16 September 2018 22:57
Elaine’s was a form of inheritance to me, and I didn’t squander it. Both my mother and my father were part of an intellectual and theatrical New York culture – intelligentsia, literati, glitterati, whatever – that made the city glow in the Sixties and Seventies. At night, Elaine’s was the vaunted, magnetic epicenter of this scene. Way out of the way, way uptown and east of almost anything fashionable, Elaine had made her mark mothering writers, some artists and all sorts of theater people, but mostly writers, and running a tab for those who were down at the heel, sometimes for years. More often than not, this generosity paid off, and the tabs were settled when a new novel struck or was picked up for a movie. It paid off in movie stars, in George Plimpton’s bringing Jackie O. to dinner, in Sinatra and Woody Allen, and in everyone wanting to be associated with the place where Elaine might give directions to the bathroom with cracks like, ‘that way, take a right at Michael Caine…’
Elaine’s stood at the very top in New York. People were terrified of her capricious snap judgments. She didn’t warm to businesspeople unless they had some real charm or connections or maybe owned the Yankees. There were no by-laws to this club. No committees. In or out: Elaine’s call. Everyone wanted in.
So, on 6 September 1972, I was given an 18th birthday festivity there. Just a table or two of family and friends. Elaine took a big shine to me. I was mesmerized. I kept coming. I became ‘the Kid’. I could rarely do any wrong, even if some of the older regulars took exception to my being so favored. When Ben Gazzara grabbed my shirt, ripping off all the buttons, and swung at me (he was surprised I knew to bob and duck), the waiters were all over him in a flash and he was wrestled grudgingly back into his chair. The staff loved me. I often closed the place with them at three or four in the morning after multiple spaghetti dinners and backgammon with Elaine, in chouettes with her other favorites, until it was just us and some stragglers. I helped lock up the heavy gates and gave Elaine a lift home in my ‘64 VW buggy that had been collecting parking tickets at the hydrant just west of 2nd Ave on 88th Street. The bug lurched down on the passenger side when she boarded; the suspension groaned. When I dropped her off at home on Park Avenue, the bug’s springs squeaked in higher-pitched relief.
In the fall of 1974, as I was setting out for Paris for a year in tutelage with Brassaï, Elaine gave me a spectacular going-away dinner with a cake by Lenôtre adorned with confectionery can-can dancers. Once in Paris, with Christmas coming, I felt a bit homesick and implied so in a letter to Elaine. She sent an enveloped card in return, and in it were three crisp hundred-dollar bills and this: ‘Take Icelandic. There’s a dollar left for cigarettes.’
It was a wonderful Christmas season. I spent every night at the restaurant. I began photographing there, without a strobe. Back again in Paris, Brassaï liked the results of my Christmas trip and encouraged me.
Elaine’s kitchen was known for its food – in not so good a way. But it was staffed with fine-spirited Latin Americans and a series of jolly chefs who, perhaps unlike their counterparts at more serious culinary establishments, welcomed my wanderings-in to socialize and take a break from the more intense socializing and table-hopping in the dining rooms, and from the extra-curricular shenanigans in the bathrooms. No-one ever seemed to venture into the kitchen, and my doing so annoyed Elaine at times. She had a temperamental rapport with chefs and didn’t appreciate my distracting them, but she didn’t have the wherewithal to police me. I much enjoyed these forays and discovered that the relatively bright kitchen fluorescents provided, just barely, the necessary light for my Rolleiflex on black-and-white film: a reasonable f5.6 at a 60th of a second.
My first studio was born. To be invited into ‘Elaine’s Kitchen’ for a portrait became a status-conferring rite of passage. Random patrons caught on and asked to be photographed. I had learned from Elaine: often I said no.
Elaine was game at first and posed and collaborated for a while, a tinge skeptically. Later, not at all keen on my making an Elaine’s Kitchen coffee-table book, she worried that I brought unwanted attention to the least heralded part of her tavern. The general press – strictly unwelcome at Elaine’s – had always taken retribution on her food. And some of my pictures played on the squalor and shambolic aspects of the kitchen itself. Elaine insisted that I was misspending my youth. One fateful night in September 1976, I was presented with an unpayable bill for $500, ostensibly for the years of spaghetti that I’d consumed in Elaine’s company and that I had hopefully imagined was free. I got directly in my Volkswagen and drove slowly to California.
A few years later, I returned home to New York. Elaine had cooled off. Now gainfully driving a taxi, I paid the $500 check. Our relationship much improved. I brought wonderful, talented friends into the fold. We gave Brassaï his 80th birthday party in 1979, and as I began to work seriously with Vanity Fair from its revival onwards in the Eighties, Elaine was as very proud as a loving mother could be. My standing was elevated. She still called me the Kid but, sadly, never again in quite that same tone of patient exasperation that I’d perceived and felt to be the true proof of love.
This essay first appeared in the Inaugural Issue of DRUGSTORE CULTURE. Buy a copy here.