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Men and the Menu

From her memoir, a restaurant critic’s awakening (with romantic help from Elvis, Burt Reynolds, and Clint Eastwood, and Gilbert Le Coze).

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Gael Greene in 1961, promoting her first book, Don't Come Back Without It.  

1. ELVIS


1956 Conquest Elvis signing autographs.  

Elvis Presley was coming to town to do two shows at Olympia Stadium. At 21, I was one of the hormone-raging millions with a crush on Elvis—the young, beautiful, seemingly unspoiled Elvis.

No New York newspaper would hire me fresh from college in 1956—I had applied everywhere and sent countless résumés—so I was languishing at home in Detroit, Michigan, the most junior staffer at United Press International. I wrote a letter to Colonel Parker, asking if I could spend the day with Elvis and write about it. I got back a mimeographed invitation to Presley’s official press conference. I was insulted and frustrated but not discouraged.

I wore a simple body-skimming black shantung dress (my most slenderizing) with white stitching along the neck and cap sleeves, shiny black patent-leather pumps, and little white kid gloves. I arrived backstage early to study security and find its most vulnerable link. Lamar was his name. He was in charge of guarding the door and a pair of 24-karat-gold pants with a sequined stripe, which he carried in a padlocked garment bag. From his rolling drawl, I figured he must be one of Elvis’s Memphis mafia.

“Do you sing, too?” I asked, tickling his tweed elbow. At that moment, a slim figure in a red suede cloth jacket was slipped into the room by a phalanx of uniformed security guards. Elvis curled his lip, smiled, and flicked back his shiny black cowlick, then seated himself on the edge of a table with an “I’m all yours” wink. He was looking right at me. I felt weak, and I blushed all over. Then, after gamely responding to our lame and predictable queries, too quickly Elvis was gone.

Lamar took my hand. “If you want to stand close by, you can watch the show from the nearest aisle and slip back here before the crush at the end. Then you can go to the hotel with us to hang out and have a coke between shows,” he offered. I stood silent in the hysteria of screams. Suddenly Lamar grabbed my hand and tucked me into a limo with an assortment of silent young louts, the full Memphis crew. We pulled out of the underground bay.

“But where is Elvis?” I cried.

“He’s behind us in a taxi,” Lamar promised. At the Book-Cadillac Hotel, there was a volatile coagula of fans waiting to catch a glimpse of Elvis. Upstairs in a 24th-floor suite, the Memphis cronies sipped their cola and divvied up the comics from the Sunday papers. Nobody looked at me. I was too familiar, an offering for the King.

Oh dear heaven. I stopped breathing. Elvis. He stood in the door, smaller than life—small in life, I mean—pompadoured hair slick. He sized up the room and astutely realized I was the only female in it. He slunk directly toward me, slender in shiny black faille trousers and a sheer blue short-sleeved eyelet organdy shirt, till one leg was brushing my thigh.

“And who are you?”

I babbled something.

He didn’t seem to be listening. Silently, he took my hand—yes, still gloved—and led me to a bedroom. I was thinking, Oh my God . . . this is Elvis. . . . I am going to do it with Elvis. I am not going to be coy. I will not make him talk me into it. He didn’t ask. I didn’t answer. He closed the door, dropped his pants, and lay on the bed—very pale, soft, young—watching me take off my clothes and, yes, at last, my little white gloves. All the way up on the 24th floor, I could hear the girls chanting on the street below: “We want Elvis. We want Elvis.”

And look who has him, I was thinking. I think it was good. I don’t remember the essential details. It was certainly good enough. I know the reality of it was thrilling beyond anything I might have imagined.

“I need to sleep now,” he said when it was over.

I grabbed my clothes and fled into the bathroom to dress. As I picked up my purse, wondering if a good-bye kiss would be appropriate, Elvis opened his eyes, blinked, as if he wasn’t sure for a moment what I was doing there.

He twitched a shoulder toward the phone. “Would you mind calling room service and ordering me a fried-egg sandwich?”

The fried-egg sandwich—that part I remember. At that moment, it might have been clear I was born to be a restaurant critic. I just didn’t know it yet.

2. HENRI

Craig Claiborne was a god, my hero, my idol. Even non-food-obsessed New Yorkers looked to his Friday restaurant review in the New York Times as gospel. His favorite restaurant was Le Pavillon, creation of the quintessential Henri Soulé. I just didn’t have the courage to walk up unknown and unrecommended to the legendary martinet at his podium as he rationed out the royal banquettes at Le Pavillon. I knew from reading Women’s Wear Daily and Joseph Wechsberg’s Dining at the Pavillon how his glance could turn a poseur to fleur de sel. Finally, I realized the way to reach Monsieur Soulé was through my typewriter. I had started freelancing so that our fancy eating would be tax-deductible. I proposed a story to Ladies’ Home Journal: “A Week in the Kitchen of the Pavillon.” Henri Soulé, a flirtatious five-foot-five cube of amiability, was willing. Pouting and posing, an owl who saw himself as an osprey, he instructed his chef, Clément Grangier, to suffer me in the kitchen below for as long as required. I arrived each morning in my tennis shoes, was taught how to flute a mushroom, watched Chef Grangier whisk butter to order for a fussy habitué, marveled at the saucier’s iron right forearm, and took lessons in quenelles de brochet—the delicate whipped pike-and-cream dumplings that were my favorite dish.


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