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Just a few weeks ago, some women were standing outside the restaurant, staring up at the sign and wondering if this was the place they had read about in all those Stuart Woods novels. It was, indeed.

Woods, author of dozens of popular mysteries, begins almost every book with his hero, Stone Barrington, having dinner at Elaine‘s. The character meets cops and confidential sources at the restaurant, and one novel even features a shootout there. Kaufman herself is frequently mentioned.

Still, there was no denying that she steered less-interesting people toward the back room.

Elaine does not consider herself a snob,” Washington Post writer Sally Quinn wrote in 1970. “It’s just that she has an idea of the kind of place she wants to run and the kind of people she wants to see there.”

Kaufman told Quinn: “You don’t have to be a writer to have the kind of personality for a restaurant like this. … We have a butcher who comes in with his wife every week. It’s just that the people who come here are a little more sophisticated but not pretentious sophisticated.”

She was proud that she didn’t change her business to keep up with current fashions.

“I started with a little restaurant and that’s what I’ve ended up with,” Kaufman said in 1993. “It wasn’t broke so I didn’t fix it.”

One change was forced upon her in 2003, when the city banned smoking in restaurants. She said she had quit smoking several years earlier but was unhappy about forcing customers to forgo tobacco at their seats.

“In my business, it’s about hospitality,” she wrote in a 2002 New York Times essay. “We serve people. We like to please. We’d much rather say yes than no. … So what do we have now? Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants us to ban smoking entirely. He wants us to say no to the customers.”

Kaufman was born in 1929 in the Bronx (“My mother never told me we were poor”) and never went to college.

In the 1970 Washington Post profile, Kaufman said she started out working in cosmetics sales and began her restaurant career to help out a friend.

“It was the best thing I’d ever done; it combined all the things that were easy for me,” she said. “I have a feeling for people.”


Former Associated Press Writer Polly Anderson, AP Arts Editor Dolores Barclay and AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this report.