Elaine’s was a world-famous New York restaurant that became home to writers and celebrities. Owner Elaine Kaufman was known to be New York feisty,” controversial, often rude, always blunt, with the flare of Gertrude Stein and Dorothy Parker.
Elaine was highly respected and also frequently feared, and Elaine’s the restaurant received the public’s love and praise time and time again. Woody Allen held a regular table there, and Elaine’s was even featured in Allen’s Manhattan and Billy Joel’s song Big Shot.” Throughout the years, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and countless celebrities, politicians, socialites, private eyes, athletes, artists, and the biggest names in Hollywood became Elaine’s regulars.
Most emphatically, Elaine’s raison d’être was to nourish starving writers” with encouragement, introductions to Pulitzer Prize winners, and free food and alcohol. These struggling authors responded to Elaine’s support with profound gratitude.
Elaine passed away in 2010, forcing the restaurant manager to close shop shortly after. There is no Elaine’s without Elaine,” she decreed. However, the memories remain and are recalled by a variety of Elaine’s regulars in this moving, oftentimes amusing, collection of personal essays.
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About the Author
Liz Smith is a popular gossip columnist also known as the Grand Dame of Dish. Her work has appeared in the New York Daily News, Newsday, New York Post, and Chicago Tribune. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Natural Blonde.
Read an Excerpt
So ... Who Was Elaine Kaufman?
Amy Phillips Penn
OR AS ELAINE might say: Who the fuck was Elaine?
"Yes, I am a fucking icon," proclaimed Elaine Kaufman, the erstwhile, controversial proprietress of New York's celebrity hub, Elaine's.
"Everyone tells me that. What is that? What did you do that is so earth- shattering? Just survive, and you know about that. I guess you get points for surviving," she says in the documentary I Know a Woman Like That.
A fucking New York icon she was, remains, and you can put your roulette chip on "the icon goes legendary."
"If you ask me who is Elaine Kaufman, I'd say she's the big mama of them all ... I'm somebody who is still in the womb, a mother and a motherfucker ... While I'm waiting to find out how it all turns out, I'll be having a good time," said Elaine.
Elaine Kaufman, Bronx-born, overweight, feisty, and not exactly adored by everyone, soared into the ownership of one of New York's most legendary celebrity restaurants in spite of a prickly stem that should have come with its own app.
Elaine's opened uptown in what was then an "iffy" (think dangerous) section of Manhattan, Yorkville, near the corner of Eighty-eighth Street and Second Avenue.
With a New York attitude that could be "abrasive," she kowtowed to no one, no matter how indulgent, celebrated, or powerful they were. Where photographers were concerned, they had to keep their distance and earn her respect — a tough prize to win.
"You're too close to my front door," she screamed at celebrity paparazzi Ron Galella as she hurled a slew of garbage can lids at him. Just one click and an East Side garbage can lid became famous, in a Warhol-esque way.
The woman warrior hurled the garbage top at Galella and hit a parked limousine by mistake. She was not amused. In time, she and Galella put their garbage can lids aside and moved on, though.
"She liked the press I got her," Ron concludes.
Elaine's preference for men was well documented.
"She called men when she wanted fun; she called women when she wanted something," notes Peter Khoury, a New York Times editor.
Had this one-time nearly anorexic nighttime cosmologist planned to be the hostess and powerhouse behind one of New York's most seductive celebrity hangouts? Not likely.
Do the math: the restaurant business is one of the best known entrepreneurial gambles, swimming with and against unforeseen tsunamis and fickle clients. Elaine remained relatively calm, cultivated, and rewarded loyalty.
Struggling as a waitress in a restaurant in Greenwich Village, followed by a breakup with its owner, Elaine dug into her very own eponymous digs.
When she built it, they did arrive and imbibe, often running up years of unpaid tabs, and occasionally dishing the dishes: the food at Elaine's was sneered at by those who chose to sneer. But they all came: writers, celebrities, artists, politicians, socialites, athletes, detectives, wannabes, and those she befriended, offered business backing to, hosted weddings for, punched, socked, verbally abused or 86'd.
She has been called everything from a bitch to a hypocrite to a loyal friend.
So ... how did lightning strike? One tab at a time.
Elaine's opened its doors in Yorkville in 1963. The early sixties were an electrically fascinating time in New York and the world. We lost a president, gained The Beatles, marched against wars, contemplated the life of a hippy, dressed in minis, maxis, and even midis, or emulated Jackie Kennedy.
Writers, singers, and painters had much to explore. Warhol's inundation of repeated images from Marilyn Monroe to the Kennedy assassination entered our collective conscious.
Women were starting to compete with men in the workplace, but were not quite comfortable going solo into a restaurant without a man and making an entrance with a girlfriend was still a bit of an ouch.
