The Graying of ‘21’
If there is a Greening of America, it has yet to send one tiny verdant tendril through the asphalt of West 52nd Street. For here at 21 West is the Ultimate Graying, the establishment speakeasy that Jack and Charlie built...stolid in middle age, a shade past its prime but still a magnet of power...The “21” Club.
Presidents eat here flanked by the nation’s convivial power mongers. Supreme word dealers and flesh dealers, the agents and producers. Kings of industry and communication and frustrated princelings burdened with name and fortune and meager wit. Lunch-hour brokers and dealers and champions of hype. Well-alimonied divorcees advertising their wares. And just plain movie stars and authors and the voyeurs of the Fourth Estate. Bold tourists, too, with camera. Affluent out-of-towners with rented limousines and cute mink shrugs. When the man who became President because no one would buy used cars from him emerges from La Côte Basque and spies Leonard Lyons, Poor Richard of the Hippo Wit, notes that they usually meet at “21,” and teases Lyons for...slumming.
This is it...the impregnable Fortress of Gray, a legend of haute where, myth has it, the stranger must pass muster and even Cary Grant can be made to feel he has egg on his tie. This is it...the famous townhouse at 21 West with the iron jockeys daubed in the stable colors of long-time patrons, winning tribes like Vanderbilt, Whitney, and Phipps...a rainbow of the racing aristocracy.
In the taproom small brass plates mark where loved ones sat: George Jean Nathan, Robert Benchley, John Steinbeck. The most recent posts a claim for Richard Nixon, surely a telltale shifting of values.
The “21” mystique is a tangled skein of improbable threads: timing, sociology, the perversity of man. As society wiggled from its cocoon in the twenties – finding itself more moth (and moth-eaten) than butterfly – “21” became an obligatory fueling stop. Surely there were classier speaks with better food...though few with stiffer prices. (Damon Runyon suggested that the owners kept a secret hideaway where they retreated after presenting patrons with a check...to laugh hysterically.) And what narcissist, what masochist, could possibly have resisted the mercurial moods of Baron Jack, with his box at the opera and his sable-lined overcoat? Host Jack Kriendler, Louis Sobol wrote, was “handsome, dudish, gay, congenial” to his friends...”haughty and aloof” to strangers. Lucius Beebe described “21” as “the hardest restaurant in the world to get into.”
Rube Goldberg invented a machine for getting by “21’s” gate. “Live seal (A) bounces ball (B) applauds himself, causing string (C) to shoot bone (D) from pistol (E). Bone lands on platform (F), dog (G) bends head to pick up bone, causing candle (H) to set off bomb (I) to blow up the joint.”
The friends of “21” were a motley boodle. The rich, the pedigreed, the modish, the notorious, the great impostors, the pretty pop people, the early Manhattan success aristocracy...the gods of our innocence: Gable and Bogart; the polo-playing Whitneys, Sonny and Jock, Thurber, Wolcott Gibbs, Bert Lahr and Groucho Marx (who saw the prices, ordered one lima bean...and sent it back to be peeled), the Windsors and Hemingway, introduced by Thurber as “la barbe qui parle.” Many of the same faces were fed and watered at The Colony. Yet “21” was different. Here the crowd was more casual, grubbier, less genteel and less gentile...with a coterie of newspapermen, columnists and cartoonists, all dues-paying members of the “Club.” For the proprietors of “21”, though quick with a handout or a loan, were notoriously cool to ritual freeloading.
By the time Jack Kriendler died in 1947, nepotism had drawn brothers Mac, Bob and Pete into the house, plus Charlie Berns’ brother Jerry and a Kriendler nephew, Sheldon Tannen. The rites of belonging survived. A friend of “21” is greeted by name, kissed (if the gender is appropriate), serenaded on birthdays by the remnants of what was once the glorious Chuck Wagon Glee Club...and distracted by practical jokes. If he is an ailing General Sarnoff, a menu will be improvised by his diet chart and dispatched to the hospital twice daily. If he is Governor Rockefeller, he will be alerted when the first oyster crabs of the season arrive. The barbershop is gone now, but regulars still get concierge service and the steam and massage rooms are available for very special pets. Out-of-town orphans consider the “21” switchboard a highly efficient answering service.
