NEW YORK — Elaine Kaufman was a 34-year-old waitress and restaurant manager from the Bronx when she opened her restaurant in 1963, serving unremarkable Italian food in a prosaic space on Manhattan's Upper East Side. With the help of a public relations pal, a fondness for interesting people and a weakness for struggling writers, she turned the humble eatery into a celebrity hangout that attracted the biggest names in film and literature and left New Yorkers wondering: how do I get a table at Elaine's?
Woody Allen opened his movie "Manhattan" with a scene set there. Billy Joel immortalized it in the song "Big Shot." Stuart Woods, author of dozens of popular mysteries, begins almost every book with his hero having dinner at Elaine's.
Kaufman died Friday at age 81 in Manhattan. As recently as a month ago, she had been working seven days a week until 2 a.m., a schedule she had kept for decades, hosting famous faces for dinner, drinks and poker games.
Although she counted many celebrities as friends, Kaufman had a soft spot for writers who were trying to make it big and often let them eat for free.
That crowd over the years included Woods, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, and they eventually paid her back.
"No writer ever went hungry while Elaine was in business," Woods said. "If she knew someone was having a rough time, she would send a check to the table that just said, 'Tip the waiter.'"
She was known as an exceptional listener, with patrons and friends typically sticking around until the early morning hours. Her regulars were fiercely loyal.
"Like many many others I will miss Elaine," said Kirk Douglas, who was there just two weeks ago. "She was a wonderful lady."
Bobby Zarem, a longtime public relations specialist and friend, said he walked into Elaine's three weeks after it opened near the corner of Second Avenue and 88th Street.
The two quickly became close, and Kaufman encouraged him to open his own PR shop. He brought clients to Elaine's, and the place evolved into a spot for hosting star-studded events like movie promotions and book parties.
But it retained its charm for the regulars.
"She was just this great, big wonderful woman. She was smart and very smart about people," Zarem said. "You could trust her and talk about anything."
Tables there soon became coveted, attracting not only a literary crowd but mayors, artists and celebrities, including Jackie Onassis, Michael Caine and George Steinbrenner.
"She was a special person who contributed so much to the rich fabric of New York City," Steinbrenner's son Hal said in a statement.
Former Mayor Ed Koch, who was in office when Elaine celebrated her 25th anniversary in 1988, said even he enjoyed spotting celebrities there.
"Elaine Kaufman had a lot of friends, and I was privileged to be one of them," he said in a statement Friday.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg called her "a New York institution."
Among those who attended the 25th anniversary celebration were Sidney Lumet, Eli Wallach, Raquel Welch, Jackie Mason, Billy Dee Williams and Cheryl Tiegs.
Allen became a regular, Kaufman told The Associated Press in 1988, because "he loves to people-watch. It's comfortable, nobody bothers him, we make him what he wants."
Despite complaints over the years that she banished less-interesting people to the worst tables, Kaufman did not consider herself a snob, arguing that her restaurant simply attracted a sophisticated crowd.
Talese, an Elaine's regular since its early days, portrayed her as a no-nonsense hostess who could be prickly at times because of the demanding job.
"She wasn't a fraud. You got what you got. You got her backtalk and you got that she sometimes didn't feel like talking to you even if she liked you," Talese said Friday. "But she was always worthy of respect because she worked so hard. She knew everything that went on in that restaurant, right down to how much salt and pepper were in the shakers."
Kaufman was proud that she didn't change her business to appeal to changing styles.
"I started with a little restaurant and that's what I've ended up with," Kaufman said in 1993. "It wasn't broke so I didn't fix it."
Until the end of her life, she was always fascinated by people.
Diane Becker, Elaine's manager for 26 years, describes a scene from when Kaufman was brought to the emergency room of Lenox Hill Hospital a few weeks ago.
"She said, 'Look at this emergency room, there's nothing boring about it! There's always someone coming in, always something happening,'" Becker said.
The restaurant plans to remain open.
Former Associated Press Writer Polly Anderson, AP writer Verena Dobnik, AP Arts Editor Dolores Barclay and AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this report.