Elaine’s, the Second Avenue saloon made famous in Billy Joel’s lyrics and Woody Allen’s movies, was our family restaurant for more than thirty years.
When my sister and I were growing up in Manhattan in the late 60s, we’d go to Elaine’s with our parents. Our father was a newspaperman and the neighborhood bistrowas considered a hang-out for writers and reporters. Owner Elaine Kaufman liked creative people and supported these guys -- sometimes literally. And if she liked you, then she liked your whole family.
There were years that our dad was successful in publishing and then there were off years. When he was out of work, he could still take the family out to dinner and Elaine let him run a tab -- along with numerous other writers and artistic types -- until he was on his feet again.
We thought he was a big deal because he signed the check. We didn’t know he couldn’t afford it. When guys like him were doing well, they didn’t move on to trendier, fancier restaurants. They stayed with Elaine because she had stuck by them. In an age before cell phones, many of them took calls on the restaurant’s two pay phones. Everyone knew that Elaine’s regulars could be reached that way.
Elaine’s will close its doors this week. As manager Diane Becker who inherited the restaurant noted, Elaine’s isn’t Elaine’s without Elaine. Because Elaine’s was Elaine herself. Over the years, I’ve seen many people walk in, look around, shake their heads, and walk out. They didn’t get what the big deal was about the place. It was dark. There was no particular décor. Nothing flashy or snooty seemed to be going on. How could this be the famous hot spot?
The big deal was Elaine.
She’d go from table to table, joining her diners and making them feel special. And she’d sit awhile. She did an imitation of the superagentSwifty Lazar that involved her plump elbow. She’d stick her elbow straight up at the ceiling and put her glasses on it. You wouldn’t have to know what Swifty Lazar looked like to appreciate the routine. He looked like Elaine’s elbow with glasses.
She wore a Yankees World Series diamond ring given to her by George Steinbrenner but didn’t brag about it. She always smelled great (Chanel #5), and loved bright, colorful scarves. She might give you the scarf off her back one right then and there if you complimented her.
When I published my first book, Why Animals Sleep So Close to the Road and other lies I tell my children, Elaine insisted I give her a copy so she could put it up in her place.The walls were decorated with the book covers of all her heavy-hitter writer friends. I thought she was just being nice. She wasn’t. She put my cover up there with the big guys.
Though we usually were home in bed by the time late night antics or marathon backgammon games took place at Elaine’s (this was a bar after all), through the decades we saw lots of celebrities and had brushes with the famous. When my sisterhad hand surgery and had to wear a special brace, one of the top pitchers in the Major Leagues came over to check out her hand hardware and spent the evening talking rehab and physical therapy with her.
My sister was more socially competent than I. My shining moment came when I lit a macaroon paper wrapper on fire (they burn quickly and rise up to the ceiling) and the burning embers came down on a legendary playwright, almost setting her fur coat ablaze. Disaster was averted and I was forgiven.
Movie stars and sports heroes weren’t hiding under hats and dark glasses in Elaine’s. Except for avoiding me and my Bic lighter, they could be themselves and relax. They knew Elaine wasn’t going to let the paparazzi bother them. She was famous for throwing garbage cans at pesky photographers who dared loiter near the front door.
Elaine was gruff and a tough businesswoman, she had to be. But she gave great hugs and could be warm and smushy, just like a grandmother.
As we grew up, she’d be cordial to any boyfriends we brought in. When we married, she took our husbands to her bosom. She fussed over my children and once even arranged to have a little yellow wicker chair with a big bow placed at our regular table when we walked in with our dad’s first granddaughter.
Like anybody’s favorite family place, year after year, Elaine’s steadfast waiters sang happy birthday and put a sparkler in a slice of cake while the kitchen prepared simple foods our finicky kids would eat and even warmed baby bottles for us.
I’d love it if somebody would sweep in and save Elaine’s. But it just wouldn’t be the same. The great lady must be running a hell of a joint in Heaven.