Robert Graves, Claudius the God
Mortimer's, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, was the society restaurant of the 1980s and 90s. Glenn Bernbaum, the famed restaurant's proprietor, was more important to the restaurant's success than any dish that came out of its kitchen. He understood that the most essential recipe for a restaurant's success is understanding its clientele. Mortimer's was cozy and clubby, and its menu harkened back to the comfort foods one recalled from childhood. Moreover, the prices were reasonable, which appealed to the old money types who so enjoyed eating there. Per Bernbaum, "There's nothing the rich like better than a bargain."
In fact, Mortimer's was so understated that Hollywood did not get it. Dominick Dunne fictionalized Mortimer's in his best-selling novel People Like Us. When the book was adapted into a mini-series, its producers felt the Mortimer's look was all wrong for the series. According to Dunne, "They wanted something grander, not getting it, that the lack of grandeur was the very point of it." Bernbaum laughed when he heard this. He had more pressing issues anyway, such as addressing the Secret Service's request that then-First Lady Nancy Reagan not be seated in a window table, or wondering how to eject Brooke Astor from Jacqueline Onassis's favorite table when she called requesting it.
Yet, it would be a mistake to label Glenn Bernbaum a homophobe. He was capable of great courage in the opposite direction. A case in point was when he redeemed himself by:
- Ejecting Roy Cohn and his lunch date Anita Bryant from the restaurant.
- Chiding then-First Lady Nancy Reagan on the refusal of her husband’s administration to acknowledge the AIDS crisis.
- Becoming a leading AIDS crisis fundraiser.
- Seating an AIDS-afflicted Rock Hudson at a prime table in the restaurant.
In 1986, Peabody sent out letters to organize a fundraiser to help AIDS patients, but no one responded. Perhaps Dunne was on the mark of his portrayal in People Like Us of a New York society woman who insists that her AIDS inflicted son actually had cancer?
Peabody refused to give up. She discussed the matter with Bill Blass who advised her to consult Bernbaum. "Glenn, cantankerous, adorable Glenn," she asked. She and Blass took Bernbaum to lunch, and he proved more adorable than cantankerous that day. He conceived the large street party outside Mortimer's that became known as Fete de Famille. It became an oft-repeated fundraiser and a huge success. Commented Judy, "If Bill hadn’t thought of going to Glenn, and if Glenn hadn’t suggested the party, the AIDS Care Center would have never gotten started.” Yet its importance was not only millions for the care of AIDS patients. Just as significantly, it transformed AIDS from a taboo subject in Upper East Side society into one of its leading charity causes.