By ENID NEMY
Published: December 3, 2010
Elaine Kaufman, who became something of a symbol of New York as the salty den mother of Elaine’s, one of the city’s best-known restaurants and a second home for almost half a century to writers, actors, athletes and other celebrities, died Friday in Manhattan. She was 81.
Michael Falco for The New York Times
Elaine Kaufman of Elaine’s in 2005. More Photos »
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Her death, at Lenox Hill Hospital, was caused by complications of emphysema, said Diane Becker, the restaurant’s manager.
To the patrons she knew at her Upper East Side establishment, Ms. Kaufman was the quirky, opinionated, tender-hearted and imposingly heavyset proprietor who came in almost every night to check on things and schmooze, moving from table to table and occasionally perching herself on a stool at the end of her 25-foot mahogany bar.
With those she did not know, her demeanor varied; some accused her of being rude, though she indignantly denied that she ever was. As she put it, she had little time to explain to dissatisfied customers why they were being directed to tables in the back, known as Siberia, or led to the bar or even turned away, when they could clearly see empty tables along “the line.”
The line was the row of tables along the right wall of the main room, extending from the front to the back and visible from the entrance. Those tables were almost always saved for the most valued regulars, with or without reservations. One regular was Woody Allen, who filmed a scene for “Manhattan” at Elaine’s.
Elaine’s, in fact, was a scene, a noisy restaurant and bar celebrated as a celebrity hangout that all but shouted “New York” to the rest of the country, if not the world. For Billy Joel, in his 1979 hit “Big Shot,” the very name connoted the uptown in-crowd. (“They were all impressed with your Halston dress/And the people that you knew at Elaine’s.”) And in the new movie “Morning Glory,” with Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton and Rachel McAdams, the indomitable Ms. Kaufman herself makes a cameo appearance.
Of course, it was an unspoken rule among the customers never to appear overly impressed or distracted by the famous. This was New York, after all. But there were exceptions, Ms. Kaufman recalled. Mick Jagger was one. (“The room grew still,” she said.) Luciano Pavarotti was another. (“Everyone stood up and applauded.”) And Willie Nelson proved irresistible. (“He kissed all the women at the bar.”)
Once, when a newcomer asked directions to the men’s room, Ms. Kaufman replied, “Take a right at Michael Caine.”
Ms. Kaufman opened her restaurant in 1963, along an unfashionable block on Second Avenue just north of 88th Street. Soon a loyal clientele began to form, as if by chain reaction.
Almost from the beginning there were writers, many of whom were granted credit privileges when cash was low or nonexistent. And the writers — Gay Talese, George Plimpton, Peter Maas, Dan Jenkins, Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo, Frank Conroy and others — drew editors: Clay Felker, Willie Morris and James Brady, to name a few.
Then came the theater, film and television personalities, eager to meet literary lights. And they, having added to the growing cultural cachet of Elaine’s, soon attracted the famous from other arenas — sports figures, politicians and gossip-column society — all wanting to be part of the scene.
Elaine’s flourished, despite its less-than-stellar reputation for food. For 14 years, it was the site of the New York Oscar-night parties hosted by Entertainment Weekly. “I live a party life,” Ms. Kaufman said in an interview in 1983 in The New York Times. “Elsa Maxwell used to have to send out invitations. I just open the door.”
Elaine Edna Kaufman was born in Manhattan on Feb. 10, 1929, one of four children of Joseph and Pauline Kaufman. Brought up in Queens and the Bronx, she graduated from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx and worked at the stamp department at Gimbels, a wholesale fabric house and the long-gone Astor Pharmacy, where she was night cosmetician. She also sold cigars and checked hats at the Progressive Era Political Club in Greenwich Village before being introduced to the restaurant business by Alfredo Viazzi.
Mr. Viazzi, a former seaman and struggling writer, owned Portofino, a Greenwich Village restaurant popular with publishing and downtown theater people, and in 1959 he and Ms. Kaufman, having begun a romantic relationship, joined forces in running it.
When she broke up with Mr. Viazzi four years later, she “took my pots and pans” and decided to open her own restaurant. “I couldn’t afford to open in the Village,” she said, “so I found an Austrian-Hungarian restaurant in an area of the Upper East Side which was Siberia then.” She bought it with a partner for “$10,000 or $12,000,” she said. (Within eight years she was the sole owner.)
Many of her old patrons followed her uptown, and neighborhood celebrities like the painters Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, who were married at the time, began dropping in. She was also discovered by the columnists Dorothy Kilgallen and Leonard Lyons.
During the first year, Ms. Kaufman waited on tables herself; one summer Elaine Stritch, unwilling to do summer stock, tended bar.
The restaurant’s indifferent décor — the comedian Alan King once said the place was “decorated like a stolen car” — changed little through the years. The rummage from junk shops and $5 light fixtures remained, but one feature continued to grow: the framed covers of books by authors who ate and drank there. Several hundred of the covers festooned the walls between the main dining area and the adjoining Paul Desmond room — named after the jazz saxophonist, another regular — which was used for overflow crowds, private parties and sometimes B-, C- and D-list people.