I was just another Joe when I ventured into Elaine’s for the first time 10 years ago, thrilled to finally enter my version of Graceland, the Upper East Side clubhouse of Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, and George Plimpton, not to mention Keith Hernandez, George Steinbrenner and several members of “The Sopranos,” including my Bergen County goombah, Vince (“Johnny Sac”) Curatola. Most of all, I’d hoped to see the proprietress, Elaine Kaufman. Imagine my shock when SHE came up and introduced herself.
We exchanged “hellos,” nods or waves several other nights after that. But that one evening etched a smile on my soul that remains indelible.
I was sitting at the Second Avenue end of the 25-foot-long mahogany bar, my back nearly touching the window on which her first name was etched beautifully in cursive, when the Runyonesque fireplug arose from her table and made a proverbial beeline toward me.
I can still remember the catch I felt in my throat. This was THE Elaine Kaufman, born and raised in the city of immigrants — by parents who’d come from Russia — onetime friend of Jackie O and Jackie Gleason, of Francis Albert Sinatra and Woody Allen (who happened to live in the neighborhood and filmed a scene from “Manhattan” there), of Nora Ephron and Mike Nichols and the ever-dandy Tom Wolfe, of Simone de Beauvoir and Mikhail Baryshnikov, among so many luminaries.
Yes, luminaries.Jerry DeMarco Publisher/Editor
Indeed, this pint-sized saloonkeeper was a luminary herself: Before Cher, Madonna, or Prince, before being known by a single name was caché, there was Elaine.
And despite the love she showed her extended family, she was as tough as any velvet-rope doorman when it came to gawkers — including some she’d personally bounced herself.
“You tried the veal chop yet?” she asked me, in a tough-broad voice at severe odds with her bright-print muumuu and porthole specs.
“No,” I said.
(One-word answers work best when you’re tongue-tied.)
“You should,” she said.
Then she asked about me, said she was glad I felt comfortable (without ever referring to it as her joint), and just as quickly returned to a chair directly in the path that any man at the bar had to take to the bathroom.
A couple nights later, seated at a table by myself, I finished my first mouthful of veal as tender as the heart of the woman who recommended it. After opening my eyes, I looked up. Across the room I could see the doyenne, watching.
I gave her the “OK” sign. She smiled and went back to her conversation, animated as ever.
I’d passed the audition.
Both brusque and beloved, Elaine Edna Kaufman died from emphysema and hypertension Friday at Lenox Hill Hospital after spending half of her 81 years running what could have been an exclusive bistro as if it were a local pub.
Behind her, she leaves a legend and a legacy unmatched in her profession. She also leaves a very warm spot in the heart of a man she made feel as important as any luminary.