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.