Elaine partnered up with Donald Ward to start Elaine's. In a metaphorical coin toss, the name was either going to land on Donald or Elaine. Elaine's it was. The story goes that Donald made his exit after he tried to keep Truman Capote out of Elaine's simply because Capote was gay. Elaine would have none of that, so Elaine's became Elaine's.
As Elaine's grew in popularity, it and its owner were immortalized in song and film. Billy Joel referred to Elaine's in his song "Big Shot" (1978): "they were all impressed with your Halston dress and the people that you knew at Elaine's." Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields mentioned Elaine's in "Love is Like a Bottle of Gin" from the record 69 Love Songs: "You can find it on the Bowery / Or you can find it at Elaine's / It makes your words more flowery / It makes the sun shine, makes it rain." Woody Allen, who was an Elaine's ultra-regular, featured Elaine's in scenes from his films Manhattan (1979) and Celebrity (1998). Even the film Morning Glory (2010) showed Elaine Kaufman at the bar in Elaine's. The restaurant was also a constant in Stone Barrington novels by Stuart Woods; the first chapter always cites Elaine's as the location of the opening scene.
Elaine's continues to be a subject of conversation many years after its owner's passing. On May 10, 2014, The Moth Radio Hour featured anecdotes about Elaine's. George Plimpton recalled introducing Jerry Spinelli to writers, editors, and director Woody Allen at Elaine's, while José Torres recounted a story he'd shared at Elaine's about his first time facing a white man in the boxing ring.CHAPTER 2
There's No Elaine's Without Elaine
Amy Phillips Penn
THE FIRST TIME I met Elaine she scared the shit 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 Eighty- eighth Street, 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-fuck-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 could usually be seen holding court at his round table. 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 to 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, and 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?CHAPTER 3
Take Four : Customer, Publicist, Columnist, and "Let's do lunch, Elaine"
Amy Phillips Penn
I ALWAYS LOVED going to Elaine's.
I don't remember the exact date that I went there, but it was sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Glory Days.
I didn't meet Elaine until years later, which was fine with me. She sat with her favorites, changed tables when the mood struck, and had no idea that I was alive. She didn't radiate "warm and fuzzy," and I was happy to keep a respectful distance.
When I first went to Elaine's, it was as someone's "date." Whether it was at Elaine's, 21, aka. the numbers, or Le Club, most of the women took an invisible note as to where they were seated. It was a reflection on their date's allure, not theirs.
There were unspoken rules at Elaine's, such as "please do not feed or interrupt the celebrities," but I was oblivious.
I broke that rule before I knew it was a rule.
On my way out of Elaine's, dressed in a maxi raincoat and floppy brown suede hat, and feeling very Annie Hall, I went over to Woody Allen's table and announced that I had a screenplay that I wanted him to see.
I was in my twenties and believed that New York held no barriers especially when it came to writers and artists and lovers of New York like the brilliant Woody Allen.
Artists of all kinds seemed so approachable, then. The art world was booming into pop, op, and anything goes, punched with price tags as bold as a Jackson Pollock.
At museum openings, casual Saturday New York gallery going, art auctions at Sotheby's and parties in the East Hampton, artists and writers mingled with the rest of us, flaunting no attitudes of superiority for the most part. They had all dreamed the dream once.
Woody was extremely gracious.
He told me where to send the script.
"Are you sure that I can't send it to you?"
I was twenty, and felt that you could ask for the moon, and that it just might RSVP favorably. Everyone needs a break, and writers and artists know better than to miss their moment. Embarrassment is a small dividend for having your words published, or echoed on screen.
The screenplay had evolved in my parent's New York kitchen. My mother had painted the walls an electric yellowish orange, which by proxy vote, we had all declared frightening. She and I had visited a famous psychic, who had described the love of my life, who I had (and have) yet to meet.
We decided to write a satirical screenplay about it. The heroine is looking for her prince-to-be, and who could be funnier in that role than Woody Allen? Since he doesn't even know that I exist, the mother and daughter decide to stage a fake kidnapping and leave them on an island for a few days. Naturally they fall in love. The best laid plans ... But they manage to get kidnapped for real. No one pays the ransom, because they think it's part of the plan. The two lovers are shot. The credits read: "Better Life Next Life" or "The Girl Who Cried Love," on the chalk outlines of their bodies.
Just another New York slice of black humor.
* * *
Sometime in the late seventies, I was working for a small publicity firm named Gifford-Wallace. It was run by a husband-and-wife team, Michael (the wife) and her husband, Ed Gifford. They were a small, but powerful team. Their clients had included: Hair,Godspell, Studio 54 (from day one), Metromedia TV, and other prime accounts.
My assignment was to go into Elaine's with a Metromedia camera crew and organize a segment on Elaine's. The Giffords had called ahead to Elaine to let her know that we were coming.
It was a torrential night. I arrived drenched, but on time. The camera crew was there.
