R.I.P. Elaine’s…P.J. Clarke’s woulda been a better victim.
“Elaine’s, one of the most iconic restaurants in New York, is closing its doors on May 26th. The restaurant – which has served a wide variety of celebrities and writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Gay Talese – simply couldn’t survive once its owner Elaine Kaufman died last December.”
A buddy of mine emailed me this article about the shuttering of another Gotham destination whose staying power pooped out…Elaine’s. My response was that Elaine’s without Elaine wasn't Elaine’s. Therefore I wasn't surprised. And of course every article I've read waxes nostalgic about the place but lands on the same conclusion. Here’s an excerpt from my email reply…
Subject: Re: Elaine's to Close Next Week - FishbowlNY
“Yep. Elaine's without Elaine. Not surprising. New York is gone...at least the Gotham that I WANT to imagine. London is closing in fast. P. J. Clarke's is nothing more than a TGI Fridays...limping along on some attenuated hardscrabble literary/journalist/show biz clientele memory. Their bouncer wears fingerless, ventilated driving gloves. And he smacks people. I've been present for the smacking but wasn't the smackee. Ditto the Algonquin.”
Then this from my buddy “…a few years ago, after the Big Renovation, walked over to Clarke’s, saw a Studio 54-like line consisting of Studio 54-style hopefuls in, uh, contemporary attire – then heard the…music…that was spilling through the door onto the sidewalk. Haven’t bothered to try since. Now I understand it’s franchising, or at least has a satellite or two. Clarke’s, RIP. Smoky, greasy, dark, big urinal (I read they at least kept those) Clarke’s. There the food was very, very, very secondary, often barely edible, I thought, while to me Elaine’s chow was always underrated. Or, its flaws overstated…”
Funny about the P. J. Clarke’s urinals. Sinatra said “you could stand Abe Beame in one and still have room.”
And my buddy is spot-on about Clarke’s. You ain't gonna find the modern day complements to actor Richard Harris applying his restorative vodka shots or columnist and Nixon enemy George Frazier having a cheeseburger there. Interestingly, places like Clarke’s were at one time, destinations that reflected a segment of the Gotham strata.
Frazier, in his epic 1960 Esquire treatise…The Art of Wearing Clothes…correlates P.J. Clarke’s with a sartorially stylish bunch.
“…for nowadays even the smallest town has a men's shop that carries the same suits and haberdashery that are on sale at, say Madison Avenue and Forty-fifth Street in New York. New Bedford, Massachusetts, for example, has Marty Sullivan's, a store so attuned to the fickleness of fashion that it has its buyers and designers spend part of their Manhattan visitations in such bars-and-grills as P. J. Clarke's, which attracts an extremely creatively-dressed Ivy League clientele.”
Oops…just realized something. What was I thinking? P. J. Clarke’s still reflects a slice of the Gotham strata. It’s just a different one. Look, I’m no anthropologist or intellectual or sociologist or whatever. So it’s not like I’m capturing a demo-socio-anthropological phenomenon here…quite the opposite actually. This was a breakthrough for me...not for y'all. I’m slow. So when the obvious lands late, we bring out the neuronal hazmat trucks. Shut up.
I remember Richard Merkin telling me that part of his motivation for decamping Gotham was its slow but obvious and steady slide towards homogeneity. Something about hookers being the proverbial Canaries in the Gotham Coal Mine. One day they were gone. These surrogate markers indexed to the inevitable beige sameness that one like Merkin, whose eyes had viewed Gotham for sixty-five years, might see earlier and more sensitively than others.
The one-offs in my hometown…the independents, the local characters and businesses of my youth save a few, have gone the way of Elaine’s. I took the photo above when I was home last month. This is Evans street—the source of all my childhood clothes and toys and also the sweet-spot for my Trad sartorial orientation. I’m standing in front of the haberdashery where I worked part time during my formative years. It opened there and remained so from 1927 till the about 1990. Everything’s now closed and the national chains are out near the Interstate.
The I-20 spur in Florence, South Carolina has a retail and entertainment strip manned by the likes of Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Target, Staples, Best Buy and a Borders. And so does Gotham and London and every other urban destination I find myself visiting. Beige consistency…homogeneity…dead canaries everywhere. All in the same sequence…maybe the Red Lobster before Applebee’s now and again but every supporting actor in the sameness ensemble present and accounted for. Butcept Florence has no Duane Reads…which is probably what’ll take Elaine’s place.
Onward. Smelling something funny in the coal mine. Funny indeed. ADG, II