With the first buds of spring my cousin Kiki (nee Shirley) trains down from Larchmont to have her thighs waxed, her wrinkles fed, her toes frosted mother-of-pearl. And we lunch together in the strawberry fields of Super-chic. To climax this year’s spring overhaul, Kiki commands: “Meet me at Gertrude’s.”
Oh yes, Kiki knows.
Superchic hones in on its anointed love object. Women’s Wear will kiss and tell. The Word echoes above the hair dryer’s roar at Monsieur Marc’s. David Susskind. Michael York. Roger Grimsby. Mrs. Edwin Hilson invites 38 to lunch at Gertrude’s with the duchess. No need to ask which duchess. The duchess.
So here we all are. Wedged into this preciously mostly-Art-Deco ghetto of affluence… Carly Simon and James Taylor. Pat Lawford. Theodore White (well, he lives down the block). Howard Cosell. Mary Beame with Jane Powell and Arlene Dahl. O.J. Simpson. Kiki and… moi, our voices rat-a-tat-ing off the handsome Art Deco-in-tin ceiling, screaming to be heard above tin-amplified din. Our conversations link as intimately as crossed telephone lines. Not that I object to a good juicy earful of gossip, but the chatter about skin disease at the next table threatens to dull appreciation for this seafood salad.
Why are we here, Kiki?
Obviously no amount of raucous flackery alone is lure enough to bring the Beautifuls begging for tables. Of course the movers and shakers of Superchic feel… comfortable surrounded by each other. So a clever press agent seeds the house. If Jackie Rogers is here, and Bill Blass, can Barbara Walters be far behind?
It can’t be the food, Kiki, though the menu – awkwardly handwritten and stuffed into luncheonette vinyl – is a joyful escape from Superchic French cliché with some fine gastronomic notions (that don’t always work). Frankly, your everyday run of movers and shakers care little about la grande cuisine.
Why are we here, Kiki?
Yes, it is frightfully intimate on those cheek-to-cheek taupe Naugahyde suede (of course) tufted (what else?) banquettes. Too close for me, but they do seem to love it. If I were an anthropologist, perhaps I could explain it. Perhaps the Beautiful People are basically lonely or congenital herd-lovers or simply sensuous. See how they press together, so many well-coiffed sardines. They obviously want to touch, to overlap, to glance into Gertrude’s exquisite etched Art Deco mirrors – Narcissa, all flaws fading in the room’s beneficent apricot glow, all action reflected. Pauline Trigère. Galanos. Alexis Smith. Kiki doesn’t miss a thing.
Gertrude’s was spawned out of the school of La Goulue, last year’s Superchic feeding station. You see, there really is a Gertrude – Gertrude Cohen, once owner of a custom furniture showroom. It’s a New York story: feisty divorcee drifts from furniture to real estate. “I have three grandchildren and three buildings,” Gertrude confides. She needed a tenant and Jean De Noyer needed space for his boutique. Gertrude became a partner. Then De Noyer went off on his own, opened La Goulue. So when a pub tenant at 160 East 64th Street moved away, Gertrude gave in to impulse. “I’m gusty. I’m a gemini. What does a man my age do? He gets himself some young chick. And what does a woman want?”
I stand corrected. Anyway, Gertrude had all these clunky sconces from her furniture business stashed in a warehouse. She hired a compelling press agent and a brilliant hand at décor a la mode, Robert Denning of Denning and Fourcade, Inc. Bare brick and rough-cut wood are not exactly Art Deco. And the chairs ($10 each in Greenpoint) are Automat. But the eclectic total is rather spectacular. The sconces, the beveled mirrors borrowed from old armoires, her own name carved in Art Deco:” G-E-R… chinoisserie on blue tablecloths, ginger-jar sugar bowls, great bunches of quince and cherry blossoms. Even the stemware is stubby and fluted, and the flatware, Japanese, is haunted by the ghost of Art Deco.
Early, then, before the kiss of Superchic, Gertrude’s at lunch was deserted. No one offered to hang up your coat. Gertrude herself, a wiry, worn little blonde, was invariably arguing with someone on the phone. One waiter seemed desperate to please. And the chef skittered in and out like the French cousin of a Marx brother, cigarette hanging on the curl of his lip. Prices were modest, portions enormous, the food uneven, but in that setting, at such a gentle tariff, one could hope the chef might be drawn back into the kitchen to keep the salt in hand, whisk fish off the flame this side of leather-edged, and do something about the rubber string beans... Anyway, it was a pleasure to taste his crisp little fritters, a thrill to scent nutmeg in the broccoli puree, an adventure to experiment with seafood quiche and an admirable avocado mousse.
