In the Union of a New York Playboy with a Dallas Playgirl, a Jet-Set Restaurant Is Born

UPDATED 12/07/1981 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/07/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

Once she was a top model in Dallas and "having a ball," Joanna Haseltine recalls. "I never dated anyone but millionaires. One from New Orleans saw my picture and sent his Learjet to pick me up for dinner; another flew me to Hawaii as a birthday present." So when Manhattan restaurateur Sheldon Haseltine entered her life in 1979, she was unimpressed. Besides, she says, "I had a terrible hangover that day."

Sheldon was the persistent type. Each week he sent her no fewer than nine dozen roses, and he began a regular New York-to-Dallas commute. One year and $30,000 in air fares later, they were married—and for New York's nightlife, it was a blessed event.

Their union in no time begat a new restaurant named Joanna (the name was his wedding gift to her) on Manhattan's East 18th Street. Opened in September 1980, Joanna has become the hottest new celebrity eatery in New York. The designer Halston is a regular, as is fashion maven Diana Vreeland. Mayor Ed Koch drops in for chili, Baryshnikov for spicy penne à la vodka. Christina Onassis, Debbie Harry, Robin Williams, Glenda Jackson, Ann Jillian, Al Pacino and Andy Warhol are among those who stop by Joanna to fuel up for a night on the town.

Aside from the ambience—a turn-of-the-century French brasserie with globe lamps and lace curtains—and the continental menu supervised by Sheldon, Joanna's chief attraction is Joanna, who greets guests personally as often as possible. "Running a successful restaurant is even more competitive than modeling," admits Joanna, 33. "Luckily I smile very easily."

Neither Haseltine was born to the food-and-drink trade. Sheldon, 34, whose father is a retired U.S. diplomat and whose mother was a model for Schiaparelli, grew up in assorted European capitals. He attended boarding schools in England and later Switzerland, where servants shined the students' shoes and made their beds. His parents, who were divorced when he was 5, were unamused when he was nearly booted out of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration for taking in an unauthorized female roommate. They approved of his decision in 1975 to go into business producing imitation Louis Vuitton handbags. But he lost their blessing again with the publication of his first book, a volume of soft porn titled The Sophisticated Sex Maniac's Diary. "I did it for fun and money," Sheldon says. It was naughty, but in a nice way.

Eventually he settled down and decided to learn the restaurant business from the bottom up, beginning as a waiter in Central Park's Tavern-on-the-Green. His fellow waiters no doubt found it odd when he arrived for work in a Savile Row dinner jacket. "At least I didn't drive up in my Porsche," he says with a shrug.

His wife, born Joanna Brannon in Waxahachie, Texas, is the daughter of a Texas builder. Her first marriage, to a Gl when she was 17, ended in divorce. (The children of that marriage, Joe, 12, and Graham, 13, live with their father in Dallas.) After the divorce she found a career in modeling and spurned offers of marriage—until Sheldon. "Being as pretty and intelligent as she is," says Sheldon, "Joanna has always been used to getting her own way. And I suppose I have as well, so we clash." In fact, they separated for a month this year before reconciling. "The marriage is stormy," says Sheldon. "Things are settling down, but we still fight like cats and dogs."

To ease the tensions the Haseltines regularly flee their city apartment for a six-bedroom house in Bridgehampton, L.I. "A restaurant is like show business," Joanna observes. "You're onstage constantly and can never show your real feelings." There is also the problem of so much rich food so close at hand. Joanna retains the discipline of a model. "When I'm tempted by our chocolate desserts," she says, "my wardrobe usually wins."

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