“Elaine’s, Circa ’64"

Fiction by Susan Israelson

Since we were no longer co-workers, Seymour called and asked me out. “Anywhere you’d like.” He wanted me to do the picking and planning — he’d pay. Fine.

Elaine’s it was. I’d bumped into Donald Ward, a.k.a. Red, my favorite waiter from Goldie’s who’d opened a joint on Second Avenue between 88th and 89th a year ago, and told him I had to stop by. Would I ever.

I treated myself to a new hairdresser, Monsieur Marc on West 56th, a reward for progress with Atkins — minus 15 pounds, and the big date with Seymour. He tried to talk me into bangs, fringe as he called them.  “Hair” was plural in French — “Zey are parfait for your face.” Fearful of change I gave him a hard time. Monsieur Marc gave up, threw his hands in the air disgusted. I gave in. He spent 10 minutes on “zee fringe airs,” cut them right below my eyebrows. “Voila zee bob.”

Three long crosstown blocks over and one down brought me to the far eastern wilds of the Upper East Side, an unknown planet: downtrodden. Seymour looked snappy, standing in front of a chrome yellow canopy, a bright splash of color on drab Second Avenue.

“Wow!” he said.

We noticed a white Christmas carousel horse in the far right window. Someone had a sense of humor — welcome to the merry-go-round. The hypnotic sounds of Brubeck’s “Take Five,” Paul Desmond on sax, cool background music for a hot place, instantly intoxicated, the energy as electric as PJ Clarke’s. At the end of the crowded bar on the left was an abstract red, white, and blue Paris Review poster by Jack Youngerman; on the right a line of round tables covered by blue and white checked tablecloths filled by a blur of mostly men. An overhead shelf ran along the side, displaying a few books and posters. The décor was funky, Italianish. First impression: party, party.

“Hello precious, you finally made it.” Donald was enthused. We air kissed.

“How are you?” I was relieved to see him, in safe hands.

“Perfect as usual. Who’s this divine man?”

“Seymour, the best art director in fashion advertising.” Donald left us dangling in mid-air, stranded. The bartender looked familiar. Ray Lindie.

“Hey Ray, how’s your racing?” I’d met him in the Great South Bay taking swimming and racing lessons from lifeguard Bob Fenton, age seven.

“I can still beat you, Ali.” He winked. He could.

A very long five minutes later, Donald materialized, and motioned for us to follow. He led us to Elaine, an august presence at the end of the bar: 350 pounds, white ruffle collar over a floral dress, oversized reading glasses, the fat lady in a Fellini movie. Donald introduced us in obeisance. Though they were partners, clearly Her Majesty was in command.

“Ali’s a Fire Islander, friends with Barbara and Sarah.” He referred to the Gardiners, my childhood buddies from the literary dynasty. Barbara must have backed him. My credentials established, I gushed, a pleasure to meet the latter-day Gertrude Stein. Elaine nodded.

Donald led us down the line. I pointed to an empty table on the right, but he pranced past an open arch to another empty against the wall. Everyone gave us the once-over. Who were we? Elio, pronounced “el-e-oh,” a tall, wry Italian, introduced himself as our waiter, took our drink orders, suggested the veal chop in a thick Northern Italian accent, hand over his heart. “On my life you won’t be sorry.” A whopping seven fifty, Seymour said it sounded good. In business.

Seymour came on strong, made it clear he liked me. The Imp butted in: “I could do better.” My head swiveled as I checked out the other tables, drank my Dewar’s, on the lookout. Elaine scooped me up by the scruff of my neck, left Seymour behind, and fed me to the wolves at table #4 where she kept her pets: Jack Richardson, Ben Gazzara, Gay Talese, Vlad Kristov.

I squeezed in, stimulated by a table of talkers. Elaine held court — her trump cards infallible street smarts, fearlessness, and a big mouth. She volubly passed judgment on each poor sucker who walked by, gave them lip and made them wait, maltreating them if she didn’t want their business; gathered them into her ample bosom if she approved. She let her stable of writers and artists run tabs if they had “the shorts,” supporting them in times of need.

I sat next to Ben Gazzara, who’d played Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — and swooned. He flirted in the lowest, sexiest voice ever. Married, according to the screen magazines, to actress Janice Rule. Shame. Gay Talese, a dapper Italian don and literary legend, was engrossed in conversation with Vlad, a painter whose work I knew and admired as much as his high cheekbones and bright blue turned up Slavic eyes. Blond, he’d dated a succession of beautiful brunettes, lately China Machado, the Eurasian Dior model. I’d missed Jack Richardson’s Off Broadway play, “The Prodigal.” He’d won an Obie and a Drama Desk award. His long face and demeanor reminded me of Don Quixote, the knight of the sorrowful countenance. 

Jack gave me the skinny on fat Elaine. He’d promised her that if she got large enough tables he’d supply the writers. He’d delivered. Jack pointed to the poster overhead, his present. “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” Boswell.

