Elaine & Jimmy: A Tale of Two Restaurateurs

During a recent conversation about iconic New York City restaurants, I mentioned Elaine’s.

“Elaine’s? Never heard of it,” someone said.

“Never heard of Elaine’s!?” I asked in surprise about the restaurant which had been featured prominently in the opening scene of Woody Allen’s film Manhattan.

But maybe I should not have been so surprised. Soon after the death of Elaine Kaufman, the restaurant’s namesake, and owner, the president of Green-Wood Cemetery predicted both the restaurant, and Kaufman, would soon be forgotten.

That didn’t seem possible.

Elaine’s on Second Avenue and 88th Street was once the place for New York City’s literati to gather. Everyone who was anyone, as the saying goes, could be spotted at Elaine’s on any given night. Among the successful writers who were part of the restaurant’s inner circle:  Gay Talese, David Halberstam, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill, Nick Pileggi, Nora Ephron and George Plimpton. And they didn’t come for the food, they would tell you. They came for the camaraderie, and to be coddled by Elaine, who held court nightly for almost 50 years, making introductions, and offering advice. Her stature was such that the New York Landmarks Conservancy declared her a Living Landmark, in 2004, the same year that the book Everybody Comes to Elaine’s was published.

A writer friend of mine, of some note himself, took me there for dinner one night in the 1980’s. During the evening, he delighted in pointing out authors and writers –some of whose book jackets and photos lined the restaurant walls– in the room, smoking, drinking, and dining as they talked book deals and newspaper columns. “No autographs, and no gawking,” were understood rules of conduct.

I was enthralled, vowing that someday, when I was a published author, I’d come back here, not as a spectator, but as a member of the club. The highlight of the evening was when Kaufman came by our table to greet my dinner companion. It was the first, and only, time I saw the living legend.

Kaufman died from emphysema, on December 3, 2010. Years earlier, she had left instructions for her funeral with her friend Pete Hamill. She told him she “wanted to be cooked—uh, cremated. And no ceremony.”

When Green-Wood’s president got wind of this, he reached out to those in charge of the funeral, suggesting Green-Wood as a final resting place (even if only for her cremains). He knew that without a permanent memorial (and one which would figure prominently in future cemetery tours) people would “soon forget what Elaine Kaufman had meant to New York.”

Three days later, after the cremation had taken place, a memorial visitation was held at Frank E. Campbell’s. Photos of Elaine, many with old friends like Joan Rivers, George Steinbrenner, and Pete Hamill, adorned the walls. Many spoke about the legendary New Yorker who would be missed.

Despite assurances that the restaurant would go on –Kaufman left it to her longtime manager—it was shuttered within six months of her death. There was no Elaine’s without Elaine. Her tangible presence was glaringly absent, and sorely missed, as it had been at her memorial service.  

Soon after, her cremains were said to be scattered.

It was a far different scenario when, in 2021, another storied restauranteur, James “Jimmy” Neary, died in his sleep at the age of 91. Neary was given a grand funeral said to cost in the six figures. There was a two-day wake at Frank E. Campbell, at which the family had the reposing room temporarily redesigned. Scores of floral arrangements filled the room, spilling over into another. Family, friends, and loyal restaurant patrons came to say goodbye to Neary, who looked dapper as he reposed in a stately casket.

On the day of his funeral, a flower car led the procession, followed by the hearse, and a line of limousines. Fittingly, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a friend and restaurant patron, offered the Funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another friend, and longtime customer, gave a rousing eulogy. Later, mourners were treated to a lavish lunch at the Pierre Hotel, where two cakes, specially made at the New Jersey bakery where Neary had his morning coffee, were served for dessert.

Neary was buried in a Catholic cemetery in New Jersey along with his beloved wife Eileen. It is a place where family, friends, and loyal customers continue to visit the man who once said: “I wake up in the morning and can’t wait to get there. It’s been a fabulous life.”

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