Good Night, Sweet Restaurateur: Warner LeRoy Made City Into Oz

The majestic stained-glass windows of Temple Emanu-El called to mind the Tiffany glass ceilings of Maxwell’s Plum and the Russian Tea Room, but on the morning of Feb. 26, there was little else to cheer the soul. There were no mirrored walls, chandeliers or Christmas lights, only somber carved stone. And instead of the reassuring clink of champagne glasses and the warm tones of the human voice, there was only an unsettling hush–a quiet that seemed impossible, given the hundreds of people who sat in the congregation.

Anyone who has spent some time here will tell you that this city is capable of great brooding silences; moments when the price–both real and psychic–of living in Gotham confounds and exhausts us. When these passages occur, we sleepwalk, like depressives, cursing and muttering at the urban minutiae that mire down our lives.

And then, inevitably, someone comes along who shows us that we’ve got it all wrong. Usually an outsider, he is a man unafraid of both success and failure; a man who will just focus on the fact that New York is the center of the universe.

Warner LeRoy was that kind of man. Larger than life and cloaked in velvet or brocade, he was “the Toots Shor and Sherman Billingsley of our era,” said Mr. LeRoy’s friend Phil Suarez, the co-owner of such restaurants as Jean Georges and Vong.

Just as Billingsley’s Stork Club served as a shiny diversion from Depression-era New York, Mr. LeRoy convinced Manhattanites that we were sexy, fun and swinging when the rest of the world wanted to dump our ass. The Stork closed in 1965. Mr. LeRoy opened his singles emporium Maxwell’s Plum in 1966, just as the city was beginning its slide into fiscal ruin, and then unveiled his extravagantly refurbished Tavern on the Green in 1976, when Central Park was little more than a regular punch line in Johnny Carson’s monologue.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Mr. LeRoy put a brave showman’s face on the surface of the city’s desperate economic condition. He urged us to live richly, and true to his Hollywood origins, he gave us visuals that allowed us to suspend disbelief. His establishments acted as beacons that attracted the diverse members of the city’s ambitious population. And in these hothouse environments they worked, played, mingled and flirted, and formed a power structure that is still in place today.

And now, many members of that power structure sat in silence at the Feb. 26 memorial service for Mr. LeRoy, who died on Feb. 22, at age 65, of complications from lymphoma.

Yoko Ono, who used to dine at Tavern on the Green with her husband John Lennon, sat with her son, Sean, and Rolling Stone owner Jann Wenner. NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw sat near the rear of the congregation. ABC’s Barbara Walters was also present, as were 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley, journalist Carl Bernstein, Sony chairman Howard Stringer, socialite Amanda Burden, former financier Saul Steinberg, Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, publicist Peggy Siegal, art dealer Arne Glimcher and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels.

The restaurant world turned out, too. Mr. Suarez and his wife Lucy were there. So were Patroon owner Ken Aretsky, Café des Artistes owner George Lang, Nobu and Tribeca Grill co-owner Drew Nieporent, Le Cirque 2000 co-owner Sirio Maccioni and even John Moylan, who had worked as Tavern’s doorman for “24 years and three months”, as he put it, until he injured his knee.

They sat in the temple and stared in grief and disbelief at the coffin that was covered in a shell of gorgeous flowers. And over and over, up on the podium and out on the street, they kept saying they couldn’t believe that a man whose name had become inextricably linked with the phrase “larger than life” was no longer among them.

For the people in the congregation, New York without Mr. LeRoy was a concept that would take getting used to. Indeed, as real estate developer Marshall Rose told the crowd: “It’s hard to remember parts of Manhattan pre-Warner …. First and Second Avenues were deserted at night before he created Maxwell’s Plum.” Maxwell’s Plum was the playground of tennis ace Jimmy Connors and hockey player Wayne Gretzky, and it was a place where the staff coined the phrase “dinner hookers” to describe the women who would hang out at the bar every night in hopes of being invited to dine at some bachelor’s table.

Mr. Lang told The Transom that around 1963, Mrs. Janklow, who was a press agent at the time, called Mr. Lang, who was in charge of new projects at Restaurant Associates, and said: “George, I have the most wonderful brother who wants to get into the restaurant business and would like to see you. Please talk him out of it.”

