Elaine Kaufman, Whose Manhattan Saloon Nurtured Writers, Dies at 81

Kaufman was declared a Living Landmark by city's Landmarks Conservancy

Dec. 3, 2010— -- The writer Bruce Jay Friedman was sitting at a good table at Elaines -- a bar known for its devoted clientele of writers -- with a lawyer who wanted to read him Proust. Friedman was going to let him proceed, but not before remarking in his considerable baritone, "Proust, that's what people think you are supposed to talk about at Elaine's." He then explained in frank language that all writers really wanted to do was talk about sex.

Elaine Kaufman, 81, and a saloon keeper who gave succor and agita to nearly five generations of the famous and the rest of us -- writers, reporters, detectives, actors, celebrities and celebrated New York characters -- died at Lenox Hill Hospital about a city mile from her Manhattan restaurant.

Friedman, who penned novels, short stories and screenplays including "Splash," "The Lonely Guy" and "Heartbreak Kid," was one of an A List of American authors and actors that included Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Peter Maas and Jim Harrison who made Elaine's Restaurant a second home.

Her table was the place where a writer could sit when even home wouldn't have him, and where you could eat even when your pocket was empty. For most of a year in the 1980s, this writer ran a tab at her insistence. And while he might have feared that pile of green chits could never be repaid, she did not. Besides, she said, where else would you stand a better chance of meeting someone who could hire you.

On a summer night, she could be found until this baseball season with George Steinbrenner in his box at Yankee Stadium. A few of the World Series rings Steinbrenner presented her made a beautiful set of earrings and pendant. And nearly every night, until about a month ago, she could be found in her restaurant moving from table to table, keeping her clients happy, keeping the food coming, keeping the alcohol and soda flowing.

"Elaine was Big Mama and she taught a lot of us how to live in New York: work hard, play hard and always pay the check," said Chris Policano a spokesman for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.

A New York Salonkeeper Known Simply as Elaine

Policano started drinking there right out of college, had his wedding reception there, landed a job as a reporter there and said good-bye to New York when he headed to Washington D.C for his current job.

"There will never be another Elaine, and she will be missed very, very much," Policano said.

The cause of death was complications from emphysema, said Diane Becker, the restaurant's manager who noted that Elaine's will remain open for business with the same hours and same staffing.

Kaufman had been called abrasive, and she could be; irascible, and she was; tough, and she was that, too. But she was also loving, lovely and a reliable sounding board for ideas. In truth, for all the celebrity surrounding her place, if she knew you and liked you, it didn't matter whether you were a struggling musician, a neighborhood butcher or an online poker player, she would always find a seat for you at one of her tables.

The woman who was known simply as Elaine to New York's celebrities was a New York City girl who was raised in Queens and the Bronx and grew up to be a hat check girl and selling cigars at a Greenwich Village political club. She graduated to working in a restaurant and by 1963 bought her own place on an East Side block that was at the time far from the limelight.

Elaine's, however, quickly attracted a following of writers and the restaurant's walls became prized spots for the framed covers of their book jackets. Today, a section of the restaurant's walls are wallpapered with the covers of several hundred books.

The writers were followed by bold faced names that were staples of the tabloid gossip pages, ranging from the D-listed celebs celebrating their 15 minutes of fame to the likes of Mick Jagger and Michael Caine.

While Kaufman reveled in her role as hostess to the famous, she never appeared to be in awe of their notoriety and treated them as graciously or as gruffly as the rest of her customers.

Her was style was considered so quintessentially New York that in 2003, Kaufman was named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.