Elaine Kaufman, the heart and soul of longtime literary clubhouse Elaine’s, has died at the age of 81. According to the Post, she was hospitalized last month for chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and pulmonary hypertension. The restaurant’s manager tells the Times that the cause was complications from emphysema. It’s said Elaine’s, which she opened in 1963, will go on without her, but it’s hard to imagine the place without its “salty den mother,” as the Times aptly puts it, perched at one of the tables, chatting up one of the regulars.
Kaufman, a Manhattan native raised in Queens, opened the restaurant in 1963, after using her life savings to purchase what was then an Austro-Hungarian restaurant. Her first notable customer was said to be Nelson Aldrich, the governor’s cousin and a teacher who brought the poet Fred Seidel and others. By 1969, New York had penned a profile of her and her “literary saloon as literary salon,” name-checking William Buckley, Mia Farrow, Jackie Kennedy, Mayor John Lindsay, and others. Tommy Thompson wrote, “She wrapped us all in the protection of her bosom, next to the 10s and 20s she continually stuffed there.”
It’s testimony to Elaine’s way with the boldfaced crowd that Woody Allen gave her a cameo in Manhattan and appeared at the restaurant’s 45th anniversary a couple of years ago. But rather than being a wanton celebrity panderer, Kaufman was most interested in introducing writers and editors to each other and nurturing young talent. In Gael Greene’s excellent history of Elaine’s, penned in 1975 after a waiter Nick Spagnolo started a feud of sorts by defecting to open his own place Nick’s, Greene recalled the time Elaine made Henry Ford wait at the bar and then banished him to the Ragu Room (her Siberia).
Elaine was known for displacing diners mid-meal, ignoring women who came as dates, raking customers over the coals when they left lousy tips or insulted the food (one anonymous regular compared it to poison, and in 1981 Mimi Sheraton called the chicken Parmigiana inedible), and even occasionally getting physical. In 1998, she was arrested for slapping a customer who complained about being called “white trash” after he ordered just one drink. “What would you do?” Kaufman told the Times. “I'm supposed to accept all these things in my own restaurant?”
Though it was her most famous incident, it wasn’t the only one: In 1979, actress Tara Tyson Kulukundis told New York that she planned to file a lawsuit after Elaine scratched her face, socked her date in the eye, and then kicked them both out. Elaine claimed that the actress had bumped into her with a cigarette, causing her dress to go up in flames: “I thought she was a transvestite.”
A couple of years ago, Brian McDonald, a former bartender and author of Last Call at Elaine’s (one of a few books about the restaurant), told Grub Street a classic story about a dust-up with Norman Mailer.
Elaine liked people who spent money. Guys were good for business more than single women. Mailer once came in with his girlfriend, who was mouthing off. Elaine said, “From him, I gotta take it, but I don’t have to take it from a half-hooker like you.” Mailer stormed out of the place. The next day she got a diatribe written by Mailer in his own hand. Elaine just wrote BORING BORING BORING on it with Magic Marker and sent it back to him. He came back to the place for many a bourbon and orange juice.
Ultimately, Kaufman was beloved by those lucky enough to come under her wing. Sharing his memories of the place on City Room, Peter Khoury writes, “The true nature of the woman was to encourage a sort of creative community where one person’s strength feeds another’s; where generations commingle; where the music is generally soft enough that you can actually hold a thing called a conversation; and where, once the talk dies down at one table, you’re welcome at the next.”
Elaine Kaufman, Who Fed the Famous, Dies at 81 [NYT]
Memories of Elaine: An Appreciation [City Room/NYT]
Famed restaurateur Elaine Kaufman of Elaine's dies at 81 [NYP]
Related: The Literary Saloon as Literary Salon [NYM]
It’s Not Nice to Fool With Mother Kaufman [NYM]
Former Elaine’s Bartender Brian McDonald Tells All [Grub Street]