Hostess to the Stars

Elaine Kaufman, who died Friday at the age of 81, was the beloved matriarch of the Upper East Side hot spot Elaine’s, where Woody Allen, Jackie Kennedy, and countless boldfaced names were regulars. In an excerpt from his book Everyone Comes to Elaine’s, A.E. Hotchner pays tribute to Manhattan’s favorite restaurateur.

12.03.10 8:19 PM ET

"In a blood sense, I don't have a family, but what are you going to do if you're in a family? Hope you have someone there to talk to? I have it here. There are really terrific people to talk to every night. And that's the kind of family for me, I prefer my Elaine's family to a regular family because a family is always loaded with problems, which, as far as I am concerned, is really boring. But there has never been a night here when I've been bored. Not with the people who come to Elaine's."


What Rick's place was to Casablanca, Elaine's is to New York, 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 88th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan. Elaine, a Jewish lady from the Bronx, who, for the past 40 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, 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." But beyond that, it also has an aura about it, a mysticism of exclusiveness, that makes it rather forbidding. On any given night, you cannot anticipate the mood within: serene (infrequently), blustery, combative, riotously festive, even, on occasion, rebellious. But whatever the prevailing atmosphere, you can be sure that Elaine, like Rick, will be seated at one of the tables, monitoring the activities, the arrivals and departures, barmen and waiters occasionally whispering in her ear, favored guests being greeted and seated, offending patrons being castigated and occasionally excommunicated, in a nightly scene more suited to the stage of a Broadway theater than the rather seedy environs in which it is located.

Elaine's place has a distinguished ancestry. Beginning with flamboyant Texas Guinan in the Roaring Twenties, New York's nightlife has been steadily illuminated by a gaudy group of big-time saloon keepers, including Toots Shor, who began as a speakeasy bouncer; Jack Kreindler, who originally operated "21" as a speakeasy; the consummate Irishman Tim Costello, who started a speakeasy upstairs at Lexington and 44th with his brother, Joe; Dan Lavezzo of PJ Clarke's; Sherman Billingsley, a bootlegger from Oklahoma who started the Stork Club with two vicious gangsters, Dutch Schultz and Owney Madden, as his partners; Vincent Sardi; Joe Allen in his original place in the Theater District. Each of these barons had a distinct fiefdom: Toots, a gargantuan, garrulous two-fisted drinker, catered to jocks, especially the New York Yankees; Kreindler's preserve embraced blue bloods, captains of industry, and politicians; Billingsley kowtowed to café society and Hollywood stars; Costello's was a watering hole for the prestigious writers and cartoonists of The New Yorker; Lavezzo, who was popular with musicians and singers, had a particular passion for the New York Giants football team, which he feted en masse; Sardi attracted Broadway headliners whereas Joe Allen was home to lesser Broadway performers who couldn't afford Sardi's, mostly chorus kids.

Gallery: Elaine Kaufman: Hostess To The Stars

Lloyd Grove: Farewell to New York’s Legendary Restaurateur Elaine KaufmanBut these big-time saloons have diminished or disappeared from the New York scene: the establishments of Shor, Costello, Billingsley, and Lavezzo have passed on with their proprietors; Sardi's, "21," and Joe Allen have lost their originality, but Elaine, now in her 40th year, thrives as a late-night phenomenon with no alternate place in sight—she may well be the last of the great saloon keepers.

At Elaine's, the food, 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. Still, there are a large number of people, well-known, rich, prestigious, who find the prospect of presenting themselves at Elaine's intimidating, who feel they need some kind of special entrée, afraid to enter if not accompanied by an accepted regular. The public perception of Elaine's—to an extent justified—is that of a forbidding, cliquish preserve restricted to the favorites of the lady whose name it bears, and outsiders wonder what qualifies those who dine at the favored tables. The irony is that few of the illustrious who do frequent Elaine's hallowed walls can explain why they are there.

It may well be that whereas her antecedents, from Texas Guinan's to Costello's to "21," were all speakeasies where the proprietors identified those they admitted after viewing them through a peephole, Elaine's is just as selective but with a figurative peephole.

How the favored occupants got there in the first place has to do with the fact that the early settlers around Elaine's checkered tablecloths were writers. Writers are pilot fish—they are fearless and adventure-prone and will go into any new, dark, uninviting place if it looks cheap, different, and indulgent about how long a table can be occupied. Writers like to sit at tables for a long time and not spend much money, or spend a great deal if they can put it on their tab. Either way, they are not a bonanza for a new restaurant.

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 88th 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 scriveners' 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.

"When I first stepped into Elaine's, in 1964, it was simply one large, permissive room," Jack Richardson says. "Second Avenue in the upper Eighties was then a fairly rough neighborhood, and it must be confessed that Elaine's reflected the area. Hookers squalled at the bar and arm wrestled for boilermakers; the jukebox boomed out polkas and German marches, music left over from the days the place had been a meeting spot for Yorkville Bundists; Irish workers from the local brewery battered one another into oblivion, puked, sang, and passed out with that lyrical charm for which their race is famous; and Madam herself waited on tables, gingerly stepping around and over the bodies of her customers.

