Returning to The Corner Table

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Rain clouds passing over Central Park. Photo: JH,

Monday, August 7, 2023. A beautiful weekend in New York with temps in the upper 70s and not much humidity that you’d notice.  Also very quiet people-wise; as if everybody was out of town. Lots of empty parking spaces on residential blocks. They fill up by late Sunday evening. 

Today’s Diary reminds me of a killer-diller biography of a character you could only find in Hollywood or in a movie. What a life; proof of good will reigning in the toughest of times.

I took these pictures late Friday afternoon.
This is a common sight in the city now: people gathering aluminum and plastic to turn in for a few cents a piece. What first looked to some people like homeless people exploring trash for anything they could find, now looks like entrepreneurial people looking for a way to earn some money. These people are workers. They are not jobless because they created something themselves; simple perhaps but necessary and self-respecting, and no waiting around.

As this burgeoning business is obviously growing, thanks to the economic situation that a lot of people are still unaware of, I’m seeing a change in the self-presentation of the “collectors.” This man, for example, was very well dressed. His work clothes were pressed and clean. His shoes were clean and new. He was wearing his prosperity. He worked methodically, quickly, although not carelessly. He had two different receptacles that he was filling.

The other day, just around the corner, one late afternoon as I was taking the dogs for their quickie down by the river, I passed a young woman, possibly Hispanic, very petite and pretty, and looking almost too young to be with two young daughters (probably ages 5 – 7). The woman was standing amidst the dozens of plastic disposal bags from my building, set out for the Sanitation truck to remove.

In the meantime she was going through the bags in the same orderly way as the man in the pictures. She too was impeccably (yes, impeccably) turned out in neat, fresh looking jeans and top. Her hair was neatly pulled back and tied with a pink ribbon. The children were neatly and freshly dressed also, and clearly had a good time playing with their dolls with their mother nearby.

JH spotted this man on 10th Avenue reading the paper, surrounded by his collection.

She saw me looking at the scene as she was going about her work and quietly smiled a hello as I passed. I hadn’t wanted her to see me looking, obviously. This was my problem. She didn’t mind. Her daughters, to me, reflected this woman’s place. She will find a way; that’s what she does. And low employment collecting trash for redemption pennies is as respectable as anything to the human spirit. This is the spirit that will lead out of calamity. These two people have it.

The garden at midnight getting a spritz.

We’re going into somewhat of a vacation mode here on the NYSD. JH and I first published the NYSD on September 25, 2000, so we are coming up to our 23rd birthday. It was a much simpler web publication and of course the web itself, despite its complexity was almost primitive compared to today.

We went back into our archives to see what those early diaries were like, to see if there were any interesting pieces that our newer readers hadn’t seen. It was a lot like going through old family photo albums. For today’s Diary we are re-running one published on March 21, 2001 —  our seventh month in business.

The piece is a review of the book The Corner Table, by Kurt Niklas. Niklas was a Los Angeles restaurateur who died 14 years ago at age 83. In his heyday he owned two of the most popular restaurants in Beverly Hills — the Bistro and the Bistro Garden. The Bistro, the first of the two, was the nearest thing to a private club in movieland. Its original investors in the 1960s were the biggest names in Hollywood. It was the destination for the A-crowd.

Sounds like an interesting story, no? No. This book was not the story of a restaurant but of an amazing life story of a German boy, illegitimate, son of a married Jewish businessman and a working girl, who worked in a hotel in Berlin as a young boy, serving the Nazi leaders including Hitler. It’s a real Hollywood story, a lifting of the curtain, into the grit behind the glamorous world of Beverly Hills and Hollywood, the one captured in American literature by Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler.

The book was privately published. Why it couldn’t find a publisher is a mystery, considering its sensational aspects. It was never a bestseller and was hard to find even at the time it came out. I looked for it recently on Amazon. They have a few “used” copies ranging in price from $29 to $129.

Published 3.21.01: I Finished a Riveting Page Turner about Nazi Germany, Hollywood Stars, Mobsters, Politicians and the Restaurant Business —

The preface of this fascinating can’t-put-down book is a quote from Marcel Proust:

“In rich society friendships do not amount to much ….”

The Corner Table by Kurt Niklas as told to Larry Cortez Hamm.

Kurt Niklas is a famous restaurateur in Hollywood, for years the proprietor of two fabulously successful restaurants, The Bistro and the Bistro Garden, both of which, after a run of four decades are no longer in business. The Bistro, which came first, had original investors including Billy Wilder (who inspired and encouraged the venture), Jack Lemmon, Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Jack Warner, Otto Preminger, Swifty Lazar, Alfred Bloomingdale, Frank Sinatra, George Frelinghuysen, Jerry Ohrbach and Sidney Korshak, who was known to be the most powerful man in Hollywood.

For years, Niklas, who had emigrated from his native Germany after the Second World War, was rumored to be an ex-Nazi who had worked as a waiter to Hitler. And in his chosen community, with its large Jewish population (and his clientele), the rumor was never quelled, and toward the end of his career, proved to be an albatross.

