It’s not easy to explain what made Elaine’s such a special place out of all of the special places that there were in New York at the time, the ’60s! It was a special time and a magic time in spite of riots, demonstrations, war and assassinations! Much of the culture and media spoke of nhallucinogenic experiences and that unreal or super real reality may have added to the feeling of “magic”!
Elaine’s was a Restaurant but it was also a private club the only membership requirements of which were an amusing personality or some sort of cultural achievement. Elaine Kauffman, the Elaine of Elaine’s, either liked you or respected what you did and that was the only requirement for membership! In fact, it was more like Elaine’s salon but with a menu and a cash bar! Elaine particularly liked writers.
I think the reason she initially sort of accepted me was that my first visit was with my friend, playwright Peter Shaffer (“Klunk!” My friend, Penelope Bianchi says we should always say “klunk” when we drop a name!)
And my second visit was with (“Klunk!“) Harper Lee.
There were also people that I’d known in Paris! On a jukebox there were even recordings by Régine who had not yet opened a club in Manhattan to match New Jimmy’s/Chez Régine in Paris! It was very much like the chi-chi clubs in Paris that only admitted you if they knew you!
Elaine was not thrilled to see tourists come through the front door. They might wait at the bar for a table for hours. And a new visitor was dead meat and out the door if they dared to ask a celebrity regular for an autograph! I once heard a visiting couple from a suburb ask Elaine how long they’d have to wait for a table having already waited hours.
Elaine looked at them from shoes to headdress — they were dressed up — and said, “I don’t think you’re gonna like it here!”
So how can you explain or define a place like that? More than a restaurant! Someone once asked me how the food was. I explained that the question was irrelevant. Nobod
y ever asked about the food! That question was even more irreverent than irrelevant. If you had to ask, you didn’t need to know!
Elaine’s was just a few blocks away from my apartment so it became a frequent hangout for me. Like Paris, people didn’t entertain a lot at home and every night there was a party at Elaine’s! Why entertain at home?
Like any good salon or club worth going to, gossip was a common topic of conversation. At the time there was a lot of speculation about the curious death of a bodyguard of French movie idol, Alain Delon. Somehow the names of Delon’s wife, Nathalie, and Madame Claude Pompidou, wife of the prime minister Georges Pompidou, were obliquely connected — or so the gossips implied.
It may have all stemmed from Madame Pompidou’s interest in avant garde art and contemporary avant garde furniture and decoration for the Élysée Palace! The Pompidous had put in brightly colored carpets designed by artists and painted aluminum walls. How a suspected murder came into the mix was never clearly explained!
It didn’t matter. Gossip doesn’t have to be factual! That takes the fun out of it!
Babette Newburger was a well known artist who’d also done cartoons for Esquire during the 1950s.
“Well it’s come — the senator wants to investigate the Brain’s loyalty!” (A reference to HUAC and Senator Joseph McCarthy.)
Newburger then devoted her time to painting and exhibiting.
That night, the pop artist/sculptor Marisol was at Elaine’s and as we spoke I learned that she had grown up in part in Los Angeles and had gone to the Westlake School for Girls in Holmby Hills very near to where I’d lived. She’d also attended The Otis Art Institute where as a young child I used to go to Saturday juvenile classes and where I’d received a scholarship!
She was enjoying a lot of success at that time. Her sculpted figures were featured in many publications.
As we talked (and I drew) she looked at my drawing of her and asked if she could draw me? I was honored. Seeing it finally I was hoping that her drawing of me was less accurate than the one I had done of her.
And so the evening continued. I had been drawn by a famous artist!
I also smoked marijuana for the first time at Elaine’s. It didn’t have much effect on me — but it made me feel that at least I was now a part of the scene. That magic culture that was swirling through Manhattan!
Elaine’s was consistently surprising and there was a constant sense that we were all experiencing something important! Something that was completely of the moment and yet as évanescent as a beautiful soap bubble! The slightest change of the smallest detail might make it all dissolve and disappear. This ambience.
You couldn’t get that at Shrafft’s!