Of course Gertrude’s looked like a Best Bet. Ellen Stock’s March salute touched a Superchic nerve. Kiki and crew descended. And Sharman Douglas. Halston. Joan Fontaine. Carol Channing. The 9:30 sitting was booked one day ahead. Prices leapt. And Gertrude got off the phone. But a 7:30 dinner a few days after the Bet was an exercise in masochism. Restless Kikis clustered about the bar waiting to be seated, in a comedy of fumbles and insult. “Back, back,” cried the bartender. “Back where?” pleaded my friend the trampled East Side Desperata. “The man said don’t be a macher, Stanley.”
“Maybe he meant macho,” Stanley replied.
“Don’t be silly. These people never heard of macho.”
Three of us… seated at a table for two, thighs pressed in captive intimacy, endlessly neglected. Two waiters ran in circles and the chef scampered like a rabbit on amphetamines… but 40 mouths wanted to order and 40 throats were parched. Half an hour without a drop to drink. Food we didn’t order kept arriving. A dazed waiter shanghaied from some summer camp blushes furiously to find himself holding hands with a pheasant that has slipped off a plate. “You can just… put it back,” the customer whispered graciously.
Utterly oblivious, Gertrude circled the room: “I’m just saying hello because I’m Gertrude. Is everything wonderful?” I was stunned. The East Side Desperata’s laugh was tinged with mild hysteria. Truth is, the caviar cake ($3.50) may be an amusing invention, but that was highly plebeian caviar layered between spongy egg white and a mash of yolk. Mushrooms in snail butter ($3) were sizzling hot and garlicky, but using mushrooms big and small makes it impossible not to overcook one without undercooking another. The pheasant ($12.50) looked so appealing, but was dry and boring. But the zucchini was firm, carrots were sweetly al dente, and the waterzooi of lobster was a triumph – succulent creature still in its shell under a tasty julienne of carrots, celery, and cabbage in a cream-enriched broth, with seconds, served hot from the pot by the chef himself, $14 and worth it.
The check arrived unbidden (“We need these tables”), and $14 shy in our favor. When I sent it back for correction, Gertrude herself sped over: “That’s what I call a sweetheart,” she said. So the tariff was $79.95 for three – with tax, a pleasant $6 Côtes du Rhône, and my angry 8 per cent tip. As I reached for my coat, I was crushed behind the door, flung open to admit William vanden Heuvel and Amanda Burden. Oh, painful chic. I must memorize it all for Kiki.
Well, now Gertrude’s is obligatory. There is a haughty maitre d’, one of those beautiful young men that, no matter how beautiful you are, he is more. Prices are touching new highs. Two tablespoons of chicken liver mousse on a pouf of lettuce cost $4. Dinner for two runs $56.60. I cant get used to money in today’s inflated context, but at least the entrecote Béarnaise ($12.50) is rare and tasty, though tough, and the bass ($11) is tender in a pleasant wine sauce, slightly separated, to be sure, but not fatally wounded. A shallow bowl of mushroom soup tastes of earth, or more precisely… dirt. What a relief to be offered coffee, raspberry, or orange mousse as well as the inevitable chocolate. The bitter aftertaste of the orange is too chemical for me, but others may find it pleasantly adult. And there is a seductive innocence in the dense primitive “chocolate nuts” pie.
The service seems to work at last. And the gossip is sweetly acid. So-and-so is a “dead lox.” You-know-who used to be a call girl, before she married up into grand old American society. “Up from slavery,” To please the lettuce-leaf-lunch crowd there is now a chopping-block salad bar – cold beef salad in horseradish-spiked sour cream, chicken aux fines herbes, ham with raw mushrooms, and tender flakes of cold bass with tough little shrimp in a somewhat overwhelming but tasty dressing. The menu changes every week, the prices not quite so often. Gertrude has decreed a fourth sitting to feed after-theater hungers and is talking about a supper club upstairs. “Gertrude’s on the Hot Tin Roof,” she’d like to call it. She has sconces yet undreamed of still in storage.
Let me tell you what is Superchic. It’s when your bartender dates Pat Loud. It’s when you discard your old wine list for a modest new one because “Erich what’s his name – you know, Love Story – told me to.”