Not so long ago or far away, the 1% weren’t just defined by money. They had style, not stylists. They didn’t use social media to prove social worth. They even planned their own parties. And they partied at Mortimer’s.
Its proprietor, Glenn Bernbaum, kept the good times flowing. His watering hole was more exclusive than any private club. Documentary filmmaker Robin Baker Leacock has memorialized those days in the coffee table tome, Mortimer’s … Moments in Time. It has Mary Hilliard’s vibrant photos, former Maitre d’ Robert Caravaggi’s preface and our own David Patrick Columbia’s foreword.
A recent book party for it, at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, brought out the old gang — who were young at the time. They streamed into Ted Conklin’s back rooms and greeted each other with the familiarity that comes from years socializing together in mahogany paneled private rooms and grand galas.
They had been brought to Mortimer’s, awestruck, in their 20s, they all told me. And they stayed ’til the final curtain.
It seems to have been a more glamorous time. “People always look back with fond memories of their youth,” Robin mused. That disclaimer out of the way, she allowed: “We were celebrating being alive, out in New York City. We talked to everyone. And we didn’t ask what you did for a living or your politics. I think Glenn was a lot more open than portrayed. If you didn’t take yourself too seriously and had a great sense of humor, you could join in the fun.
“Of course, I remember Diana Vreeland at the window table, looking around the room and Anthony Quinn, at his table. But, it was really just one big room.”
Candace Bushnell also started going as a young New York newbie. “Probably the first time I went was with George Plimpton,” she told me. “Then, I would go with Christina Oxenberg to all the book parties, where we got free drinks and food!
“Then, the New York Observer became a little obsessed with Mortimer’s. They had fake gossip columnists call up Glenn Bernbaum to torture him with stuff they made up like: we hear there was a socialite in a baby pool in the kitchen! That was the Observer!”
Bushnell will bring her one woman show to the Carlisle in April. ”I still like going out,” she says. “Everybody in New York has something interesting to say … for me, more interesting than Netflix.”
Carole Holmes McCarthy’s first time? “I was 22 years old, invited with my mother, Arlene Dahl, and Mark Rosen for dinner — and totally excited. Every celebrity you can think of was there: Joan Collins, Burt Bacharach. After that, I went twice a week. It was like a family club. That was a big thing for me because I was young and didn’t have a lot of money. But, I knew some people and it made me feel good.”
Lilliana Cavendish went there in the afternoon for tea and sandwiches … with Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. “They liked to go around 2:30 or 3, after all the ladies left. It was pretty empty and people would leave you in peace,” she told me. “Mick loved the burgers. He was English, so he liked that it was cheap.” But, if you think they were drinking at that hour, you’ve got the wrong Stone. “They were very health conscious.” She and Jerry were old friends. “She’s a super normal girl and very, very nice. That’s what he liked about her. She’s a homebody and a great cook. She brought me to the Silver Palate in our neighborhood to get their soda bread.”
And Glenn? “He was sort of naughty and scary to me, maybe because I was a kid,” Lilly laughed. OG’s Nan Kempner, Anne Slater, Lynn Wyatt were less scary. “They had class, style — and they were nice.”
All one of a kinds. “Creative individualism was celebrated,” said Leacock. By that, she meant, personality and presentation, not politics. “They were people who didn’t structure their life around work, but on living to the fullest.”
She had always wanted to document that moment in time. It all came together one night at Swifty’s at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach. “Christina Oxenberg and I told Robert Caravaggi about the plan. He said that Glenn had left him a box of momento’s: menus, original reservation books, private notes. Then, I spoke to my friend Mary Hilliard. She still had ALL the photos she had shot for Bernbaum, just sitting there. I also really wanted to do a poetry book.” Leacock bundled them as a package deal.
She put the coffee table book together in much the same way as her five documentary films: “It Girls,” “A Passion For Giving”, “I’ll Take Manhattan,” “Stella is 95” and “Stella & Co: A Romantic Musical Comedy About Aging.”
Robert Caravaggi has put his restaurants (Swifty’s now in Palm Beach) together in much the same way he learned from Glenn. Start with the crowd. The rest will follow. Still, Caravaggi was to the manor born. His father owned (the grand restaurant) Quo Vadis. Robert was working his way around the family business when Bernbaum offered the maitre d’ position at Mortimer’s.
It was a big step for the 24-year-old. “But, my dad said ‘You can do it,’” Caravaggi told me. “We had the same customers, so it was a natural transition, but, a radically different kitchen.” And decor. “It was a saloon. Just the one room, brick walls, wooden floors and milk lights like you saw in public schools.”
Robert has been the front man for the right crowd ever since. “People liked me and I like people. So, once I got over being shy — which I never completely did, really — it all worked out. And I became the good cop. Glenn and I had many disagreements, but we basically really got along. He was a tough guy to work for. But, we were accomplishing a lot. Early in the ’80s, I left and went back to my father for a while. But, then, Glenn came to me with good terms, so I returned. Quo Vadis was eventually going to close and I wanted to go on with the same clientele.”
It was, in fact, Robert, who made the final calls when Glenn died suddenly in his apartment upstairs. The first call was to his lawyer, Aaron Richard Golub, who arrived, as per the will, to padlock the place. The restaurant died with Glenn. Then, Robert called their storied clientele. With their support, a year later, Caravaggi and Mortimer’s chef Stephen Attoe opened Swifty’s, down the street.
“We had investors,” Caravaggi continued. But the costs were low. “Mario Buatta and Anne Eisenhower helped us decorate without sending a major bill.” The twin burgers, meatloaf, crab cakes and millionaire’s bacon remained.
Swifty’s had a 17-year run. Then, Stephen became a private chef. And Robert took a year to help wife Blaine Merritt Caravaggi launch her business from their Hudson Valley home. Called Off the Wheat (https://offthewheat.com), it’s a line of sweet and savory, gluten free (and keto) farm-to-table goodies. “It’s becoming very successful,” Robert said with pride. “She always baked and wanted to create her own cuisine. But we had no idea what an amazing chef she could be. Now, she has a menu of 30 items, a commercial kitchen and staff.” And she keeps expanding. It’s in Blaine’s blood as well: The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and Merritt’s Beaten Biscuit Company are her family.
Robert barely had a year, when Chris Meigher called. “He was in contact with Sarah Wetenhall. She and husband Andrew had just purchased the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach and they wanted to bring in a New York restaurant with clout.” Successful since day one, a reservation to Swifty’s by the Pool is coveted currency for everyone from Old Palm Beach to young Wall Street. Tom Whitaker is the English expat chef. Colony General Manager Bruce Seigel completes the happy family.
I reminded Robert of my Swifty’s story: One night, I brought Michelle Phillips there. “Oooh, I love this place,” she cooed. We polished off our mandatory bottle of red, while Robert chatted us up. Evening over, I grabbed my coat. No ticket had been required. I had one foot in the taxi, when I looked down and realized … THIS WAS NOT MY FUR!!! We ran back to find an unhappy coatless woman.
“At least you got yours back,” Caravaggi told me. “ One night at Mortimer’s, a coat thief walked off with a full length sable that belonged to a Saudi Arabian princess. I was obviously distraught. The princess looked at me and said, ’Oh darling, don’t worry about it,’ laughed and left without a second thought. And that was Mortimer’s!”