August 8, 1975 | Vintage Insatiable
It's Not Nice To Fool With Mother Kaufman

        Well, unless Patty Hearst is captured playing croquet on the White House lawn, or Golda Meir is trapped having breakfast in bead (bacon and eggs in a pita) with Anwar el-Sadat in a hot-sheet motel on the Gaza Strip, it looks as if the summer of '75 may come to be known for the Great Saloon War.

        To make it easier for the Herodotus or Gibbon yet to come, let us devote a few minutes over soggy spaghetti to the battle between Manhattan's literary wet nurse, Elaine the despot restaurateur, and Nick, her defected maître d', for the hearts and minds and floating bar-tabs and heartburn of Elaine faithfuls: the loitering literati, the film flam, the commuting celebs  and their heaps of Uriahs, the masochists and gophers and hangers-on.

        In any conflict there are early warnings. An archduke is shot. Czechoslovakia falls. A waiter defects. Nick Spangnolo, Elaine's major-domo and silent partner, is disenchanted. He claims Elaine owes him $40,000. "Pay me," he says, "because when the lawyers start talking, everything's going to get dirty." Elaine refuses. Nick moves into the Foresters Rendezvous at 146 East 84th Street, takes along Elaine's third chef, a waiter or two, a dishwasher, the name of her baker, the formula for her squid salad. Women's Wear, with a constituency the size of Ruritania and the authority of an H-bomb, proclaims Nicola's the best "joint" in town. Elaine's pets are pinned wiggling in the spotlight, faced with the moral dilemma of the generation. Dare they brave a veal chop at Nick's for fear of exile from Elaine's flock skulking, swaggering…yes, staggering between the two fueling stands. Spaghetti carbonara at Nicola's. Nightcaps at Elaine's. Beef paillard at Elaine's. Then Nick's till a boozy 2 A.M. Does Elaine know? Will she explode? Should one…confess? Grown men and women, journalistic titans of our time…some actually cower paralyzed by the specter of her wrath. Mama will spank.

        Does the cosmic angst of this saloon ado escape you? If your adrenalin is unmoved by minor masochism, if you're susceptible to narcissistic mortification, if you have never quite understood hanging out, the literary locker room, the need to escape from your wife, the seven drinks before stuportime, the fear of closing your eyes, the terror of intimacy, the horror of being alone, then it is difficult to explain the spiritual imperative of a refuge like Elaine's. But twenty years from now, writer Michael Mooney muses, "some earnest Ph.D. candidate will do a literary history, digging through unpaid bar bills and old menus, to be published by Viking Pompous Editions. How amusing. That Elaine Kaufman should be the Madame de Maintenon of the age."

        It began a dozen years ago, an unabashedly seedy neighborhood bar at 1703 Second Avenue near 88th Street. Nelson Aldrich, then a teacher, now a Harper's editor, lingered, brought a poet friend. Then a drift of lean off-Broadway playwrights came. A non-stop poker game. And Elaine, the big earth-mother, nursing them along, trading gossip, taking confessions. "It was solace to be there and see the competition goofing off," Lifeman Tommy Thompson once wrote. "That was about the time writers and journalists came to be seen as sexy," recalls David Halberstam. Women's Wear found the Elaine's mix compellingly chic. The playpen of the quality-media set become an Obligatory Scene.

        The Beautiful People clotted there, light bouncing off perfect capped smiles, making midnight Second Avenue bright as noon. Limos double-parked in the grimy no man's land of way-uptown, vomiting stars, superstars -- Mastroianni, Clint Eastwood, John Lennon, Lynda Bird with George Hamilton and her Secret Service shadow (they wanted a prime table -- Elaine stood them at the jukebox), and the ultimate wow of the sixties, Jackie. Inevitably, in their wake, came the third-string royalty and the second-string rich, the politicians and flacks, the sycophants, the voyeurs, the grubs and slugs and drones, the curious, me and you. Blueblood dandies and Dun-and-Bradstreet-adored dudes screamed for see-and-be-seen tables, but Elaine kept them iced at the bar -- a gorgon guarding those sexy front stations for her boys.

        No need to call one's agent or one's broker or one's bookie or one's wife's divorce lawyer to find out one's worth. One had only to stand at Elaine's bar with a watch, waiting for a table, smiling big, as if the telltale drag on the minute hand weren't all that painful. As if a wave to the back room weren't really fatal. The night everyone's memories fondle gleefully: Henry Ford and the dazzling Christina cooling at the bar, then exiled to the Ragu Room, Elaine's Siberia. If you are only a simple, insecure scrivener with typewriter ink on your fingers, who else in this town pampers you at the expense of a topline Ford? "She's just a middle-class Italian," said Elaine.

