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.
He’s also introduced a few nifty new sideshows: An ice sculpture that looks like the Kremlin, incorporating bottles of premium vodka and champagne, will be wheeled around the premises (an outfit in Westchester will deliver fresh Kremlins three times daily). Bartenders will be spiking shots of borscht with vodka – a drink LeRoy invented and named the Borscht Belt. A Russian-studies professor from Williams College has been drafted to help the French chef create adapted Russian dishes – coulibiac of salmon with beurre rouge, beef Stroganoff with potato soufflé, truffled-quail Kiev – that won’t offend the palates of modern-day Manhattan food snobs. LeRoy attempted to import chiseled-cheeked Slavic hostesses from the Old Country, but visa troubles foiled that plan.
Tea Room regulars won’t be scandalized by what has gone on here. It’s the two floors upstairs – reserved for corporate events and weddings and open to the public for holidays only – that would induce even the most dissipated aristocrat to choke on his Beluga. They are LeRoy’s own Potemkin Chartres: Twenty-foot-high ceilings coruscate with backlit Tiffany-made glass (one was salvaged from Maxwell’s Plum in New York). Walls shimmer with iridescent blue glass tiles made from titanium and other elements pulverized in an atom smasher in Oregon. Golden hares scamper across jet-glass walls, etched bears ice-skate and gambol on mirrored panels, and tiered brass chandeliers sand-cast in India are festooned with dancing bears. The aquarium will be filled with live sturgeon when and if LeRoy can find a way to keep the fish happy: He is thinking he may have to hire a fish psychologist to help them adjust to life in the bear’s round belly (sturgeon are customarily bottom-dwellers and prefer square tanks). He is also anticipating the arrival of a gypsy-style band he discovered in Venice’s Piazza San Marco – after the contract and visa problems are sorted out, that is.
But even LeRoy says he can still recognize when more is just too much: At the last minute, he decided not to hang the year-round Christmas decorations on the chandeliers and wainscoting, as was done in the old Tea Room. “In the original Tea Room, where things were much simpler, it worked,” he says. “But somehow, after all I put into this one, they actually took away from the room.”
The space was considerably more subdued in all of its previous incarnations. A Russian émigré named Zissman opened the original Tea Room on the north side of West 57th Street in 1926 (it moved to its present location across the street a year later). Only pastries and the eponymous drink were served, mostly to homesick Russian exiles, especially artists, musicians, dancers, and actors who were attached to Carnegie Hall, next door, or the Art Students League nearby. In 1932, another Russian, Sasha Maieff, bought the place and began serving meals; after Prohibition, Maieff replaced the soda fountain with a bar.
In the mid-forties, Sidney Kaye – whose parents were Russian émigrés but who spoke not a word of Russian himself – took over the Tea Room, and he ran it until his death in 1967. That’s when his wife, Faith Stewart-Gordon, took it over. The staff remained mostly Russian throughout the forties and fifties, but the Russian clientele slowly was replaced with a new crowd – theater people hanging around the Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman in the Carnegie Hall building. Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, Arthur Miller, Beverly Sills, Carol Channing, Alan Arkin, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Jason Robards, Michael Caine, Liza Minnelli, Lee Grant, Sidney Poitier, Sidney Lumet, Sidney Pollack, and Garson Kanin are just a few of the marquee names that regularly lit up the reservations list. Sightings of Marlon and Woody in their chinos and Ray-Bans and Jackie O. with her latest lunch date got the kind of ink Gwyneth and Leo get today.
Of course, real Russians continued to swan through over the years, including defecting Soviet dancers Nureyev, Makarova, Godunov, and Baryshnikov. But by the seventies, a regular booth at the Tea Room was the ultimate entertainment-broker status symbol. In this blood-red craw of power, ICM agent Sam Cohn claimed table No. 1. Dustin Hoffman and Arthur Miller are said to have agreed to collaborate on Death of a Salesman at the Tea Room, and later, Hoffman and Streep were paired for the movie Kramer vs. Kramer at Cohn’s table. It was a New York where the action still unfolded in midtown, and the food fanatic hadn’t yet been born who would presume to be repulsed by a Russian menu.
LeRoy says he’s personally invited the old regulars – and they are old now – to return, but no one believes the new Tea Room can re-create the magic of the original. There was a diaspora when the Tea Room was sold to LeRoy and closed in 1995, but even before that, charter members were more likely to see each other at funerals than over lunch.
