Writer Gay Talese, a regular at Elaine's, said something interesting in the New York Times this week about the passing of the restaurant's owner, Elaine Kaufman: "If you want me to bet on something, I don’t think it’s going to make it, the same way Toots Shor’s didn’t make it. He was such a personality. He was a New York character. And the ashes of the city swept that restaurant away after he was gone."
The persnickety in me must first point out that Toots Shor the restaurant has been closed for four years when Toots Shor the person died in 1977. But, that aside, it's telling that Talese should bring up Shor, for in some way Shor and Kaufman interpreted their role as host in very similar ways. First and foremost, they weren't really hosts, not in the broad sense of term anyway. The word host has connotations of courtesy, deference, service. They were lords. And their restaurants were their fiefdoms, their clubs. Anyone could walk in the door, but only a select few were truly welcome. The rest were treated like chattel. And, to a large extent, both Shor and Kaufman were celebrated for this sort of anti-social behavior. Elaine cursed you out or kicked you out—isn't she a character!
(By the way, if you loved Kaufman, and miss her, probably best to stop reading at this point. Hereafter, I'm doing the Devil's Advocate thing.)
We have received this sacred monster version of Kaufman mainly because of the people who have telegraphed it to us: writers. Famous writers. Woody Allen, George Plimpton, Talese himself, and countless magazine and newspaper editors. They were Kaufman's earliest and most devoted patrons. And they were treated well by Elaine. So when they wrote up the place and the woman, the stories were invariably affectionate. But they were also some of the most inaccurate journalism every handed down by those authors. For their experience of Elaine's was the experience of perhaps 0.1% of the City's population.
The rest of us slobs had an encounter something like the one related to me yesterday by a writer friend. She went into Elaine's with her husband sometime in the 1980s, attracted by its glamorous reputation. No warm greeting awaited them, no smile, no friendly service. They were shunted to some obscure spot at the bar, and treated with coolness and indifference until they left. The departed dejected, and never went back.
That was Elaine's to most of us. When I have mentioned Kaufman's death to friends in recent days, their faces haven't lit up with warm memories. They've dimmed with some remembered injury.
There was a book published about Shor in 1950 called "The Wonderful World of Toots Shor. It's mainly a celebration of the big lug, but two pages into the volume the author lets a detractor get a word in: "There's nothing wrong with Toots except that he is an egotistical jughead and as phone as a three-dollar bill," this contrarian said. "He's a slob with delusions of grandeur—he wants to be a snob. He's a guy with the instincts of a bum and mental outlook of an elephant. He's exactly the kind of guy he'd throw out of his own place."
When Kaufman passed away, I thought of that quote. To me, Kaufman was exactly the sort of person Kaufman would throw out of Elaine's. It's easy to cozy up to the famous, as Kaufman and Shor did, and doubtless it makes for a thriving business. But any slob can do that. To treat ordinary beings like kings and queens—that takes talent and heart. Give a credit line to a big shot, that makes you feel like a big shot yourself. Lend money to a nobody, you get no great reward, no bragging rights, but it shows you to be a mensch.
I think Talese was dead right. Elaine's will likely be gone in a year, and that's probably apt. The restaurant was very unlike Gino, the recently shuttered, old-school place where Talese was also a habituee. Sure, Gino regulars were embraced and treated better. But irregulars were never treated badly, never sent to some "Siberia," never insulted by the staff. It was a restaurant, not some social tyrant's domain.
Elaine's won't survive because the happiness and loyalty Kaufman bred were within such narrow confines. The famous folk who went to Elaine's loved it mainly because of Elaine and the way she made them feel. Now that Elaine is gone, they no longer have a reason to go to Elaine's; the decor was anonymous, the food poor. And as for the rest of us, who weren't treated well, there was no reason to go, even when Elaine was there.
I sure, for some, this post will seem mean. I am sorry for that. These are simply some thoughts I wanted to get off my mind, ruminations on the passing of a public figure. Fear not. The weeks to come will be filled with paeans to Kaufman, and as the years wear on, she will thought on with nothing but nostalgic affection. After all, no one ever has a bad word to say about Shor. He made the City more interesting, and I'm sure, given the choice, we'd all have him back to call us "crumb bums" once again. And I will say that for Elaine Kaufman: She made the City more interesting.