Elaine Kaufman's colorful personality attracted famous diners to her New York haunt for almost 50 years. Lloyd Grove talks to her clientele about her zest for gossip, her kitchen's terrible food, and the restaurant's most infamous moments. Plus, A.E. Hotchner pays tribute to Kaufman in an excerpt from his book Everyone Comes to Elaine's.
Elaine Kaufman—whose death Friday at 81 leaves a gaping hole in New York's social fabric—was a peculiar success story in the restaurant business.
Large and in charge at Elaine's, the Upper East Side landmark where she presided like a plump lioness from 1963 until about a week before she died, she was, by turns, dismissive, welcoming, intolerant, and generous to her paying customers, many of whom were leading lights of the movies, the arts, journalism, literature, politics, and law enforcement. And many of whom were not famous at all—just people she happened to like.
But if she didn't like you, watch out: She once punched out an annoying patron; another time, she hurled a garbage can lid at paparazzo extraordinaire Ron Galella. After a particularly egregious infraction—drunken fisticuffs, for instance—she could banish a customer entirely. Geraldo Rivera, so the story goes, had to work himself back into Kaufman's good graces after one such incident in the 1970s.
Moving slowly from table to table, draped in one of her caftans and wearing big round glasses under unlikely brown tresses, she plopped herself down without an invitation and sometimes picked at your plate. This was a great honor. She was a woman of huge appetites—not just for food, which at Elaine's is legendarily undistinguished and expensive—but for information, gossip, and camaraderie. Mainly camaraderie.
"She didn't know a lot about our business, but if she liked you, she was a big fan," said movie producer Marty Bregman ( Scarface, Serpico and dozens of others), an Elaine's regular who ate there once a week. "Being a big fan was very important to her. I mean, you could have been arrested for sticking up a liquor store, but if she thought it was a well-done stickup, she'd be very proud of you. 'That's a real stickup!' She had to like you—not what you did, but you personally. It took me years."
Bregman added: "The food is just this side of awful, but she thought it was wonderful. She couldn't understand why people ate in other restaurants—she was violently opposed to that. She assumed that if you weren't at Elaine's, you didn't eat."
Screenwriter-director-author Nora Ephron, who started frequenting Elaine's as a newspaper reporter, noted that "she was the first person who thought writers were worth cultivating as customers, when no one else did. And I don't mean writers, I mean journalists." Ephron continued: "More extraordinarily, she extended them credit. For a long time she didn't take credit cards, she just had a tab and she let people who were short of money build up a tab. And she saved her best tables for journalists. Who else did that?"
Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, William Stryron, James Jones, George Plimpton, and other literary celebs were diehard diners over the years. Woody Allen—who memorably spotlighted Elaine's in his 1979 film Manhattan—was also a loyalist, and on any given night spanning Elaine's five decades you could spot Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Michael Caine, Frank Sinatra, Marcello Mastroianni, Warren Beatty, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Andy Warhol, and other famous names grappling with the cuisine.
Gallery: Elaine Kaufman: Hostess To The Stars
"I went there three weeks after she opened and after that was there on average twice a week," said über-publicist Bobby Zarem, who hosted many movie stars at Elaine's, and recently decamped from Manhattan for his native Savannah, Georgia. "She was a major, maybe the major, cultural and social phenomenon in New York. And she did it with character and class."
As for this writer, I didn't start going to Elaine's until the fall of 2003, when I arrived in Manhattan from Washington, D.C., to launch a gossip column for The Daily News, and was thrilled, on my first visit, when Bregman (a friend of my dinner companion) stopped by our table with Al Pacino. Elaine was always happy to see me, although she didn't bother to hide her irritation when I'd come for a nightcap. "Just drinks? When are you going to come to eat?" she demanded. "I have to make some money, too." Of course, I eventually felt so guilty that I made sure to buy dinner whenever I darkened her door.
We got along fine, though she was amused by—and occasionally despairing of—my lack of New York savvy when she sat at my table to share tidbits of news and opinion in a mumble that I strained to hear. Once, after she announced, "I just came from the memorial service for George," I made the mistake of asking, "George who?" Elaine, who proudly wore a Yankees World Series ring given to her by George Steinbrenner, shot me a death glare, rolled her eyes, and turned to my dinner partner, saying, "I'm not talking to him anymore. I'll just talk to you."
• A.E. Hotchner: Elaine Kaufman, Hostess to the StarsCorporate communications executive Christine Taylor, who was my fellow diner that night, has been a regular at Elaine's for the past 30 years. She was grief-stricken on Friday afternoon, on hearing the sad news.
"Where," she asked me, "are we going to go now?"
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.