There’s no Elaine’s without Elaine

By Amy Phillips Penn

The first time I met Elaine she scared the sh*t out of me, and I don’t scare easily. I’m a New Yorker, after all.

The culture at Elaine’s jumpstarted the Studio 54 mentality: Can you get a good table (or in Studio’s case, get in at all)? And if you do, can you please get a gander at who’s making these decisions?

Michael M. Thomas, who has written many a New York column, found Elaine refreshing. “I got a kick out of her. She was who she was. She learned the art of sucking up to people by insulting them. Elaine was the Toots Shor of the writing world.”

Toots was known as “the master of the needle jibe.” Take it from there.

Elaine Kaufman was born in New York, and was raised in Queens and the Bronx. One of her first jobs was as a night cosmetician. See, scary.

Ms. Kaufman entered the New York restaurant biz in 1959—no easy odyssey, even back then—when she started running Portofino along with her then boyfriend, Alfredo Viazzi. The artsy crowd gathered and re-gathered: publishers, theatre lovers, writers.

Four years later, Kaufman launched the eponymous Elaine’s on East 89th St, where she mothered her chosen tribe: writers. The literati’s tabs were known to lengthen and linger. No problem—if Elaine liked you, that is.

Elaine and Norman “don’t-f*ck-with- me” Mailer dug into a doozy of a drag out that ended with Mailer writing Elaine a letter in which he vowed never to return to her restaurant. Elaine scribbled the word “BORING” on his pages and mailed them right back to him. A few nights later, Mailer showed up again.

Loyalty doesn’t always pay off, but in Elaine’s case it did. Vonnegut, Mailer, Plimpton, and Talese were all Elaine’s regulars.

Woody Allen, who wailed loudly and widely for privacy, could usually be seen holding court at his round table. His hat was his only disguise, but then again, Woody Allen under a hat is Woody Allen under a hat. If you sauntered to the loo, you were elbow to elbow with Woody’s linguine. How private can you get?

And how did you get the ladies/men’s room? Just ask Elaine. “Take a right at Michael Caine,” she might say.

Celebrities celebrated her. Billy Joel immortalized her in the song “Big Shot,” and Woody Allen paid homage by shooting a scene of Manhattan at Elaine’s.

Booking a table at Elaine’s was no easy feat. Getting a good table at Elaine’s required Herculean-strong connections. And if you weren’t going to be in the front room, preferably near a table where Elaine hopped to and from, why even bother? Sitting in “Siberia,” does not a New York image make.

Elaine’s was center stage for people watching: celebrities, writers, politicians, athletes, the who’s who of the week, whose attendance would surely be noted by Page Six.

One torrential night, I went into Elaine’s as part of my public relations gig to coordinate a story for a New York news station. I asked Elaine what her priorities were.

“Do what your boss told you to do,” she said, and then she ran to Woody’s table as if it were on fire to escort him and his guests out so their privacy would remain intact. Her priorities were clear.

How did she treat the press? This from former New York Post photographer, Adam Scull.

“Elaine was loud, pushy, boisterous, tough-as-nails, took shit from NO ONE, including us photographers. She almost always kept us out on the street cooling our heels whilst the likes of Woody Allen, Robert De Niro, and every other famous actor and author kept coming back for dinner night after night. Elaine’s was the place to go mostly because the authors and actors were protected vociferously by Elaine. ‘Screw the photographers’ I used to hear her say, time and time again, only occasionally allowing just a select few of us in from time to time. Elaine Kaufman was the doyenne of protective restaurateurs. She caved to no one.”

Why did Elaine scare me? Who wants to mess with that?

In time, Elaine and I warmed up to each other, one New York edgy step at a time. I had my own column by then.

“Thanks for the plug,” she would say as I walked in.

Elaine slipped into my “like” list surprisingly, but surely.

When she was going through a slow time, I had a date with a producer. His secretary called me and told me that I could pick “any restaurant in town.”

“Elaine’s I replied,” although the numbers “21” were adding up in my head.

“You could go anywhere in New York and you picked Elaine’s?” she said.

When we walked in that night, Elaine didn’t say anything, but I knew that she recorded the gesture. We became friends.

After Elaine’s death in 2010, Diane Becker, the heir to Elaine’s, made a decision. Elaine’s was closing.

“There’s no Elaine’s without Elaine,” she conceded.

What choice do we have but to agree?

 

Painting by Dora Frost

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