If information is power, then for more than 40 years now Elaine’s has been one of those New York anomalies where power flows as freely as bourbon, traded among tables of law-enforcement officials, government operatives, corporate executives, show-business types and reporters who, one way or another, disseminate the information to the rest of the city -and sometimes beyond.
Before he died in the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, former F.B.I. agent John O’Neill was a part of that Elaine’s nexus. Like many of the restaurant’s denizens, he struck a high profile with his slicked-back hair and double-breasted suits. Like them, he was no stranger to controversy, at the bureau and in his romantically complex personal life. But he was well respected in the law-enforcement and intelligence communities for his early grasp and relentless pursuit of the Al Qaeda threat, for his knowledge and expertise on Osama bin Laden. On many Monday nights, he could be found having dinner at Elaine’s with an international contact he’d groomed. And when O’Neill’s body was recovered from the rubble of Ground Zero, his wake was held in the restaurant’s back room.
Almost two years after his death, conversations about O’Neill’s exploits-and the ironic circumstances of his fate-are still part of Elaine’s conversational din, as is a story that two of the restaurant’s regulars may have had something to do with Barbara Bodine’s extremely brief stint as the U.S. coordinator for central Iraq in charge of Baghdad.
A no-nonsense career diplomat who worked for Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance and served as deputy chief of mission in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion and occupation in 1990, Ms. Bodine, who is in her mid-50’s, and her boss, retired General Jay Garner, spent a scant three weeks trying to reverse the postwar chaos in Iraq before Paul Bremer, in his suit and combat boots, replaced them. And though the reasons for Ms. Bodine’s departure ran the gamut from “not unexpected” (CNN) to a lack of progress (London’s Daily Telegraph ), the official reason for Ms. Bodine’s recall is elusive. A press spokesman for the State Department referred The Transom to the Department of Defense, where a spokeswoman first said, “I don’t know,” then promised to call back with an answer, but didn’t before press time.
Those familiar with O’Neill remember Ms. Bodine from a previous job, as U.S. ambassador to Yemen at the time of the Oct. 12, 2000, bombing of the U.S.S. Cole . O’Neill was the F.B.I.’s special agent in charge of the National Security Division and a senior agent in the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, and he was put in charge of the investigation. From the start, he and Ms. Bodine knocked heads over the size of the F.B.I. investigative team, how they would be armed and O’Neill’s often-brash style, among other issues. According to accounts, Ms. Bodine didn’t want the search for the bombers to look like a U.S. invasion of Yemen. O’Neill’s sensitivities, meanwhile, were directed toward cracking the case and protecting his team. But in the end, Ms. Bodine won out. After two months in Yemen, O’Neill flew back to the States. When he tried to return to Yemen in January 2001, Ms. Bodine denied his application. According to John Miller, Michael Stone and Chris Mitchellin their book The Cell , O’Neill “became the first FBI agent ever to be banned from a foreign country by his own government. ”
O’Neill’s Yemen experience has been given as one of the reasons he left the bureau for a much-better-paying job as the chief of security for the World Trade Center. He started the job in August 2001.
Steve Jackel didn’t know who John O’Neill was the night in late 2001 when he dined at Elaine’s. But Mr. Jackel, the former president of McCrory Corp. and ShopNBC who now runs his own international consulting firm and dines once a week at the restaurant, noticed the stream of “Secret Service kind of guys” walking into Elaine’s back room. He buttonholed someone and learned that the occasion was a memorial service for John O’Neill.
“And they tell me this very interesting story about this F.B.I. guy, John O’Neill, who was hot on the trail of the terrorists and out of total frustration with his superiors-to get anybody to pay attention to him-resigned from the F.B.I. and took a job at … the World Trade Center and was killed on 9/11,” Mr. Jackel said. “And, you know, a story like that just stays with you.”
A couple of weeks later, Mr. Jackel said his interest in O’Neill intensified when he met John Miller’s mother at Elaine’s and she told him about her son’s new book, The Cell . Mr. Jackel bought a copy and read with particular interest the part that recounts the story of O’Neill and Ms. Bodine clashing in Yemen.
“Who knows what would have happened had he been permitted to come in and continue the investigation,” Mr. Jackel said.
“And I kept saying to myself after I finished the book, ‘I wonder what happens to people like Bodine. Where do they go?'”
Mr. Jackel, 67, got his answer this past spring when, around the time of the fall of Baghdad, he read a newspaper report about Ms. Bodine’s new role in Iraq. “And I go ballistic,” he said.
Mr. Jackel decided to write Gene McCaffery, a good friend of almost 40 years and the guy who had introduced him to Elaine’s. The Bronx-born Mr. McCaffery, 53, is the chief executive of ValueVision, the public company that owns ShopNBC and a man with political, military and law-enforcement connections. He commanded a rifle company in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division, became an civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army during the first Bush administration, serves as a vice president of the New York Law Enforcement Foundation and, for some time, has been involved in state and national politics. He resides in Chicago, Los Angeles and Minneapolis.
