obit (the dust) of the month: take a right at michael caine

Elaine Kaufman, who became something of a symbol of New York as the salty den mother of Elaine’s, one of Manhattan’s best-known restaurants and a second home for almost half a century to a bevy of writers, actors, athletes and other celebrities, died Friday at Lenox Hill Hospital.

To the patrons she knew at her Upper East Side establishment, Ms. Kaufman was the quirky, opinionated, caring and imposingly heavyset proprietor who came in almost every night to check on things and schmooze, moving from table to table and occasionally perching herself on a stool at the end of her 25-foot mahogany bar.

With those she did not know, however, her demeanor varied; some accused her of being rude, though she indignantly denied that she ever was. As she put it, she had little time to explain to dissatisfied customers why they were being directed to tables in the back, known as Siberia, or led to the bar or even turned away, when they could clearly see empty tables along “the line.”

The line was the row of tables along the right wall of the main room, extending from the front to the back and visible from the entrance. Those tables were almost always saved for the most valued regulars, with or without reservations. One regular for many years was Woody Allen, who filmed a scene for “Manhattan” at Elaine’s.

Almost from the beginning there were writers, many of whom were granted credit privileges when funds were low or nonexistent. And the writers — Gay Talese, George Plimpton, Peter Maas, Dan Jenkins, Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo, Sidney Zion and others — drew editors: Clay Felker, Willie Morris and James Brady, to name a few.

Then came the theater, film and television personalities, eager to meet literary lights. And they, having added to Elaine’s growing cultural cachet, soon attracted the famous from other arenas — sports figures, politicians and gossip-column society — wanting to be part of the scene.

It became an unspoken rule among the customers never to appear overly impressed or distracted by the famous. But there were exceptions, Ms. Kaufman recalled. Mick Jagger was one. (“The room grew still,” she said.) Luciano Pavarotti was another. (“Everyone stood up and applauded.”) And Willie Nelson proved irresistible. (“He kissed all the women at the bar.”)

Once, when a newcomer asked directions to the men’s room, Ms. Kaufman replied, “Take a right at Michael Caine.”  READ MORE

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