There was a sad changing-times story this week in New York City, where it was big news. Elaine’s, the Upper East Side restaurant that for nearly five decades has been a meeting place and hangout for writers, theater and film people and a few musicians, is closing. Elaine Kaufman, who founded the restaurant, died last December. She left it to her manager, Diane Becker, who said business had dropped to the point where she can’t keep it going. The last meal—and the last drink at the long bar where Elaine held court and sometimes managed the place like a top sergeant—will be served late the night of Thursday, May 27. For details of the closing and the history of the place, see these stories in The New York Daily News and The New York Times.
Paul Desmond discovered Elaine’s shortly after Kaufman opened it in 1963. It was a place where he could quietly drink, spend time with friends and nurture the notion that he was writing a book, one chapter of which actually appeared. I spent my share of late nights there with Paul. When my Desmond biography was published, it is where we held the book’s coming out party. An evening at Elaine’s was likely to involve stimulating conversation with a rotating cast of characters and, sometimes, unscheduled entertainment. Here’s an excerpt from the biography.
Tim Ryan, the television sportscaster then with NBC, was one of many acquaintances who occasionally sat with Desmond at Elaine’s. He was there with Paul late one night in the mid-seventies when a couple of customers duked it out.
Ryan said, “I think I was having coffee and Paul was having another Dewars. Two drunken patrons in the back part of the front room started punching each other. They threw a couple of chairs. They were too smashed to do much harm, but they were creating a major distraction. Elaine came back from her perch at the bar and ordered a pair of waiters who were watching, to separate the guys. The waiters wouldn’t go near the fight. Now Elaine was furious not only with the amateur boxers, but with the waiters as well, and started yelling obscenities at all of them. Finally, she waded in, grabbed the brawlers by their necks and pulled them apart. While all this was going on, she never stopped swearing; ‘This is the last time you bastards will ever be in this joint,’ and other more colorful phrases, and she threw them out. It was Elaine at her most volatile and best. I don’t recall ever seeing those waiters again. Paul and I had a ringside seat. We enjoyed it enormously.”
With Elaine’s gone, my next visit to New York will be less interesting, but I’ll probably get more sleep.