Within minutes, Mr. Lang said, “I felt that in spite of the fact he spent his life in theaters and movie studios, he had this seventh sense about restaurants.” Mr. Lang asked Mr. LeRoy where he’d had his first great meal. The aspiring restaurateur replied that when he was 12, he had dined at Restaurant de la Pyramide in Vienne near Lyon, France, with his mother, the Ali Khan and Rita Hayworth. “He said, ‘George, that’s the first time I realized that food can be great, and at least as entertaining as show business.” This also impressed Mr. Lang, because, he explained, at the time La Pyramide was an influential restaurant for culinary trends.

In explaining the restaurant that would eventually become Maxwell’s Plum, Mr. LeRoy told Mr. Lang that he envisioned a place that had “‘the clubbiness of 21 and the casualness of P.J. Clarke’s.’ And he said, ‘If I can combine this, maybe a third format will come out which perhaps will capture the essence of the new casual lifestyle.’”

Eventually, Mr. Lang said he heard what Mr. LeRoy planned to call his restaurant. “I said, ‘How did you come up with the name?’ And he said, ‘I got together with a couple of friends for a brainstorming session, and after a couple of dogs I chose Maxwell’s Plum.’” Mr. Lang remembered that two of the so-called dogs were “Shanghai Hippopotamus” and “Silver Cherry.”

Mr. Rose told the Temple Emanu-El congregation, “When our family moved back to the city in the early 70′s, Central Park was a place that you entered at your own peril.” But then, “Warner struck again, taking over and re-creating and taking over Tavern on the Green with an imagination and originality that dwarfed his competitors.”

And Tavern on the Green, which Mr. LeRoy opened in 1976, was like a mirrored multiplex onto which the pageantry of this city was projected daily. Mr. Nieporent, who worked at both Maxwell’s Plum and Tavern, told The Transom that he has vivid memories of both places. At the opening-night party for Richard Rodgers’ I Remember Mama , he remembered watching actress Liv Ullmann dissolve into tears after hearing the bad reviews of the play. And at a movie premiere–he thinks it was Absence of Malice –Paul Newman asked him how he could leave the restaurant without running the gantlet of reporters a second time. Moments after, he remembered Mr. Newman hopping a fence into Central Park and disappearing.

“Warner was audacious. He did everything in a big way,” said Mr. Nieporent, who salvaged the Maxwell’s Plum bar and installed it at Tribeca Grill, including the electronic toteboard that used to tell patrons at the singles joint when their table was ready.

Then again, Mr. LeRoy did not come from humble beginnings. His father was Wizard of Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy, and his mother was Doris Warner, the daughter of Harry Warner, one of the four Warner Brothers who founded the studio where his father directed.

“I used to tell people that Warner’s middle name really should have been Brothers,” screenwriter Peter Stone told the Temple Emanu-El crowd. The crowd laughed at this, and they laughed even more when Mr. Stone recounted the story, which he said Mr. LeRoy never denied, that “when he was quite young, his parents brought someone to the house to give him tree-climbing lessons.”

The author and editor Michael Korda met Mr. LeRoy when they both attended the same school in Switzerland. Mr. Korda said that at that point in their lives, “I was quite fat and Warner was very thin. As a result, Warner and I in later years always used to look at each other as if we had somehow exchanged personae, to make out what had happened.”

Another childhood friend of Mr. LeRoy’s who spoke at the memorial was Coco Brown, a real estate investor who had known Mr. LeRoy since he was 1 year old. Mr. Brown, the son of the late actress Sally Eilers and the film producer Harry Joe Brown, described his and Mr. LeRoy’s rarefied Hollywood childhood as “a special, rare, strange world, a lost world.

“My earliest, most vivid memory of my childhood and of Warner,” Mr. Brown said, occurred on a day when Mr. LeRoy and he were playing by the pool at Mr. Brown’s house. “I was joking around and I said, ‘Oh Warner, you’re such a bad boy.’ And to my astonishment and dismay, Warner burst into tears.” Mr. LeRoy was inconsolable, and eventually his nanny had to take him home. And Mr. Brown said he spent a long time afterward wondering “how I could have hurt somebody I thought was my best friend. And I always remembered that Warner had this secret vulnerability, this extremely sensitive nature, although he was no softy.”