“It was the first place I went on my first day at Cosmo: March 15, 1965,” says longtime Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown, who lunched with Gloria Steinem, Yul Brynner, and Nora Ephron at her favorite tables, Nos. 1 and 2. “I must have signed hundreds of thousands of expense reports for employees’ lunches at the Tea Room.”
Society bandleader Peter Duchin would order the Tea Room’s chef’s salad; for a time, he lived upstairs in Carnegie Hall Studios. “They treated regulars in a very different way,” he says. “I’d sit down and everything was brought to me. There were always many famous faces there, and they were left alone. If I was sitting there with Kim Novak, no one would bother us.”
Although the Tea Room was one of the first New York restaurants to have preferred tables, LeRoy claims he is going to discourage that elitist sort of thing. “The Tea Room has a long history of special people getting special tables. A lot of them are my friends, and I’m going to try to talk them out of it,” LeRoy says. “I don’t attract people because I fawn over them. I’m democratic.” LeRoy strenuously denies reports that he’s opened up a private reservations line for people with important biographies; he says he’s merely set up a number for about 200 old Tea Room customers that was included in the letters inviting them back.
LeRoy’s populist spirit might not bring the old crowd back from the dead (or from Michael’s or San Domenico), and anyway, LeRoy’s not taking any chances: He’s put hipster 28-year-old publicist Lizzie Grubman on the payroll, hoping her database of the young and fabulous will give the Tea Room the injection of cool it needs. “We have retained Lizzie for the first six months to deal with the downtown crowd,” LeRoy says. “I think it’s going to be a great late-night scene, and young people are the ones who stay out late.” Grubman has already booked Britney Spears’s 18th-birthday party and a record-release blowout for Savage Garden into the space.
So kids with pierced eyebrows in Gap cargo pants will be doing vodka shots at Sam Cohn’s table. But then, the surreal spectacle has always played a prominent role in the life of Warner LeRoy. A scion of the Warner Bros. family – LeRoy is the grandson of Harry Warner, and Jack Warner’s great-nephew – the little movie prince lived in a universe bounded, literally, by a painted sky. When Warner was 4 years old, his father, director Mervyn LeRoy, made The Wizard of Oz. The studio set is Warner’s earliest memory.
“It had a huge impact on me,” he says, seated on one of the leather couches in his vast Deco-style Upper West Side apartment. Bronze sixteenth-century Japanese temple dogs roar at each other across the foyer, and a self-portrait of Picasso hangs on the same wall as Walt Disney’s own drawing of the Seven Dwarfs. All of New York is a hazy toy city 59 stories below.
“I loved the midgets. I remember skipping down the yellow-brick road and suddenly coming up against the painted backdrop. It was a child’s dream. I never forgot that sense of color – and fantasy,” says LeRoy, whose youngest daughter bears the middle name Oz.
LeRoy Adventures is only a short ride away, on Broadway – and its chairman likes to be chauffeured there in a beige limo that some people have called pink. (“When I go out, I can distinguish it from all the other waiting limos,” LeRoy says.) Amid a large library of art books and design magazines, men and women with degrees in engineering and architecture do their level best to bring the boss’s ideas into the real world.
LeRoy’s attention to detail approaches the ridiculous. One summer design meeting with his staff had a 30-item agenda including the following matters: the distance above the bulb that the wall-sconce shades should be, the precise amount of lower-back support the red leather banquettes ought to provide, the melting speed of the ice-Kremlin vodka bar, the relative shininess of the chrome balls the bear aquarium would juggle, whether the natural fissures in the malachite and jasper on the fourth floor’s fireplace mantel should match up, whether the digitally produced wood-grain design on the wainscoting looked too factory-made, and what the granite on the vanities in the second- and fourth-floor bathrooms should look like.
Jeffrey Higginbottom, LeRoy’s chief designer, has a degree in set design from Yale and bears an uncanny resemblance to William H. Macy, the actor who played the haplessly scheming husband in Fargo. “We are actually putting on a show here, and Warner is the director,” says Higginbottom, mopping sweat from his brow in the Danbury warehouse where the egg tree was undergoing inspection in July. “He’s got to have his hand in every little aspect of the restaurant business, even down to the toilet paper.”