"As soon as I saw Elaine, my heart went out to her. Here was a retiring, delicate, refined lady trying to teach the crude palates of this hardworking group an appreciation of squid salad and fried zucchini.

"A hopeless enterprise, and later, while she stuffed the night's meager take into a lush expanse of bosom, I offered her a way to save her struggling saloon.

"'First,' I said, 'you need some sensitive types in here.'

"'You mean fags?' she asked, her face colored by a gentle blush.

"'No,' I answered, 'I mean writers.'

"Elaine greeted this proposal with a quaint Jewish obscenity, so I quickly explained to her the relevant virtues of my profession.

"'What would you say to some steady customers who don't have to get up in the morning and can therefore be plied with drinks until closing time? Who will eat anything put in front of them—and enjoy it?'

"Now there was a flicker of interest in her eyes.

"'Do they spend?' was her circumspect question. "'An indifference to money is the hallmark of the profession,' I answered with pride.

"'OK,' said Elaine, 'bring me a dozen.'

"I was surprised that she presented me with a bill when I headed for the door. Patiently, I explained to her that writers preferred the trust implied in the running up of tabs to the rude transactions of immediate payment. I then signed the back of the check, added a generous tip, and walked out into the night. From the warmth of Elaine's farewell words, I knew a lasting friendship had been formed."

The early Elaine's was, as Richardson says, a raucous, brawling, hardscrabble saloon, and to keep even a semblance of order Elaine ruled with an iron fist, flinging brawlers into the street, pursuing check beaters, backing down from no one, a pugilistic trait she maintained throughout the years right up to the present day, her right-hand haymaker as lethal as ever.

"The first time I went to Elaine's was in 1967," the director Robert Altman says. "I walked in and there was a very rowdy table up in the front and Elaine was at her station by the bar. One of the guys at the table was making a ruckus with the waiter; the guy was wearing a scarf and Elaine came up behind him, grabbed him by the scarf and twisted it around his neck, yanked him up out of his chair, and threw him out the front door into the street. I knew then and there that this was my kind of place, and that I ought to make friends with that lady."

Elaine still asserts her authority physically, as she did recently in settling a dispute with an ambassador to the U.N. "He's from some cockamamy country I never heard of," she says, "the check comes—he raises hell, says he won't pay the tax because he's got this tax-exempt card he sticks in my face. I shove the card away, and tell him loud and clear that everybody pays tax in Elaine's. His highness then tells me to shove the check up my kazoo, or words to that effect, and I blister him with a word or two which he's never heard from a lady before, and he torches me with some nasty foreign stuff, and I'm ready to clock him when big Frank Waters, who works the bar here, gets between us and stretches out his big arms like this, to keep us apart, but I come running under his arm and cold-cock the ambassador with a solid right that sends him skidding across the floor from bar stool three to bar stool seven. That'll teach him how not to talk to a lady. But Liz Smith makes an item of it, giving the impression that I'm the Mike Tyson of Second Avenue, which is simply not the case. Look, this is a late-night saloon and occasionally it's necessary to assert myself when things get a little out of hand. Actually my place is pretty genteel but by the nature of them, night places are prone to commotion, arguments, and physical demonstrations. For instance, that big window in back of me that's been broken three times: First when the playwright John Ford Noonan was kicked out of here because he was pestering Geraldo Rivera, who was at dinner with friends. Pissed at being outside looking in, John reared back and punched a big hole in the window, which at that time was made of heavy plastic. Then there was a guy who had a sizzling argument with his girlfriend, stormed out of here, seized a garbage can on the sidewalk, and threw it through the window, which was then made of glass. The last time, Bruce Jay Friedman, who wrote A Mother's Kisses, was coming in and got accosted by a drunk at the bar here, and the drunk got belted so hard his head hit the window and cracked it in two."

There is something definitely combustible about the atmosphere at Elaine's. The novelist Dan Greenburg recalls the time "an out-of-town friend was eager to be taken to Elaine's. She wanted to see the celebrity fistfights, she said. We assured her there were no such things. She knew better.

"We took her to Elaine's and got a table with some people we knew. Shortly after our arrival, two of the largest men I have ever seen walked in with a bimbo, and they sat down at the table opposite ours. It quickly became apparent that these folks had never been to this restaurant before, and that their idea of an effective way to get great service at Elaine's was to be loud and abusive and insult the waiters.

"Nobody waited on them. They became louder and more abusive. They were earnestly asked to leave, and they responded with picturesque figures of speech.

"The oversized gents kicked over a table and shouted an invitation to fight anybody in the place. A feisty young female journalist at our table announced that her table would take on their table. I hastily made it clear that this offer applied only to her and was void for her tablemates.

"The cops arrived. A scuffle ensued. Screams and blows were exchanged. Bruisers and bimbo were bum-rushed outside, where Ron Galella took flash pictures.

"Everybody was very excited. Everybody was very surprised. Everybody but our out-of-town friend—this was what she had known it was like. This was what she had come to see. We assured her that nothing quite this dramatic had happened at Elaine's in years.

"Our friend just smiled. She knew better."

Excerpt provided by It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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A. E. Hotchner is the author of the international bestsellers Papa Hemingway, Doris Day: Her Own Story, Sophia, and his own memoir, King of the Hill. He has adapted many of Hemingway's works for the screen.