displayed on a shelf over the coat
hangers along the walls, nor the difficulty of getting a "good
table" if you are not a regular. Her success is based on
her personality: loyal, intelligent, curious, loving, mirthful,
hard-working, astute and shrewd. She is a remarkable judge of
character and one hell of a character herself, not someone to
try to bamboozle or tinker. What you see is not all there is.
New York is a city of power
brokers and if one considers who are her devoted confidants -
politicians, movie stars, directors and producers, entertainers
of all sorts, hall-of-fame athletes, socialites, and, of course,
writers - she is without equal. There has always been a marvelous
mix of the elegant - gentlemen like George Plimpton, Lewis Lapham,
Gay Talese and David Halberstam and ladies like DeeDee Ryan and
Mary Anne Madden and Jessica Burstein - and the raucous - like
Norman Mailer - and the reticent - like Woody Allen.
(My first time in Elaine's,
about a year after she had opened, I went to the bar and then
noticed that several colleagues - Gay Talese, David Halberstam
and Tom Buckley - from The New York Times were seated at
a table near the door. They were all "stars" at The
Times then and I was just a news assistant on the City Desk.
Tom saw me and told me to join them. As I got up from the bar
and started to walk over and join them, Elaine got up from her
stool at the end of the bar and started to stop me from joining
them, but Tom vouched for me and I soon started going to Elaine's
This fine book by A. E. Hotchner,
the writer and long-time regular, captures a great deal of the
aura of Elaine's with many wonderful anecdotes.
"What Rick's place was
to Casablanca, Elaine's is to New York," Hotchner observed,
"the same swirling intrigue, international celebrities, double-dealing,
jealousies, threats and brutalities, sentimentality, romance,
sex and redemption, the only difference being that Humphrey Bogart
played Rick on a Warner Bros. soundstage, whereas Elaine Kaufman
plays her own improbable self at Eighty-eighth Street and Second
Avenue in Manhattan. Elaine, a Jewish lady from the Bronx, who,
for the past forty years, has presided over her exotic establishment,
a mecca for the famous, the near famous, and the infamous. Elaine's
is where Mia Farrow asked Michael Caine to introduce her to Woody
Allen; where the entire Rangers hockey team came at 3 A.M. after
winning the Stanley Cup from which they drank an imposing quantity
of beer; where Norman Mailer and the rock composer Jerry Leiber
got into a roiling wrestling match that wound up tearing a hole
in the side wall; where Reggie Jackson came the night he hit those
historic home runs in the World Series; where Jackie Kennedy came
the first night after her mourning period ended; where Frank Sinatra,
on being introduced to Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather,
refused to shake his hand. Physically, the place is nothing much,
but, as Nora Ephron says, 'It has the greatest look of any New
York saloon. The dark wood, the framed book jackets on the walls,
the Bentwood chairs, the checkered tablecloths - it is just a
physically perfect place.'...At Elaine's, the good, décor,
prices, service, and seating have all been subject to critical
carping, yet on any given night, the clientele, ranging from Nobel
Prize winners to rock stars, will outglitter that of any other
establishment in the city, in fact, the world....The public perception
of Elaine's - to an extent justified - is that of a forbidding,
cliquish preserve restricted to the favorite of the lady whose
name it bears, and outsiders wonder what qualifies those who dine
at the favored tables....When Elaine Kaufman, who helped run a
restaurant called Portofino, at Thompson and Bleecker Streets
in the Village, took her life savings in April 1963 and bought
a rather drab Austro-Hungarian bar at Eighty-eighth and Second,
some pilot fish writers came poking around. The editor and writer
Nelson Aldrich lived around the corner, George Plimpton came in,
the playwright Jack Richardson, Mary Ann Madden (she even painted
the ladies' room for opening night, and word flashed through the
scrivener's underground that Elaine's was choice waters. She
not only let them linger at their tables and run up tabs but was
amusing and sympathetic and she liked writers."
"By the mid-Sixties, Elaine's
had become virtually a writer's club. Elaine kept all her reservations
for them,...I used to be there three or four nights a week at
a table with Gay Talese, David Halberstam, the writer Michael
Arlen, Jack Richardson, the Esquire editor Robert Brown,
Bruce Jay Friedman, George Plimpton, Lewis Lapham, Peter Maas,
and sometimes Norman Mailer. Most of us had not yet started writing
books.....Plimpton had not yet played quarterback for the Detroit
Lions, and I was living in a one-room fifth-floor walk-up trying
to write a book about Ernest Hemingway," Hotchner recalled.
"There had been forerunners,"
David Halberstam recalls. "Bleeck's for the Trib and
Times people, when there was still a Trib, and Times
people still lived in Manhattan....In the Sixties's, Elaine's
became the place for many of us....Later, people called it a literary
salon. Perhaps, but though a lot of good writers made it their
base, I can hardly remember a serious literary conversation. Instead
it was almost all shoptalk, filled with the heat of ambition of
young men, and a handful of young women..."
