". . . Elaine said, 'Why do we need anybody Else? We're the world.'"
Frederick Seidel, in his poem "Pressed Duck"
THIS MONTH is the 20th anniversary of Elaine's, a restaurant near 88th Street and Second Avenue in New York City. For some, it is just another neighborhood saloon, precisely what its owner, Elaine Kaufman, calls it; to others, it is in the tradition of the clean, well-lighted place, a world unto itself as Seidel suggests. Those who wander in are either banished to the back room of Siberia or embraced.
It is the latter who, over two decades, have caused so much attention to be paid to Elaine's. On any given night the place is generally filled with the likes of Woody Allen, Norman Mailer (once tossed out by the proprietor after he began unscrewing light bulbs), Neil Simon, Dan Jenkins, Helen Frankenthaler, Paul Simon, Diane Keaton, Warren Beatty, Peter Falk, William Styron, Carol Channing . . .
There is little about the place itself worth noting: a bar to the left of the entrance; a jukebox to the right; some posters and photographs on the walls; perhaps two dozen tables scattered around the room. And the fact of the matter is that nothing ever really happens at Elaine's. People eat, and they talk.
"When Elaine's opened, Nelson Aldrich and Fred Seidel, two editors of the Paris Review, started hanging out there," says George Plimpton. "It seemed very Parisian at the time: People would play cards and backgammon at the tables; there was a dart board. The arts crowd just started drifting in. The back room that most people call Siberia is called Desmond's Room; Paul used to like to sit back there in the quiet and think.
"I've always thought that Elaine charged too much. One night I was served an artichoke the size of a walnut, which cost $5. I went up to her and said, 'Elaine, at "21" they charge the same and their artichokes are the size of a melon.' She screamed out at the top of her voice, 'Take the artichoke off the gentleman's check!' I was so humiliated that I couldn't go in for six months."
Kaufman learned the ways and means of the restaurant business from Alfredo Viazzi, an Italian-born chef. She worked at his Portofino down in the Village. She moved uptown; he started Trattoria da Alfredo. One of her waiters, Nicola Spagnolo, eventually went off, as she had, to start his own place, Nicola's. One night Kaufman threw a woman out of her place when the woman started lighting a cigarette with a book of matches from Nicola's. People who like to eat go to Alfredo's; people who like to talk or be seen head for Elaine's.
"I'm one of the few people who actually likes the food there," says literary agent Morton Janklow. "Elaine and I share a friend, Arthur Klein. He's a show business attorney in New York, and he represents Elaine. Arthur and his wife had a son, and when he was two or three Elaine went out and bought the kid a beautiful Sicilian donkey for his birthday. Arthur has bought barns and farms for that donkey. Arthur drove to Oklahoma in a pickup truck to pick up a stud to mate with it. Arthur has won all sorts of ribbons. The donkey's name is Diamond Belle Kaufman. God knows what that gift cost Arthur."
For the most part, people come to Elaine's to do business (which often simply means being seen). The annointed can always count on running into someone else of their ilk. "If she had her way," says author Mario Puzo, "there wouldn't be any women in there. It's the closest thing to an English club that you can find in the city. If you told your wife that you were having supper there and were off with another woman, Elaine would cover for you. You go there and you feel comfortable. You see people you know: someone in the book business, someone in the movie business. You can make a deal right there."
And then there are the gawkers. If part of the business of the place is being seen . . .
"The other night Gay Talese and I were in there having dinner," says writer A.E. Hotchner, "and this very elegantly dressed woman came to our table and sat down. She started eating my lasagna. I assumed she was a friend of Talese's; Talese assumed she was a friend of mine. She made a fatal mistake: She picked up a piece of bread and started to butter it. At the time, Elaine was totaling up checks, which completely consumes her. But she notices things like bread being buttered, and came over to our table and asked the woman to leave. When Elaine walked away, the woman came back and started eating Talese's lasagna. Elaine came back and threw the woman out. And in the process, she picked up the bread basket and bellowed, 'Waiter, take this away. It's contaminated. Bring some new bread.' "
Talese finishes the tale: "The first time Elaine came over to the table, she said to this woman, 'Get back to the bar!' And the woman said, 'Who are you talking to?' The way she said it, you knew that she had had a very elegant upbringing. So here you had two women reacting to each other with a sense of outrage, however strange the circumstances that created it. What you can find at Elaine's are insights into the way people behave. Someone who has been portrayed in the newspapers in a most serious way walks into Elaine's and wants a table because now he's famous, and everything that you thought about this person is down the toilet. The lesson is that none of us are above it. I'm sure if Mahatma Gandhi were in New York, he'd be at Elaine's--maybe not eating--but he'd be at the right table looking around."
The strangest thing about Elaine's is the so-called circular "family table" in the middle of the room. Members of the literary family are parked there by their hostess, and proceed to eat in the order in which they show up (generally beginning around midnight), which means that when Mailer is wolfing down some linguine with clams, Talese might be finishing a piece of cappuccino cheese cake. Occasionally there may be a fight, but generally of the wimp variety. "Writers are rotten fighters," says Hotchner, who got a bunch of his pals to dip their pens in ink for a New York magazine salute to Elaine's next week.
Kaufman was once to be immortalized in another way. "She actually posed for me at one point eight years ago," says Jamie Wyeth. "I was going to do a painting of her. She's marvelous as a model. The only problem was her crazy schedule: She'd go to the saloon at midday and stay there until four in the morning. I'd get her right after she woke up. Then I moved away from New York before I could finish. She still has the sketch pad. Whenever I go in now she asks me, 'When are you going to finish the painting?' Well, she's lost so much weight since I began that I'd have to start all over again."
The regulars, needless to say, love her. She takes care of them. "Elaine always manages to have a table for her regular customers," says director Robert Altman, "even if it means throwing somebody else out. One day my producer and I came back from location on 'Buffalo Bill,' and we walked into the place, and she said, 'No problem,' and threw a couple out of the place. Well, they were furious, and as they walked past, one of them turned out to be my producer's sister.
"The chic people in New York, that I'll equate with the Ma Maison bunch in Los Angeles, they don't go there because they don't get a good table. They say, 'I wouldn't be caught dead in Elaine's.' Well, they're the people you wouldn't catch alive anywhere else."
There is another side to Elaine that most people rarely see: the way that her interest in her customers affects them beyond the confines of the restaurant itself. "When I was thinking about starting my own PR business," says press agent Bobby Zarem, "I was scared to death. Elaine wanted to give me the money to start my company. I told her thanks, but I was going to try to raise the money through banks. She said to me, 'I'm one of your best friends. I want to get a return on my investment and you want to give these schnorers on Wall Street a chance to get rich.' In thinking about what she said, she gave me the confidence to realize that I was an entity worth investing in."
But the attention Elaine Kaufman pays her customers is pale indeed compared with the attention they don't pay each other. "The most incredible thing that ever happened," says social observer Tom Wolfe, "is that I was there one night and someone listened to what was being said at the table! I don't remember what it was. I wasn't listening myself. I was too busy looking at the people at the next table."