THE RUSSIAN TEA ROOM

A Love Story

By Faith Stewart-Gordon

Scribner. 250 pp. $25.

It looked like the inside of a Faberge egg; Christmas tinsel hung from the chandeliers, and the bartenders were dolled up like Russian peasants on Easter. The thing to do was order blini with hot melted butter, sour cream and caviar and wash all that down with champagne or iced Russian vodka. For one limited universe--artistic and literary New York--the Russian Tea Room was "The Heart of Infinity," the place to be, where a bad booth was better than no booth, and a good booth was Heaven itself.

Faith Stewart-Gordon got to know the Russian Tea Room (and its owner, Sidney Kaye) when she was still Faith Burwell, one of a bazillion beautiful girls trying to make it almost 50 years ago on Broadway. She'd had a part in "Ondine" and "New Faces of 1952" but was between jobs when she met Kaye, who was Russian Jewish, high-strung and 18 years older than she. By her own account, she was out of her depth (wearing a nylon wash-and-wear dress on their first date, when the occasion called for a Chanel suit and pearls). But she was enchanted. Soon they would marry, and she would become part of the Russian Tea Room's life.

Sylvia Miles, the esteemed character actress, would remember later that "every city, every great metropolis in Europe had one place that the cognoscenti went to . . . the people who made up the artistic underbelly of the whole city, who made up the fabric of what's unique about New York. And we all went to the RTR and we belonged there, we felt we were wanted there."

The conflation of "Europe" and "New York," though probably unconscious on Miles's part, is telling. The RTR was, first and foremost, a meeting place for Russian emigres--and especially dancers; Margot Fonteyn, Alexandra Danilova (who was reunited there one day with her former partner, Frederick Franklin), Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Only later did the restaurant become a focal point for American theatrical and cinematic celebrities. It was Eurocentric, Old World, elitist, scandal-filled.

Faith Kaye loved it. And this memoir--while not quite as delicious as blini with caviar--is charming and easy to take. It's disorganized, gossipy, chaotic. The author includes chapters on the RTR's flower arrangements, the paintings on the walls, the help who needed to be fired when her husband died (after seven years of marriage, Sidney Kaye passed away and left the restaurant to his wife), the waiters, the hatcheck girls, and how to eat caviar. There are also extensive pages here on how real estate values affected the RTR, and while they might please an inveterate New Yorker, they're rough going for those Americans who don't know (or care) about the vital differences between 57th and 67th streets.

Of course, celebrity anecdotes abound. Carol Channing, for instance, gets all set to make a theatrical entrance into the main room of the restaurant, but, noticing that the room is empty, retreats to a far corner of the bar until the place fills up, then makes her theatrical entrance. Joseph Wiseman (the mad revolutionary in "Viva Zapata" who capered over some rocks shouting "Cut off the head of the snake and the body will die!") gets his shoes peed on by a tiny dog who's spent way too much time in the hatcheck room. The Clintons come in by the front entrance, and another time members of the shah of Iran's family have to leave by the back entrance. Up in the locker room, the help routinely steal tips from each other; people in the kitchen get stabbed and taken to the hospital; and out in front, deals get made by flocks of high-powered producers, directors and agents.

The author's subtext, her "other" life--what some people might call her "real" life--is considerably less joyous. For almost all of their marriage, Sidney Kaye battled cancer. Their daughter, caught between her father's illness and the frenetic demands of the restaurant, was, perhaps inevitably, neglected. Then after Sidney's death, and several more-than-ordinarily-wacky boyfriends, Faith marries a quintessentially bad husband and fiendish stepfather: Mr. Stewart-Gordon is the kind of man who twirls people he doesn't like over the top of his head, the kind who buys a separate apartment and puts his stepdaughter--still a child--in it, the kind who--when the ugly divorce inevitably unfolds--tries to take his wife for all she's got.

Who wouldn't rather be back in the restaurant sitting in the back booth chatting with old friends or watching Leonard Bernstein stride into the dining room wrapped in a swirling black cloak, or--after 1990--gathering with friends and customers upstairs in the new cabaret listening to the always absolutely darling lyrics of Billy Barnes, where everyone around you is dressed up, carefree and happy? Who wouldn't prefer all that to real life?

In a recent John Updike story, an elderly man who's spent his life going to cocktail parties and having frivolous affairs remembers that early Americans couldn't get enough buffalo meat. It was so bewitching, they fell in thrall to it; they absolutely couldn't get enough. Updike's hero berates himself late in life, knowing he's lived for emotional buffalo meat, for heedless, conscienceless pleasure. But who, again, if he had the chance, wouldn't rather be out at life's Russian Tea Room, listening to Billy Barnes play and sing, watching that pooch defile Joseph Wiseman's shoe, chowing down on caviar, sipping expensive champagne. Life lived inside a Faberge egg: It may be an illusion, but what a lovely one.

Upcoming in Book World

The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:

* The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin. Reviewed by David Wise.

* No Way to Pick a President, by Jules Witcover. A veteran pundit examines what he considers a tainted process. Reviewed by Matthew Dallek.

* Proximity to Death, by William S. McFeely. A Pulitzer-winning historian finds himself drawn into an examination of the Georgia penal system. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

* The Experiment, by John Darnton. A thriller about human cloning. Reviewed by Sally Squires.

* The Voyage, by Philip Caputo. In this novel set in the 19th century, a father turns his teenage boys loose with a sailboat and a whole summer to sail it in. Reviewed by Carolyn See.