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Giancarlo Uzielli

A Gentleman Jokester

Daniel H. Lavezzo III and Gianni Uzielli

Gianni Uzielli, right, shown in the late 1970s, has made Daniel H. Lavezzo III, left, and many others, laugh, many, many times

By Carter B. Horsley

Before I met Giancarlo Uzielli in the early 1960s, I was aware he was a "man-about-town" and therefore when I met him on a double-date in 1964 I was surprised to discover that he was very charming and very, very funny. He was very dapper, worked on Wall Street, had family connections to a famous financial family in Europe. He would soon marry his date that evening. Some months later, I got a phone call from Marty Arnold, a reporter for The New York Times where I worked as a news assistant at the time, asking me about the elopement of her sister whom I thought I was still going out with.

These were relationships not easily forgotten.

I would see Gianni from time to time at Dick Edwards's cozy and elegant bar/restaurant on 61st Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, or at Le Club, the elegant private disco on 55th Street east of First Avenue. We were both regulars at both places for a while but Gianni was usually seated with a woman who was not his wife at one of the tables while I was either at another table, or at the bar. We would nod to one another, but that was the extent of the acquaintanceship.

Nightlife was changing in New York. The days of the Stork Club and the Harwyn Club, formal live-band dancing restaurants were fading, although El Morocco was still going strong for not so young major celebrities. In 1961, Shepheard's became the first public disco in Manhattan. It was named after the famous Egyptian restaurant and its decor was appropriate King Tut-ly. It was a nightclub in the Drake Hotel on 55th Street between Madison and Park Avenues with some live acts, but its popularity came in large part from Slim, who played the records.

Shepheard's had a good run, but competition was on its heels. Slim moved on to L'Interdit in the basement of the Gotham Hotel on the southwest corner of 55th Street and Fifth Avenue. L'Interdit's decor was international traffic signs. It had low lights, great drinks, a large dance floor and Gilbert Becaud chanting "Et Maintenant" on the speakers.

Before long, medium-size discos became the rage: Aux Puces, Arthur's, La Boite, Hippopotamus, Raffles (the precursor to Doubles, which is still going strong), among others, and, yes, the Peppermint Lounge where the Twist thrived. I would see Gianni across the smoke-filled rooms often, though rarely if ever on the dance floors.

Discos then were mostly for couples and for the pre-dancing crowd Dick Edwards began to get competition from small saloons like Frey's on East 64th Street, Malachy's on First Avenue, and Don Denton's and Mike Malkan's, both on East 79th Street. The Beatles liked the latter, which added to its popularity as a nite-cap place.

During this time, of course, regular "society" attended their "balls" and concerts and performing arts events and the more adventurous would wile away the hours at folk-song places on MacDougal Alley, or jazz places on Seventh Avenue, or Christopher Street, or Tenth Street, or University Place in Greenwich Village. I spent a good bit of time at the jazz joints, especially Casey's and The Ninth Circle on Tenth Street, "55" on Christopher Street run by Bradley Cunningham and "Bradley's" on University Place, his more refined joint.

I didn't see Gianni at these places but remember running into his wife at one of George Plimpton's annual Paris Review parties one year at Art d'Lugoff's Village Gate. I'm pretty sure I also saw Gianni from a distance one night at Max's Kansas City on Park Avenue South in its heyday.

I pretty much outgrew the Village haunts and spent a lot of time at Pedro's, the very small Berliner Bar with a shuffleboard machine and wicked Banana Daiquiris and Tidal Waves, on 85th Street between Third and Second Avenues, just a few strides away from one of the city's major streetwalker havens on the avenue. Pedro's had a pretty long run as the regular hangout of really attractive Junior Leaguers from all over. It was perhaps the first of the reverse-snobbism joints. One's first visit was shock that so many people could cram into so small and unknown place and that so many of them were good-looking and respectable. People got drunk but drugs were not in evidence.

Pedro's was tucked away on one of the sidestreets of Yorkville when Yorkville's 86th Street was chock full of German dancing and beer halls populated by flotillas of stewardesses.

I never saw Gianni at these Yorkville establishments in those early years of our night lives.

In the mid-1960s, I began to hear and read about Elaine's (see The City Review article on A. E. Hotchner's book on the famous restaurant).