“Is Bodine the best we can do for such an important and sensitive position?” Mr. Jackel wrote in an April 7 e-mail to Mr. McCaffery. “Are we to dishonor the memory of a very [courageous] American who was on target in trying to get the government to pay attention to Bin Laden and his thugs prior to 9/11, or will we honor and place into high position an incompetent egotistical bureaucrat who had it all wrong …. ”
“I was really hot,” Mr. Jackel said.
As it turned out, Mr. McCaffery knew O’Neill, too, not from Elaine’s but from Chicago; O’Neill had once worked in the F.B.I. office there. “John was far out in front on terrorism when he was with the F.B.I. and had spoken to me about Osama bin Laden well before [bin Laden’s] notoriety here in America,” Mr. McCaffery wrote The Transom by e-mail.
And when Mr. Jackel and the restaurant’s proprietor, Elaine Kaufman, apprised him of Ms. Bodine’s appointment, “I found myself equally upset,” he wrote. O’Neill, Mr. McCaffrey continued, “was very frustrated about his experiences in Yemen and had felt that it was an important and lost opportunity, primarily as a result of bureaucratic positioning and silliness. John’s tragic and ironic death along with other innocent Americans proved John right and misplaced political sensitivities very wrong.”
And so, Mr. McCaffery added: “Thought I would try and do something about it.”
“Gene took my e-mail and sent it off to some of his friends in Washington,” Mr. Jackel said. Mr. McCaffery declined to name the recipients, but said that they included members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Ms. Bodine departed May 11, just three weeks after she had started. The question, of course, is whether Mr. Jackel’s and Mr. McCaffery’s efforts had anything to do with her departure. After all, her boss, General Garner, didn’t receive good reviews on his stewardship, and she may have just been attached to a clean sweep. Messages left at the State Department for Ms. Bodine were not returned, but here’s Mr. McCaffery’s answer to that question: “It is always difficult to know or understand the inner workings of government,” he wrote, particularly given “the much ballyhooed differences between State and Defense. However, I would say that when I did have the opportunity to speak with a number of our elected officials about the story of John in Yemen, the players and circumstance, they were very interested and pledged further scrutiny.” And Mr. McCaffery added: “I did on one occasion receive a personal note regarding the topic and that it had been looked into, and that action had been taken to remove Barbara Bodine. So, do I think this all had an effect? I think so.”
And Mr. Jackel? “Whether we did have anything to do with it, I don’t know. But I get the feeling in my heart that, in America, one guy can stand up and say something and do something about things. So it made me feel real good.” There was one other thing that Mr. Jackel liked about his tale. “It’s an Elaine’s story,” he said.
Proving once again that nothing screams “old age” as loudly as an attempt to seem younger, Presidential hopeful Bob Graham gave a performance last week that was the political equivalent of getting hair plugs.
On Tuesday, July 29, Mr. Graham addressed a crowd of 250 young professionals who’d packed into Session 73, a bar on First Avenue and 73rd Street, for the Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century’s (DL21C) “Road to the White House” speaker series. But the Florida Senator’s shtick seemed to be geared more for the hip-replacement crowd from his home state than for the hip urbanites who came out to see him.
Mr. Graham opened by asking how many in the crowd knew the musical The Fantasticks . The light smattering of applause that came back to him was a big red flag that the Senator was heading into dangerous territory, but he didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he belted out an excruciating rendition of the turnip verse from “Plant a Radish,” a song from the long-running musical.
Unfortunately, Mr. Graham’s performance didn’t end there. Next he performed the chorus of a song he called “You’ve Got a Friend in Bob Graham” -which included the line, “People from the Atlantic to the Pacific all say he’s terrific!”-and even threatened to do a salsa number, “Arriba Bob,” but didn’t. Perhaps he had noticed that the audience wasn’t laughing with him.
Policy-wise, Mr. Graham should’ve had a pretty easy time pitching himself to the DL21C members, most of whom fall between the ages of 20 and 50 and believe the war in Iraq was a huge mistake. But instead of going after such ripe undecideds, Mr. Graham-when asked by three different members of the audience to explain why he was the candidate who could beat Mr. Bush-chose instead to make jokes about the “Cowboy from Crawford” and vacuous declarations, such as: “We’re going to be running a very aggressive campaign that will be victorious.” And: “You beat George Bush by running right at him.”
Afterwards, Carolyn Saylor, who’s in her 20’s and works as a lab manager at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, told The Transom, “I was not in any way moved by his speech.”
There were some exceptions, like Campbell Gibson, a financial analyst, who said, “I think he’s a serious candidate who was just trying to connect tonight and say, ‘I’m a normal person-I’m real.'” But the group overall seemed to share Lewis Cohen’s assessment: “He’s raised no money, he’s polling among the last three, and he’s making very aggressive comments about impeachment just to get attention. I don’t disagree with him necessarily on the issues, but I don’t believe he’s the candidate.”