Mr. Brown said that, in recent years, they became very close again. “Now we found ourselves with different lives in the Hamptons,” Mr. Brown said. “And Warner had recreated, in a funny way, the lost world of our childhood.”

On a recent birthday, Mr. Brown said that Mr. LeRoy “had some blips, as I did, on his health screen and couldn’t make it to my birthday party.” Instead, he sent over a “brace” of “over-the-top” Venetian champagne glasses with a note that said: “Let’s keep toasting.”

On the phone later, Mr. Brown told Mr. LeRoy, “I love you, Warner.” And Mr. LeRoy replied in kind. “It was the first time that we had ever said that to each other, and I found myself weeping after the conversation,” Mr. Brown said.

“It was like we had come full circle from the day at the pool,” Mr. Brown continued. And he said that Mr. LeRoy had “a child’s heart, naïve and loving. The great thing about Warner was that he never stopped loving.”

Mr. Stone met Mr. LeRoy in the mid-50′s. Mr. LeRoy opened a theater, the New York Playhouse, and staged a number of “important plays by distinguished playwrights.” But then, he said, Mr. LeRoy got “an incredible idea …. Why couldn’t a restaurant be as entertaining as a Broadway show?”

Mr. Stone also talked about one of Mr. LeRoy’s less spectacular ideas: “Warner received a tip that he should buy egg futures,” Mr. Stone said. He was invited in on the deal. “The trouble was that neither of us knew anything at all about the futures market. We bought what we thought was a modest number of contracts, which turned out to be 23 million dozen eggs. They were September eggs, and since it was only July, it meant that the eggs had not been laid yet.” Then, alluding to his and Mr. LeRoy’s wild bachelor days, Mr. Stone said: “Warner and I both had a great deal of empathy for anything that hadn’t been laid yet.”

Mr. LeRoy’s daughter Jennifer, who is expected to follow in his footsteps, wore one of Mr. LeRoy’s bright, spangled jackets. She quoted from Shakespeare’s King Lear , using to better purpose Goneril’s words to her father: “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter; / Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty; / Beyond what can be valu’d, rich or rare; / No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour; / As much as child e’er lov’d, or father found; / A love that makes breath poor and speech unable; / Beyond all manner of so much I love you.”

Then she said, “He is my idol, my mentor, my guide, my father and now my guardian angel. He always said, ‘The show must go on and the curtain must go up.’”

Last up to the podium at Temple Emanu-El was Mr. LeRoy’s sister Linda, who said that when she looks out of her apartment window at the twinkling lights of Tavern on the Green, “I find them both comforting yet painful. A life force is gone from this city and from our lives.” The life force that focused us and cheered us when the city was on its knees had departed, and now the silence was deafening.

“The Almighty is now my brother’s keeper,” Mrs. Janklow said. “As you drive through the park he loved so much, I hope you will think, ‘Warnie, you’re a star.’”

Earlier, Mr. LeRoy’s oldest daughter, Bridget LeRoy, had remembered a story that her father often told about being on the set of The Wizard of Oz when he was 4 years old and watching everybody skip down the Yellow Brick Road over and over again and deciding, “Well, you know, I’m gonna do that.” But when Mr. LeRoy tried it, he crashed into the backdrop. “And he would always end that story by saying, ‘That is when I learned the difference between fantasy and reality.’ But we all know that he never learned that difference and that was what made him so wonderful.”

According to Ms. LeRoy, another one of her father’s quirks emerged whenever a friend would die. Mr. LeRoy would send flowers “with a note that simply said, ‘Have a nice trip.’”

And that is how Ms. LeRoy, with a catch in her voice, said farewell to her father. “I just want to say that Dad, wherever you are today, I hope that there are no more backdrops to crash into. We love you so much. Have a great trip.”

Fear and Rambling

It’s no surprise that Hunter S. Thompson, the grandfather of gonzo journalism, isn’t shy about expressing himself in epistolary form. After all, the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author recently published Fear and Loathing in America , a collection of Mr. Thompson’s letters from 1968 to 1976.

But any business letter that begins “Okay, you lazy bitch,” is a stand-out, even if it comes from the man who was the inspiration for Doonesbury ‘s abrasive Uncle Duke.