The truth was that Niklas was what was called in Nazi Germany, a mischling, half-Jewish (his father), who from childhood had to maneuver very shrewdly to avoid the wrath of the Nazis and anti-Semites. His mother and father were never married. The father, Siegfried Levi, was a traveling salesman (with a wife and family) whose relationship with Kurt’s mother Resl was maintained only while he was traveling. He had no part in rearing the child, nor for that matter, did the boy’s mother.

The boy was pawned off on relatives (some of whom didn’t want him because he was considered a Jew by them) until the mother finally placed him in an orphanage when he was eight years old. The orphanage was a relief for the child because he had “shoes without holes in the soles,” a warm bed, and warm meals. The strict work ethic of the orphanage, fortunately, was compatible with the boy’s personality.

10-year-old Kurt with mother Resl and sister Helen. The boy had been living in an orphanage until a few weeks before this picture was taken. It was only on release that he learned he had a sister.

He tells the story of how the children were given potatoes to peel every day. The nuns required an exactness in peeling that did not waste anything but the skins. The child who finished his pile first and most efficiently was given a prize: one cookie. The prize motivated the boy and he won it nearly every time. Ironically, he was also beginning preparation for a lifelong career.

His mother took him out of the orphanage when he was ten, at which time he learned he also had a younger sister (also Mr. Levi’s child) Helen, whom the mother had been rearing in the same vagabond manner. The mother, besides being physically and verbally abusive to her children, was a strict disciplinarian who never (according to Niklas) showed any tenderness or caring towards her children, except to take whatever steps she could to conceal their Jewish heritage.

When the boy was ten or twelve, his mother, having lost contact with her lover, showed the child where his father lived in Berlin. She instructed him to go to the house, identify himself and ask where the father was. He was met at the door by his father’s legal wife who seemed to know who he was. She told him that his father was gone, dead, killed by the Gestapo before he could be deported to the concentration camps.

The Winter Garden at the Hotel Esplanade in Berlin.

By his early teens, the boy was apprenticed as a waiter to the Esplanade Hotel in Berlin, a popular meeting place for Nazi officers including Goebbels, Ribbentrop, Himmler, Goering, Hitler himself, and especially Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect who also had jurisdiction over the Esplanade, which had been confiscated from its owners by the Nazis. All ears and eyes, the boy, who had long before learned to survive by taking advantage of every opportunity, did his job well and earned the recognition of Speer.

The Terrace Restaurant of the Hotel Esplanade in Berlin, where as an apprentice waiter, the boy waited on Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Ribbentrop, Speer, et al.

He was present when Molotov, Stalin‘s Foreign Minister, dined with the Nazi brass and the group had to seek shelter during a British air raid. Ribbentrop had just finished telling Molotov that the British would be defeated in no time, prompting the Soviet to inquire as to why then were they running for the shelters.

Niklas’ memories of his youth, because of his position (as a waiter/servant) sheds a real and even humane light on the men who history knows as monsters. Hitler, who was a vegetarian, was, under the circumstances, soft-spoken and courteous to the mischling. Speer, it turned out, played an important role in saving the boy’s life. Ribbentrop, the former champagne salesman, who became Hitler’s ambassador to England (and who dined with the Astors, etc.), served to exemplify the boy’s experience of the Nazis.

23-year-old Kurt in Germany just before he emigrated to America in 1950.

“The public demeanor of Germany’s tyrants during the war still amazes me. Ribbentrop was not a tyrant, just a fool who usually made a social ass of himself. Hitler on the other hand, who always seemed a gentleman when I waited on him, was perhaps the greatest tyrant in history, although Dr. Joseph Goebbels, his Minister of Propaganda and Public Instruction, ran him a close race. And like Hitler, Goebbels too was a model of public decorum.”

As an eighteen-year-old (1944) in Berlin, which was now nightly being bombed to smithereens, the boy took up with the wife of an SS Officer who was away. It wasn’t long after when he received notice that he was being drafted into Organization Todt, a forced labor camp.

Many years later when Speer was freed after serving his twenty years in jail, Niklas wrote him a letter, reminding him of his position at the Esplanade and asking Speer if he knew why he’d been sent to the work camp. Amazingly, Niklas received a long hand written letter from Speer, who had not only remembered him, but who also had manipulated his deportation specifically saving the boy from a concentration camp and certain death.

Hollywood’s most famous restaurateur, the self-styled Prince Michael Romanoff, professional mentor of the author.

When the War was over, now working as a waiter in Germany, he befriended a number of Americans who were impressed by his efficient work habits (as well as his good looks and manners) and suggested he emigrate to America. One car dealer from Pasadena made it all possible. When he got to Los Angeles, he almost immediately looked for work doing what he knew best: working in a restaurant. In short time he went to work for the legendary Mike Romanoff, a con man who claimed to be a Russian prince, who owned the most successful restaurant in the movie colony.