Elaine's had worked in Greenwich Village but opened up an Italian restaurant on Second Avenue between 88th and 89th Streets, a couple of blocks above the blare and din of the beer halls in a neighborhood that was in no-man's-land, or limbo, between East End Avenue few blocks to the east and Carnegie Hill a few blocks to the west. I decided to drop by because I knew that a couple of the "star" reporters at The New York Times, where I worked, had started to patronize it. I went early one evening and the place was pretty empty and I went up to the bar for a beer and when I turned around to look at the place I saw Gay Talese, David Halberstam and Tom Buckley at the first table. Tom saw me and motioned for me to join the table. I gathered my bottle and glass and was about to join the table when Elaine came up to me to tell me that I should not bother people at the table. Fortunately, Tom stood up and intervened and said I was one of their colleagues, which was damn nice of him since I was still not a reporter and Gay was the top feature writer onthe city desk, David was the Vietnam War correspondent, and Tom was then one of the stars of "night rewrite."

I pretty quickly became a regular at Elaine's, although I tended to spend more time at the bar than many regular patrons in part because it was cheaper than buying dinner. Whenever I had a new date, of course, I took them for dinner at Elaine's.

Elaine's legendary celebrity is entirely deserved. When she started, "21" was the name of the celebrity game in New York. People who might get into El Morocco because they were social butterflies might have a hard time "crashing" "21." "21," of course, was a public restaurant, like Elaine's, but it was very, very, very intimidating to get into the main downstairs room with the checkered red-and-white tablecloths and the very famous and wonderful ceiling hung with mementos and toys. (One of my few forays in "21" came in the early 1970s when as a real estate news reporter I was covering the annual Real Estate Board dinner at the New York Hilton and decided to tag along with my three best "sources" - Jerry Speyer, Harry Helmsley and John Dowling - and have a few drinks at the downstairs bar at "21." We had no trouble getting in. Jerry was the head of Tishman Speyer, Harry was Mr. New York, and John was the top commercial real estate broker at Cushman & Wakefield.)

The action at Elaine's didn't start early and over the years when I went in it was for the count, that is, closing time.

Elaine spawned a few restaurants such as Elio's and Nicola's. Out of curiosity I dropped in on them from time to time and eventually would spend a lot of time late at night at Nicola's playing wild games of backgammon after closing. Elaine, of course, did not appreciate her customers' wanderings.

One night I was standing at the bar and became smitten with a very beautiful blond and started a conversation with her. We went out for about three years and one night we were walking on Third Avenue past a new restaurant that has becoming very popular, Jim McMullen's. We decided to go in and I recognized a good friend talking with someone at the maitre-d' station, Norman Alexander, and my date recognized that person, Jim McMullen. We fell over one another during the greeting stage and from then on I was a regular at Jim's. I never understood exactly why I was so welcomed. I was a reporter at The Times, but not very famous. I think it was largely because of my date and in part because of Norman, a most erudite connoisseur whose wonderful Sutton Place townhouse I had visited the previous summer on a blind date I had with a beautiful granddaughter of Conrad Hilton (but as a character says in "Irma La Douce," that's another story.)

McMullen's opened in 1976 and for the next decade was probably the most popular bar/restaurant in the city. Jim was a former model and the place was flooded with models. Jim also liked people and has a very memorable laugh and a great smile. Everyone wanted a pinch of his good humor. Mayors and district attorneys and big - really big - movie stars, and sports heros like Reggie Jackson who came in the night he hit three homers in the World Series.

McMullen's wasn't the only game in town, of course, and for a brief time it got intense competition from Hoexter's, a fancy Italian restaurant that Gianni created with the owners of Hoexter's Meat Market. Gianni created a very elegant ambiance in the dining section and the bar was very active. I would go occasionally and would wave hello to Gianni who was in pin stripe heaven and always smiling and always shaking hands and always surrounded by some of the biggest players on the social circuit.

Hoexter's was only a few blocks north of McMullen's on Third Avenue and Gianni would often come down to McMullen's to join Jim's center table where the "Volleyball" team congregated with intense regularity. The team played once a week in the gymnasium at Spence School, courtesy of the influence of Tony Ittleson who had a daughter attending Spence. The game had started in Southampton and Gianni had been a regular for a while before it migrated into the city. One of the other regulars was Daniel H. Lavezzo III, whose father ran P. J. Clarke's, one of the city's legendary saloons. Dan was, and is, extremely popular and a great athlete whose close friends included many of the most famous tennis stars in the world. If Dan had spent more time at Clarke's, everyone would have gone there, but he was a good friend of Jim's and spent most of his time at McMullen's. Jim treated his gang as royalty and indeed it was quite a group. If one were casting a movie of the scene, Robert Redford would have played Jim, John Wayne would have played one of the "Volleyball" regulars, Jean Paul Belmondo would have played Dan, Paul Newman would have played another team member whose grandfather was the chief justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, and Denzel Washington would have portrayed another member, and Peter Sellars would have played Gianni. The "Volleyball" gang stayed and played together for a generation.

