It was the best show in town, socialite columnist Dominick Dunne once wrote of Mortimer’s, a brick-walled restaurant on the corner of 75th Street and Lexington Avenue, provided you could get a table.
From this distance, it is not easy either to characterize or even to apprehend the attraction of a joint which, from 1976, until its sudden closure after the death of its owner Glenn Bernbaum in 1998, occupied a unique place in the social landscape of Manhattan and even beyond. . Generally credited with being the clubby spot that appears in Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’, Mortimer was so unassuming that scenes in the film were shot elsewhere because, as Mr. Bernbaum himself put it a day, “people in the Midwest wouldn’t do it”. I don’t understand the simplicity of the place.
The decor was basic at best: bare brick walls, school lanterns, a curved bar inherited from when it served as a saloon, and bentwood chairs with hard seats including Vogue’s editor, André Leon Talley, once complained of being “difficult for the buttocks”. The menu offered nursery fare like chicken hash, salmon croquettes and creamed spinach, all reasonably priced (a hamburger in 1976 cost $1.90) because, as Mr. Bernbaum also observed , no one is as cheap as the rich.
Mortimer’s clientele was always there, and it was indeed a star-studded lot, as evidenced by ‘Mortimer’s: A Moment in Time’, a new coffee table book by Robin Baker Leacock, with images by Mary Hilliard , to be published next month by G Editions. The book illuminates a vanished social landscape populated by the wealthy, well-connected, famous, and sophisticated, a group that matched Marlene Dietrich’s longstanding observation of New Yorkers that they are constantly hungry for anything but food.
By all accounts, Mr. Bernbaum, a former garment industry executive who, as part of his second post-retirement act, bought an Upper East Side building, was a curmudgeon. With no experience in the hospitality industry, he set up his restaurant in a corner, wedged between a Catholic church and two now defunct gay bars and began to run it, in effect, as a preserve.
“It was a club, basically,” writer Bob Colacello said in an interview.
A man of contradictions, Mr. Bernbaum was rude and kind, aloof and warm, sad and often very funny. “Upper East Side fighter” is how Peter Bacanovic, a technical executive and long-time Mortimer regular, recently dubbed the man. Yet unlike the Hound of Hades, Mr. Bernbaum ferociously guarded the gates of his domain against those he considered the unwashed social dead, pampering and flattering the privileged who passed through the door.
It is instructive to reflect on the small size, in the pre-digital world, of this largely self-selected elite group that seemed to rule New York. The Capital “S” company was prospering at this time. Fashion was effectively controlled by John Fairchild, the snobby editor of Women’s Wear Daily. A tight group of “confirmed bachelors” like Mr. Bernbaum, Bill Blass and the socialite Jerry Zipkin – who probably had a better hotline with the White House Reagan than the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – subtly exercised their power over the social scene. Ornamental young debutantes frolic in Christian Lacroix pouf dresses. And the ladies who had lunch really did – if you can call a meal three bull shots and a Craven A cigarette smoked in a Dunhill cigarette holder.
This is how publisher, novelist and former gossip columnist William Norwich described his introduction to Mortimer’s shortly after it opened in 1976. Mr Norwich first visited the place as a guest of his mother’s mother. a friend and has returned over the years, drawn, as most of his clients were, by the jaw-dropping gaze people stared at.
Invariable on Sunday, 1B, a table to the right of the window would be occupied by Diana Vreeland. Nan Kempner sat nearby, as did fashion plaque and philanthropist Judith Peabody, crowned in her signature bouffant nimbus. On any given day, alone or in combination, as Mr. Dunne noted in Vanity Fair, one was likely to spot heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, Barbara Walters, Jacqueline Onassis, Estée Lauder, William S. Paley, Fran Lebowitz, Henry Kissinger, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Graham, Mike Wallace, Lord Snowdon or Greta Garbo.
Few of these A-list actors survive longer in collective memory, and so it’s as a document of a bygone era that the book earns its hefty $85 sale price.
Perhaps one way of looking at Mortimer is like the sum of New York society in the days ‘before public relations ruled the nightlife’, as Ms Leacock put it from her home near Palm Beach, Florida. go out at night because you have to be on a list, and the list didn’t even exist back then.
Or if it was, it was mostly in the mind of a sly, eccentric, autocratic restaurateur, a man who never took reservations but who, of course, as he told Vanity Fair, held scrupulously a joint where we “take care of our buddies.”