Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Looking for signs of spring

Looking up towards The Empire State Building from 33rd and 6th Avenue. 10:05 PM. Photo: JH.
March 23, 2011. Sunny and cold in New York.
JH was looking for signs of spring in Central Park. Not yet flowering, but the love birds were out.
A couple of weeks ago there was a lot of talk around town about writer Michael Wolff’s “nasty” piece in British GQ on Elaine Kaufman, the recently deceased owner of the legendary Elaine’s.

Many were up in arms over Wolff’s characterization of Elaine as, among other things, a “loud and stupid, uncomprehending woman,” “grotesque, a freak show,” an “odd amusement,” and “gross.” I’m laughing as I type those words out, because I’m reminded of some kid who’s run out of ripostes. I’m thinking of nyah-nyah-ni-nyahnya. Remember making those sounds when you were a kid and couldn’t come up with a degrading retort? That’s what this article is about.

Michael Wolff, whom I do not know, have never met, nor spoken with, but have frequently read, and seen around, is not exactly Mr. Congeniality himself. He’s often got a bone to pick with someone or another who apparently din’t pay him no respect. Mind you, he’s very smart and quite adept at calling the shots especially when there’s dissembling going on. He’s a very good writer with a sensitive perception (and always when it comes to himself). He’s also a bully. He’s even got what my Brooklyn-born Irish father used to call: “the map of a bully.”
I have opinions. So does Elaine (photos by Paige Peterson) ...
In his article, he gives Elaine credit where credit is due. She knew how to hang in there and keep the joint jumping. For almost five decades. In the New York nighttime business, that’s a problem as old as hills, and an Olympian feat when achieved. Furthermore, you can see by reading his piece that he was afraid of Elaine. Probably physically afraid of her. The online piece has a picture of her holding the top of metal trash can about to hurl it in someone’s face. Elaine didn’t mess around when she wanted to make a point (like: geddafugouttahere).

Listen, Elaine could be scary. I’d have probably been afraid of her too if she hadn’t always been so nice to me from day one. Someone once told me that she liked a pretty face on a guy, and I had, for her eyes, a pretty face. I could kind of see what my friend meant – although I never thought of myself as Mr. Prettyface – because Elaine had a girlish side. Despite her powerful girth and tough presence, she could be almost flirtatious around men. She could also throw the bums out if she felt like it, (they asked for it).
Elaine liked to be charmed just as much as the next person, but she had a bullshit-o-meter that was always working super-efficiently. Hers was a tough business for anyone and five times as tough for a woman alone. And she aced it. It wouldn’t have surprised her for one second to hear that Michael Wolff called her a bunch of names in the British GQ. It would have surprised her if he’d shown up at her joint some night after that.

Although she knew damned well he wouldn’t have. She knew how to bully a bully. With her own two hands if need be.

Elaine’s was full of writers because Elaine was one of those people who just loved writers. The way some people love painters or dancers or opera singers. Or rappers. She probably had her major insecurities like most of us and maybe even more than most of us. But she channeled that enormous energy she naturally possessed into a business that she took to like a fish to water.
Her joint was her kid. And her friends were the writers, her family. She was a born-and-bred New Yorker, Brooklyn, with an old time accent that spoke of a neighborhood back when Brooklyn was a neighborhood and not a yuppie condo. She was the child of another age, one or two generations up from the great European migration of the late 19th century.

Hers was a mentality that was succinctly New York, where talent was admired even more than brains (although that helped too). Talent was the ticket. Writers, tickets, a big life; that’s what the girl from Brooklyn got out of being Elaine – this character now being poked by Michael Wolff while in her eternity.

It is true that if you annoyed her, if you were unctuously flattering or rowdy in a troublesome way, she’d throw you out. A friend of mine told me the only time he ever went to Elaine’s, she came up to him and asked him what he was drinking. He told her “a ginger ale.” She told him to “Get the f**k outta here and never come back!” He did and he didn’t.
And yet, the Elaine that her clientele and many friends knew was a friendly, warm, clever woman who loved overseeing her lair and chickens nightly 24/7. She lived around the corner from the place, in a large, comfortable penthouse apartment (smartly done by an interior decorator) just a few steps from Carl Schurz Park and the East River, that reflected a Manhattan sophistication which was also hers. The favored tables across from the bar went to her friends and regulars, or people she admired. But there was no Siberia. It was a relaxed laid back place with longtime bartenders and waiters who knew the customers, knew the score and made everyone feel welcome.

People badmouthed the food (although not within Elaine’s earshot) but Elaine’s wasn’t about the food. It was about the crowd. Although she’d become a living legend, her friends and regulars (often interchangeable) were her Fixed Assets in her business ledger, and she didn’t take them for granted. A guy like Michael Wolff, who has been known to be more than a little touchy himself when it comes to how he’s treated, would have pissed her off. Unless he was also a charmer -- which considering his choice of words in describing the lady, he is not.
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