Cafe Society Kaput! Elaine’s Wonderful Saloon May Be Ready to Close the Book

Last Monday, The Observer shouldered open the door of Elaine Kaufman’s legendary restaurant only to knock into an editor at Vanity Fair whom we knew from college, already drinking martinis with her two friends, an editor at The New Yorker and an editor at Fast Company–the younger generation soaking up whatever ambiance remained of the once beloved haunt. James Woods, the actor, scooped a wedge of bread into olive oil. Patricia Birch, the choreographer, sat nearby.

The woman perched in Elaine’s old seat–a little indentation between the wooden bar and a wall bedecked with newspaper clippings and customers’ drawings–had short red hair and wore a purplish velour shirt. Her arms were thin. From a distance one might mistake her for Diane Keaton.

We ordered a martini and asked if that was Diane Becker, the restaurant’s manager, who’d been running the place since Ms. Kaufman passed away in December at the age of 81.

“You didn’t hear it from me,” the bartender said.

Moments later Ms. Becker rose to join a party at their table, kissed them goodbye and returned to the bar.

“The building is for sale, we’re closing–I’m not sitting around waiting for someone to save it,” she told The Observer. “If that happens, if somebody does that, that’s fine. But that’s not my intent. We’re finished! It’s a financial reality. Grown men waiters can’t go home with $45 in their pockets. You can’t keep putting money into an abyss. All right? All right. Take care.”

Elaine’s is closing tomorrow night, at last call.

A rumor had circulated after Ms. Kaufman’s death that Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, an investor in the Waverly Inn and the Monkey Bar, who claimed to have frequented Elaine’s since his “first week in New York,” was set to snap up control of the famously bookish boîte, the legendary haunt his own joints are trying so desperately to recreate. Word was that Mr. Carter and two like-minded restaurateurs-about-town–Ken Friedman of the Breslin and Ken Aretsky, Mr. Carter’s partner at Monkey Bar–would be the white nights to prop up their beloved Elaine’s at the 11th hour.

Turns out, the editor has thought better of it.

“The partners and I have made no progress,” Mr. Carter told The Observer. “I know for Ken and myself it was really a matter of geography. If you live downtown [Mr. Carter resides in Greenwich Village], 89th and Second Avenue is really a serious hike and, ultimately, that was the deciding factor.”

Also, Mr. Carter readily admits he can’t match the den-mother ferocity of the place’s namesake. “God knows I look good in a muumuu, but I don’t think anyone could fill Elaine’s shoes,” Mr. Carter said.

Just who was this woman who could knock around Mick Jagger and once heaved a garbage pail at Ron Gallela when she felt the paparazzo was harassing her customers?

“She was the last of the really street-wise gypsies!” author A.E. Hotchner told The Observer on the phone from his house in Westport, Conn. The writer, who wrote Papa Hemingway while subsisting on bar tabs comped by Elaine, is currently 90 years young.

“There was a time when I had a few personal bumps at the same time and she sat down–she knew instinctively–and she says, ‘We gotta talk. I don’t like the way you look.’ She took two hours and could get inside me.”

Even Mr. Hotchner–the guy who literally wrote the book on Elaine’s, Everyone Comes to Elaine’s–has been met with the busy signals that have greeted most callers since the announcement of its closing a week ago. The phone is not disconnected. Patrons from the past 50 years have just been calling day and night, snatching up nearly every reservation left until the end.

Mr. Hotchner isn’t a sentimentalist about this stuff, though. For him it’s over. He and his friend Gay Talese flirted with getting together “a group of alumni” to buy back the place, but then they too had a change of heart. Mr. Hotchner ate dinner there the night before Kaufman died, and that was it.

“I don’t want to go back on Thursday, there’s no point,” he told The Observer. “I don’t want to see the restaurant lock its doors. I’ve already locked the doors to the restaurant.”

Or, as Ms. Becker told us, “The truth is, there is no Elaine’s without Elaine.”

So is this it, then? Neal Sroka, the broker at Prudential Douglas Elliman charged with the unenviable task of selling the place, told The Observer that “over a dozen” potential buyers are currently in the mix. If there’s a sucker for nostalgia among them, perhaps the city’s literary wits and political kings will once again have a cozy setting for their nightly games of musical chairs.

Of course, the city has flipped plenty of pages on its social history and will flip many more.

“Everybody has their own memories of Elaine’s,” Mr. Carter said. “Everybody has their own Elaine’s in their heads.”


Cafe Society Kaput! Elaine’s Wonderful Saloon May Be Ready to Close the Book