The restaurant’s particular brand of charming, anything-goes nuttiness is, in the end, the by-product of Morellet’s personality. The man is a natural-born exhibitionist, someone with a contagious immunity to shame. “How are you?” I asked him when we first sat down for dinner—one of those rhetorical questions you don’t expect people to answer seriously. Morellet responded by telling me about the “total miserable fucking breakdown” he had suffered in the wake of 9/11, and then about the 30 days he spent in a posh Arizona rehab clinic, and the meditation classes he now attends every week, in addition to group and individual therapy sessions, as well as meetings for Overeaters Anonymous (“Some people can eat a slice of cake—me, I eat the cake”), which he sometimes misses when they overlap with those for Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (“Oh, I was a slut in the seventies!”), and about how he now sometimes has to skip those in favor of Alcoholics Anonymous, which he added to his repertoire this past September. “Yes, yes, I’m a 12-step addict. Do you know why I joined AA?” he asked offhandedly. Back in the fall, he was doing a little midnight gardening at his lake house when he slipped and tumbled down a steep incline and knocked himself unconscious a few yards from the shore. “My GWI!” he bellowed. “Gardening While Intoxicated!”
He took a minute, reluctantly, to catch his breath. “So that’s me,” he concluded. “Now, what shall we eat?”
“New York is the city of changes. People forget this is what they love about it. They get old, they get grumpy. They get nostalgic.”
Over dinner, I asked Morellet to describe the one or two memories that, for him, stand out above all others. He politely laughed in my face: “One or two? Please.” And then, over more than two hours, I heard about the day when he mistook Bette Midler for Bette Midler’s mother; and the night when Diana Ross stormed out of the restaurant after a waiter launched into an impromptu performance of one of her “gay anthems”; and old Hank, a neighborhood regular who used to come in every day for lunch and who, when he became too sick to leave his house, had his meals delivered by a waiter up until the week of his death. Eventually, though, Morellet managed to land on two moments that held particular significance for him—moments that, each in their own way, spoke to what the city will lose when Florent closes.
“Do you know who is James Dale?” he asked me, referring to the New Jersey scoutmaster who sued the Boy Scouts of America for discrimination after he was expelled for being gay. Morellet had gotten to know Dale, and he recalled one night in 2000 when the two of them were talking over dinner at Florent about Dale’s upcoming hearing before the Supreme Court: “James says to me, ‘You know, I don’t really have a suit to wear to the Supreme Court. Do you think you could help me find a suit?’ So I say to him, ‘Hold on a moment.’ And then I walk a few tables down, where Calvin Klein is sitting. I say, ‘Calvin, that man over there is the Boy Scout who is going to the Supreme Court. He doesn’t have much money because—well, because he is a Boy Scout. It would be great if he was wearing a Calvin Klein suit for the Supreme Court.’ Calvin says, ‘No problem, call the store, I’ll take care of it.’ So we go up to the store on Madison Avenue and everyone was just beside themselves, because Calvin had personally said to take care of us, and also just because James is so damn gorgeous.”
And then there was the more somber night, in 1989, when a young man went into the bathroom and never came out. “It was a Saturday, I think, at like two in the morning, and the place was packed—just like right now,” Morellet recalled. “We opened the door, and saw the needle in his arm. Yes, he was dead.” One of the officers on duty that evening was Edgar Rodriguez, an openly gay cop in the Greenwich Village precinct, whose portrait is now framed behind the counter. “What he hears on the radio is that they’re going to close the restaurant to get the body out, which I think is probably standard procedure,” Morellet remembered. “And so he says, ‘No, no—I know the restaurant, they can take the body out through the basement.’ So they carry the body out of the basement and into the ambulance. And inside the restaurant everything just kept going.” Morellet grew serious. “A few weeks later, this man comes in. He’s very well dressed, he’s kind of shy. He says, ‘My brother died here, in the bathroom.’ I thought, Oh my God! I’ve had problems with drugs myself, so I said to him, ‘Sit down, let’s talk.’ It was good for him to see that it was not a dive—at least not a dive dive.” Some droll laughter. “I explained to him what we were all about. I told him that my restaurant is full of young, successful people who are partying at night, and that, from what I could see, the death was an accident. It was really great, you know, because I could help this man get some sense because he was so lost.”