Jack slid off a turquoise and silver ring on his right pinky and placed it on my right index finger. Persian. Someone had given it to him with the caveat he must pass it on. I solemnly promised to keep the covenant, and gave it back to him for his son, decades later, middle of the night, Kinko’s.

Elio interrupted — dinner was waiting. I returned reluctantly. Seymour, a Taurus (the bull) had been doing a slow burn, steam coming out of his nostrils. When he saw his target, he charged, telling me off in no uncertain terms. “About time. I was giving you five more minutes.” Rightly so, I’d abandoned him. What had gotten into me? Under Elaine’s spell I’d allowed myself to be seduced, no excuse for bad manners. Seymour silently fumed, a downer drowning my up. I dove into the veal, three inches thick, tender, tasty, the best I’d ever have, and focused on a getaway to the table of tables.

The ladies room was narrow, its two oblique stalls smelled of pot. What I wouldn’t give for a toke to chill me out, relieve the pressure of being on display. It made me fearless. I combed my hair, loved the bangs. Monsieur Marc was right. “Hello Princess, don’t you look gorgeous.” I imagined I was wearing a diamond tiara, and that Jordan had complimented me.

Back with Seymour, Vlad table-hopped over and parked his vodka, saving the day — night. Table-hopping, I’d later learn, was the M.O. of the denizens of Elaine’s. It turned out that Seymour and Vlad knew each other from the art world — Seymour had shown at Kennedy, a classy gallery that represented American artists, Vlad at Pace, equally distinguished. I hadn’t known Seymour’s secret — a talented painter moonlighting as art director. We got drunk, they talked shop: Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans and garish silkscreen portraits, the explosion of Pop Art. The Princess liked being in the company of two attractive artists vying for her favors.

Donald stopped by. “May I steal Ali for a few?” Seymour assented — I wasn’t leaving him alone this time.

We passed the bar without interacting with the crowd. The blue-collar locals’ bar bordered the most exclusive club in town: saloon to the right, salon on the left, an invisible fence that no one ever crossed. Donald deposited a dollar’s worth of quarters in the Wurlitzer jukebox, pushed B 26, “Take Five,” four times. He led me out the door, around the corner to 88th street, whereupon he proffered a joint in an empty alley.

“I just heard Lyndon Johnson signed a bill creating the Fire Island National Seashore. We’re safe from Robert Moses now thanks to your Dad’s efforts. I may even vote for LBJ.”

“Congratulations to us all.” Month-old news. I enjoyed his take, proud of Dad.

The empty table next to us was now filled by a small man, black-rimmed glasses, a typical Jewish-looking nerd. Woody Allen did stand-up comedy in the borscht belt, wrote his own material. Funny, he didn’t look funny. “Just ignore him,” advised Vlad. “Elaine lets him keep his privacy.” So we played “let’s pretend Woody isn’t here.”

Seymour and Vlad continued to discuss “The Silver Factory,” Andy’s oversize tin foil and silver-painted warehouse. Vlad described a party there, the wildest of his life, and he’d lived hard. Drag queens, playwrights, Bohemians, street people, Hollywood types, and wealthy Waspy patrons comingled, careened, and caroused. Pills popping, drugs abounding, and booze flowing. Warhol’s creation, a midtown Elaine’s East 47th, fifth floor.

Seymour called it a night. After conferring with Elaine, Elio handed him our bill, Vlad warned him to check it carefully. “There are sometimes irregularities.” Vlad whispered in my ear, “You should come back, the night is still young.” It was 12:30 on a work night. He slipped me the telephone number of one of the two pay phones side by side on the wall across from table #4. I waited to say good night to Elaine, overheard Donald tell her that table #14, in Siberia, the far side of paradise, back of the room, out of sight, there but not there, had complained about the service.

“Give the creep the check,” she snapped, one tough broad. I recoiled at the mix — acid and acuity. I gave her a peck on the cheek, she dismissed me from court, a curtsey came to mind, but I refrained.

“Come back precious,” cajoled Donald, posturing like a peacock as we said the long goodbye. Of course I’d come back, I’d taken a big bite of the apple, had the night of nights and knew it, why not tomorrow? I might be able to drag along some friends. It wasn’t cool to go alone, dammit.

We walked back to safe and staid Park Avenue. Seymour didn’t kiss me good night, due to my erratic behavior I had no doubt we were going to be platonic. I wondered whether to circle back, Vlad so attractive, Elaine’s a magnet. I had an early appointment at work. Saved.


Susan Israelson will be among the featured authors at the East Hampton Library’s Author’s Night on Saturday. Born and raised in Manhattan, she was a fashion coordinator and Madison Avenue advertising copywriter. The co-author of “Lovesick, the Marilyn Syndrome,” she writes poetry and the occasional tagline, paints, plays tennis and lives in East Hampton, San Miguel de Allende, and Paris. “Elaine’s, Circa ‘64” is an excerpt from her recent novel “Water Baby.”