Mr. Cohen, a wealth-management consultant in his mid-40’s with a tiny American flag pinned to the lapel of his tailored navy suit, was so sure of himself that he said, “Let me put it this way: If, as a reporter, you only cover the Graham campaign, I think you’ll be looking for a new beat by October.”
The main problem with celebrities is that-save the Olsen twins-there is only one of each. If only Kate Hudson, on top of attending prenatal yoga, coddling her rock-star husband, shooting half a dozen magazine covers and gracing the red carpet at three movie premieres on two coasts, could also appear on Broadway six nights a week, New York would be a much better place.
Fortunately, we ever-resourceful New Yorkers have found a way to harness the talent and appeal of the celebrities we know and love without actually requiring them to be present.
Or even alive.
Take Katharine Hepburn, for one. The late, great Kate was, until May, being played nightly by Kate Mulgrew in Tea at Five at the Promenade Theatre. Of course, there’s also Frank Gorshin as George Burns in Say Goodnight Gracie on Broadway and a randy Gary Coleman doppelgänger, played by a woman, in that Avenue Q puppet show. We can feed our dark side by watching Angelica Torn channel Sylvia Plath at Union Square’s DR2 Theatre, and indulge our hippie-dippy jones checking out the ersatz Mamas and the Papas in Dream a Little Dream of Me at the Village Theatre on Bleecker Street.
And if we’re feeling extra tragic, or just tired and emotional, we can check out Mary Birdsong’s portrayal of Judy Garland at Ars Nova. “It’s like playing Medea-so juicy!”
By the way, Ms. Birdsong doesn’t have the market cornered on Ms. Garland at the moment. The doomed singer is also being portrayed on Broadway in The Boy From Oz , which stars Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen, who married Judy’s daughter, Liza Minnelli. Ms. Minnelli, meanwhile, is the subject of Make Love , a one-woman show at the Fez starring yam-loving Karen Finley. Got that folks?
One of the most eagerly awaited performances at the New York International Fringe Festival, which takes place August 8 to 24, will be given by Christopher Walken-or rather, by Peter Loureiro, a 33-year-old waiter, who will portray the actor in Citizen Walken at The Ground Floor Theatre on West 11th Street. Mr. Loureiro wrote the play after portraying Mr. Walken to much acclaim in last year’s Who Killed Woody Allen? at the Triad.
Mr. Loureiro was calling from a Starbucks. “When I did him in the Woody Allen thing, people immediately got it. He’s such a seemingly odd person that it’s pretty much like a blank check for comedy. His speech pattern is odd, you know?”
In Citizen Walken , the titular hero quits the Hollywood rat race to go to the jungle of Africa to study ferns, not an implausible scenario when you consider that the real Mr. Walken can currently be seen in Gigli .
“But then he’s bitten by a wild monkey, and the play takes place in his mind during a fever-dream state,” explained Mr. Loureiro. “He takes us on a journey through his soul, which is both exhilarating and horrifying. He tap dances and sings, and then he bakes brownies.”
He also has several “spirit guides” who help him review his life. These characters are brought to Fringe life by Chris Wisner, who was Billy Crystal in Who Killed Woody Allen? Here, Mr. Wisner plays Al Pacino – also in Gigli! – and James Lipton.
Mr. Walken did not return the Transom’s calls, but Mr. Loureiro said: “I sent him a copy of the script and have been sending him postcards. And I’ve been standing outside his house going through his garbage every day, so he’s bound to notice me at some point,” Mr. Loureiro said.
By virtue of the character he’s playing, a lot of people should notice Mr. Loureiro and perhaps try to take him home. “We’re obsessed with celebrity,” he said. “We have a certain kind of ownership over them. It’s the kind of thing where, you know, if 3 million people die in the Congo, know one cares, but if J. Lo stubs her toe …. ”
Or makes a movie called Gigli . By the way, Ms. Big Butt is not in this year’s Fringe Festival, and neither is her “fiancé” Ben Affleck. However, he was there last year, being portrayed, along with his Good Will Hunting co-star/screenwriter Matt Damon by women in Matt and Ben , a show that is now playing at P.S. 122. Gwyneth Paltrow and J.D. Salinger both make cameos.
Also at the Fringe this year is Mingus Mingus Mingus, I Am Three , which is a one person show about American jazz great Charles Mingus, starring Karen Kaderavek, a lithe female cello player from Canada. “People who knew Mingus have come up to me after seeing the show, and they’ll say, ‘Wow, that was really scary,'” Ms. Kaderavek said. “You were Mingus.”
While you’re wondering what’s so “fringe” about a bunch plays that are based on the lives of famous people, we bring a bit of bad news. The play The Night Julie Taymor Cried – which is not about her experiences making Frida with Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein – was recently cut from the Fringe’s program. But there’s speculation that it might return next year.
-Anna Jane Grossman