Higginbottom has been with LeRoy since the seventies. “He’s certainly not the king of minimalism,” Higginbottom says dryly. “It’s got to be over-the-top, and if it’s not, Warner will extend himself into it.”
In the seventies, LeRoy designed and co-owned the Great Adventure theme park in New Jersey, with its menagerie of lions and tigers and bears right off the Garden State Parkway. He was convinced the animals ought to be able to mingle as they did in a real jungle. “I had this idea that if you gave the animals enough space, they’d learn to love each other,” LeRoy says. “It didn’t work that way. For the lions and tigers and cheetahs, it was all about food, and when we mixed them with the antelope and deer – oh, my God. Well, we had to immediately stop it. But we were able to mix the antelopes and deer and rhinos. And now the Bronx Zoo does something similar.” LeRoy jumped out of Great Adventure when Hardwicke, his partner in the park, went belly-up. But his imprimatur remains on several theme parks in Canada and Great Britain.
LeRoy explains his modus operandi, which is straight out of old Hollywood: “Once, at Tavern on the Green, Billy Wilder spotted a single lightbulb out in a chandelier,” LeRoy remembers. “I think I have that kind of eye. I say what’s wrong with it, not what’s right about it.”
Tavern on the Green in Central Park is perhaps the city’s best-known restaurant (among out-of-towners, that is). But LeRoy first lumbered into the restaurant business when he decided to open the world’s first singles bar, in the late sixties.
That was Maxwell’s Plum, which single-handedly made ferns, brass, and stained-glass accents de rigueur in a certain type of burger-beer-and-babe joint across the nation. The sexual revolution was nascent when Maxwell’s opened at 64th Street and First Avenue in the spring of 1966. and LeRoy himself was astounded at the opening-night crowd, since he had done nothing to advertise the place. But in a city where bars and restaurants were still windowless relics of Prohibition, a sidewalk café with open windows on several sides was something new. Six policemen were required to control the crowd. Over the years, LeRoy expanded into the building next door and eventually was serving thousands of patrons a day. And while the bar attracted its share of hairy-chested, chain-wearing Lotharios and lots of stewardesses, nurses, and secretaries, the younger glamorati also found the scene to be a likable circus: Donald met Ivana here.
Restaurateur George Lang, owner of Café des Artistes, ran across LeRoy when Lang was developing ideas for Restaurant Associates and LeRoy approached him with his idea for Maxwell’s Plum. LeRoy’s sister, Linda Janklow, had asked Lang to talk her brother out of the restaurant business. But when he heard LeRoy’s dream of creating a restaurant that was also a public meeting place on the scale of a Roman forum, Lang says he was hard put to dissuade him. “I was surprised at the brilliant concept,” Lang recalls. “He changed whole aspects of the business with Maxwell’s Plum. And he’s gone on to make Tavern on the Green profitable, where others failed for years.”
LeRoy’s critics are fond of complaining that he tends to focus on the restaurant’s looks at the expense of its food. But he is determined to prove them wrong. Throughout the summer, LeRoy and his assistants, managers, and consultants assembled around a table at Tavern on the Green twice a week. Fabrice Canelle, the Paris-born chef hired for the Tea Room, sent out plate after plate heaped with experimental Russian-inspired dishes. LeRoy, who gained 80 pounds last year and has been cautioned by his doctors not to gain any more weight, gamely cleaned his plates while pouring Equal into his cappuccino.
Most visitors to Moscow do not return raving about the drab, meat-heavy cuisine, but true Russian cuisine was once rich and varied, influenced by the cultures that rim Russia – including those of China, Japan, and Scandinavia. And, of course, there was the lasting influence of French chefs who were imported to work in the kitchens of the Russian nobility. Canelle, a veteran of Brasserie Savoy in San Francisco, spent seven months creating 500 dishes and testing some 1,000 recipes LeRoy had had translated from the original Russian for Canelle’s predecessor.
LeRoy had originally signed superchef David Bouley to cook at the Russian Tea Room. As part of the 1996 operating agreement, LeRoy agreed to hand Bouley the seed money to create an elaborate restaurant, training center, and retail complex in TriBeCa. The New York food world privately snickered at the prospect of these two colossal egos joining forces, and, of course, the inevitable divorce followed, two years later: LeRoy claimed that Bouley was not splitting revenues from his Bouley Bakery with LeRoy and that Bouley kept poor financial records. LeRoy eventually brought suit, which Bouley agreed to settle for “a couple million plus low interest,” says LeRoy. And that was the end of the partnership. LeRoy insists the two men are great pals today. “The lawsuit lasted ten minutes!” he says. “And I only did it to get his attention. He had my money; he just didn’t want a partner.” (Bouley declined to comment.)
