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Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams

At the Russian Tea Room, Warner LeRoy unwraps a fabulous Fabergé egg of a restaurant -- even as a messy divorce threatens to divide his kingdom.


It was eight hours before the grand opening of the new-and-improved Russian Tea Room, and the building on West 57th Street was still a hard-hat zone. A workman had fallen off the scaffolding in the middle of the night and was undergoing surgery at a nearby hospital. The high-tech toilets -- their electric eyes blinded by a fresh coat of glittery paint on the bathroom walls -- had decided not to flush. A film of dust had quietly settled on the myriad mirrored walls, and the upper reaches of the fifteen-foot bear-shaped aquarium and gilded tree strung with Venetian-glass faux-bergé eggs on the second floor were enveloped in a nimbus of lacquer fumes.

It was a tense moment in what had already been a trying week for restaurateur Warner LeRoy. A platoon of carpenters and craftsmen had been frantically hammering, plastering, and painting around the clock. Hot tar had seeped through a hole in the roof onto his painstakingly detailed mechanical diorama of turn-of-the-century Red Square, where a miniature czar would review troops parading in falling snow and the moon and stars would come out at night. But the tar-flecked Square would have to wait, as LeRoy was already in mid-meltdown about something else. A stress fracture was beginning to show in his normally jovial façade.

"I need a script! Get me a script! You know I always need a script!" he was shouting into his cell phone at some minion. The "script" was the rundown of opening-night festivities: exactly how long the cocktails would be served on the lovingly re-created first floor, exactly when his guests would begin to swarm up to the progressively more extravagant second and third floors, exactly what time the first pickled vegetables would emerge from the kitchen on the just-unpacked silver-plated trays.

LeRoy replaced the cell phone in a small shoulder bag. His breast pocket was out of the question; the phone might destabilize his pacemaker, implanted just two months ago. The cell rang again, and LeRoy fumbled for the call: somebody asking for details about the latest meeting between his divorce lawyer, Stan Lotwin, and his wife's divorce lawyer, Norman Sheresky.

"It went very badly," LeRoy said abruptly. "Look, I gotta go."

His eyes quickly panned the rest of the fourth floor: Artists were daubing one of the three ceiling domes with copper leaf, but the faux-bois finish on the walls had already been dirtied by some careless workman. Down on the third floor, the stags' heads crowning the mirrors were still the color of plaster. Out came the cell phone.

"This is Warner! Why haven't they finished gilding the stags' heads? They were supposed to be working on them last night!" he screamed. The Motorola jammed back in its holster, LeRoy turned again to his companions and grinned: "My grandfather once told me, 'You either get ulcers, or you give them.' "

his curtain was going to go up -- whatever the cost in dollars and anguish. And by nightfall, something of a miracle had transpired on West 57th Street. It may have taken four years, but the scruffy but beloved Russian Tea Room had been transformed into a glistening Winter Palace of etched glass, mirrors, and gilded candelabra. Outside, a convoy of limos disgorged the A-list on Warner LeRoy's doorstep. A pack of borzois was on hand to greet the incoming tide of black-tie couples. Waiters in Cossack uniforms handed out blini dressed with generous clumps of Beluga and Sevruga. Elegant flutes of Stoli and champagne were emptied and whisked out of sight in a matter of seconds.

It must have given this Flo Ziegfeld of the restaurant world an added thrill that the Tea Room was reopening the same night as that other dowager icon seven blocks south, Radio City Music Hall. There were more boldface names (and almost as much gold leaf) in evidence at the Tea Room, where the opening night's ArtsConnection benefit -- co-chaired by Warner's sister, Linda Janklow -- merely offered an excuse for everybody to get a first look at what their perennially over-the-top pal had wrought. Radio City Music Hall may have gotten Billy Crystal to slip into a pair of tights, but the Tea Room had 64-year-old Warner LeRoy, playing host in a burgundy velvet Turnbull & Asser tunic to the likes of Barbara Walters, Richard Holbrooke, Gayfryd Steinberg, Bruce Wasserstein, and Jimmy Buffet -- even as he boasted that Hillary Clinton had already booked her October 25 birthday party here.

"I think it's a hoot. It's old Russia as we dream of it. Right out of Doctor Zhivago," said the Russian Tea Room's former owner Faith Stewart-Gordon. "If this doesn't work out," said LeRoy's partner Steve Roth, chairman of the Vornado Realty Trust, "I suppose I could come live here." This $22 million celebration of excess, in a city embracing all forms of millennial gaiety, had passed its first test. But the high drama was taking place at LeRoy's own candlelit table, where he and his estranged wife, Kay, sat in amicable togetherness after a nasty and public divorce fight that has lasted longer than the renovation itself -- and could cost LeRoy just as much. Here they were, posing for pictures and laughing in this 37,000-square-foot six-story-high party venue that was a blasted-out crater just a year ago. As LeRoy's brother-in-law Mort Janklow, the literary agent, put it, "This is a triumph of the will. I hate to use that old Nazi term, but if Warner had hesitated for a minute, he'd have been dead."

He may have carried on like a czar in the countdown to the Tea Room's debut, but Warner LeRoy is a man who very much wants to be liked. Faith Stewart-Gordon sold him the building for $6.5 million precisely because he promised to respect and preserve it. LeRoy has kept his end of the bargain -- up to a point. Though he gutted the building and built six stories where there had been just five, he's pretty much re-created the historic showbiz canteen on the original first floor. The red banquettes, the eccentric early-twentieth-century art collection featuring Ashcan artists and minor Art Deco painters, those antique samovars -- they've all been reinstated. Only the signature shabbiness has been retouched: The cracked-vinyl banquettes that once cradled so many powerful backsides have been replaced with ergonomically correct leather models. And LeRoy couldn't stop himself from tossing a few copies of Kandinskys and Chagalls into the borscht, along with matted photos of Russian ballet greats, including Balanchine and Baryshnikov.

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