A Blazing Bonfire of the Literary Vanities Lights Up a New York Night

updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was an evening of Olympian grandeur, it was a horror greater than the soul could bear. Elaine's had a party, and everybody came. Not Woody, of course, but everybody else; of 2,500 people invited, it seemed that 25,000 showed up for the 25th anniversary of Manhattan's famous boîte of the liter-glitterati.

The early-comers staked out their turf: Bobby Short, in black tie, supported the front corner of the bar like the world's most elegant gargoyle; farther on, George Plimpton towered like the Eddystone Light above waves of party-makers. Jerzy Kosinski held imperial court in the back, and George Segal marked his territory along the wall with a cigar. "This is one of the few places where they let me smoke one," he said.

At first it seemed possible that the front room could actually hold everybody. This room, where Woody's table stands, and where the De Niros and the Mailers and the Styrons and the Hemingways are regularly on display, is nirvana. But the back room is Siberia, and so it stood empty for hours after the party began. Instead the crowds pressed into the front room like Visigoths in a frenzy to get Rome sacked and go home, until the walls bulged and the tin ceiling arched and everybody suspended breathing for a while. To no avail; the front room could not hold. As the force of the crowd ejected him like an unsavory canapé into the social void, one poor fellow cried out, "I have never been in this room in 25 YEARS!" But before the evening was out, hundreds would join him in the gulag, among them Billy Dee Williams, Geraldo Rivera and Raquel Welch. To their credit, they bore up with great courage.

This was not simply a Manhattan party, it was the Platonic ideal of a Manhattan party—an event so compelling that ghosty gossipeuse Suzy actually came in person. "We're on your side, Suzy," some paparazzi chorused as she exited to a limousine with Pat Buckley. "The hell we are," added another, as soon as Suzy was out of earshot. Halston, dapper as usual, stood with a trio of gentlemen by the bar. "Just look around you," he said with farm boy amazement. "You see the world. It's the only ticket to have tonight." Bianca Jagger plowed her way through the crush with Carl Bernstein on her arm, traversing ground that had been broken an hour before by Bernstein's ex-wife, Nora Ephron, and her new husband, Nicholas Pileggi. (Ephron's first husband, Dan Greenburg, had arrived even earlier.) "Coming to Elaine's is like going back home," Jagger proclaimed above the roar. She is a native of Nicaragua, site this century of two devastating earthquakes, two revolutions and a bloody insurrection.

Elaine's built its reputation as a haven for writers and artists, poets and people whose lot in life is to see the beauty of the rose. But if the crowd beyond the barricades on Second Avenue was any arbiter of accomplishment, then the star of the evening was Morton Downey Jr., the acidulous demidemagogue. When he arrived, ebullient and limo-borne, onlookers broke out in huzzahs and hand-clapping unheard of this side of Wrestlemania.

It is easy to ridicule Elaine's, and can be quite fun as well. But in behind the glitter, hugging the walls and pooling in the alcoves, stood the writers and artists who made the place, and to whom it is still Mecca, Varanasi and Vatican. For them, there is no ridicule, only worship. "I started coming here when it was a week old," said Jules Feiffer. "When Little Murders first opened on Broadway, it was a dismal failure. I ended up at 2:30 in the morning up here. Elaine had closed the place. She opened it for me. She opened a bottle of champagne, and she and my first wife and I just sat around drinking and commiserating. It's something you don't forget very fast." Frederic Morton, whose biography The Rothschilds was both a best-seller and a Broadway musical but whose profile has always been low, spoke with passion of the place: "It's one of the glass flowers of New York for a writer like myself. You're all day by yourself at the damn typewriter. Here, there's always someone that you know, not that you can afford it every night. There's something informal about it that doesn't entirely eliminate the ego of writers, but it makes ego more convivial." In the cul-de-sac by the bathrooms, some authors stood beneath their framed book jackets: "There are the reminders of all the books we should never have written," one said, half sadly.

But the true essence of Elaine's, as all agreed and Terry Southern so aptly phrased it, is "the generosity and the general hipness of the Great El herself." And there she sat, large and dominating as ever, on one of the bar-stools that has been her throne for the past quarter of a century. "Other places are all into current fads," she said. "They're into nothing that's holy. Writers need a support system. This is where it exists."

The secret of her support is understanding each client's deepest needs. If Woody Allen wants to dine unmolested by fans, she is there to see that his peace is kept. "She's so protective of her clients," said Bobby Short. "If a stranger approaches the table, she gets between you and them and says, 'Leave him alone.' "

For other clients, she does just the opposite. "The biggest trick in the world is to make a star comfortable," Jackie Mason said. "Most people think stars don't like attention; she knows stars are desperate egomaniacs. As soon as a star comes in, she brings 12 people over and says, 'That's a star.' You feel like you've arrived."

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