- Associated Press - Friday, December 3, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Elaine Kaufman, the colorful restaurateur whose East Side establishment, Elaine‘s, became a haven for show business and literary notables, died Friday at the age of 81.

Kaufman died at a Manhattan hospital of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and pulmonary hypertension, according to a statement issued by the restaurant’s representative.

Kaufman was a veteran waitress and cafe manager in Greenwich Village when she bought a small bar-restaurant near the corner of Second Avenue and 88th Street in 1963.

It was never about the design or the food _ basic Italian fare. It was all about the owner-hostess, an outsized mother figure in a tentlike dress, and her friendships with the famous.

Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and George Plimpton quickly became regulars, and over the years the glitterati joined the literati. Even Jackie Onassis went there.

“It offers an ambience of camaraderie that is centered on Elaine herself. She’s the den mother there,” Talese said in 1988. “It’s like a boarding house: You’ve got the round table, and you don’t need a reservation if you’re a friend of hers.”

Among those showing up at a 25th anniversary celebration were Sidney Lumet, Peter Maas, Eli Wallach, Raquel Welch, Jackie Mason, Billy Dee Williams and Cheryl Tiegs.

Woody Allen opened his movie “Manhattan” with a scene set in Elaine‘s. He became a regular, Kaufman told The Associated Press in 1988, because “he loves to people-watch. It’s comfortable, nobody bothers him, we make him what he wants.”

Bobby Zarem, a soft-spoken public relations specialist who has worked with everyone from Dustin Hoffman to Cher to Michael Douglas, had been close friends with Kaufman for 47 years.

Zarem was working for a large PR agency in New York when he walked into Elaine’s three weeks after it opened. The two became fast friends and, he said, she encouraged him to open his own shop. He in turn brought his clients to the restaurant and began throwing events there _ from movie promotions to book parties. Elaine’s soon became the party place of New York.

“I just don’t know what to say,” Zarem said through tears from his home in Savannah, Ga. “We were best friends and extremely supportive of one another. She was supportive of everybody _ especially writers.”

Kaufman was particularly close to Talese and Plimpton, and would allow out-of-work writers to eat for free, said Zarem, who once entertained celebrities such as Allen, Kirk Douglas and Michael Caine there.

“She was just this great, big wonderful woman. She was smart and very smart about people. You could trust her and talk about anything … and you could sit up there until 2 in the morning,” Zarem said.

Critics noted that ordinary tourists got less-well-placed tables and paid Cadillac-style prices for Chevrolet-style food, but Kaufman said detractors and celebrity-watchers alike made too big a deal out of the place.

“I think a lot of people just come in to have dinner,” she said. “And you have a good time. A good bottle of wine, a nice plate of pasta _ I mean, that’s life.”

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