May 23, 2015
It’s 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. 14,000 yellow taxis have turned Manhattan into a Bengal 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 the 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. (Both 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. Nothing had changed. Nicola was the headwaiter at Elaine’s, until he told the fat lady to shove it, got fired and opened up his own place two 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, back in those halcyon days the Hiltons and Kardashians of the time. 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, 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 for something I 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 by switching clothes with his lawyer, one whom he had hired for his lack of height and looks, 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 stick out were 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 the actor Joe Pesci, the very bad guy in Goodfellas and Casino, came up to the table. “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, Joe, she told the diminutive 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 at Nicola’s, in the lavatory, I saw a man who I mistook for Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, a man I had loathed forever because he bribed everyone who came within a mile of him. “I’ll take two grams, and they better be good,” I told him, pretending that I thought he was the coke dealer that usually hung out there. The man just kept staring at me but saying 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 that had once been Miss South Carolina Speedway, and the top cop liked Miss Speedway, and we ended up being very good buddies, and 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.