For the stranger, however, “21” can be a dreary disappointment, a bore...and expensive. This is an ego-feeding station. The demanding palate is sadly neglected. Still, the tables are spottily populated these days and it is not impossible to claim one, unless you are smashed or suspiciously hirsute or too blatantly “not-our-kind-of-people.” Do not surmise that “21” is in its death throes. It simply has a touch of the Nixon Game Plan Virus, and Guardian-of-the gate Chuck Anderson may be stern if you arrive with your Brother-in-Law the Ox in his white socks and buffalo sandals.
The world’s most impregnable refreshment stand is disguised as a small-town country club. Folks from O’Hara country will feel like they’ve never left Gibbsville. There is the country club cloak room and the cigar counter, and on the right, a wood-paneled lounge with handsome plaid carpet, blue-jawed middle executives watching football on the color telly, a row of Remington paintings (in Gibbsville, they’d be prints, perhaps...here they are part of the house’s $1 million collection of Western Art). At a tiny lobby table optimistic matrons are selling tickets to some benefit. And then there is the tire. An automobile tire in the lobby of “21”...a prize for some charity raffle. All sweetly disarming.
No sense of steely once-over. No snarl of condescension. No hint of being shuffled off to Buffalo as we are invited to ascend. Upstairs is the dining room, favored by Onassis, Eddie Rickenbacker and the unshakably secure. But we are marked for Siberia, a tiny alcove in the rear, just a bit south of the Arctic. Don’t think for a moment the Kriendlers are not a human, breathing litmus test of Manhattan bloodlines. Three times in three years I have been abandoned to this same Siberia...twice to this very same table...and always, of course, under some anonymous name. I begin to get a distinct sense of belonging...to some untouchable caste. And my escort, the gentleman from Rogers, Cowan...status-savvy Bobby Zarem (more accustomed to braving snob maître d’s with Michael Caine in tow or Ava Gardner) is cringing. Here the salmon-ringleted ex-flappers don’t even shed those eensy mink shrugs to eat. Four stolid businessmen are sipping milk with their boiled beef. And at the next table, a fresh-faced drum majorette is asking her companion: “What is anarchy, anyway?”
“Gael, we’re in the wrong room,” Bobby hisses.
“Well, what is Kahlua?” Miss Apple Cobbler of 1967 is asking now.
“Oh God, Gael, did you hear that...what are we doing here?”
Well we are not here for the glory of the feast. Even the famous $4.50 “21” hamburger is not always the paragon of chopped meat a $4.50 hamburger ought to be. Long ago the “21” kitchen was ranked with the world’s great. And the larder’s game offering is still impressive: Scotch grouse, Chukar partridge, venison and bobwhite quail. But today everybody is quick to grouse about the food. And at $30 dollars for a simple luncheon for two, or $60 to feed two at dinner, the grouses can add up. But a “21” believer can be near bliss with unenhanced grilled fish...as long as it isn’t singed. And the Kriendlers eat corned beef sandwiches.
It’s not that the kitchen can’t pull off an infrequent triumph...accident? miracle? One day the turtle soup is perfect, with chunks of turtle meat faintly scented with sherry...served stylishly from a tureen. Next time, no turtle meat, too much sherry...no tureen. A third time, no sherry, no tureen. One day the red snapper is sublime...a few weeks later, it is served dry and inedible. Bay scallops at lunch ($6.75), a perfection of nutty little nuggets in a benediction of tawny butter...at dinner ($7.25) flavorless, greasy, weary. Tender, expertly fried mussels ($2.75) as an hors d’oeuvre at lunch...snails, six of them ($3) indifferently seasoned. At dinner, three neat ovals of a silk chicken liver pâté ($3), of excellent flavor...but the hors d’oeuvre Parisienne ($3.25), a crowded jumble, mostly out of jar and tin...the smoked salmon ($3.50) is hardly remarkable in a house famous for its imports from sea and forest. Lamb ($7.75) is served faintly pink, country-club style, with mint jelly. And even the almonds on the $6.25 trout, skillfully boned tableside, have a long-ago-toasted sogginess. That is surely antique eggplant in the Automat-style applesauce dish ($1.75) and the string beans ($1.85) are limp with embarrassment. The only totally successful dish at one $132.21 dinner for four (two drinks, an $8.50 Muscadet and a Richenbourg, $45), plus tip...was a sublime Bibb salad ($2). It would be kindest esthetically not to describe the dessert in detail. Enough to say a frozen soufflé with thawed strawberry sauce ($2.50) was a hideous gluey thing left over from a discount wedding reception.
