Glenn Bernbaum, Our Years at Mortimer’s
“There’s nothing the rich like better than a bargain.”
Glenn Bernbaum, Our Years at Mortimer’s
Image Credit: Our Years at Mortimer's
“Most men—it is my experience—are neither virtuous nor scoundrels, good-hearted nor bad-hearted. They are a little of one thing and a little of the other and nothing for any length of time.”
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 the 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.
Bill Blass was an early fan. In his memoir, Bare Blass, however, he noted, “It would be putting it mildly to say that Glenn didn’t show a great deal of democracy in his choice of whom he wanted in his restaurant. He discouraged any gentleman from having a table of men, lest the restaurant became known as a gay hangout." Never mind that Bernbaum was himself gay. "It was an extreme form of self-denial that none of us could fathom," wrote Blass.
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:
The answer is after the JUMP.
The are many Easter eggs hidden in Bill Blass’s posthumously published memoir Bare Blass. One of the best concerns his friend Jerry Zipkin, the New York socialite who strolled into history as First Lady Nancy Reagan’s gay best friend and Nouvelle Society’s favorite walker. Zipkin was a polarizing figure, as beloved by some as he was despised by others. Bill Blass was in the first camp. He liked Jerry Zipkin very much.
One day, Bill Blass asked a recently hired assistant to get Zipkin on the line. She leafed through Bill’s private address book, filled with the top-secret telephone numbers of the rich and the fashionable. There were two listings for Jerry Zipkin. The first was busy, so she tried the second. Zipkin answered and upon realizing an assistant for Bill Blass was on the other end, he hissed, “This is the private line for Nancy Reagan!”
Even among his friends, Jerry Zipkin was known for his imperiousness. Once, Mortimer’s committed a social faux pas by playing “God Save the Queen” during Princess Margaret’s visit to the restaurant. The Princess was miffed. The society columnist Taki, with whom she was dining, quipped, “It is not for you ma’am. It’s for Jerry Zipkin.” [via the Financial Times]
Image Credit: Ronnie & Nancy, Their Path to the White House
“I have always been intrigued by the kind of people who call their lawyers before they call the police after a murder. It is a rich-people thing.”
Who says Americans do not have second acts? In his first one, Dominick Dunne was a minor player in the entertainment industry but a major firmament on the Hollywood social scene, hosting and attending the most talked-about parties in Beverly Hills, circa the super-glam 1960s. However, that was mere prologue to his second act. He returned to New York in the 1980s and became a star journalist for Vanity Fair, reporting on crimes committed by the rich and famous. He also moonlighted as a novelist, fictionalizing the sensational murders he wrote about in Vanity Fair.
Dominick Dunne’s The Way We Live Then chronicles his Beverly Hills years. It is the closest Dunne came to writing his memoirs (though in his swan song novel--Too Much Money—he is clearly the narrator Gus Bailey). The home he shared with wife Lenny and three children became a hub for a glittering but cultivated Hollywood set. Regulars included Natalie Wood, Billy and Audrey Wilder, Jennifer Jones, Roddy McDowall, and the agent Freddie Fields. Occasionally their circle expanded to include Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Cecil Beaton, Princess Margaret, Lauren Bacall, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman and many others. Filled with black & white photographs, most shot by Dunne, the book offers the imagery one expects from a coffee table book but is smaller, making it easy to pick up and read the text.
Dominick and Lenny Dunne defied the primary rule of the entertainment industry. Generally in Hollywood, one’s popularity is directly proportional to one’s box office. Not so the Dunnes. His C-List career miraculously translated into an A-List social life. Perhaps that was because they gave such memorable parties. In fact, their most celebrated was a formal dance in which the ladies were requested to dress in black or white. Truman Capote attended and then copied the theme for his famed Black and White Ball to which the Dunnes were not invited.
Dunne was the master of the society roman à clef. His novel People Like Us covered the excesses of Manhattan's Nouvelle Society. The book created a stir when both the old guard and the social climbers caught on that Dunne had pilfered from their lives to create the book's memorable characters. There is no doubt Glenn Bernbaum, of Mortimer’s fame, was the model for Chick. Chick was proprietor of Clarence’s, the society restaurant where the characters regularly dined. Nick Harvill Libraries acquired (and quickly sold) Bernbaum’s copy of People Like Us. In it, Dunne warmly inscribed, “For Glenn, aka Chick, there’s not too many people like you around, with great affection, Dominick Dunne, June 20, 1988.”
Occasionally books from Dominick Dunne’s own library appear on the resale market. They are noted with a “From the Estate of Dominick Dunne” stamp. One such book is currently available from Nick Harvill Libraries. It is Slim Keith’s memoir Slim, Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life. Sadly, Slim died prior to its publication, but this copy is signed to Dunne by the book’s co-writer who was a colleague at Vanity Fair. It is warmly inscribed, “For Dominick, The godfather, guru, and all-time chronicler of rich & imperfect lives. All my love, Annette.”
In 2012, Nick Harvill Libraries sold a copy of The Way We Lived Then in which a program from Dominick Dunne’s memorial service was laid in. His Vanity Fair boss Tina Brown was one of the speakers. How great it would have been to witness her eulogize one of the journalists with whom she captured the zeitgeist of go-go 1980s.