Hotchner includes extensive quotes from some
of Elaine's famous regulars.
Woody Allen, the film director, actor and clarinet
player, provided the following commentary:
"I ate at Elaine's every night for about
ten years. With very few exceptions. It was always packed, high
energy, and full of people I knew. Even on nights when it was
zero degrees out it was jammed. I've eaten alongside everyone
from Don King to Simone de Beauvoir. There was no celebrity that
didn't show up there. It was fun to people-watch. I rarely spoke
to anyone not at my table and never table-hopped. Rod Steiger
kissed me on the lips once as I was walking out and a female in
the movie business pinched me on the behind saying that even though
she was a stranger to me she'd always wanted to do it. I never
picked up a girl, although beautiful women were always there.
I played late-night-into-early-morning poker there with other
writers and won some reasonable cash. Elaine was always a wonderful
friend - always there when anyone needed her.....I filmed at Elaine's
several times....Elaine was a supporter of mine since my days
as a stand-up comedian and has always been high on my films."
Hotchner recounts Elaine's career that included
a variety of jobs before becoming a waitress at Portofino,
an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village on Thompson ad Sullivan
Street. She eventually bought the restaurant with Alfredo Viazzo,
who was also a waiter at the restaurant. After a few years, however,
their partnership broke up and Elaine decided to open her own
restaurant. She had discovered P. J. Clarke's and had befriended
Joe Allen, who was then a bartender there. He decided to branch
out on his own and opened a restaurant, Allen's, on Third Avenue
and 73rd Street. He would later sell that and open Joe Allen's
on Restaurant Row on West 46th Street in the Theater District,
and later, Orso's, next door. Hotchner quotes Allen:
"At the time Elaine was starting at Portofino,
I was getting my first job working for Danny Lavezzo who owned
P. J. Clarke's, a saloon-restaurant on Third Avenue at Fifty-fifth
Street. Prior to connecting at those places, Elaine and I had
both been living a clueless existence, neither of us had a defined
interest in any pursuit, but when Danny suggested that intsead
of spending all my time drinking at the bar..., I go to work for
him as a bartender, it was a magical suggestion. Right off the
bat I knew that restaurant life was a perfect fit for me. I didn't
know that until I started to work there - just as Elaine fell
in love with restauranting the minute she began waitressing at
Portofino. We were both in awe of Danny, and we learned a lot
from him. He was Mr. New York and New Yorkers loved him. Clarke's
was a grimy place - dark, exposed brick walls, probably not painted
since the First World War, the menu on a chalkboard on the back
wall, the same dark, mellow feel that eventually predominated
at Elaine's and at my first restaurant. But back there in the
early sixties, Elaine and I weren't thinking about starting restaurants.
We were just hanging on to our jobs, and were both impressed with
the clientele that Danny attracted to the back room."
The only place, according to Hotchner, that
Elaine could then afford was a Austrian-Hungarian restaurant known
as Gambrino's on Second Avenue between Eighty-Eighty and Eighty-Ninth
Streets that was formerly a wine store. She opened the restaurant
with Donald Ward, a friend of Joe Allen's, but after a while they
"Elaine has been an inspiration for many
of her neophytes," Hotchner observed, adding that "Bobby
Zaren now heads one of the most successful public relations firms
in New York, specializing in Hollywood movies and actors, but,
he says, 'when I worked for the Rogers and Cowan public relations
company, I wanted to out on my own, but I was fearful that I couldn't
make a go of it. As a matter of fact, I had already established
by credibility only I didn't know it. Elaine urged me to take
the step, and to prove her confidence in me she offered to finance
me but I didn't want to lose her money - so unconfident was I!
Then a group of Wall Street financiers offered to finance me and
because I didn't mind losing the money of rich strangers, I tentatively
accepted their help. When Elaine found out she yelled at me because
I wasn't going to let her, as a friend, help me out, but that
I'd let strangers do so. For the first time, thanks to Elaine,
I realized that I had the right stuff to make it on my own. As
a result, I took no one's money and started from scratch - it
was Elaine who gave me the confidence to believe in myself and
take that risk of going out on my own."
Zarem is one of the classic "Elaine"
regulars, an "authentic" character of great charm and
mirth who just happens to be very, very competent.
Another great "Elaine" character
is Father "Pete" Colapietro, the pastor of the Holy
Cross Roman Catholic Church on West 42nd Street across from the
"green giant" former McGraw-Hill building. A serious
fisherman and great raconteur, Father "Pete" is without
peer when it comes it singing "Mack The Knife" in German,
a feat that rekindles the "olde" Yorkville neighborhood
that has changed so dramatically since Elaine opened her establishment.
Before heading the 42nd Street church, Father "Pete"
headed a church a few blocks away from Elaine's.
Not only has Elaine provided sound advice and
counsel to many of her regulars, many of her former employees
has opened other Italian restaurants on the Upper East Side such
as Nicola's, Elio's and Parma.
