A.E. Hotchner’s oral history of Manhattan’s legendary hangout for the glitterati is star-struck, self-satisfied, sentimental/cynical and great fun to read — the perfect book to while away an hour standing forlornly at the bar while Elaine Kaufman ushers the more famous and favored to their usual tables. All the well-known stories are here: Mia Farrow asking Michael Caine to introduce her to Woody Allen, Frank Sinatra refusing to shake Mario Puzo’s hand, the New York Rangers drinking beer from their just-acquired Stanley Cup.
Hotchner, himself an Elaine’s habitue for four decades, strings together quotes from practically every longtime patron, including Jules Feiffer, Bruce Jay Friedman, Pete Hamill, Gay Talese, P.J. O’Rourke and David Halberstam. Nora Ephron, Betty Comden and Lauren Bacall are among the regulars who counter the notion that Elaine was hostile to female customers, though Ephron notes that “Elaine treated writers’ wives as if they were temps, and most of them were.” Even the notoriously reclusive Allen deigns to offer a brief reminiscence, though George Plimpton later points out that Woody’s table may be way in the back but is nonetheless an odd spot for someone who doesn’t want to be bothered, since it’s en route to the bathrooms and the dreaded back room to which tourists are relegated.
That’s the irony of Elaine’s, which may have started out as a place for unknown writers to stay up late and run up big tabs but for decades has been a well-publicized hot spot where the rich and famous come to see and be seen. Hotchner and his fellow anecdotalists aren’t bothered by the steep prices, generally mediocre food (stick to the veal chop) and aggressively cost-conscious service (expect a personal visit from the proprietor if she feels you’re not consuming enough to justify the space you’re occupying).
They’re part of Elaine’s mystique, along with her pungent vocabulary and readiness with her fists. She hasn’t been led away in handcuffs for socking a customer in a while, but Elaine’s comments on her life and career, interspersed throughout the text, still affect the bluntness of “the last of the great saloon keepers,” as Hotchner calls her.
You want probing insights and pronouncements on What It All Means? Read the books Kaufman’s favorite authors wrote when they weren’t relaxing and swapping wisecracks in her restaurant. “Everyone Comes to Elaine’s” doesn’t aspire to be anything but good gossipy entertainment, which it certainly is.