I want a sandwich named after me.
As the comedian Jon Stewart well knows, you’re still a nobody until some restaurateur serves you on the menu or, as an anonymous wise soul once said, until some crazy person imagines he’s you. (Napoleon, anyone?) Tell that to the slew of glitterati at Elaine’s. For forty years, the famous New York restaurant has been an exclusive club to the crème-de-la crème: writers, Hollywood movers-and-shakers, politicians and other celebs, a few of whom have had sandwiches named after them in other eateries. Elaine’s is where they gather to see and be seen by their peers, far from the madding crowd.
Author A. E. Hotchner’s Everyone Comes to Elaine’s serves as a fond tribute to this famous landmark, though the title is a tad deceiving. Perhaps, Everyone Who is Actually Someone Comes to Elaine’s, or ‘Nobodies’ Needn’t Bother, would be more fitting. And yes, Mr. Hotchner is an Elaine’s regular himself, which largely accounts for his star-struck tone about his favorite restaurant and its proprietor, Elaine Kaufman.
A former waitress, Elaine took her life savings and gambled on purchasing a place on 88th and Second Avenue in the early ‘60s. The restaurant quickly gathered momentum and established a reputation as a literary salon. By the mid-‘60s, Elaine’s had become a full-fledged “writers club,” boasting such regulars as Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Lewis Lapham, among others.
Word got around that Elaine was partial to writers, and soon every scribe with a penchant for drink would linger at the restaurant for hours, debating and arguing or playing poker till the wee hours, and not worrying about the check. As Hotchner explains, “Elaine treated us royally. You paid when you could, and if you couldn’t, you would someday….” Elaine’s generosity often paid off as most customers cleared their tabs eventually, and added generous tips as well. As one bartender explains, a French patron had purchased champagne bottle after champagne bottle, and then disappeared. He showed up years later, and not only paid off his bill, but also left a $5,000 bonus.
By the ‘70s, the restaurant had branched into more than a writers club, as other celebrities—movie stars, politicians, sports personalities, and so on—also became regulars. During this time, Elaine’s snob appeal reached its height, as it became clear that the grande dame had her favorites who were immediately accommodated and escorted to the best tables, while “unrecognizables” were left waiting at the bar until a seat became available. As Hotchner (whom we can assume always has a table ready) writes:
Reputations soar or stub mortally on how long a man has to stand at the bar of this lovingly seedy little joint… before getting a table somewhere in the back of playwright Jack Richardson’s head.
Uurgh. Why bother?
Ruling with an iron fist, the feisty Elaine Kaufman (who also has a knack for engaging in fistfights with unwanted customers) clucks around her famous regulars like a mother hen, making sure that they are comfortable, entertained, and well fed, even going to such lengths as rudely dismissing lesser patrons (who may be in the midst of their dinner) to make room for a celebrity.
The star-studded list of patrons have included Frank Sinatra, Nora Ephron, Jackie Kennedy-Onassis, Mick Jagger, Michael Caine, Kurt Vonnegut, Dustin Hoffman, David Halberstam, and the resident royal, Woody Allen, who holds court at the best table, especially reserved for him. The book is filled with numerous reminiscences written by a slew of Elaine’s hangers-on, and Allen has also contributed his own personal ode. It’s odd that the man who can afford to blow off the Academy Awards (even when his films are nominated) would feel the need to frequent a blatantly social-climbing joint like Elaine’s. Go figure.
Hotchner’s book is filled with photographs of celebrities who have all dined there, and it has more of a feel of a scrapbook or family album. Halfway through the book, we begin to wonder if we have crashed a private party where the guests are all twisting their necks to watch for the next great thing to walk through the door, the hostess is an ill-mannered boor, and the food isn’t any good either.
The author doesn’t dwell too long on Elaine’s lack of—how shall we say?—fine cuisine, choosing instead to emphasize that people never actually come for the food. (But this is a restaurant, right?) However, as humorist P.J. O’Rourke (another attendee) explains: “Every other place in New York seems to be specializing in some horrible gustatory fad: Tibetan dirt salads or Provencal escargots sorbet. But Elaine never serves me a fish that isn’t dead yet, or Bolivian guinea pig terrine.” Touché.
Henry Kissinger once said that the best thing about celebrity is that when you bore people, they think it’s their fault. But what happens if celebrities bore each other? Everyone Comes to Elaine’s is chockfull of anecdotes and bon mots uttered by its famous faces, but they’re not particularly spectacular or revelatory in any sense. The juvenile pecking order (the favorites get the best tables), and the regular “table-hopping” (where guests at one table wander around hoping to talk to other celebrities seated elsewhere) simply makes Elaine’s coterie come across as surprisingly insecure—who feel better about themselves simply by having had the honor of dining alongside other flavors of the month. One can’t help but have the sneaking suspicion that their time is spent talking at (rather than to) each other.
The most interesting section of the book is about a struggling wannabe writer, Jerry Spinelli, whose wife once bid for “A Night on the Town with George Plimpton” from a local public TV auction. The late, great Plimpton, wondering how to entertain him, decided to take him to Elaine’s. Spinelli, thrilled at the opportunity to rub elbows with the literati, was overjoyed. In a hilarious moment, Plimpton, ever the gentleman, even commits a no-no, and takes Spinelli over to Woody Allen’s “off-limits” table. After the introduction—“Woody, this is Jerry Spinelli…”—Allen (perplexingly) replies, “Yes, I know,” a response which further elated the struggling writer. Months later, Spinelli wrote to Plimpton to inform him that his book had been published. (Spinelli eventually won a Newbery Medal.)
Hotchner’s book is written in a breezy, gossipy tone and should sell well amongst the Elaine’s crowd, restaurateurs, and other New Yorkers who have come to admire the famous chi-chi eatery and its larger-than-life owner. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, though: Frankly, Mr. Hotchner, they might not give a damn. But get them a table at Elaine’s, and they might whistle a different tune.