"My devotion to Elaine's is best illustrated
by what happened when the Yankees won the famous Subway Series
in 2000," Hotchner quoted New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
"All of New York was abuzz and turned on everywhere....I
had a lot of guests in from all over the country, and we were
all going out to dinner after the game to celebrate. When eveyrone
asked where we should go, I replied hat there was only one place
and that was to my girlfriend's, Elaine's....I went up to the
door and there was a big burly security cop at the door waving
me off, saying sorry, we're full....I lost a lot of face with
my guests who condisdered Elaine's the top place in town to celebrate."
Elaine, as quoted by Hotchner, maintains that
Steinbrenner's "been a staunch friend....He often comes in
alone to sit with me and have dinner. People ask me why here,
since he could go to any of the upscale eateries in town. I guest
it's because I'm no nonsense, Im straight, what you see is what
you get. He enjoys conversing with someone who doesn't want any
favors. And he listens. That's something I'm finicky about - having
a conversation with somebody who's not listening, looking around,
not really hearing me."
While Elaine and her staff
have always made every effort to keep her "family" of
regulars not waiting for tables, some nights it seems as crowded
as a rush-hour subway at the bar where Tom Carney, the bartender,
has steadfastly commanded a very efficient operation and where
Elaine has a perch at the far end close to the two public telephones
and the pencil sharpener she regularly uses for the pencils with
which she totals up the bills - she is very much a hands-on and
very astute businessperson.
Hotchner includes a photograph by Jessica Burstein
of Loren Korevic, who for several years was the late-night piano-player
who was very popular with the "bar crowd" and had a
marvelous repetroire. Kotchner does not identify him by name and
the photograph's caption only reads that "At one time, a
piano player briefly held forth at the bar but he interfered with
the ebb and flow that is peculiarly Elaine's, so both player and
piano were soon banished." The piano actually was not banished
and is kept in the back room. It was a gift from Sydney Pollack,
the movie director, who had heard that Elaine had gone to buy
a piano but was put off by a salesperson's lengthy questionnaire.
He heard about the incident, Hotchner recounts, the next day from
Sue Barton of Columbia Pictures, and remembers that the incident
"breaks me up." "So after lunch, I say, C'mon,
let's go buy the kid a piano. So - complete surprise - on Valentine's
Day I send her this piano with a big red ribon wrapped around
it, and I enclosed the questionnaire, which I had filled out."
In her early years on Second Avenue, Elaine
had a juke box just to the left of the front door. When the city
instituted new regulations on smoking areas, for a while a large
"cigar-store Indian" separated the "smoking"
tables at the front across from the bar from the non-smoking tables
in the back, but even that succumbed to Mayor Bloomberg's draconian
ban on smoking, which, miraculously, Elaine's has compiled with
"She has the dramatic presence of Sophie
Tucker, the brassiness of Rosie O'Donnell, and the street smarts
of Toots Shor," Hotchner summaries. "As a matter of
fact, one night, around two in the morning, Elaine, Bobby Short,
and a few others were at PJ Clarke's, having a drink with Danny
Lavezzo, when a waiter came over and informed Elaine that Toots,
who was also there, wanted to meet here. A few moments later,
the hulking figure of Toots appeared at Elaine's table, a bit
unsteady from a long stint of drinking. He studied her for a while,
then he said, 'Elaine, I just wanted to take a look at my successor,'
whereupon he departed. Elaine is indeed the successor of all the
big-timers who went before her. She presides over her uptown domain
with benignity, unpredictable wit, two-fisted pugnaciousness,
and a remarkable insight into the human condition. Behind her
large eyeglasses, her eyes miss nothing that transpires, eyes
of laughter, of compassion, of fury....'I live a party life,'
she says. 'Elsa Maxwell used to have to send out invitations.
I just open the door.'"
This well illustrated book captures the remarkable
personality of Elaine and the incredible allure of her establishment.
On December 3, 2010, Elaine Kaufman died at Lenox Hill Hospital at the age of 81.
The New York Times ran three stories on her death in its on-line edition.
I submitted a comment to one of the stories in which I noted that:
"I became a late-night regular but unfortunately I missed
many incredible nights by chance and laziness especially the night when a young
man brought in a lion cub. That customer
later become one of my best friends when his lion-taming days were over.
Whenever I had a "first date" I would take them to
Elaine's but they usually wanted to go home not too long after midnight. As I would pass by Elaine, she would say,
quite loudly, "Put 'em in a cab and come back." I usually did.
Gianni Uzielli and I used to "double-date" before
Elaine's moved uptown and our paths had wandered apart over the years so it was
nice that we would pretty regularly close up the joint at Elaine's table.
She was great for her friends. When I was out-of-work for 52 months she let
me "sign" for my tabs and she once took a group of us for a caviar
lunch at Petrossian.
I once gave her some CDs of my electronic music but was
greatly disappointed a few days later when she, good-naturedly, told me to
concentrate on my journalism.
She loved reading and conversing and was very very sharp and
bright and great fun.
She was a real New Yorker - the real thing!