THE BLOG

R.I.P. Hilly, Elaine, Kersh

12/15/2010 02:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the (many) disadvantages of getting old is that so many friends are dying around you. So it has been anguishing for me this past month... death and distraction everywhere; my heart heavy with grief, which I am only now beginning to shake. Film director Irv Kershner, a friend and eating/drinking companion of more than 50 years; Restaurateur Elaine Kaufman, a buddy who fed me when I was hungry (often) in my early years and critiqued my movies in later years; and my oldest and closest friend in this world, the legendary Hillard 'Hilly" Elkins, a friend from P.S. 99 in Brooklyn whose life was interwoven with mine 'til the very end.

Kersh directed what I think was the best of the Star Wars films, Stars Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, along with a multitude of prestigious movies of every genre, from The Luck of Ginger Coffey to my particular favorite, Loving, to A Fine Madness with Sean Connery and Jean Seberg (whose biofilm I am still desirous of making). Despite the fact that we were close friends for five decades, the closest we came to working together was when I was co-head of production for Palomar/ABC Pictures in the late sixties, and I hired him to direct a film called Nobody Loves A Drunken Indian, a film adaptation of Clair Huffaker's novel, which was to star Richard Harris, be shot in New Mexico, and had been greenlighted for production in six weeks. I told him to just take the script, control the unruly actor, and shoot the hell out of the raucous comedy of a cattle drive through the city. But Kersh, in his inimitable style, went off to Palm Springs for the weekend and came back with 132 pages of notes on the 130 page script! We fired him that night... and the film was later made by Warners (called Flap) directed by Sir Carol Reed, with Anthony Quinn.

But the friendship continued. Sunday brunches at his Mulholland Drive house were full of fun and frolic; you never knew whom you would meet there, from Russian mafia to Japanese filmmakers, from Francis Coppola to lots of beautiful, aspiring actresses. I saw him at an Academy screening of some film about three months ago and we argued vigorously over the merits of the movie. A lovely, talented, engaging internationalist, as he liked to call himself.

I have known Elaine Kaufman since the early sixties, when she was working for a boyfriend named Alfredo in his Greenwich Village restaurant; she was then slim and attractive, with the mouth of a Bronx truck driver and a fearless, humorous determination to be heard. Oh, yes, she was heard all right, was she ever! When she told me in '62 that she was thinking of opening her own joint, I suggested the Upper West Side, and looked askance at the location she picked on 2nd Avenue and 88th Street. At the start it was a struggle, and I wrote many an article about her antics at Elaine's in my syndicated newspaper column, Jaywalking in New York. She didn't very much like my first wife, a beautiful red-headed Irish woman (whom I married ten days after we met): Elaine warned me that there was something 'odd' about her (and she turned out to be a pathological liar). Ms. Kaufman liked my aristocratic second wife, the lissome blonde model Hill Robbins, often speaking a few words of German to her as a sign of endearment. When my film of Lady Sings The Blues opened in New York in 1972 she came to the premiere party attended by its stars Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, and we all ended up back at Elaine's early in the morning. She then did admire my third wife-to-be, calling her "the Jewish Princess," a compliment from the Jewish Queen. Over the course of the Seventies, I was involved with a brilliant writer named Pete Hamill in several film projects, and would make frequent trips to Manhattan to meet with him... at Elaine's, of course. (We worked on Jack The Ripper 'til an exec at Universal showed the script to his then wife, and she effectively killed it as "too violent." (She later ran off with their gardener, but it was too late for my movie.) Pete and I developed a script about Amelia Earhart with Pete's then girl friend, Shirley MacLaine, playing the title role and Frank Sinatra as the radio man, but it went nowhere. The last time I saw Elaine Kaufman was two years ago, and she told me she never missed reading an issue of my monthly restaurant newsletter... which I had been sending her for 25 years. I remember that I ordered the Blue Fish Special and told her I loved the oily, full flavored taste of the East Coast fish. Not exactly known for her food, she picked up my check, a first in the annals of food writers. I once offered to back her in a Hollywood version of her place and she just laughed uproariously at the idea. "I'd have to be there, and that is never gonna happen." God, she will be missed.

hilly pix

Hillard 'Hilly' Elkins

If ever anyone deserved the epitaph "large than life," it was Hilly Elkins. We met in public school, went to Midwood High in Brooklyn together (Woody Allen was two years behind us) and worked together and laughed and cried together for more than 60 years. His son (my godson) Daniel, a brilliant chef (who got his start when I secured a job for him at Spago on the line), spent the first six months of his life sleeping in a drawer at my Hollywood home when Hilly and his then wife moved in while I was off in New York shooting a film. Years before, I had moved into his spacious Manhattan apartment when he went to L.A. for a prestigious agency job. I discovered hundreds of hours of taped phone conversations with his famous clients, especially Steve McQueen and James Coburn. On Sunday, his widow the lovely Sandi Love, laughed and said, "Imagine what those tapes would be worth now?" At the time of his death, he was engaged in preparing a filmed version of Kurt Vonnegut's breathtaking novel, Cat's Cradle, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Yes, I have been blessed with some fabulous friends and glorious memories... which is about all one can ask in this wonderful, imperfect life.