        Divorces were crueler because of Elaine's. If Eleanor Perry was appalled realizing she'd spent the last six years of her marriage six nights a week at Elaine's, it was the marriage, not Elaine's, that appalled her. In a moment of mock tragedy after splitting from Dan Greenburg, Nora Ephron lamented, "Do you think Dan gets Elaine's in the separation agreement?"

        Elaine's is a cabaret.
A man walks in with a baby lion and leashes it to a table. Jason Robards stands weaving on his chair to denounce Tommy Thompson for writing that Robards takes a drink now and then. Bobby Zarem is keeping Richard Harris eloquent and civilized on beer till Elaine insists Harris have a "real drink." Suddenly Harris is storming a stranger at the bar. "People go hoping to see Robert Frost in his cups or Solzhenitsyn decked by Kurt Vonnegut or Norman Mailer in a violent Maileresque moment," Halberstam observes. But Elaine's true pets are not instantly recognizable. I'm not sure I could pick Bruce Jay Friedman out of a line-up. Not even Elaine recognizes Antonioni. Sticks him in the back room. In town to promote his book on Chicago Mayor Daley, Mike Royko is a disappointed tourist. "Elaine's," he says. "The food was awful. It was crowded. We were rushed. I spent the whole time twisting my neck around to see everyone else twisting their heads around." Next time Royko comes with Jimmy Breslin, John Lindsay, Jules Feiffer. He doesn't have to twist his neck. "By the end of the evening I was threatening to elope with Elaine and my wife was upset because she found two guys making love in the ladies' room."

        Moving traffic, guarding the big "training table" for her boys, freighting the nobodies in and out, bouncing drunks and shouting down sassers, Elaine can be outrageous. One night, she has just seated two Englishmen after an interminable wait when Gay and Nan Talese walk in with Teresa Wright. "It's already been such an awful night for you, you won't be surprised if I move you to another table," she says, jollying the men toward the rear to clear a choice station for Gay. "I don't have a table free for you," Elaine tells Muriel Resnik and Victor Jackson another evening, "But you know these people. I'll put you with them." A few minutes later, she informs the original occupants of the table, "Come with me; I have a table for you back here." Muriel's mouth drops. "I'm not saying a word. She terrifies me," whispers the about-to-be-displaced woman.

        These table games pamper and enrage. "I wouldn't run a place that way," says Danny Lavezzo, who runs P.J. Clarke's, mostly in absentia. "It's too rough, catering to an elite. People aren't even hungry. They just come in to find out how they rate. You have to work too hard, be there all the time. It makes for jagged dispositions." Jagged, Elaine rips up checks. "Out. Out. Get the creep out." When a waiter takes pity on Cloris Leachman, standing famished at the bar during a long wait for a table, and gives her a piece of bread, Elaine screams insults too primitive to print here. Leachman doesn't move. When Suni Agnelli's kids want Cat Stevens's autograph, Elaine closes in, snapping: "You leave my customers alone. I won't have them annoyed." When Ben Gazzara leaves a $10 tip on a $100 check, Elaine screams: "How dare you stiff my waiter?" The debate that follows is Sicilian in decibels. One by one Gazzara's drinking companions -- Pete Hamill, Nick Pileggi, John Scanlon -- get up, slip behind Elaine, and dissociate themselves from Gazzara's gaucherie, all penitent and meek. "Her strength is everyone's fear of the irrational mother," New York's Anthony Haden-Guest theorizes.

        The legions of psyches mutilated and egos bruised at Elaine's grow. Then one day Women's Wear editor-in-chief Michael Coady draws her fire. Coady comes to the defense of someone he thinks Elaine is abusing. There are expletives and insults. Coady leaves, never to return. Elaine is no longer the darling of the Saloon Set in WWD. Indeed she ceases to exist in its gossipy "Eye."

        Given the mentality of chic, being banned from the pages of Women's Wear is like being buried before you're dead. Predictably, there are echoes of moral vindication as Women's Wear greets Nicola's, hailing it for fast "becoming the IN place to go." Irwin Shaw, Jackie Rogers, Lily and Douglas Auchincloss, Arthur Miller, Bob Altman, Larry King…WWD gives the roll call. Soon the scrubbed little rich kids and Bloomie's overreachers are standing three-deep at the bar, looking summer-pink and beautiful, orthodontia'd and blown-dry, waiting an hour in the din -- one hour, sometimes two -- while Nick fusses over strays, castoffs, and defectors from Elaine's. Rita Gam; Jules Feiffer, Nora Ephron with Carl Bernstein; Nora with Barbara Howar.

        Gay Talese to David Halberstam at Nicola's: "The food is really better here."

        Halberstam (choking slightly, pointing to a potted palm): "Shhh…she may have the place wired."

        Coraggio.

