For nearly half a century, Elaine Kaufman ran a restaurant in New York City that was a haven and a clubhouse for writers of all hues — brand names, up-and-comers, wannabes, and unknowns, the gregarious and the lonely, the elegant and the scruffy, the prolific and the blocked. The one thing they shared, other than thirst, was the desire to get out of their own skulls and into an interesting conversation.
At Elaine’s, with remarkable regularity, they succeeded. They found not only fellow writers, but cops, actors, gangsters, comedians, tourists, celebrities, and colorful nobodies. A young New York Times reporter named Gay Talese started going there in 1964, when the place was in its infancy. Here’s how he described its allure in 1993, on the occasion of its 30th birthday: “Among other things, Elaine’s is a therapy center, a halfway house for husbands between wives, a late-night talk show without cameras and microphones or commercial interruptions, a place that caters to the nocturnal needs and nourishments of New Yorkers who, as evening approaches, are not sure with whom they wish to dine, or with whom they wish to sleep after they dine, or even if they wish to sleep.”
The glue that held it all together was Elaine herself, an outsize personality with a sharp tongue and a sharper wit, who was usually installed opposite the bar at Table 4, dressed in her trademark round eyeglasses and flowing dresses. She was a magnet, a matchmaker, a traffic cop, a den mother, and, yes, an unlicensed head shrinker.
She died on Dec. 3, 2010 at age 81, and less than six months later the restaurant, starved of the oxygen of her personality, closed. By then it had become apparent that there would never be another Elaine’s — or another Elaine.
“What we liked and enjoyed about the place for more than 40 years was that it’s not replaceable,” Talese told me recently. “In New York you feel everything’s replaceable. The reason Elaine’s is irreplaceable is that when Elaine died there was no one who could make you feel that there’s no place else you’d rather be. An empty place has existed in our hearts since the place closed.”
Several Elaine’s regulars, part of the diaspora of the dismayed and bereft, started discussing ways to repay Elaine for all the encouragement she gave to writers and other creative people. They decided to form The Table 4 Writers Foundation, which has just announced that it is giving out its first batch of $2,000 grants to writers who live in New York City.
“The grants are for all New York writers, not just young and struggling writers,” says Jenine Lepera Izzi, a jewelry designer who met her husband at Elaine’s, became a close friend of the proprietor, and is now chairwoman of the foundation. “My core belief is that I’d love to wave a wand and bring the Jack Kerouacs back. That creative energy was what New York was built on — until the 1980s and ’90s, before rents and costs got so high — and it’s pretty much been squashed.”
I was introduced to Elaine’s — and to Elaine — by Peter Khoury. He and I wrote for the same North Carolina newspaper in the 1990s before moving, separately, to New York. Khoury, now the night metro editor at The Times, became a regular at Elaine’s and, eventually, a close friend of Elaine. One night, as he and I walked into the restaurant together, Khoury received a hearty ovation from the crowd– because the Times‘s metro desk had just broken the story that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer had a taste for high-dollar prostitutes. It was the only time in my life I’ve heard people applaud a journalist. No wonder Khoury — and so many other writers — liked going to Elaine’s.
“We’re trying to get the word about the grants out at places where writers congregate — writers’ rooms, libraries, bookstores,” says Khoury, who sits on the Table 4 Writers Foundation board of directors and has published several short stories in literary journals. “Elaine was a force of nature, a large, large personality. She instinctively knew if you needed a hug, a Heineken, or a kick in the heinie. We can’t replace her, but through the grants we can give New York writers a little recognition, a little leg up. It’s a way to celebrate and remember her.”
The foundation plans to award five $2,000 grants to New York writers, age 21 and up, at a gala in February of 2013. Entries, fiction or non-fiction, must be post-marked by Oct. 15, 2012.
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