My Dinner With Elaine

Dec 08

Is anything worse than a missed opportunity?

Well, yes, there’s brides competing for plastic surgery, but let’s not go there.

About six months ago, I planned to do an interview with Elaine Kaufman for Woman around Town, but life, as it so often does, got in the way. The sad thing was that I wanted to thank Elaine for something she did for me many years ago, and it’s too late now: she died on December 3.


But then I thought: What if I wrote about the incident and what if the editor would publish it?  I did, and she did, and here’s the story:

I was young and I needed the money.

I was also a fledgling writer, AKA nearly penniless, with rent to pay and another pair of jeans (so tight you had to lie down to put them on) to buy. But I had an ace in the hole: a friend at the National Enquirer. She commissioned short pieces for $500 —a fortune at the time — that were easy to write because you just had to come up with a good lead and the Enquirer staff would rework the thing into their own style.

My first assignment was to interview the great Elaine Kaufman at her eponymous restaurant Elaine’s, Manhattan’s answer to Rick’s Café in Casablanca. “Everyone,” as the title of one book about the restaurant tells us, “Comes to Elaine’s.”

But hold on to your menu, folks, even though the piece was for the Enquirer, this wasn’t a sensational story about a freaky two-headed diner, or a titillating tidbit about who was playing footsy with whom under those coveted tables. It was simply about what the famous people Elaine catered to liked to eat, stars like Al Pacino and Woody Allen. If Humphrey Bogart had been around, he would have come too. With Lauren Bacall.

Easy money for me, right? The catch was this: I had to get a taped interview with Elaine herself, every word from her very own lips.

Gulp. I was desperate for the job but didn’t know if I could get my foot in the door.. . .ElaineSign


Somehow, I don’t remember how, I managed to land the interview and so, on a late winter’s afternoon, Elaine and I sat at a table in the back and she patiently, well more or less patiently, answered my prepared questions. Elaine_Woody

But when I casually mentioned that I was surprised that Woody Allen was a hearty eater, him being so “skinny” and all, she instantly morphed into the protective lioness we have all heard so much about.

“Skinny! He’s not skinny; he’s slim, he’s in great shape,” she snapped.

I figured I had really blown it, but swallowed my pride and continued. And guess what, she answered all my questions, threw in a few anecdotes of her own, and most important of all to a semi-starving young writer like moi, treated me to dinner: spaghetti and meatballs, my favorite not-all-that-guilty pleasure. So much for the tight jeans.

The story ran, I got the dough, and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Elaine and her rough-around-the-edges kindness.

Yeah, yeah, I know, she did a lot more for famous writers, artists and various celebs, like running tabs for them for months, even years, when they were down on their luck. The bestselling novelist Stuart Woods, who often sets the first chapter of his books at Elaine’s in honor of her generosity to him, told the New York Post that “No writer ever went hungry while Elaine was in business.”

Well, I don’t know about that, but I can say from personal experience that my one and only dinner with Elaine was a satisfying experience.

I was young and I needed the spaghetti.


This story appears in the outline newspaper:

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