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Elaine Kaufman Remembered

Monday, 6 Dec 2010 | 3:01 PM ET

Elaine Kaufman, owner of Elaine's restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side, died last Friday afternoon at age eighty-one.

Elaine Kaufman
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Elaine Kaufman

Elaine's death is the subject of a CNBC story because many of Wall Street's elite dine at her restaurant, and because it is a hub of New York City culture, and because she was my friend.

Charlie Gasparino, then a reporter for this network, introduced me to Elaine Kaufman. I met my current editor, John Carney, while standing at the bar. I also met many of my sources, often by pure chance, because finance guys always seem to be hanging around. For instance: One night I watched a famous financier itemize his dinner check—and though he was ranked in the top half of the Forbes 400, he split the bill with his dining companion, accounting for the cost of the appetizers.

On another jam-packed night, I ate dinner six inches away from a wildly bejeweled Ivana Trump. I once shared a table there with the editor-in-chief of the New York Post: He and I watched as John Travolta danced through the aisles in the dining room, with Travolta's beautiful wife beaming up at him from their table. The editor of The Post—who's seen a few things in his time—turned to me and said: "This is really something, isn't it?"

On another night, I got to throw a block for Jack Nicholson. He'd been besieged by a hyperventilating woman— who was either very drunk or mentally unbalanced. So Nicholson pretended to know me, and started a conversation, purely as a means to get away from her. At Elaine's, such events were not fantastical: They could have happened to anyone who was there that night having dinner.

Elaine Kaufman was at the vortex of that swirling eddy of fame, money, and power during the last third of the 20th Century, and for a decade into the 21st. Many of her obituaries tell of her ferocious wit, and often involve the myriad politicians, writers, and movie actors who frequented her restaurant during the forty-seven years she ran it.

The New York Times reports that Elaine Kaufman was born in New York in 1929, the year of the Great Crash in the stock market.

She graduated from high school in the Bronx, and then worked at a wholesale fabric house and as a night cosmetician in a drug store. In the late 1950's, she became romantically involved with a writer who also owned a restaurant in Greenwich Village. She started waitressing there; but when the relationship ended, she opened her own restaurant uptown.

It's said that Elaine began attracting the attention of young writers by letting them run tabs when they were down on their luck. She had an uncanny ability to spot talent: many of those struggling writers later became successful. And after a one generation of great writers had departed—George Plimpton, David Halberstam, and Bill Styron among them—she continued to let struggling writers, including this one, run tabs when they were broke.

For a brief period in America, during the sixties and early seventies, the writer was in vogue. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, for example, became part of the popular culture: Both were known to dine at Elaine's. The literary element attracted the avant-garde young actors of the day, Nicholson among them. Word eventually got out that movie stars hung out at her restaurant—and her ascendancy was complete.

Decades later, when she was asked what one had to do to get a table at the restaurant, Elaine would shake her head and say: "We take reservations."

Sometimes Elaine's could feel more like a private club than a restaurant. You didn't have to be a Wall Street titan or a celebrity to become a regular at Elaine's. To become part of Elaine's circle, you just needed to have something interesting to say. Elaine's great secret was this: Like the American dream at its best, her restaurant was a meritocracy. Qualifications of merit notwithstanding, I got to know her quite a bit in the last few years.

Elaine told me many wise things. And she gave me great advice: about becoming a writer and about life in general. I'd like to tell you some of those things now—but somehow, as I write in the wake of her death, I can't seem to remember her words. Only how deeply I felt for her.

(A single memory leaps to mind: One night Elaine introduced me to a writer I'd long admired. Later in the evening, I began walking over to talk to him again. Elaine grabbed me by my shoulder and said: "Put down your drink before you go over there: You look like a schmuck." Spot on advice: Thank you, Elaine.)

People often asked Elaine when she was going to write her memoirs. She always responded that she had no interest in doing so. I wasn't surprised. Elaine's art was her life. The restaurant was theater: After the houselights rose at the end of the evening—after the metal security shutters were brought down to protect the storefront window—the night was gone forever.