Mr. Thompson wrote the letter from his home in Woody Creek, Colo., on Jan. 22, 2001. The “lazy bitch” in question is Holly Sorenson, senior vice president of production for the New York-based independent film company, Shooting Gallery, which this year produced the Oscar-nominated You Can Count On Me .

Shooting Gallery owns the option for The Rum Diary , Mr. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel about expat journalists in Puerto Rico, and is currently developing the project for the screen–but apparently not quickly enough for Mr. Thompson’s taste.

In Mr. Thompson’s letter, which was first revealed Feb. 20 on the movie Web site Ain’t It Cool News , the author has scratched his own name at the top, underlining words for emphasis. (Mr. Thompson’s underlined words are italicized here.)

“I’m getting tired of this waterhead fuckaround that you’re doing with The Rum Diary ….” Mr. Thompson wrote. “It’s like the whole Project got turned over to Zombies who live in cardboard boxes under the Hollywood Freeway …. I seem to be the only person who’s doing anything about getting this movie made . I have rounded up Depp, Benecio del Toro, Brad Pitt, Nick Nolte & a fine screenwriter from England named Michael Thomas.”

Dissatisfied with the pace of development, especially given his own casting contributions, Mr. Thompson asks, “What the hell do you think Making a Movie is all about? Nobody needs to hear any more of that Gibberish about yr. New Mercedes & yr. Ski Trips & how Hopelessly Broke the Shooting Gallery is …. If you’re that fucking Poor you should get out of the Movie Business …. Fuck This. We have a good writer, we have the main parts casted & we have a very marketable movie that will not even be Hard to make.”

He labels Ms. Sorenson “a goddamn bystander, making stupid suggestions & jabbering now & then like some half-bright Kid with No Money & No Energy & no focus except on yr. own tits …. I’m sick of hearing about … yr. Yo-Yo partners who want to change the story because the violence makes them feel queasy.

“Shit on them,” Mr. Thompson writes.

And then, rather obliquely, “I’d much rather deal with a Live asshole than a Dead worm with No Light in his Eyes …. If you people don’t want to Do Anything with this movie, just cough up the Option & I’ll talk to somebody else. The only thing you’re going [to] get by quitting & curling up in a Fetal position is relentless Grief and Embarrassment. And the one thing you won’t have is Fun ….”

Mr. Thompson then pulls himself together for a succinct close. “Okay, that’s my Outburst for today. Let’s hope that it gets Somebody off the dime. And if you don’t Do Something QUICK you’re going to Destroy a very good idea.” The final line of the letter, just in case Ms. Sorenson was still unclear about Mr. Thompson’s state of mind, reads “I’m in a mood to chop yr. fucking hands off.”

It’s signed “R.S.V.P., Hunter” and his initials are scrawled over the signature line. At the bottom, Mr. Thompson has scribbled a “cc” list. The letter went to Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Nick Nolte and B. Monkey screenwriter Michael Thomas, all of whom were mentioned in the letter as connected to The Rum Diary . But while he was at it, Mr. Thompson fired off copies to a smattering of friends and colleagues whose connection to the project is tenuous at best. Mr. Nolte’s partner in Kingsgate Films, Greg Shapiro; Mr. Thompson’s friend, legal advisor and President Clinton’s former National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger; Mr. Thompson’s editor, Doug Brinkley; and actor John Cusack all received their own souvenir copies of the note.

Mr. Thompson seemed pretty pleased with himself when The Transom got in touch with him at his Owl Farm in Colorado to confirm the veracity of the letter. “What’d you think of that letter?” he asked proudly.

He reiterated his frustration with Hollywood’s development hell. “I don’t like the molasses-like pace in Hollywood, where you take a million lunches before anything gets done.”

But a month after sending the letter, Mr. Thompson had only warmth for Ms. Sorenson. “Not everybody would take that letter with any real grace and humor,” he said. “But she called me after that and said I’m the only person who could write her hate mail and make her smile. I like her.”

Indeed, Ms. Sorenson seemed pretty chill about the exchange. She said that work on The Rum Diary is proceeding apace, and that she’s very excited about the project. As for Mr. Thompson’s phone calls, she said she would return them faster “if Hunter didn’t insist on calling me at 3 a.m.”

–Rebecca Traister