There were a lot of other regulars at McMullen's, including another group of tall, handsome, rugged men like Tom O'Neill, a former CBS Sports executive who opened a restaurant near Sutton Place with Tucker Fredrickson. Tom would come into McMullen's often trailed by his stellar pack of good-time high rollers. Gianni was equally comfortable with both "gangs" and in fact was everyone's unofficial ringleader of merriment.

I suppose my day of glory was when I agreed to umpire a softball game in Central Park between Gianni's and Jim's restaurants. Every call I made was outrageous - after all, it was daytime....I think both teams won, or maybe they lost, who cares....

One day, Jim's began to empty a bit early and I convinced Gianni to come with me up to Elaine's. I had been going to Elaine's regularly late at night. Gianni fit in instantly and before long he brought along Tom and his gang, but they did not go as regularly as Gianni.

Elaine adopted Gianni. He sat at her table.

Gianni reaching for a match

Gianni reaching for a match while Jessica Burstein leans on him in the backroom at Elaine's

Dan once told me that Elaine was an incredible reader of character. He was right.

To a stranger, or someone "new" to the scene those days at Elaine's, Gianni was a character who bordered on the obnoxious and seemed to cross the lines of good taste. He was the dapper Don Rickles of insults, and his targets were not always celebrities. Elaine recognized his talent, his dynamic energy, his effusive wit, his "we're all in this together" spirit.

At both Elaine's and Jim's, Gianni was the deliverer of the "word," the latest jokes and jokes were the coin of the realm and nobody could tell them as well as Gianni.

I never could remember any jokes, but I laughed a great deal. One of Gianni's classic jokes was a very lengthy tale of someone wanted to build a "chunnel," a tunnel under the English Channel. Gianni would recite the entrepreneur's exhausting haunt for the right contractors from around the globe, with a bevy of perfect accents. It was one of those stories you never wanted to end. It was a beautiful, hilarious singsong of absurdity. Its punchline always came as a jolt and surprise. It was a "clean" joke, which was something of a rarity those days.

When my mother died, I decided to hold a memorial service for her and invited Gianni to come and tell the Tunnel joke, because I thought my mother would have loved it and also because I really needed some levity for the very serious memorial I planned. Gianni demurred. He didn't like funerals and memorial services. I said I understood and he didn't have to tell the joke or come.

He came just as I as starting the service. I ran up to him to thank him for coming. He indicated he would tell the joke if I really wanted him to. I said yes and halfway through the service I introduced him and he told the joke slowly and without leaving out any of the myriad dialects he was master of and the small group in attendance, including Elaine, burst into laughter whose ripples continued for many minutes.

On Thursday, July 27, 2006 a funeral mass for Gianni who passed away that month at the age of 71 was conducted by Father Peter Colapietro at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on Lexington Avenue. Father "Pete" is the famous pastor of the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Cross near Times Square on West 42nd Street and one of the great "characters" of Elaine's where his renditions in German of "Mack The Knife" are legendary.

Father "Pete" befriended Gianni and became an important spiritual advisor to him.

In an increasingly political correct world, Gianni and Father "Pete" stood four-square and proud, the finest advertisement for the pleasures of smoking and drinking and laughing. They would not bother to defend such sins. Perhaps the defense is that you cannot appreciate the good without knowing the bad, or something....

Elaine got annoyed at Gianni for hustling in her restaurant for a new restaurant he became involved with and everybody was very sad about the split. It was a heavenly conflagration of poetic majesty, their communion. No-nonsense Elaine and seemingly senseless Gianni, uncontrollable, undefinable forces that transformed New York's nights, our very own ghostbusters.

The service at St. Vincent Ferrer has very touching and sweet with a lovely tribute by his charming son, Al, and by his daughter, also.

That night, the stalwart and now mostly-gray-haired coterie of Gianni's friends gathered at Elaine's to pay him their respects and proffer their very great affection for Gianni.

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