09 December 2010

Elaine Kaufman/Toots Shor

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.


Unknown said...

I'm not famous; completely unknown. Elaine Kaufman & I became very close, personal friends. I met her at her restaurant. I miss her terribly and it is inconceivable to me that she is gone. Aside from disagreeing on your opinion of Elaine, which seems based on hearsay and not personal experience, I'm confused by your hubris in saying nasty things about the newly deceased. Your motives are questionable at best and unequivocally cruel and heartless. She wouldn't have liked you & I don't either. The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. If she was so dislikable, why do you care?

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Sorry for the loss of your friend. As I said, these are just my thoughts on the passing a public figure.

Unknown said...

Eh, sounds like someone with a chip, a resentment.

First, Toots Shor's did close down in the early seventies, at least the restaurant he owned and operated. Once that closed the name was bought by the Riese Brothers who ran a Toots Shor located across from Madison Square Garden and although it wasn't his, he still played host, although from what I understand they treated him terribly.

Second, as cantankerous as they were, I'm not sure they could have been successful as their restaurants were if they limited their best service for celebrities. For a restaurant to survive in NY the tables have to be full year and that would require, I can only assume, that the vast majority of their clientele would be average Joe's.

Also, at least with Shor, I can't tell you how many people I've spoken to who have told me they came from middle America to visit Shor's and they received a warm welcome if not a round bought by the big guy himself. I've also heard of young actors and other artists who just arrived with little in the way of cash who said that Shor insisted they come in if they ever needed a hot meal. If anything, I think Shor's eventual fall was a result of being too generous.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Thanks for your comments, Matt. I knew about the Riese buyout, but was not aware that Shor was involved with the restaurant at all after that.

Chip? Sure. I tend to get chips on my shoulder about people who behave unkindly towards others. Not sure why that's my fault.

upstate Johnny G said...

I don't know much about Shor's except for what I've read, which indicated that while there was an "inner circle" of tables for celebrities, it was still within the main dining room, which made it possible for regular folks to sit just a couple of tables away from, say Sinatra, or one of the Yankees' stars. That sounds different from what I've heard about Elaines, where the whole right side of the front room was reserved and all the ordinary folks were herded to a back room out of sight. Lamentable as this may be, it is a common practice in some other great ciities, such as Venice, where otherwise lovely restaurants restrict foreign tourists to drab upstairs dining rooms so that the locals don't have to see or hear them.

Rather than focus on these practices, I come to sing the praises of two restaurants that are (or were, in one case) the polar opposite of Elaine's and all the other restaurants that make a sacred ritual out of status and exclusivity. First, let us now forget "Florent", the famed diner-cum-bistro in the Meatpacking district run by Florent Morellet, the queen of the district. The crowd at "Florent" was usually a slice across the entire social spectrum of NYC...and beyond. And everyone was treated well, with respect, great humor, and awesome food. Sadly, "Florent" is just a memory now, but there is a nice interview with Florent that took place at around the time he closed: google his name and NY Magazine and you will find it online.

And now we turn to a restaurant that is still, thankfully, in operation: Le Veau d'Or! Owner Robert Treboux, though in his 80's, greets his customers warmly, even if you only dine there a couple of times a year, as I do. He is not so much a "lord" -- think instead of the ultimate refined gentleman who genuinely cares about his customers and the food they are about to eat. As an example of his grace and elegance let me tell you a story. A couple of years ago I went with extended family to Le Veau d'Or for lunch on a Saturday. Six adults and an 11 year old girl. We adults knew our way around a French menu but not so the little girl. She was having a difficult time making up her mind when M. Treboux took our order. She was a little intimidated by the whole process. When M. Robert came to her, he simply sat down in an empty chair beside her and had a low key conversation with her about what she liked to eat. They agreed on a little pasta dish that was not on the lunch menu and all was well. Now there is a HOST!

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Wonderful comment, Johnny G, as usual. You shame me with your splendid positivity.

NYCgal said...

Yeah, this strikes me as a little resentful, too.
I loved Elaine's - not because of her, so much, though she was always nice to me because I knew some of her regulars - but because of said regulars. It could be a marvelous crowd and there was always someone interesting to meet.

I'm not a fan of restaurant or bar owners who treat customers badly, but I never saw Elaine insult anyone. She just reserved her attention for the people she knew.
As to non-famous schlubs being "shunted to some obscure spot at the bar" - well, it was a pretty small room and a pretty short bar so there weren't too many places to get shunted to. And isn't this how any new customer at any bar around town is treated? Not sure why they expected to be fawned over.

(All that said, Robert at the Veau D'Or and his daughter (granddaughter?) are definitely the most charming hosts in town and everyone should go eat there!)

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Not fawned over. Never said that. Just treated like a willing patron in a restaurant.

Thanks for you observations.