“Beat it, creep … you’re bothering my customers!”, is all the persistent and increasingly intrusive celebrity photographer, Ron Galella, heard before two flying dustbin lids were hurled in his direction. This was his first, and most likely last, (close) encounter with Elaine Kaufman, the fiesty, hot-blooded owner and viciously protective hostess of seminal Upper East Side restaurant and bar, Elaine’s.
Born and raised in Queens, New York City during the Great Depression, Elaine developed a thick skin and deep-set determination early on. Her first experience with the service industry was in 1959 helping her then-boyfriend, Alfredo Viazzi, run his restaurant in Greenwich Village. However, it only took a few years to realise her knack for entertaining and in 1963 the sturdy, defiant proprietress set off on her own to Yorkville, taking many newly-loyal customers with her. A small, dark and smoke-filled bar in the wrong part of town serving run-of-the-mill Italian food, Elaine’s began as a local hub that appealed to promising yet mostly unknown writers. Comedian Alan King once described it as “decorated like a stolen car.” Initial visitors included Jack Richardson, Forrest Gump author Winston Groom, William Styron, Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. “Poor bastards,” she said of writers in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2009, “but I like their minds.”
Gradually her literary crèche began to attract the distinguished elite and before long Elaine’s became the raucous and riotous celebrity hideaway it is now remembered as. A small piece of quintessential New York in saloon-form, where a meritocracy was created and expected, it became more of an unofficial member’s club than an eatery, where individual value was measured not by wealth but by one’s repertoire of interesting anecdotes. With no reservations, one could stroll in on any given night and be placed on the table opposite Andy Warhol, served a drink by Elaine Stritch (who worked behind the bar for a whole summer) or told to “take a right at Michael Caine” for the bathroom. Elaine’s was not a quiet or stuffy scene either. From Hunter S. Thompson setting fire to his own breath after finishing a bottle of Chartreuse, to Jack Nicholson seeking shelter from an obsessive female fan or playwright John Ford Noonan punching a hole in the window, alcohol-infused anarchy was fraught within its walls. “Writers have never come to my place to talk about literature,” she told The New York Times in 2009.