Anne's Diary

The REAL Elaine's

I recently read that Elaine Kaufman, who ran "Elaine's" in Manhattan, died, causing the restaurant to close. Since the décor was doubtful and the food was terrible, it couldn't go on without her. Kaufman ran it like a private club, letting in only interesting talkers, mostly writers. You had to "be somebody" or "know somebody" in order to get in. Whitley and I never even tried, although we knew a few people who went there. Whitley was too unknown to get in BEFORE he wrote "Communion" and too infamous afterwards. From time to time friends who were "regulars" there would invite us along, but we demurred because being scrutinized in that way made us nervous, although I can see why someone would do this if they were running what was basically a salon.

Another reason why Elaine's never interested us was because we were regulars at what I think of as the REAL Elaine's, which was the "Little Secret" coffee shop in the basement of an old brownstone building at 46th Street and Lexington Avenue. Therese was the proprietor there and she was also a great talker and story-teller. When it was open, there would be a discreet sign on the door, saying "coffee shop." You'd enter and unlocked door and walk down a dark set of stairs decorated with artfully arranged "junk," like an attic (most of this "junque" was for sale). It was a delightful decorating job. Soon you'd arrive in a dim room that opened up into a tiny backyard with a "wishing tree," where people tied their wishes to the branches. The room was furnished with a small number of chairs and tables. Therese didn't serve food or liquor, but she made good tea and wonderful milkshakes.

At the Little Secret, unlike Elaine's, you didn't converse with the other people there--you basically talked with Therese, who went from table to table, holding court. A lot of writers hung out there too and Therese never failed them--she always had stories to tell that would set their imaginations humming. One of my favorites was the time she went to court over a cat. Unbeknownst to her, the stray cat she had adopted was playing the field and had made himself at home in someone else's home as well, meaning he was eating well and snoozing on the furniture in two places. But then the other family moved away--and they took the cat with them. When Elaine saw the moving van and glimpsed what she had always thought of as her personal pet being bundled into a car inside a cat carrier, she ran over and demanded her cat back and discovered that he had been living a double life. She grabbed the cat and ran back to her house, with the raging family following close behind. They eventually took her to court, to the great amusement of the judge who was involved. I have to confess that I've forgotten how the adjudication went. But however the judge decided, you can be certain of one thing: the cat won.

Another story she told was about the time she was walking along the street when she witnessed someone shoplift a valuable item from an antique store. This was before cell phones, so she couldn't call the police, so she decided to follow the thief, and every chance she got along the way, she would alert passersby by saying, in a low voice "Following thief, call radio car." This was such a strangely-worded sentence that, to her frustration, nobody picked up on it.

Therese is just one of the many wonderfully eccentric old-timers that I remember fondly from our days in New York. There were some great eccentrics in Texas too, but I find the folks in California to be unutterably ordinary. They may do excessive things, but it's all an act, done in order to get publicity and sell movie or concert tickets--At heart, they're pedestrian and dull. A TRUE eccentric thinks of himself or herself as perfectly ordinary and can't figure out why everyone else doesn't think so too. God bless 'em all--they make life interesting.


Why NY and Texas? Is it because they are insulated -- I don't know that they are, really, -- or maybe well off?

People in Southern California, are all here to get something for themselves. That's what does it. It can be really bad in affluent areas, but it's not like that in some parts of town, but there getting harder to find, as families leave for affordable places.

I remember Therese's very, very fondly. Also, Elaine wanted me to come but a number of the writers there were really snobbish toward me, so I didn't go. I recall Nan Talese as being quite ugly to me. At Therese's though, it was a different story. It was the ultimate, the final insider hangout in New York for many years. So secret that you can't even get anything by Googling it. There were two ways to find it. If you stumbled on it and just went in through the dark basement, you were accepted. Anybody who would do that had to be--well--right for the place. The second way was to be told about it. It was bad form to bring people. The way to do it was to tell Therese who they were, then, if she was good with that, invite them to go on their own. You kept Therese's little secret religiously, and Anne's even mentioning it here is a bit of a stretch, I think, even though Therese is long gone from these shores. She did not go in for the flashy famous. No rock stars, only solidly established movie people, lots of writers, philosophers and statesmen. You did not converse with each other. You ate your sandwich or drank your tea and listened to Therese hold forth. She was the finest raconteur I ever met, a true story artist, and, I feel sure, among the most entertaining human beings who has ever lived. It was so lucky to get to know her.
I recall our first night there. A friend had told me about it and given me just enough information to perhaps find it. I did find it, but I thought that we were crashing. I had no idea that he had told Therese anything about us. We went in and sat down. Nobody greeted us. Therese acted as if we'd been coming around for years. She soon started telling a story. She had become convinced that there were werewolves in the neighborhood, and her server Queenie backed her up all the way. This was how we knew we had been accepted. I had just published Wolfen.

I live in the Los Angeles area and I know several genuine eccentrics. I've been called one myself. We tend to be poor, and live on the eastside. In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed this entry. Thanks Anne!

Regarding the bit about the cat therese had, Loved this part of the story anne as i to have a cat, next doors actually. They dont look after there animals you see so they end up staying with me, but no doubt tinkerbell is probably holding court at some other address, they belong to everyone, yet belong to no one.

Regards

Loobylisa x

Anne writes about Texas and New York because those are the places she and Whitley know in the greatest depth. Eccentrics live everywhere, but in many places they are not accepted and must keep a low profile, like eastern Alabama where I live now. The only acceptable eccentricity here is extreme fundamentalism. Wiccans and Muslims know to keep out of sight, even though they are here and I've met them. LA rewards flamboyance but only if it's a costume. The real Californians live down the coast in places like San Clemente where Dick Nixon grew up.

Sounds like a wonderful place Anne, and Therese sounds like people I have known. I adore eccentric persons, sometimes I even am one. Your description of her place makes me think of a little artsy place downtown here in St. Louis called the Venice Cafe. Back when my husband and I spent time there, it was a hangout for poets and sundry eccentrics, the local color. I imagine it still is. Anyone who lives here or comes to visit, I highly recommend it.

My Mother told me, "Dare to be different, Because only by BEING different can you MAKE a difference, no one changes the world by being like everyone else."
I describe myself as "Weird in a good way" and delight in taking the diagonal view in a horizontal and vertical world. Taking the "View askew" is not always appreciated by those with a pedestrian outlook, but I like to think that I make an impression on those I meet and imagine them 20 years from now remembering that chubby long-haired guy who , just in passing, told them something they never forgot.

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