Our captain was civil, at times even gruffly warm. And he seemed genuinely upset when we handed him our silver gummy with polish, scolding a waiter heatedly as he walked away to replace it. Another captain, noting my scarcely touched boiled beef, asked if anything was wrong and would I like something else instead. The wine steward was clearly third-string and overextended. He kept vanishing. Just as we were sure he’d gone forever and we picked up the wine to pour, he would race across the room to wrestle the bottle away. My kingdom for a graceful loser.
The “21” wine list is impressive, boasting Bordeaux dating back to 1865. There is a ’49 Léoville-Poyferreè for $16 and such strength in recent vintages that the cellar is not yet offering the ‘64s or ‘61s in either claret or Burgundy while less fortunate houses around town are already sacrificing their ‘66s. The markup on California wine and some regionals is conventionally steep...average bottles are more gently priced, and there are scattered bargains in the rare bottles. This bounty is still cached, as it was in Prohibition days, behind a ton of stone wall a foot thick that springs open by a hidden catch. House regulars have stash on reserve here and it is a “21” tradition to lay down a bottle for a newborn heir to be opened on his birthday. Grandma Anne Roosevelt has set aside a bottle for David Roosevelt Luke to be uncorked in 1990...the SDS willing. And there is a bottle marked for Miss Lucinda Robb on her 21st birthday.
What ignominy to be born in a non-vintage year!
After three terms in Siberia, I’d not made the slightest chink on the “21” armor. Lunch in the downstairs taproom seemed journalistically crucial. Through the matchmaking prodigy of publicist Mimi Strong, a regional authority on Drop Dead Chic, I was invited to join Millie Considine (mate to Hearst’s Bob) and Mimi at the George Jean Nathan table in the hallowed corner to the left of the bar. For a rundown on Samoa, I go to Margaret Mead. For the anthropological lowdown on Manhattan, wind up Mimi. “’21’ gets the movers and shakers,” said Mimi, blowing a kiss to Loyce Butler (one of Michael’s ex’s). “In the old days it was The Colony for lunch and ’21’ for dinner...but I’ll tell you why they come here, dear. This is where the men are. The divorcees, widows and orphans come here for the men. They do great Bullshots and Bloodies. This is the room that counts, and the middle section too. Back there they put the semi-dreck...not dreck-on-dreck. Just semi-dreck. People from nowhere who’ve earned their tables.” The room is a monument of bold understatement: bare wood floors, the red-and-white checked cloths (stylized check, true, and toys dangling from overhead: trucks and buses and little tin jets, not just any jet, dear, but a replica of Baron Hilton’s private plane and another of his personal helicopter and a truck from the man that runs a fleet of them and a car from the man that rents them and a buggy from the man that makes them, a cover from Time...all totems of the faithful.
Millie Considine arrives and is given a white carnation. We are all exquisitely carnationed. “What is your pleasure?” the captain asks Mrs. Considine. “You want to know my pleasure or you want to know what I want to eat? It’s two different things.”
She fishes in her purse...”One of the Kriendlers gave me this...Let me get my “21” glasses out of my purse.” She comes up with a magnifying lorgnette and studies a tiny cellophane-wrapped packet labeled: “The Pill.” “Place between knees and grip firmly.” She shows it around. “There goes Greg Bautzer with all those teeth,” says Millie.
“He has three times as many teeth as most people,” Mimi agrees.
“Are they all his?” asks the visiting ingenue.
“I don’t think anyone would loan them to him,” Millie replies. We discuss protocol of table priority. “This is my table,” says Millie. “God damn, they better give me my table.” Millie Considine’s proprietary spirit is fired by 33 years of loyalty. “I arrived here in 1937...didn’t know anything about anything. White shoes, square hat. I came at noon...I didn’t know you come for lunch at one. All the tables were empty. But I was clever enough to ask for Mr. Kriendler. I said, ‘My husband is Bob Considine, the new columnist at the American.’ Ever since then, they’ve been kissing my ass. It burns me up though, I could only get in as Mrs. Considine and not as me...I am a writer, too.”
Millie cuts into her steak sandwich, eyeing my galantine of capon ($5.25) mistrustfully. Well, it is a bit gray, though handsomely studded with cubes of color. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” she observes. Mimi’s eggs Considine (in honor of Bob), scrabbled eggs à la kitchen sink, are a pleasant homey hodgepodge with bits of tomato, chive, bacon and Parmesan. At Mimi’s urging I ask for chipped beef in a baked potato, assuring the captain I will pay for my galantine but that the mood has shifted. If you liked chipped beef...I guess this is the way to eat it.