        The great moral crisis stretches into the summer. When Richard the waiter ("first P.O.W. in the great saloon war," enthuses columnist Sid Zion) leaves Elaine for Nick, the news travels faster, according to Nora Ephron, than the hotter developments in the Kearns-Goodwin drama. Certain passionate Elainists do not cross Nick's threshold. Publicist Zarem, for one. Ditto Herb Sergeant, though with Herb that could be simply inertia. Mary Ann Madden ("Elaine is ruthlessly classy to me") breaks the embargo ("true confession time") by sheer accident, and only for a reluctant drink. "We were walking down Second Avenue, and there we were on 84th Street, and Nick saw us, and suddenly -- " But Elaine's true-bluest faithful, quite frankly, like Nick too. "Elaine gave us a sense of community," Halbertam says. "And Nick was part of that feeling." If Halberstam hesitated a moment, pondering the legitimate boundaries of loyal friendship, he could remember that Elaine herself had narrowed the turf during the bitterest moments of the Harper's magazine rebellion "when she seated that miserable son-of-a-bitch Lewis Lapham at the very next table."

        "Elaine's is our club, but Nick's is a restaurant," the saloon-commuters cry. "Nick's veal is spectacular," one assures me. "His salad is 50 times better than hers," reports another. "I have been watching Elaine's veal chop," one of America's most honored journalists confides. "It's getting smaller." A longtime Elaine's habitué waxes indignant: "If she is such a good friend, why does she feed us that poison?" An hour later the phone rings: "Don't quote me." "Elaine's salad has those terrible wet onions," says another, "not-for-attribution." Men of courage, women of conviction, friends and detractors alike, almost everyone agrees Elaine's kitchen is guilty of malfeasance. Brave journalists who have boldly taken on the president, the Pentagon, the Mafia, Dorothy Schiff, and assorted other Great American Institutions beg to be anonymous criticizing Elaine's veal paillard.

        Trudging back and forth -- weighing persona against pasta -- between Nicola's and Elaine's one hot summer week, I find that the star kilowattage is brighter at Elaine's, and, yes, Nick's food is mostly better - scarcely great, though the kitchen has scattered moments of bravura. Nick's green carpet mocks Elaine's green linoleum; his blue-and-white checked cloths ape hers. His autographed book jackets - Halberstam, Talese, Peter Maas, Mario Puzo, Bruce Jay Friedman, A.E. Hotchner, Dan Jenkins - are mounted with photos behind glass. At Elaine's, book jackets paper the walls ignominiously in the Ragu Room. "I'm touched. There's my book jacket on Nick's wall," says Michael Mooney. "Someday when I grow up I'll be a writer. I was saying that last week. And there it is. I'm a real writer. At Elaine's my book jacket is over the piss pot." Nick's place is three cozy alcoves, no great see-and-be-seen sightlines - only one front-room table big enough for Nan and Gay and Nora and Carl and Jack Richardson and Amy Ephron and David Halberstam and Larry King. Call for a reservation. "We're all booked," says Nick. Unless he knows you. Friends of the house get seated quickly. Strangers hug the bar, eyes darting in paranoia as Carter Burden is rushed to the vacant table. They scream. Nick screams back. "Go! Don't wait! I told you it might be two hours," he shouts, and stalks away.

        "Did you learn anything about the restaurant business from Elaine?" I ask. "No," says Nick. Smiling. "Well, maybe."

        Nick has the Walter Cronkites, Muriel Resnik, Lee Radziwill. Nick has Elaine's very special pet, Jack Richardson. And Frank Perry with Barbara Goldsmith. "I love Elaine's," says Perry. "We spent six years of our lives there. We set a scene in Diary of a Mad Housewife at Elaine's. The waiter who says 'corragio' to Carrie Snodgress…that was supposed to be Nick. I auditioned him to play the part. But he didn't cut the mustard." Elaine has Kurt Vonnegut and Jill Krementz, the Schuyler Chapins, Frankie Fitzgerald, and David Halberstam two nights in a row (with Burt Glinn Tuesday, Tammy Grimes on Wednesday); Elaine has Mica and Chessy. And Suzy, breathlessly reporting the heroes and casualties of the nightly skirmish in the Daily News.  Mary Ann Madden and Herb Sergeant are so busy drinking at Elaine's and talking to Alan Kind, they forget to eat dinner, so they're back the next night at the same table. Bobby Zarem sips Tab at a table of movie brass. "There's Steve Spielberg," he whispers as the director of Jaws ambles in. "Now you know this is the place." The Ragu Room is empty. But it's summer. Only the ocean drowns out the echo of typewriter keys across the potato fields of the Hamptons, where enough books are being written this summer to decimate whole forests. Still, recently Elaine bounced two guys and was moving back to her check-toting station in triumph when one of them sneaked back in and kicked her in the derrière. What indignity! Was it isolated boldness…or the beginning of the end? In the men's room someone has written: "Love Elaine -- if you can get close enough."

