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NEW YORK — Just before 11 p.m. Friday, the celebrated sports photographer Neil Leifer was in the side room at Elaine’s, explaining why he has two versions of the same photo hanging in the restaurant.
The first, an unadorned print of his shot of the coin toss at Super Bowl I, has hung for years at the end of the bar, right at the spot where owner Elaine Kaufman liked to post up most evenings. The second, a blown-up Sports Illustrated cover from 2004, is parked in the back room, not far from where he spoke. On another Friday night nearly seven years ago, Leifer explained, he’d was sitting at one of the restaurant’s front tables when Kaufman, always outsized in demeanor and build, bounded over to him.
“Elaine gets up from the table, and I’m sort of exaggerating it somewhat, but she comes jogging to my table; I’ve never seen Elaine move so fast,” Leifer said.
“‘Neil, Neil I just got you a cover on Sports Illustrated!,’” he remembered her saying. Kaufman had been dining with the magazine’s editor, Terry McDonell, who had been looking for a cover shot for its Super Bowl retrospective.
“I know Terry pretty well,” Leifer said.” “He’s a great editor and he’s a much better drinker than I am, but Terry doesn’t pick covers at Elaine’s at midnight.”
Nonetheless, Leifer was in the office with the original negative by midmorning Sunday.
“To the end, Elaine would always tell people, ‘I’m his agent,’” Leifer laughed. “This doesn’t happen at a bar at midnight, but it did with her.”
Kaufman, who for nearly half a century did as much to engender such editorial and artistic star crossings as the Upper East Side restaurant that bears her name, and who served as a mixture of traffic cop and salon matron to generations of New York writers, editors, actors, athletes, cops and executives, died Friday afternoon at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital. She was 81. The cause was a combination of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and pulmonary hypertension, said Cindy Carway, a spokeswoman for the restaurant.
Kaufman was born on Feb. 10, 1929, and raised in Queens and Washington Heights. When early dreams of a life in the ballet didn’t quite pan out, she held a variety of odd jobs in and around a very bygone New York. She helped sell off Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stamp collection at a 42nd Street auction house, and worked as the night cosmetician at Astor Pharmacy.
“Growing up in Queens, I was always looking to get out,” she told WWD in 2007. “I had no idea what I’d become, but I didn’t think I would be a housewife. My parents had a business, a store, and my mother worked in it. Having a job just seemed very natural to me.”
She got her first taste of the restaurant business in the late Fifties running Portofino in Greenwich Village alongside Alfredo Viazzi, her romantic lead at the time. After the relationship ended, she opened Elaine’s at 88th Street and Second Avenue in 1963. The off-Broadway crowd followed her north, as did a handful of the era’s burgeoning literary stars. Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, William Styron, Gay Talese, Woody Allen and a host of also-rans and hangers-on were all quick regulars, encouraged by Kaufman’s reverence for the written word and laissez-faire approach to preferred clients’ bar tabs.
“What made her special was at that particular time of night when people in New York are lonely — and she was lonely too — that that restaurant was kind of the locale for loneliness, and it satisfied her and it satisfied all the people who were her patrons,” Talese said. “People who were otherwise unengaged could go to Elaine’s and be engaged with a lot of people. And she was the center point. She herself, if she didn’t have that restaurant, would have been unengaged with people, so the restaurant served her and served her clients equally well as a place for not being alone.”
With the literary crowd in hand, the city’s other power brokers began to take notice. Frank Sinatra and Warren Beatty dropped by. Depending on whom one asked, either Bobby Zarem or Michael Caine introduced Mia Farrow to Woody Allen there. (“Elaine and I laughed because Michael would never get up from his dinner table to introduce someone,” Zarem said Friday.) Jackie O, a regular herself, sent the kids there for dinner.
“She just had a way of making each evening seem like a dinner party that she was the hostess of,” said Graydon Carter, the editor in chief of Vanity Fair, who stole a few pages from the Elaine’s playbook when he opened The Waverly Inn. “And it was great — she had the dinner party every night and people paid.”
Though a revered hostess, Kaufman wasn’t exactly Emily Post. She was quick to form opinions and was known to personally escort a patron to the door if the behavior got out of hand. In 1998, she was arrested after an altercation with a customer. Michael Mailer, who has been in and out of the restaurant since his father first brought him there at age 10, recalled watching Kaufman give Geraldo Rivera the boot over an unremembered slight.
“She didn’t suffer fools,” Mailer said. “You didn’t really want to play with her.”
And she wasn’t always as benevolent with the bar tabs. Bill Bratton, the former New York police commissioner who often dined at Elaine’s with his top brass, said Kaufman never went easy on his crowd when the check came, not that they could have taken the favor anyway.
“The night that I left the office of the police commissioner, there was a going-away party, a bit of an Irish wake,” Bratton recalled. “Elaine sprang for a couple of bottles of Dom Perignon. She said, ‘Now that you’re in the private sector, I can buy you a round.’”
Kaufman never let her decidedly more than sample-size frame stop her from indulging when it came to fashion. Her hair was always well coiffed and her nails manicured. In recent years she had taken to wearing a pair of New York Yankees earrings, a custom-made gift from George Steinbrenner. She often bought the same fabrics being used by top designers for their collections for her made-to-order dresses.
“Because she was so fat, she was not a very socially mobile person, and because she was so fat, she wasn’t likely to attract men as lovers, because you’d have to have a particularly fat guy or someone who is obsessed with fat women to be attracted to her,” said Talese. “She was really a lonely woman except in the restaurant. She had no private life to speak of. Yes, she had a private apartment, and yes she had money, a lot of money. And she owned that building. But her only life was within the dining room.”
That dining room was at capacity Friday night, when an egalitarian crush of regulars and gawkers filed in to pay their respects. Men’s Health editor in chief Dave Zinczenko anchored one of the restaurant’s coveted front-room tables. James Lipton held down another. Alec Baldwin walked in, made a quick a pass through the mob and exited through a side door a few minutes later. The star wattage wasn’t quite as bright as the cultural tourists might have anticipated, but Alex the bartender was perpetually busy, and no one really seemed to care. It was still Elaine’s, after all.
When New York Gov. David Paterson entered the scrum around 10 p.m., he had to relay his bar order — a vodka and cranberry juice with a lime — through Barry Levine, the executive editor of the National Enquirer.
“Here’s to Elaine, governor,” Levine said, raising his glass.