December 03, 2010 at 12:00 PM EST

Image Credit: AP ImagesI had a perfect introduction to Elaine’s, Elaine Kaufman’s legendary New York City restaurant: I was first brought there in what must have been the winter of 1980 by the late, great Claudia Cohen, then editor of the New York Post‘s Page Six. Claudia knew everybody, from Elaine’s favorite strays, seated at what was known as the Family Table, across from the bar, to all the regular bold-face names. We got our own table, not far from one that included Claudia’s recent paramour Albert Finney, then starring as Daddy Warbucks in Annie. Plunging into the banter among the tables, I instantly saw why Elaine’s was so popular — it was like a cross between the Algonquin Round Table and a raucous junior-high-school cafeteria. At one point, Finney commented that he’d always wanted to learn to wolf-whistle, so I volunteered to teach him. While demonstrating, I let out a piercing whistle. Elaine shot up and scanned the room, face clenched in irritation, ready to reprimand, and I felt her eyes settle sternly on me. Then she saw that Finney was leaning in, fingers in his mouth, obviously trying to do the same. Her entire face and posture relaxed, and I was in.

For much of the next decade, Elaine’s was an always rollicking clubhouse of writers, film directors, politicians, actors — and there was usually at least one fireman, plus the occasional priest. (The photo was taken in 1988 at the 25th anniversary of Elaine’s, with Kaufman standing between Dr. Strangelove screenwriter Terry Southern, and actor George Segal.) Some people stopped by after theater or before hitting the clubs, but many claimed a table and hung out all night, hopping from group to group and swapping stories. Literary agent Bob Dattila, whose reports of Hunter Thompson’s exploits were about the tallest tales I’ve ever heard (there or anywhere), once bet me I couldn’t do ten boys’ pushups; I was wearing a dress, but I did them. I watched famous lotharios leave with my friends, and Elaine tried to match me up one night with a future James Bond but seemed secretly pleased when I demurred. When she met my future husband, she wagged her hand in the air and roared approvingly, in her smoke-and-whiskey-cured growl, “Whatta hump!” I never get a whiff of Chanel No. 5 without thinking of her. 

I’m told I was lucky to have met Elaine when I did, because she always thought of herself as one of the guys — in fact, she always wore her diamond-encrusted Yankees World Series ring, a gift from George Steinbrenner. By the time I met her, she was fine with giving a young woman her own table for the night — indeed, no matter how many hours I lingered over my arugula salad, pasta, and the house Valpolicello, for years my bill was always $32.50. There were rumors of writers who hadn’t paid their tabs for decades on end, and I wondered how she made it work — until one night, I got to see her Robin Hood system in action: I had dinner with film director Sydney Pollack, who had recently finished Tootsie, and the bill for our two salads, pasta, and bottle of wine was several hundred dollars! “She thinks it comes out of some production budget,” Pollack said, shrugging. When asked why he didn’t set her straight, he said it was worth it to him to be able to have such a comfortable place to come whenever he was passing through town.

He was right about that. And there was a special pleasure in the ritual that occurred after the check was paid, when the waiter would return to the table and theatrically announce, “Elaine would like to buy you an after-dinner drink!” She definitely bought me more than that.

Kaufman died Friday from complications related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and pulmonary hypertension. She was 81.

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