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Former Elaine’s Bartender Brian McDonald Tells All

“Elaine had a very mature crowd.” Photo: Melissa Hom

In Last Call at Elaine’s, Brian McDonald recalls his time as a recovering alcoholic, tending bar at the glamorous Upper East Side saloon-cum-salon from 1986 to 1997. McDonald left Elaine’s in the most heroic of ways, after a publication party there for his first book. However, it’s clear from his memoir that Elaine Kaufman, the firebrand who still runs her eponymous restaurant after celebrating its 45th anniversary this month, had a great deal of influence on his second career. We asked him about his time with her and what she thought of his tell-all.

You had a strained relationship with Elaine when you first started working for her — what was the turning point?
Elaine doesn’t mince words. I was in awe of the place, so I took it for a while. One night she told me to take the shit out of my ears. I took offense to it, and I told her, “You can’t talk to me that way.” She likes people who have backbones that stand up for themselves.

Was there something calculated about the way she played favorites?
She didn’t care who you were. She was a business woman, at root. There’s an anecdote about Robert Evans coming in just for dessert, and she said, “What do you think I am, a fucking ice-cream parlor?”

People say Elaine doesn’t respect women as much as men. True?
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.

Was there a code of conduct when it came to journalists drinking with people who they might have to report on?
The Daily News journalist Mike McAlary eviscerated Al Sharpton a couple of times in columns. One time, McAlary was at the bar [when Sharpton came in], and he hugged him like they were old cousins. McAlary sits at the table, and they’re laughing, and I was like, “Holy shit, this is all bullshit, whatever was in the paper.” At the bar, McAlary and the cops were like old drinking buddies all the time, though he was no friend of the cops in his column.

Did you see how news got made?
Elaine’s had a real drawing power for phonies. There was this guy who was pretending he was a Saudi sheikh, spending a lot of money — he had McAlary believe there wouldn’t be a Gulf War. The next day, the war broke out, and McAlary had written a whole column about how there wouldn’t be a war in Iraq.

Did you ever see celebrities behaving badly?
When I first started working there early on, I saw Nick Nolte blowing lunch outside one day. One early evening, Mickey Rourke, Christopher Walken, and Sean Penn came through the door. I thought they were doing quaaludes, they were stewed.… They got there and drooled on the bar, and someone asked them for their autographs. They couldn’t write, and off they went.

What sort of tips would you get?
Phil Spector was always in some kind of orbit when he came in. But he was great, because he’d have two vodka and cranberries, and then leave a $500 tip, so he could do no wrong. Mick Jagger was in there a lot. One time, the waiter came up and wanted change for $20, for a tip. Tommy the bartender said, “Mr. Jagger doesn’t need change,” as Jagger was standing right there looking at the whole thing. Two weeks later, Ringo Starr comes in and had heard about the story. He goes over to Tommy, and he says, “I understand you got the Londoner!” Tommy said, “Yeah, I got him, the cheap bastard.”

What about literary types, like George Plimpton?
George Plimpton was cheap as a first sneaker. He had the first quarter he ever had. He told Elaine a story — he was to speak in Oxford, and they flew him to London and back. He was so proud that he got there with a quarter and came back with it. He was tight as a drum, so he wasn’t one of my favorites.

You talk about Elaine’s “penal code.” What was the biggest crime you could commit there?
To come in and not eat. One time Prince Edward of England came in. The English secret service came in in the afternoon and told her, “We need a table of ten, and we need a table where the secret service can sit.” Elaine said, “Are they going to eat?” They said, “No, we’re just working.” To which she said, “If they sit at my table, they’re going to eat.” They sat there and had four entrées untouched, watching the prince.

Has Elaine read the book? What does she think?
She’s not really happy about it, from what I hear. I was sober for most of the eleven years I was at the bar — I saw it through sober eyes. I took notes. I had journals through much of that time.… Despite all of that, there are some things I wrote about that she thought were not true. She said the book was full of inaccuracies. I said, “No it isn’t — I left half the inaccuracies out.” She didn’t think it was so funny.

You’re sober now, but what do you think about the city’s drinking culture now, as opposed to when you were a part of it?
Elaine had a very mature crowd. You’d look up and down the bar and see Wall Street guys, wise guys, elbow to elbow, with cigars — everybody drinking hard. I don’t know whether you have a lot of real grown-up drinking places anymore. The hip places always cater to younger people.

Former Elaine’s Bartender Brian McDonald Tells All