Elaine Kaufman, referred to by the New York Times as the “salty den mother” of exclusive New York City restaurant Elaine’s, died on Friday in Manhattan at the age of 81. The cause of death, perhaps darkly appropriate with regards to the period of New York City that Kaufman represented, was complications from emphysema. If that seems brash, recognize that this is a woman who once spent a night in jail for shoving a customer. When asked if she had fought any other patrons since, she told Vanity Fair, “Time was when men were men. Now they call a lawyer and sue you.” After the jump, the locals and the regulars remember:
The Times is reverent (save the descriptor “imposingly heavyset”) in its remembrance. Elaine’s, they note, is immortalized in a scene from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, among countless other popular culture, New York City-centric references, like Billy Joel’s 1979 song “Big Shot.”
The stories are endless and the Paper of Record has a sampling:
Of course, it was an unspoken rule among the customers never to appear overly impressed or distracted by the famous. This was New York, after all. But there were exceptions, Ms. Kaufman recalled. Mick Jagger was one. (“The room grew still,” she said.) Luciano Pavarotti was another. (“Everyone stood up and applauded.”) And Willie Nelson proved irresistible. (“He kissed all the women at the bar.”)
Once, when a newcomer asked directions to the men’s room, Ms. Kaufman replied, “Take a right at Michael Caine.”
For the un-hip trivia buffs among us, the restaurant is located on 2nd Avenue at 88th Street. The Times calls the block “unfashionable” when the spot opened. And since? Get a nice summary of the whole story here.
NPR, meanwhile, relays a 1988 explanation of the place, and the woman, from Gay Talese:
“It offers an ambience of camaraderie that is centered on Elaine herself. She’s the den mother there,” Talese said in 1988. “It’s like a boarding house: You’ve got the round table, and you don’t need a reservation if you’re a friend of hers.”
Additionally, PR big shot Bobby Zarem shared his grief:
“I just don’t know what to say,” Zarem said through tears from his home in Savannah, Ga. “We were best friends and extremely supportive of one another. She was supportive of everybody — especially writers.”
There’s much more:
Elaine does not consider herself a snob,” Washington Post writer Sally Quinn wrote in 1970. “It’s just that she has an idea of the kind of place she wants to run and the kind of people she wants to see there.”
Kaufman told Quinn: “You don’t have to be a writer to have the kind of personality for a restaurant like this. … We have a butcher who comes in with his wife every week. It’s just that the people who come here are a little more sophisticated but not pretentious sophisticated.”
The New York Post calls Kaufman “the quintessential New Yorker.”
At Capital New York, ex-Observer editor and current editorial director at Women’s Wear Daily Peter Kaplan has what seems to this baby outsider as the most Elaine’s remembrance of Elaine. It’s also the one about the woman more than the restaurant, her life’s work, to be fair.
“She had the amazing ability to make a schlub like me feel that I was her guest and part of that mob of culture generators that made New York matter,” writes Kaplan. He goes on:
To Elaine, the community of writers, editors and media affiliates belonged on a lateral plane with the more exalted members of New York royalty–movie directors, athletes and artists. Elaine may have looked intimidating in photographs but the extraordinary warmth of her rather sweet smile was both a device and an endowment: it allowed you to feel that you belonged to the lineage of journalists, writers and artists that went back, back in time before our watered down ranks had our cigars taken away by the Bloomberg regulations to a moment when giants stomped the city.
The whole thing is beautiful.
If you fancy yourself a New Yorker, get drunk tonight on bourbon, eat a good meal and chat endlessly with friends. If you’re not a writer or a musician or a movie star, just play the part.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 4, 2010