Journalists, writers and artists are insecure and needy people. Elaine Kaufman filled their needs. She fed them, gave them a shoulder to cry on, and then a kick in the butt to motivate them. She was not the prettiest woman in the world, or even the best cook. And she could be quite gruff. But if she liked you, Elaine was one of the most lovable and beautiful people you would ever meet.
"Ah, it's the famous Polack!" she once called me, giving me a big hug and a kiss when I walked into her famous uptown parlor. I first went to Elaine's in the late 90s after my friend Bill Schorr drew a cartoon for the Daily News portraying Elaine tossing an unruly patron out of the bar. She loved the cartoon and called the News to ask "Billy" if she could have the original.
Bill became a regular and regaled me with stories of Elaine lording over late night discussions at round tables in the bar where actors, writers, artists, politicos and Wall Street types cross-pollinated fascinating discussions over food and alcohol.
One night Bill convinced me to join him. After seeing the celebrities, I thought that a kid from Rockaway Beach, Queens did not belong. But Elaine made me feel welcome, and told me that she, too, grew up in Queens and da Bronx. She liked that I wrote editorials for the Daily News and suggested tough questions that I should ask of then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Elaine always worked the room, tablehopping, acting as ringleader, muse and matchmaker. It was the kind of place where anyone with an interesting story or point of view could join the discussion. If you were even mildly interesting, you became part of the fun. But if you were there to gawk, you were kept at the bar, or sent to the back of the restaurant.
"Get your bladder checked honey, you've gone to the bathroom too many times," Elaine once scoffed at woman who strutted back and forth past the line of tables near the front to get a better look at Alec Baldwin.
It was that line of tables along the wall that were kept reserved for Elaine's in-crowd.
When I became friends with Ryszard Horowitz, a brilliant photographer and childhood chum of Roman Polanski, he told me of the good old days in the 60s and 70s when Elaine's was really wild. So Ryszard and his wife Ania joined me to see how things had changed.
Elaine put us at a large round table in the front, where several people joined us, including Sidney Zion, a columnist for the Daily News. Our food arrived just as Sidney lit a huge cigar and began blowing smoke across the table. Sid was a rabid pro-smoking advocate, furious that the state legislature was debating a ban on smoking in restaurants. Ania asked me in Polish to tell Sid to put out the cigar. I replied to her in Polish explaining who Sid was. Suddenly, Ryszard spoke up, pointing out that our food had just been served and he asked Sidney if he could put out the cigar.
"Don't tell me you're one of those smoke-Nazis," Sid blurted out with his gravely voice.
"Uh, Sidney," I said. "Do you see that number tattooed on his arm? Ryszard here was in Auschwitz. He's definitely not a Nazi anything."
Sidney apologized and put out the cigar. Elaine's was full of these surreal moments.
After a rough divorce, I remarried and marital bliss diverted my life in another direction, making my visits to Elaine's less frequent.
Several months ago, I stopped by Elaine's with an artist friend and she gave me a hug, saying, "Where the hell have you been?" She gave me a table along the wall and said she would come over in a little bit. "You know who that is at the table next to you, William Peter Blatty. He wrote The Exorcist. Do you want to meet him?"
My friend Mietko and I ordered dinner, and out of the blue, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the White House party crashers, whisked in with another couple and grabbed the next table further down the line. Before long, Michaele was chatting us up, and we began taking pictures on my iPhone. Elaine came by and sat next to me, and with a nudge and a wink said, "Is that who I think it is?"
When I nodded yes, she asked, "Friends of yours?"
"I thought you let them in," I replied. She just shook her head and we began talking, catching up. Before long, Tareq and some other woman came up to Elaine and asked to have their picture taken with her. The woman gushed that it was both of their birthdays.
"So buy a F-ing cake," Elaine blurted out. It was typical Elaine. She hated poseurs.
You will be missed Elaine. More than you know.
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