In my best New York girl school manners, I politely asked Elaine where we should set up. She roared at me, a lioness predator in high hormonal gear.
"Do what your boss told you to do."
No, "please, thank you, or would you like anything to drink?"
What stratosphere was I in and who did you have to cozy up to get out?
Shimmying, in a loose Mumu style dress, this more than ample woman, all but gathered up Woody Allen and a few other customers. Like a mother cat, she was saving her kittens from getting wet by throwing them into the downpour escorted by a chauffeur and waiting limo.
After we finished our assignment, we left without saying goodbye to Elaine. The crew from Metromedia gave me a ride home in their truck. Someone passed around a joint, and soon I was home, the gruff, dismissive woman I had tried to make friends with was soon forgotten.
* * *
Sometime in the late seventies and early eighties, I freelanced as an assistant to the world renowned society/fashion columnist Eugenia Sheppard. I covered parties, movie screenings, younger Manhattan, and pretty much anything I chose that did not conflict with Eugenia's priorities.
When Eugenia died, I was honored to carry on her column with my own byline. I had become a syndicated New York society columnist. I gleaned instant respect, nonstop invitations to everywhere and anything, and a parcel of power, New York style.
I don't know if Elaine and I were ever officially introduced, but I do remember her next words to me after I had written about Elaine's in my column.
"Thanks for the plug," she said when I came in for dinner.
The roar was reserved for elsewhere.
* * *
I have arrived.
Elaine feels free to plop someone down at our table. I'm sitting at a table at Elaine's with my friend Patrick Shields.
Patrick was the six-foot-seven director of Le Club, a private dinner club, which hosted Caroline and John Jr. Kennedy's birthday party on the same night.
Jackie O wrote Patrick a handwritten thank-you note. I wouldn't be surprised if he was buried with it.
Can you stand it?
One night, when I was sitting with my friend Harvey Kirk, a publicist for the Giffords and Studio 54, Elaine came over to the table.
John Lennon wants to know if he can get into Studio 54.
"I'll take care of it," said Harvey, and went back to his pasta.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Elaine's"
Copyright © 2015 Amy Phillips Penn.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface BY LIZ SMITH,
So ... Who Was Elaine Kaufman? BY AMY PHILLIPS PENN,
There's No Elaine's Without Elaine BY AMY PHILLIPS PENN,
Take Four: Customer, Publicist, Columnist, And "Let's Do Lunch, Elaine" BY AMY PHILLIPS PENN,
"Marry Me, Marry Me" At Elaines BY DAVID BLACK,
Elaine's Empties the Stanley Cup BY PER BJURMAN,
"Give Him Table Six, He Says He Has Money." BY STEVE MCPARTLIN,
When Elaine Socked Me BY CHINA GIRARD,
How Elaine Became My Photo Agent BY JESSICA BURSTEIN,
Travels With Elaine BY JESSICA BURSTEIN,
My Last Night At Elaine's JODI GARDNER,
"I'm a Fucking Icon." BY ELAINE MADSEN,
Elaine Was My Dating Coach BY KEN PLISKA,
My Home Away From Home BY DANA MOYLES,
The Good Penny BY CURT BLOCK,
"Elaine's Was Really Three Different Places." BY ASH BENNINGTON,
Woody Allen On Elaine's A Q&A BY AMY PHILLIPS PENN,
Top Ten Reasons Your New Hangout Will Never Replace Elaine's BY CHARLES KIPPS,
Shooting Elaine's (But Not Elaine) BY RON GALELLA,
When Spinelli Met Plimpton AS TOLD TO AMY PHILLIPS PENN,
"Not Only Did You Share A Meal Or A Drink, But You Shared Yourself." BY MARK ROSSINI,
Elaine's, A Tribute PHOTOGRAPHS BY LARRY FINK,
Dabney Coleman Does The Godfather Gig At Elaine's. Just Guess Who's Listening. BY DABNEY COLEMAN,
Elaine Kaufman: Friend and Investor BY ESTHER MARGOLIS,
"I Was Married To My Restaurant; Elaine Was Married To Elaine's." BY STEVE (PALLY) MCFADDEN,
Elaine Was An Interesting, Tough Lady. (I saw her punch out a guy.) BY KEN MORAN,
The Era Is Over BY AL SAPIENZA,
Still "Anchored" At Elaine's BY BOB DRURY,
"Who's Da Poet?" BY TAKI THEODORACOPULOS,
Elaine As Mama Earth BY FRED MORTON,
There's "Nothing Like Gedempte Flaische." BY STEVE WALTER,
People Soup BY TONY HENDRA,
Who's on First? (In Elaine's Bathroom) BY RICHARD JOHNSON,
"I Would Not Be the Person I Am Today if I Had Not Gone Into Elaine's." BY LIBBY SCHOETTLE,