Romanoff’s was the beginning of a long, colorful and often difficult education not only to the business but to the ways and means of the movie industry. Niklas soon came to know all the players — the stars, the moguls, the hookers and the mobsters. His memories are not only frank and often devastating, but he names the names and minces no words in describing the world he served royally and ultimately with great success.

Many of the players are depicted in exactly the way they wouldn’t want to be. Egos demanding constant catering to and fawning over, is something everyone who has ever worked in the restaurant business has experienced. But these egos — stars, moguls, the rich and the powerful (and endlessly insecure) were a constant test to anyone’s mental stability and demeanor.

Niklas’ story bears witness to the fact that it is impossible to not be eventually adversely affected by it. His recollections of Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Bogart, Bacall, Alfred Hitchcock, Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert and John Kennedy, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder and Elizabeth Taylor are succinct, and often brutally to the point, and even, at times, shocking. “What are they like?” the question one is always asked about celebrities, is answered in unforgettable terms.

Throughout the book, which begins in Beverly Hills, and flashes back to Nazi Germany, moves forward to Beverly Hills, back again to Germany, provides a picture of a life experience, a world view, that commands a reader’s contemplation about Who we are and What we are. Often amusing, and more often eye-opening, Niklas’ take on his life and those who touched his life, is clearly prejudiced by his ultimate social position (even at the top of his success) that of “serving” a clientele, and his unique and misperceived background (a half Jew thought to be a reformed Nazi).

Sidney Korshak, the man who owned “the corner table,” known to some as the real Godfather, the most powerful man in Hollywood and widely considered to be one of the most five powerful men in America.

The story opens with a scene which takes place in the Bistro about the “corner table,” that being the table in the restaurant (any restaurant) that is the most desirable, most sought after and most fought over. A Chicago mobster operating on the West Coast, Johnny Roselli, is drunk and has long overstayed his visit at the corner table (where he’d been drinking from two in the afternoon to eight in the evening). In an effort to free it up for customers in from New York (and recommended by Pete Kriendler at “21”), Niklas asked Roselli to pay his check:

“‘Johnny, I need this table,’ I said, drumming up as much courtesy as I could ‘Would you fellows kindly finish your drinks at the bar?

“Roselli’s snake eyes riveted. ‘What did you say?’

‘I want you to move to the bar,’ I repeated.

‘Are you fucking crazy?’ he cried. ‘Do you know who you’re talking to?’

‘Johnny, please — just move to the bar.”

“His blue eyes turned to slate. He leaped up, shoved me hard on the shoulder, and the rest is history. (Niklas slugged Roselli and knocked him over. When the mobster got up, Niklas slugged him again and told his cohorts to get him out of the restaurant.)

“My heroism, however, was fleeting. The reality of what I had done suddenly dawned on me with extraordinary apprehension. Roselli was the enforcer, a real mobster whose named was connected to a half-dozen murders. It had been rumored for years that he had been the Mafia point man in the assassination of President Kennedy, and it was a known fact that he had been the underworld’s liaison with the CIA in its futile attempt to knock off Fidel Castro. Roselli played for keeps and suddenly I was scared.”

“‘You’re history Kurt! And by morning this fucking joint is gonna be a parking lot!’

“I hurried to my office. There was only one man who could protect me from Roselli’s vengeance. I picked up the telephone and dialed. After a moment a deep masculine voice answered at the other end.

Twelve years after arriving in Los Angeles, Niklas, with the backing of the biggest names in Hollywood, opened The Bistro on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills.


“Sid? It’s Kurt, and I’ve got a problem.”

“Yeah and what is it?” he asked gruffly.

I told him what had happened.

“Are you fucking nuts?” he said.

“Yeah, nuts and scared.”

“Check into a hotel and call me in the morning.”

A click in my ear, but I already felt better. The one thing Sidney Roy Korshak was reputed to be able to do better than anyone else in the world was talk privately to Johnny’s boss, the legendary Chicago godfather Sam Giancana.”

Harriet Deutsch, Nancy Reagan and Lee Annenberg at Bistro Garden in Los Angeles, with restaurant’s owner Kurt Niklas.

“Roselli was dangerous, but Korshak was something else. In Hollywood, he was the personification of power. What most people considered clout, he carried in his little finger. When the New York Times named him one of the five most powerful people in the country and “the most important link between organized crime and big business,” it was more than a passing comment. Korshak had been the focal point of a Times investigation by Seymour Hersh, resulting in a four-part series in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and the esteemed newspaper accused him of being a powerful, high-level behind-the-scenes mobster.”

Roselli never came back to the Bistro. As a matter of fact, about six months later, he was found floating in a 55 gallon oil barrel off the Florida Keys, his body chopped up into pieces.

From that anecdote to the trials and tribulations of running the most glamorous restaurant in America (where Swifty Lazar began his famous Oscar parties), to tales about Kissinger, his indiscretions and his affair with Jill St. John (who was also Sidney Korshak’s mistress), to Taylor and Burton, to Monroe two days before her death begging Niklas to phone the White House (and JFK) for her, “The Corner Table” gives you an inside look that you’ll never forget.

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