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Elaine Kaufman, 1929-2010

Elaine and the women.

4:40 PM, Dec 6, 2010 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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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.

Elaine Kaufman, 1929-2010

“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.”

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