Evenings with Elaine Kaufman (1929 - 2010)
I was introduced to Elaine Kaufman by Frank DiGiacomo. She had the amazing ability to make a schlub like me feel that I was her guest and part of that mob of culture generators that made New York matter.
I was editor of The New York Observer then and she would invariably say, “Oh yes. I love the Observer.” She would say this even on bad weeks when nobody loved the Observer. But we adored her in return, particularly our great cover artist Drew Friedman who loved drawing Elaine and whose drawing of a table of her with Bill and Hillary Clinton hangs just to the right of the bar behind the cash register. Drew told me that Elaine regularly would ask him to paint her walls with celebrities and regularly would pull back when informed of the price of being Michelangelo to her Pope Julius.
To Elaine, the community of writers, editors and media affiliates belonged on a lateral plane with the more exalted members of New York royalty—movie directors, athletes and artists. Elaine may have looked intimidating in photographs but the extraordinary warmth of her rather sweet smile was both a device and an endowment: it allowed you to feel that you belonged to the lineage of journalists, writers and artists that went back, back in time before our watered down ranks had our cigars taken away by the Bloomberg regulations to a moment when giants stomped the city. The giant print of the Avedon photograph of Bogart staring down from the back of the restaurant said it all. That we were a lesser breed was a given; that we were allowed in at all to Elaine’s land of chops, bourbon and linguine, of cops, auteurs and authors, of Bruce Jay Friedman, Woody Allen and Mario Puzo was a cultural gift that tied us to a New York that began to evaporate today with her demise.
Elaine and I shared the same birthday—February 10. For several years—including on my 50th birthday—I would go to Elaine’s and emerge blinded by steak fat, spaghetti bolognese, and bourbon. There wasn’t a year I went when I didn’t feel compelled after two drinks to remind her of our shared birth date and every year a bottle of red wine would come to our table.
I was watching Casablanca the other night and there was plenty of Rick’s in Elaine’s and also a little bit of what I imagined was an amalgamation of the Stork and Costello’s. So one always approached Elaine with a certain amount of trepidation. But she almost never received me with anything but genuine kindness and a beatific smile. When I stumbled over to thank her—she was generally at a better table surrounded by an adoring crew—she would smile, her gaze up simultaneously well-worn and innocent. She had seen it all and yet somehow she exuded the thing that made Elaine’s eternally young: the sense of confidence that the right people in the right place—and she allowed you to feel that you were one and that Elaine’s was the only place—made New York young for one more night that would almost certainly last forever.