This is as good as it gets. A light rain is falling on a soft May evening and I’m walking north on a silent Park Avenue hoping to get into trouble. Fourteen thousand yellow taxis have turned Manhattan into a Bengali hellhole, blasting their horns non-stop, picking up or disgorging passengers in the middle of traffic-clogged streets, speeding and failing to yield to pedestrians as Big Bagel law requires. But on the Upper East Side, on a balmy evening, the yellow devils are causing havoc downtown, so I almost find myself singing in the rain as I head north far from the madding crowd.(Puns unintended.)
Nicola’s is an Italian restaurant that used to be very much in fashion back in the Seventies and Eighties. I hadn’t been there for many years, but Michael Mailer insisted we go down memory lane, so we did. Nicola was the headwaiter at Elaine’s, until he told the fat lady to shove it, got fired and opened up his own place a few blocks south. Nicola was no fool, except for his terrible coke habit, and he continued Elaine’s custom of showering attention on writers and journalists, who were the Hiltons and Kardashians of the time back in those halcyon days.
Hacks covered Elaine’s and Nicola’s like a rash, and even the late great Nigel Dempster would ring from London and chat to the proprietors when stuck for a story. Nigel posed in front of Elaine’s for a cover story whose title was ‘The Scum Also Rises’.
Elaine used to put pictures of her regulars up on her walls — yours truly was between Hunter Thompson and Jack Richardson — so Nicola did one better. He put up book covers inside glass bookcases and sat the authors underneath them. My first book, published in 1976, got placed in the same glass case as Norman Mailer’s: something that didn’t exactly displease me enough to sue. Norman’s reaction was typical. He thanked Nicola for including him next to the great Greek writer no one had heard of.
Nicola had taken a liking to me on account of something I’d said in a rather loud voice upon encountering Buddy Jacobson, out on bail for the murder of a love rival. It was a crowded Saturday night, Jacobson was holding court and I bellowed, ‘It’s murder in here.’ The place went quiet, Jacobson got up, all five feet four of him, and dared me to repeat it, which I did. He then sat back down. The story appeared in all the papers the next day, and young Taki became a protected species in Nicola’s, as he was at Elaine’s. Buddy boy got life, escaped from jail, was recaptured and died in jail soon after. Nicola left us a few years back, but his place is still thriving, now owned by his waiters.
I could tell Nicola and Elaine stories for the next year, but two that stand out are the following. I once saw a beautiful girl dining alone with a bunch straight out of the Godfather, so I wrote my Romeo and Juliet letter to her and had a waiter deliver it. I was sitting with Elaine when an actor in the party came over to us. ‘Whose da poet?’ he asked, and threw my letter on the table. ‘It wasn’t for you,’ I protested, but Elaine interrupted. ‘I’ll take care of it,’ she told the thespian. Then to me, ‘Are you nuts? That’s a Mafia wedding, they’re all made guys, and she’s the bride, and if I were you I’d go home, kid.’
Another time, in the lavatory at Nicola’s, I saw a man whom I mistook for someone I had loathed for ever because he bribed everyone who came within a mile of him. ‘I’ll take two grams, and they’d better be good,’ I said to him, pretending that I thought he was a coke dealer who sometimes hung out there. The man just kept staring at me but said nothing. So I went out and told the story to Nicola, who gasped and started to beat his head with his fists. ‘That’s the head of Manhattan detectives. What have you done? You’ve ruined me.’ Not exactly. I told the top cop that I knew who he was and was testing him. I was with a very pretty girl who had once been Miss South Carolina Speedway, and the top cop liked Miss Speedway. We ended up being very good buddies — and still are to this day.
Incidentally, I thought of her when I mentioned the Hiltons. Betsy von Furstenberg, a German aristo and a very talented Hollywood star and nice woman, died a couple of weeks ago and in her obituaries she was quoted as saying that when she was 18 she had gone out with Nicky Hilton, Liz Taylor’s first, and what a bum he was. ‘I was so amazed that the whole clan was so uneducated.’ Well, baroness, they still are — extremely uneducated and crude. I had come to fisticuffs with Nicky Hilton over a Spectator diarist by the name of Dame Joan Collins back in 1957, but people broke it up rather quickly.
Norman Mailer’s cover and mine, by the way, are still in the same place, but the table underneath them was occupied by unknowns.
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