Webster Hall

A memorial to Elaine Kaufman

New York’s Upper East Side has always been a place to hobnob with the greatsor at least to watch them from afar. As far as viewing areas go, Elaine’s, located on the corner of 2nd Avenue and East 88th Street, has likewise always been one of the best. That’s why it was with such sadness that New York witnessed the passing of owner Elaine Edna Kaufman on December 3, 2010.Born in Manhattan in 1929, Elaine was raised in both Queens and the Bronx. In 1959, she moved to Greenwich Village with her boyfriend Alfredo Viazzi and helped run his restaurant, Portofino. Portofino’s was popular among a certain bohemian crowd of publishers and Off-Broadway theatre members, but Kaufman split up with Viazzi and set out on her own. In 1963, Elaine’s was born.Very quickly, the restaurant became known for its many distinctive quirks, which all stemmed from Kaufman herself. For instance, Elaine forbid hamburgers in her restaurant and had no compunctions about displacing customers to seat recently-arrived celebrities. Kaufman’s directness once pushed the boundaries so far that she was arrested, after getting into a physical confrontation with a customer visiting from Texas.When Kaufman moved to the Upper East Side, so too did many of her customers from Portofino’s. The list of luminaries who have made at least an appearance at Elaine’s (and often returned regularly) could go on for ages: George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Peter Maas, Clay Felker, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Sally Quinn, Sidney Zion, Willie Nelson, Michael Caine, Luciano Pavarotti, Kirk Douglas, Leonard Bernstein, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Mick Jagger, and Woody Allen, to name just a few. Allen shot a pivotal scene from his 1979 film Manhattan in the diner. Singer/songwriter Billy Joel also immortalized the restaurant in his 1978 hit “Big Shot.”Kaufman’s death was caused by complications from emphysema. Kaufman herself was a chain-smoker for most of her life, but stopped a few years before smoking was banned in all New York City restaurants (back in 2003). However, she was reportedly upset at the new regulations. Those unfamiliar with Elaine can see her immortalized in the 2010 film Morning Glory, starring Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, and Rachel McAdams. For all the New York nightlifers who knew Elaine, however, their time together will be memorial enough. And, of course, there’s always the restaurant itselfa fitting testament to Kaufman’s staying power and uniqueness.

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