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Legendary Restaurateur Elaine Kaufman Dies

By Della Hasselle | December 3, 2010 3:18pm | Updated on December 4, 2010 9:19am

By Della Hasselle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MANHATTAN — Elaine Kaufman, the legendary owner of Upper East Side restaurant  Elaine's which was a favorite of celebrities ranging from Frank Sinatra to Tennessee Williams, died on Friday aged 81.

The restaurateur passed away at 12:20 p.m. at Lenox Hill hospital after a battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, according to several reports.

"Elaine was greatly loved by me and her entire staff. It was an honor and a privilege to have worked with her — one of New York City's greatest personalities — for 26 years," Elaine's manager, Diane Becker, told the New York Post.

"Most of all, it was a lot of fun."

Kaufman opened Elaine's on East 88th Street in 1963. It quickly became a destination for actors, journalists, authors and celebrities such as Kurt Vonnegut, Jackie O, Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine, and Lauren Bacall. It's even the place where Woody Allen met Mia Farrow, according to the New York Daily News.

Known by beloved patrons as "Mama," Kaufman often allowed thirsty writers to keep tabs during dry spells of work, including names like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese. As one story goes, she even let one writer keep a massive tab, until he came back to repay her years later and leave a $5,000 tip, the News reported.

Other memories involve all-night poker games, Hunter Thompson drinking shots of 151 with a rifle across his lap, and a surprise performance by Barishnikov and Nureyev, the paper reported.

Sometimes, stars would take their turn behind the bar, like when Jackie Gleason did a "Joe the Bartender" act, according to the paper.

The tables turned the other way, too. Elaine herself appeared in several movies, like "Morning Glory" with Diane Keaton, and her restaurant was the opening scene for one of her favorite actor's movies, Woody Allen's "Manhattan."

Kaufman, who was born into a struggling Jewish family on the Upper West Side, was recognized for her fame in 2004 when she was named a "New York Living Landmark" by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

A memorial is expected sometime next year, according to reports. In the meantime, the restaurant will continue to operate fully staffed, according to the restaurant's manager.