Elaine Kaufman, who ministered to writers and actors, both renowned and obscure, at her Upper East Side restaurant and bar for nearly 50 years, died today (Dec. 3). She was 81.
Known simply as Elaine’s, the haven drew show business and literary notables such as Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, George Plimpton and Jackie Onassis in her post-presidential years when she worked as an editor.
Sidney Lumet, Peter Maas, Eli Wallach, Raquel Welch, Jackie Mason, Billy Dee Williams and Cheryl Tiegs were just some of the celebrities who frequented Elaine’s.
Kaufman died at a Manhattan hospital from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and pulmonary hypertension, according to a statement issued by the restaurant.
She bought the restaurant near the corner of Second Ave. and 88th Street in 1963, after working as a waitress and cafe manager in Greenwich Village for a number of years.
The restaurant was hardly notable for its Italian fare, rather patrons were drawn by Kaufman’s warm, out-sized personality, and her willingness to occasionally lend a hand.
“It offers an ambience of camaraderie that is centered on Elaine herself. She’s the den mother there,” Talese said in 1988.
“It’s like a boarding house: You’ve got the round table, and you don’t need a reservation if you’re a friend of hers.”
The restaurant not only loomed large in the lives of artists, writers, film-makers and actors, but also figured in their work as well.
Woody Allen’s movie “Manhattan” opened in Elaine’s.
“I just don’t know what to say,” Bobby Zarem, a public relations specialist, who knew Elaine for years, told the Associated Press.
“We were best friends and extremely supportive of one another. She was supportive of everybody — especially writers,” he said.
Kaufman opposed the city’s ban on smoking in restaurants and bars in 2003, which changed the bar scene in Manhattan in ways that may have been healthier, but to her were less hospitable.
“In my business, it’s about hospitality,” she wrote in The New York Times.
“We serve people. We like to please. We’d much rather say yes than no. … So what do we have now? Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants us to ban smoking entirely. He wants us to say no to the customers.”