After he and Bouley parted ways, LeRoy tried to sell stock in the restaurant – the projected cost of the renovation had risen from $12 million to $22 million – but the attempt failed. That’s when LeRoy hooked up with the real-estate developer Vornado. An investment memo from the time, pushing the prospective stock offering, spoke of “combining entertainment value with food” and mentioned the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood as models. LeRoy denies that he plans a theme restaurant, but all the signs are here: The new Russian Tea Room may be getting a retail store selling trinkets, including little painted eggs and vodka. There is a painting of a three-inch imperial throne on the fourth floor; patrons who are Polaroided standing at a certain angle a few feet away look like they’re actually sitting in the throne. That’s a grand souvenir, if you’re not planning a visit to St. Petersburg any time soon.
It’s another populist touch from a man raised with all the trappings of big money. In his youth, LeRoy attended the Swiss boarding school Le Rosey, where classmates included publisher Michael Korda and the Aga Khan. He eventually directed plays at Stanford and could have easily stepped into an executive position at Warner Bros. But the family business was fraught with peril. “When I was a teenager, ” LeRoy remembers, “there was an incident at Warner Bros.” One day, his uncle Jack barred his own son from the studio and never spoke to him again. “My uncle just locked the doors, and my cousin ended up as a clerk somewhere,” says LeRoy. “They did talk to me about taking over Warner Bros., and I was the heir. But I wanted to be my own person. At about age 14, I had to make the decision: I said no, and I’ve never regretted it. I was worried I’d be somebody’s puppet. Sure, I’d get to be CEO one day. But in the meantime, I’d be sitting behind a desk. And I wanted to create.”
At age 8, he took his first job as a boy magician, entertaining friends and neighbors. Later. LeRoy stage-managed shows for CBS television, including the first Miss Universe contest, which he worked on when he was 14. “It was a teenage boy’s fantasy job,” LeRoy recalls.
Linda Janklow, herself chairman of the Lincoln Center Theater board of directors, says it was around this time that her older brother developed a stutter and a weight problem, after their parents divorced. “My mother was an extremely cultured, very brilliant woman,” LeRoy says. “She was terrific. She had one problem, though – the Judy Garland problem. She took sleeping pills to sleep and wake-up pills to wake up. She wasn’t an alcoholic, but the pills killed her.” Even so, LeRoy says he had a happy relationship with both parents – and his step-parents. Director Charles Vidor and flamboyant nightclub owner Billy Rose were the second and third husbands of his mother, Doris.
Janklow says that as her brother got older, “in order to camouflage the weight, he developed this incredible personality. You either shrink when you’re very fat, or you become larger-than-life. In his late teens, Warner began wearing this bright duffel coat everywhere.”
LeRoy eventually lost the stutter, but the defensive flamboyance remained: In divorce proceedings against him, his estranged wife claimed her husband owned 1,000 tailored suits. “Not true,” LeRoy says. “I have about 50, and they eventually admitted that. It is possible that I’ve bought 1,000 shirts over my lifetime.”
LeRoy is famous for his outfits. As owner of Maxwell’s Plum, he often appeared in Moroccan robes and fringed cowboy getups. LeRoy says the old costumes don’t fit anymore, and besides, they aren’t appropriate to the new set. “The costumes are part of the show,” he says. “That’s why I’ll be wearing red velvet now.” At the Tea Room opening, he fingered his dinner jacket and casually mentioned that he has fifteen others, knocked off for him by a tailor in Hong Kong. It’s thrift – of a sort.
