MANHATTAN — Legend has it that restaurateur Elaine Kaufman fed struggling writers in her Upper East Side salon and let them run up tabs as they received one rejection letter after another.
Once the fledgling scribes became paid journalists and authors, however, the doyenne insisted on loyalty that included spending their newfound largesse in her popular Second Avenue boîte — which they and a galaxy of celebrities, politicians, police and a few gangsters gladly did during four decades of New York nightlife.
Since Kaufman's death in December 2010, a charity created in her memory called Table 4 Writers Foundation is carrying on her passion for discovering writers and assisting them with grant money to help launch their careers.
The charity’s second annual gala will be held March 27 at the New York Athletic Club, where Kaufman fans — including actors Richard Dreyfuss and Chazz Palmintieri, writers Stuart Woods and Mary Higgins Clark, as well as her daughter Carol Higgins Clark — will be honored along with five aspiring writers whose short stories, essays and novel excerpts were chosen to receive grants totaling $12,500.
Gretchen VanEsselstyn, a fiction writer who was among last year’s awardees, never met Kaufman — but support from the charity in her honor helped her turn a corner in her career. She not only won money to give her a cushion to continue writing, she met a literary agent at the 2013 soiree who introduced her to a potential publisher.
“I seldom enter writing competitions, but Table 4 appealed to me because of the connection to New York and to Elaine Kaufman as a restaurant owner,” said VanEsselstyn, who attended culinary school and worked in the restaurant industry.
“It was a great feeling to finally be acknowledged for my writing,” she added.
Like VanEsselstyn, poet KC Trommer never stepped foot in Elaine’s, which closed in May 2011, but she knew the stories about its famous owner and the eclectic gathering of customers she attracted. Trommer was the first recipient of a grant from the foundation, earining it for the first short story she ever wrote.
“It’s hard to constantly put yourself out there when you get so many negative responses,” the single mother of a 4 year old said. “Writing can be a lonely and discouraging process. So, this was very encouraging for me.”
David Ciminello, a New York City public school teacher and a 2013 grant recipient, said the stipend gave him the freedom to focus on a manuscript.
“Elaine Kaufman came from humble beginnings and lived the struggles of what it took to be a successful woman in the restaurant business and understood what a little kindness could do,” he said.
“When you are an emerging writer, there’s no substitute for this kind of encouragement,” he continued. “Table 4 put some wind in my sails and provided the encouragement to keep going and finish something.”
Foundation chairwoman Jenine Lepera Izzi added, “Just as Elaine did from that famous six-top table known as 'table four,' we are committed to identifying promising writers who need a little encouragement — and maybe a little kick in the pants, as Elaine used to say — to help them to the next level."
Tickets for the event next week are $300 and tax-deductible, Izzi said.