Elaine Kaufman, 1929-2010
Elaine and the women.
4:40 PM, Dec 6, 2010 • By SAM SCHULMAN
When I finally accepted the fact that I was to be an unmarried man of 47, the first call that came offering to introduce me to a woman was from my then friend, Taki Theodoracopulos (politics has since parted us). I didn’t know that it was to be the only such call I would ever receive in more than three years of eligible bachelorhood – but it didn’t matter. Because Taki was calling me from the noisy pay phone at Elaine’s, the restaurant on 2nd Avenue and 92nd Street.
“You poor boy,” he bellowed. “I have a table-full of gorgeous women who have heard all about your sad story and they’re fighting over who gets to sit next to you. I can’t keep them quiet. If you’re not doing anything this evening” – it was 11:30 on a Thursday night – “come right over. We’re with Elaine.”
I lived a few blocks from the restaurant with the gaudy yellow sign and the ordinary-looking front windows, but it was regarded as a closed club, and I had never been there. The restaurant became my second home, and Elaine Kaufman, restaurateur and philanthropist, who died on Friday, became all-important to me.
Half an hour later, I navigated through the crowd at the bar and saw Taki at a round table in the front – the smoking section in those happy days – furiously gesturing at me in his best Ottoman manner. “Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down!” He pushed me into a chair wedged into the surrounding crowd. There were no introductions, but none were needed. On my right, Ivana Trump. On my left, Joan Collins, who immediately plunged into a well-informed analysis of what had gone wrong in my marriage. At the table next to us, the only person un-pressed by the crowd that filled the restaurant on that January Thursday night, was a woman seated half at her table, facing ours, sitting in her usual posture, not like the heavy woman she was, but like a big man. Taki called over to her: “this is the man I was telling you about.”
She held out her hand, mottled, thick, appealing. She nodded precisely in Taki’s direction. “I hear you’re a genius who doesn’t know how to handle women. Glad to meet ya.’”
She knew the type well. Her cherished clientele was full of them – not just talented men who couldn’t handle women but talented women who couldn’t handle men. And for the next three years, Elaine’s served me (no genius, and a devil with women) in too many ways to count – as a place I could take a woman I had never met and stay as long – or as briefly – as I needed or could bear to. Whether or not I was employed, I could rely on Elaine – and the men who worked for her and loved her – to help me erect a façade of self-celebrity. I could go early and always find a table in the front, or enter any time and be treated as an old friend, whose table had just this minute been given away – after I had been despaired of.
Best of all, I could receive from Elaine herself what I desperately needed – someone to keep a knowing eye on me and someone who could produce a knowledgeable review of the particular soccer mom I might have brought in. Elaine delivered her appraisal in a variety of ways – the warmth of her handshake with my date, a look she delivered to me, a grimace, a smirk, a half-roll of the eyes, or a deliberate stare at a place just past my shoulder. Only once – I’m sure she didn’t quite deserve this – she had me and whomever seated at a truly awful table, in just over the right-hand shoulder of the bust of George Plimpton – you know where it is. And then there was the time after my firm’s Christmas dinner when the partners all went back to their suburbs, and we two Manhattanites – me and our sole associate, a nice young man who was subtly gay – decided that we wanted another drink, and I took him to Elaine’s. She passed by our table, shook hands with young Todd, and when I stood up to kiss her, said to me in her stage whisper, “this is a new departure for you.”
I had been used to keep parts of my life separate from one another. I have friends who don’t know one another, high school girlfriends whom my parents never suspected, immiscible but simultaneous careers. Elaine provided a place where all this could mix. I could make out with a beautiful soccer mom at our table under the coat hooks for three nights (after a long first kiss, one soccer mom said, “Now I remember – [the owner of a famous department store] used to bring me here before I was married!”). And for the next six weeks I could show up alone and miserable, but still be seated in lonely majesty in the front with a $26 bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes that I would successively light and let burn in the ashtray, hoping no one would notice I didn’t know how to smoke. No questions, no pity, no comments. There was only one rule: then-Mayor Giuliani was never to be mentioned.
One such night – long after my Cotes de Beaune had made me incapable of being charming – a woman with the most beautiful skin I had ever seen sat alone, and then with girlfriends, at the next table, occasionally glancing at me (she looked vaguely recognizable, but then so did everyone at Elaine’s – whether or not they were). The next time I came in, Elaine growled, “why didn’t you go for Maureen the other night? I thought she would have been your type,” and then wandered off. “Dowd,” I thought. Think what literature may owe to that Cotes de Beaune! Such nights ended with me writing my usual check and wandering off alone to my little studio in Yorktown, with the warm feeling that I could go back again in without shame, and that, in the unprecedented event that there was something wrong with my bank account, my check would be silently resubmitted, as many times as necessary. But one never saw an attractive woman there twice.
Of course all this ended when, on the first night we met, I brought Elizabeth to Elaine’s. For one thing, besottedness, combined with a better-than-I-could-normally-afford Beaune – not the Cotes – has rendered me unable to recall what I told Elizabeth that night, and what I may have concealed from her. This is a source of continuing agony to me. The one thing I do remember is that Elaine deviated from her usual gestural understatement to raise both thick arms over her head – a prizefighter’s congratulation.
We married, though Elaine gracefully declined our invitation: “11 a.m.? Have a good wedding.” And for as long as we lived in New York, Elaine paid tribute to my heart’s desire by unfailingly introducing to Elizabeth much more attractive and celebrated men than I. Reader, we moved to Virginia.
Elaine, like all who loved you, I am self-centered and wordy – and you will forgive me remembering you like this.
Sam Schulman, a writer in Virginia, was publishing director of the American and publisher of Wigwag.
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