“Once I asked Bob Kriendler how he could charge five bucks for that,” says Millie. “It’s 30 cents’ worth of chipped beef, 10 cents’ for a baked potato and 10 cents’ worth of cream sauce. Half a buck at the most. He said, ‘That’s true, but you get to eat it at ‘21’. Look at what Bob Kriendler just gave me,” Millie cries. “It’s a ‘21’ pencil...can you imagine a Kriendler giving away anything?” On the pencil is the legend “Mother, don’t give your child harsh laxative...just beat the s--- out of them.” The room about us is a Leonard Lyons column on the hoof. They are three deep at the bar, drinking their lunch. “I wonder why I haven’t seen that captain, Mino, here lately,” Millie asks one of the Kriendlers.
“He retired seven years ago.”
“Oh. Well, that explains it.”
“21” is a $4.5 million family business. The restaurant has fissioned profitably into Iron Gate Products, importer of game and rare delicacies; “21” Club Selected items, importer of cigars and smoking accessories, and the financially independent “21” Brands Inc., liquor wholesalers with sales last year of almost $5 million. Many wealthy men have wanted to buy “21”. The family always discouraged suitors with a price of $21 million. Then in 1969 friends of the house were informed that Ogden Corp., a real estate investment firm headed by architect (and “21” regular) Charles Luckman had bought the club for a reported $10 million. In the market flipflop that followed, the deal was never consummated.
So the kissing clan is still running its exclusive burger stand.
Hubie Boscowitz and Louis Sobel, Mrs. Stephen Smith and Hugh O’Brian, Malcolm Forbes, Henry Ford, Sam Newhouse, Punch Sulzberger and the visiting royals of Hollywood and Europe need not fear their claims will be jumped. Winthrop Rockefeller flies in to honor loyal campaign aides at a party. The Yale Glee Club serenades holiday diners. Rudolph Nureyev is tolerated without a jacket. “We recognize that Mr. Nureyev is different,” the management explains. Chagall sketches his dinner for the house and gets no tab. Sammy Davis defies the no-tie ban by accepting a tie from Chuck Anderson and knotting it around his head. And Ursula Andress in short shorts has already set a crucial precedent for a slightly more contemporary future.
Oh yes, there is a near-microscopic greening on West 52nd Street. I found it struggling for light in the wine cellar of “21.”
On a magnum of Dom Pérignon set aside for the President...someone has drawn, in pencil, a peace symbol.
21 West 52nd Street, JU 2-7200. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. No credit cards.
* * *
That Cosmo Girl at ‘21’
New York January 18, 1971
This is the story that asks the question: Can a little girl from Green Forest, Arkansas, find happiness in a landmark saloon on West 52nd Street?
“It has taken me years to make the tiniest inroads at ’21,’” Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown confides with characteristically irrepressible candor. Well, nothing has ever been easy for Helen. “I was a secretary until I was 30 and I didn’t have my nose fixed until I was 39 and everyone else, you know, does their nose at thirteen...and I didn’t get married till I was 37.” Helen is now practically a symbol of repression unleashed as author of Sex and the Single Girl...sweetly rich from SATSG-spawned industries and wife of 20th Century-Fox executive (till the recent power shift) David Brown. Even so, Helen was just another 102-pound nobody in a Pucci dress in the size-up lobby of “21”.
Then in 1965 Hearst hired her to inject some hormones into Cosmo... “Just a country girl from Los Angeles.” What did Helen know about malevolent cabbies or hostile doormen or the granite maître d’? “I was still so supersensitive to rebuffs and spiritual blows.” At “21” Helen went to work on the guardian of the Iron Gate, Chuck Anderson. “It was months before I realized he didn’t control who sat where.”
Cosmopolitan suavely set out to woo advertisers with seductive lunches in “21’s” private dining rooms. Helen of Hearst played Helen of Troy. “Well, now we were dropping $300 or more a week there, what with wine and cocktails and brandy and cigars.” It seemed to Helen that Chuck Anderson was...well, actually, friendly. Frequent and regular conspicuous consumption has always been the formula for membership at “21.” Helen knew she was accepted...the day Jerry Berns first kissed her. Now she is always welcomed with a kiss. “I love kissing. I love to be kissed.”
Helen always makes a real “21” effort for “21”. When she doesn’t feel quite altogether, she slouches down to Romeo Salta. “After you’ve slugged your way through the “21” machine, you just don’t have muscles left to make it at other restaurants.”
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