        Uptown, downtown, tasting. Nicola's squid salad is seeded with tender shrimp, mussels, and quid, punctuated with celery and olives and a bitter aftertaste. Elaine's version is flawed by mean, tough little shrimp. Nick's avocado stuffed with bits of shrimp, ham, and celery in a thin mayonnaise is a jot more interesting than Elaine's. But her tortellini are more expertly sauced. His chicken al limone is wondrously moist. Hers has zestier flavor. Both lack a garnish of lemon. His beans are overdone. So are hers. His salad is soused, not tossed. So is hers. Nicola's pesto is pale and pedestrian. Elaine's the same night is even worse. Nick's menu is more ambitious, and his prices slightly higher. (Elaine's entrées range from $5.50 to $9; Nicola's go from $4 to $9.50.) Neither house has a wine list. Nick's wines run a dollar less.

        Mussels à la dijonnaise at Nick's are served in the shell, smothered in a hideous thick mayonnaise. The homemade pâté is humble and fat. Fresh, moist littleneck clams, elegantly crumbed, need a minute more under the broiler. And his matriciana sauce is a poor imitation. Impeccably moist and fresh red snapper suffers under a dusting of bitter red paprika. Veal cordon bleu is an agreeable thick chop stuffed with ham and cheese, and calf's liver, though not rare as requested, is velvety tender and delicious. The sweetbreads, simply sautéed, are moist and sedate; steak, ordered "black and blue," is undeniably perfect. Elaine's beef paillard is tender and flavorful. And her fresh peaches in champagne are positively celestial. Nick's entrées come with vegetable. Elaine's arrive naked. Her service is generally good natured and responsive. Nick's is chaotic.

        Nick is sweet. He fusses. But basically he is a waiter. Elaine is Mother -- funny, generous, trigger-tempered, wise, sad, loving, vengeful. Now she's being uncharacteristically classy about her wayward pets. "There's room for everybody," she philosophizes, sweetly benign. "A lot of people tried to imitate me. Patsy Hemingway opened around the corner, got a lot of talk. Pazienza, I said. She's gone. Now they call the place Bonono. Nick's got three partners down there. They don't need me to destroy them. They'll take care of it themselves." About Nick's lawsuit, Elaine the ingénue: "Last year I was close to bankrupt. Nick was in charge. He was the man, so I figured he must know what he's doing. I'm only a woman, you know."

        So George Plimpton isn't eating out much these days. And once-faithful Willie Morris is a fixture of Bridgehampton. But Elaine isn't worried. "I like to keep breeding," says Elaine. "There's a lot of young people just starting. They come here. I give them support." No regrets over the temper tantrums, the exiles, the clods bounced out the door. "At the time I did it, it was right. When I finish the day, it's over. Sometimes I'll say to someone, 'Today's not going to work. Come back tomorrow.'" Gazzara raged away, crying, "Finito. I'll never go back." When he opened in Huey, Elaine threw him a party. He's back.

        Yes, it's true. Consciousness raised, Elaine admits she was often hostile to women. She goes to two psychiatrists now, one a woman, working on that. "Women have a lot of problems with their mothers being overcritical." Ginger Friedman is not accusing Elaine of destroying her marriage. "But she said something awful, unrepeatable, to me, and Bruce defended her. That was the final nick in the marriage." Still, it must be obvious that a measure of the hatred women vent at Elaine reflects rage at the men who cower before her wrath. "The men sit there like zombies," says free-lance writer Margaret Croydon, who tangled with Elaine over a check for a dinner she insists she never ate. "It has nothing to do with real life. You're like a hunk of furniture. You don't exist. Just some dame a guy brought in." Ginger Freidman finds Elaine "funny, smart, terrific for men that were never toilet-trained properly. And she's no sexual threat. They couldn't handle a sexual woman."

        "I hate it when they come and don't know how to get out," says Elaine. "They're just divorced. One says, 'I ate already. I just came to talk.' I know shnorrers. I grew up in the neighborhood of the shnorrers. If you don't know how to go out, don't go out. For Mother's Day Michael Pollard brought his parents here. 'What'll you have?' I said. 'Nothing,' they said. 'We've just come to watch Michael eat.' And that's what they did. Michael has soup and Jack Daniel's, milanese and Jack Daniel's. And they watched. I was too overcome to say anything."

        New York is a town of strange appetites. A lot of us are hungriest to see the mighty fall. Elaine's disenfranchised are crowing. And those who need to be loved in all the right places are nervous. Informed that Elaine's might be threatened, Helen Gurley Brown was overheard in dismay: "Oh dear, just as David and I can get a table, it's not the place to go anymore." Not quite yet, Helen. Mary Ann Madden is convinced the war is a smoke screen, hiding the reality that Elaine is actually Nick's silent partner, and the moral dilemma of our generation is part of the whole cunning plot.

        Coraggio.

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