ELAINE’S: The Rise of One of New York’s
Most Legendary Restaurants from Those Who Were There

By Amy Phillips Penn

Skyhorse Publishing | 2015 | 134 pages | $19.99

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

“Elaine’s.”  One word.  One name.  But to this day it signifies a world gone by. 

In her new and tightly assembled book of reminiscences about Elaine, the legendary overlord of what used to be New York’s most esteemed watering hole, author Amy Phillips Penn (whose society columnist career began at the New York Post) has created a chronicle that offers evocative echoes of an era. 

It’s a small book with big heart, because the persona of Elaine is the main event.

That’s what makes the legend of Elaine’s (the place) loom so large.  Pun intended. Elaine herself was a huge woman who made being corpulent a badge of honor.  As the proprietor and all-around top gun whose restaurant and upscale bar complex served as a magnet for Manhattan’s glitterati for decades, she was a combination of a Mafia boss and a matriarchal godmother.  She didn’t preside.  She ruled.  Always.

From the mid-1960s until one decade ago, Elaine’s famous spot on the corner of 88th Street and Second Avenue served food that was satisfying but unremarkable, but nobody went there for the cuisine.   They went to see and be seen in turn.  One had to be green-lighted by Elaine to score a table there. 

And in the course of her first ten years as the ultimate arbiter of the Who’s Who that occupied her hallowed locale, Elaine’s generosity of spirit (she let tabs go unpaid for years and never made economics her priority), along with her brash New York ego and oftentimes abrasive, in-your-face, blunt style of speech, electrified the place.

One way or the other, she was the star of the show—more so than the Pulitzer-winning authors who assembled there or the striving, sometimes impecunious artists who won her over.  Not to mention the championship athletes, Broadway stars, Oscar winners and Nobel laureates who also yearned to be snapped by the paparazzi as part of the “In” crowd. 

From Joe Namath to Joseph Heller and every cultural comet from Woody Allen to Jackie O, they were there.  In her Preface to this volume, world-class columnist Liz Smith sums it up simply: “She couldn’t resist talented people . . . She had stars like Jackie Gleason, who vied for the privilege of serving drinks behind her bar.  She put her stamp on New York café’ life in an utterly focused career.”

Her full name was Elaine Kaufman, yet no last name was ever necessary.  On any given night, a mythic tale might result from a typical Elaine-style outburst.

Even the most high-profile celebrity photographers, whose pictures would be considered prize catches by other entrepreneurs, caught her wrath.  There’s one particularly telling tale written up in this book’s first chapter, and it speaks volumes:

“You’re too close to my front door,” she screamed at celebrity photographer Ron Galella, as she hurled a slew of garbage can lids at him.  Just one click and an East Side garbage can lid became famous, in a Warhol-esque way.

Transfer that kind of bold rhetoric and brazen behavior to the inside of Elaine’s as well as its immediate surroundings, and you have the essence of her mystique.

She was not just a maitre-d’, she was an enforcer; not just a manager, but a den mother for bruised egos and distressed high achievers, as well as a godmother dispensing sage advice about romance, career moves, and life at large to all who won her favor.  And nothing mattered more than her love for authentic personal bonds.

As one former habitué of Elaine’s summed up: “There was always a place for me because she made a special compensation for drunk writers or journalists.  She always had a good table for me.  She used to join us and put in her two cents—more than two cents, the whole dollar, mostly.” 

Needless to say, such “regulars” adored receiving her attention.  It validated them.

Perhaps that’s the most poignant aspect of this unique, riveting book.  Amy Phillips Penn chose wisely when deciding to present the brief, idiosyncratic testimonials of her contributors.  The short chapters make room for a medley of more than 30 varied and exceedingly readable tributes, the titles of which are illuminating.

Consider the range of emotions and the panoramic images (the book is loaded with marvelous photos) that abound as titles like these float by: “”When Elaine Socked Me” or “Elaine’s Empties the Stanley Cup” or “When Spinelli Met  Plimpton” and “How Elaine Became My Photo Agent.” 

Inevitably, readers also get “My Last Night at Elaine’s” and “The Era is Over.”

But it’s not a text that’s sentimental.  In a chapter that’s deftly called “Elaine’s Was Really Three Different Places,” former CNBC reporter Ash Bennington remarks: “People often talk about Elaine’s during the glory days—in the sixties, seventies, and eighties—but Elaine’s was magnificent until the moment Elaine died.  I started going to the restaurant regularly around 2006 . . . I got my first two writing jobs standing at the bar, though I still don’t really know how it happened.”

It happened because in the milieu created and sustained by the intensely loyal Elaine, whose demonstrative Mediterranean spirit filled the room, magic happened.

This richly illustrated little book (it’s a perfect gift) brings us a touch of that magic.

(M. J. Moore is completing a biography of novelist Mario Puzo.)

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