Two of the writers who knew Elaine best—Peter Khoury and Roger Friedman—remembered her in pieces posted on Friday. Both picked up on a central theme—friendship.

Friedman captured it in his headline: "My (Everyone’s) Dear Friend, Elaine Kaufman, 81 Years Young" when he reported her death in a moving post.

Peter Khoury cut to the heart of it: "Even on a slow, celebrity-less night, you can be regaled by one friend who’s a comedian, serenaded by another who’s a Broadway actress and singer, entertained by gritty tales told by ex-cops, and put in stitches by a hotel bartender who drives down from the Bronx."

Pete could have gone on: The resident psychiatrists, and the rising the real estate developer. The rock & roll club owner, and the very famous actor who comes in not with other celebrities but to hang out with his old pals. The Swedish journalist who treated Elaine like a mother, and the photographer who Elaine loved like a daughter.

Also, the staff. Elaine, like all successful executives, had a sharp eye for talent. She brought in the right people: Diane Becker, Elaine's general manager for twenty-six years; Alex and Duffy, two of the best bartenders in town; and the waiters who greet regulars like family.

On Friday evening—the night of the day of her death—hundreds came to her restaurant. Most of the regulars were there. An NBC news crew, among other networks, parked out front with the cameras rolling. Governor Paterson arrived, and stayed for dinner.

Alec Baldwin came in to pay his respects. And there were the merely curious too, who had heard the news of her passing, and desperately wanted to be part of something they sensed was ending, before it faded away forever.

Elaine was many things: An entrepreneur, a tavern keeper, the proprietress of a literary salon. She was also an icon. And, as I look back on her life, I see it does posses the force of something mythic.

The comparison may seem slightly absurd, but for me the only fitting analogy for Elaine Kaufman's life comes from fiction: She shared more in common with Jay Gatsby than any living person I've ever known. Her restaurant possessed the strange allure of Gatsby's parties: People just went there. How her electric presence drew the famous, the celebrated, and the infamous remains a mystery. But it could be felt.

Even on nights when the place was half empty, when I would sit alone with Elaine at a table, facing toward the door as she always did, there was the sense that anyone—movie star, celebrated novelist, or former president—might walk through the door at any moment.

Elaine possessed the "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life" that F. Scott Fitzgerald described in Gatsby. And, like Gatsby, she represented something of the very promise of the American Dream itself—particularly those promises writ large on the colossal scale of New York City. Fitzgerald wrote "if personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him" So too with Elaine Kaufman. She designed for herself precisely the kind of life she wanted—then lived it on her own terms at her restaurant for nearly fifty years. To this conception she was faithful to the end.

(Fittingly, Fitzgerald lived in her neighborhood: His first apartment in New York was on Lexington Avenue, a few blocks away from the restaurant.)

The force that drives a girl from Queens to open a restaurant in Manhattan drove the Jazz Age. It drives the "song and dance girls"—as Elaine called musical theater actresses—to take a bus to New York and fight to make it on Broadway. It's the force that drives young men—from the outer boroughs, and from New Jersey and Long Island—to come to Manhattan to battle the fates on Wall Street.

Though those young men may spend twelve hours of their youth each day on the phones, calling strangers to buy stocks and bonds, they believe that someday they must succeed. Someday, perhaps, they might become regulars at Elaine's—and Gianni, the maitre d', will greet them by name—though tonight they dine alone in an apartment in Astoria.

"To-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . and one fine morning…"

If it weren't for Elaine Kaufman, I'm not certain I could have survived in this town. If I hadn't met her, I doubt I'd be writing this article—or anything else, for that matter—for this network.

Elaine made me feel that I had as much right to be in New York as anyone else—just by inviting me to sit at her table.

I owe her a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

(Note: I realize now, as I skim back over what I've already written, that I've told a story, in part, in the past tense. But Elaine's goes on: The restaurant is serving dinner tonight. Elaine wanted it that way.)

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