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One On 1: New York Nightlife Queen Elaine Kaufman

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NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his new series, “One On 1,” with a profile of a woman who has been part of New York nightlife for the last 40 years; Elaine Kaufman.

Forget about eight million stories in the naked city - there might be eight million stories in one place alone; Elaine's, the “only in New York” restaurant and celebrity hang on the Upper East Side.

And forget about "if these walls could talk," because Elaine Kaufman has been here for just about every celebrity and story.

A conversation with Kaufman is a bit like reading the boldface names in the gossip columns, but this is no mere name dropping, this is her lifeblood; every night, sitting and schmoozing with interesting people.

Not that she had that in mind when she opened Elaine's in 1963.

“You have an idea to open a place where people can be comfortable and make it enjoyable,” she says. “And you start and then you let it build - that's how it works.”

It clearly has for Elaine's, an entrenched part of New York nightlife. The characters and stories that have filled the room for four decades are now the subject of a new book, "Everyone Comes to Elaine's," written by celebrity author A.E. Hotchner.

“For the most part you eat well here and drink well here,” he says. “But that's not what you come here for - you come here for the mystique that is Elaine's.”

“This is the only place you can stroll in unannounced, get a greeting from the large Elaine, and she'll say, ÎGo sit with Larry King,’ or, ÎGo sit with Lauren Bacall,’” says author Gay Talese. “My God, sit with Lauren Bacall! I mean, this is a fantasy fulfillment place."

There was little mystique about the place and the neighborhood when Elaine's first opened.

“It was working class,” she says. “This is where all people who worked on Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue lived. It was a nice little restaurant that was a community place."

It soon became much more than a community place. Kaufman had a particular fondness for authors, and word soon got out that Elaine's was a haven for writers. It didn't hurt that Elaine allowed them to run a tab.

“We got friendly and they’d say, ÎI have a book deal. As soon as I finish my book I'll have all the money I need.' And I said ok,” she says. “That wasn't a bad thing. Except the books came out and they didn't sell so much. Poor bastards."

“Elaine kept this place open late and she's a night owl herself, and writers were naturally gravitating to this atmosphere called Elaine's,” says Talese.

“I think for two generations Elaine kept American literature going by allowing writers to run tabs between their royalties,” says writer/director James Lipton.

After the writers, the show people, musicians, and Hollywood followed. Elaine's was part of the city's lingo, making it into one New Yorker's song, Billy Joel's "Big Shot,” with the line: “They were all impressed with your Halston dress and the people that you knew at Elaine's."

Do people go there to see and be seen? How does Elaine feel about that?

“That's their headache,” she says. “That's their problem, not mine."

But Kaufman says you don't need to be a celebrity to get a table at Elaine's. Shrinks, small businessmen, even a local butcher - they're all customers.

“People, just regular people that I know - maybe you don't know them - I will give them a table that way because I like them,” she says. “[They’re] friends of mine."

Long before she was on a first name basis with the city, Elaine Kaufman grew up during the Depression in the back of her family's store in South Jamaica, Queens, a self proclaimed cocky kid with a rebellious nature.

“The teacher was not very interesting,” she says. “We used to have the Daily News and the Post and read them under the desk. I was brought up reading. The teachers are babbling about nothing."

The issue at home was that young Elaine was a finicky eater, and she says her mom would try to force feed her, which Kaufman believes had lifelong implications.

“That was when I was little. That gives me this, what I got now, the weight,” she says. “She was embarrassed that the relatives thought she wasn't feeding me. In those days I would have been pretty much anorexic, and so she would sit and stuff it in my face. Terrible."

Her rebellious streak eventually brought her to work at a restaurant in the village before venturing uptown. The first place was small, very small.

“The problem I had was it was never big enough to turn over,” she says. “There were only 10-12 tables, and that was it. The thing about the place is, it's so comfortable people never left. That's where I got in trouble. I got in a lot of trouble with that.”

Trouble is part of the place's charm. Through the years there have been occasional disagreements with customers, sometimes over a table, or lack thereof, or sometimes when Kaufman believes a patron hasn't ordered enough food or drink.

“If they don't do anything, I can't stay. The place can't live. It's real simple," she says.

That was the gist of an argument in 1998, when two people were sharing one drink. The man had some words with Elaine, and she threw a punch. The guy called the cops, and Elaine was arrested.

The whole scene was captured by a Daily News cartoon that read, "Oh good, room just opened up at the bar."

"That is the past time. You can't do that anymore," Kaufman says. “You can't grab a guy and take him out. [He’ll say] ÎI'm going to call my lawyer and sue you.' I mean, you're out of sync, you're misbehaving. When they carry on like that it's so un-masculine. In the old days, you take them by the cuff and throw them out and say, ÎI’ll see you next week.’ You can't do that anymore. [They say] ÎDon't touch me.’”

Kaufman was married briefly in the 80's. She says in "Everyone Comes to Elaine's" that she prefers her Elaine's family to what she calls a regular family, because a family's problems are boring, and there's never been a night when she's been bored at Elaine's.

The Elaine's family, her beloved regulars, will always have a table. And as the author of the new book found out, they want to keep it that way.

“The problem is that nobody wants to tell you anything that isn't on the side of the angels,” says Hotchner. “They've got to come in here again and be at the tables, so they don't want to tell you anything that might be on the dark side of the moon. But that's part of the fun of this place."

And the place has seen its share of fun. Of the thousands of memorable nights, Kaufman singles out the time in 1964 when friends of Jackie Kennedy brought her to Elaine's about a year after the assassination of her husband.

“I looked up and there she was in a gold Channel suit with a big emerald, and they all came in, about 10-15 of them, they danced to the jukebox, we made antipasto — an unforgettable night. It's magic," she says.

Magic - it's a word Elaine often uses to describe nights at her restaurant, which long ago established itself as a New York staple. But much like a certain baseball owner who is a frequent customer, George Steinbrenner, Kaufman believes you're only as good as your next night.

“When we have an incredible night that’s bursting at the seams, I turn to the waiters and say, ÎGet it all, because you don't know what's going to be tomorrow,’” she says.

For Elaine, tomorrow, most likely, will be another night of regulars and celebrities crowding the bar and the tables.

“In this place she has put every kind of dream she ever had as a girl,” says Hotchner. “She loved reading books, and now she's got writers. She loved movies, she still goes to movies in the afternoon, and she's got movie stars and producers. She's assembled here all the answers to all of those childhood dreams."

“I got lucky. I got very lucky,” she says. “It's a great life. I mean, I know what I'm going to do tonight. Do you know what you're going to do?"

- Budd Mishkin

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