LeRoy’s theatrical bent might have found a more natural home in movies or on Broadway. In fact, that’s where he headed when he first moved from L.A. to New York in the late fifties. He spent his first ten years in Manhattan writing, producing, and directing plays. His mostly Off Broadway career was unremarkable – at one point, he owned the York Theater at 64th and First – but in 1966, LeRoy left show business altogether. “I didn’t like actors,” he explains. “There are great actors, and I have actor friends. But actors act differently when they’re on the stage than when they’re waiting on tables. What I liked about Broadway was everything but them – the drama, the stories, the sets.” LeRoy says that when he first moved to New York, people didn’t go out to dinner; they went to the theater. “But now we’re in the golden age of restaurants,” he says excitedly. “And New York is the world center: There are 400 restaurants opening in New York every year; there used to be 400 plays opening. Americans have discovered the wonders of sitting in a great café.”
LeRoy met Kay – a former TWA stewardess – in Maxwell’s Plum on the second night it was open. They were married four years later, and theirs was an “opulent lifestyle,” as it was recently described by a Manhattan divorce-court judge. In happier days, the LeRoys owned an eighteen-room duplex in the Dakota with its very own 30-seat movie theater – and this was before private screening rooms were fashionable. The couple’s personal expenditures amounted to more than $2 million a year. Whenever LeRoy and his wife and four children visited one of Warner’s favorite cities, Venice, they routinely occupied suites in two separate hotels so they could overlook the Grand Canal from one and use a swimming pool in another.
LeRoy has tried to stay close to his three children with Kay – Jennifer, Max, Carolyn. His daughter Bridget (from a brief first marriage) lives in a house on his property in Amagansett. “I’ve been careful not to have the family-breakdown stuff happen to me,” LeRoy says. “Hollywood is full of that kind of stuff; people hide in closets when their relatives come over, like a farce. It’s one reason it’s been so difficult for me to have the divorce.”
But it has been a difficult time, anyway – especially for the children, who Kay LeRoy says are deeply upset by all the public squabbling. The LeRoys were unable to reach a financial settlement, and so the divorce went to trial, its sordid details making the tabloids on a daily basis. Kay contended that Warner had three mistresses; for one, he’d purchased a house and a BMW. He also dated a Hungarian gymnast, a woman LeRoy claims is “just a friend.” His last girlfriend, an aspiring country singer, he dispatched to Lainie Kazan – one of Kay’s best friends – for voice lessons.
David Aronson, Kay’s attorney, says that LeRoy “flaunted those relationships. He took these women to the same restaurants where he and Kay would go, and he arranged for one of his mistresses’ sons to have a birthday party in the same room at Tavern on the Green where he and Kay had parties for their children.”
At the time of this writing, the couple is still technically married, although Warner and Kay have been granted a divorce. In June, the court awarded Kay 40 percent of LeRoy’s fortune, which translates into a $20 million share, with the couple’s 60-acre Amagansett dacha thrown in. For the divorce to become final, both parties must sign off on a judgment that divides the estate between them; their attorneys are still wrangling over the precise terms. Warner LeRoy himself claims to be unsure whether he is married or divorced.
The confusion on all ends is understandable: The summer of 1999 proved to be the Summer of Love for the LeRoys. By the end of August – to the astonishment of her lawyers – Kay had apparently succumbed to Warner’s conciliatory overtures, and suddenly he was squiring her to plays and dinner parties again. Aronson notes that, while he has certainly seen couples reconcile during divorces, he’s never been involved in a case in which this kind of money was at stake, there was a trial and a judgment, and then the couple decided to get back together. The case is still so unsettled that one of Kay’s lawyers advised New York to check on the status of the marriage at midnight before this story went to press: Kay’s attorney Norman Sheresky said he expected the judge to sign off on the divorce judgment by the time this issue hit the newsstand.
A friend of Kay’s who has known the family for several decades says Kay would probably have settled early with Warner if he’d just given her credit for helping him create his restaurants. In the seventies, Warner freely admitted that his wife had given him many ideas he incorporated into Maxwell’s Plum: She was the one who scoured the country looking for surviving plates of Tiffany glass, for example. Today, he denies her contributions, which her friends find deplorable. Even on opening night at the Tea Room, Kay quietly announced to LeRoy’s table that she felt the urge to check up on things in the kitchen. “She really was half of that marriage,” says the friend. “She really did devote herself to all his enterprises in a hands-on way.” Once, when Tavern on the Green’s dessert chef quit, Kay stepped in. “We’re talking about six o’clock in the morning with flour all over her. But Warner dissed her. She would have taken $10 million if he’d just announced what a help she had been.”
Friends say Kay LeRoy has been treated for severe depression and that Warner is now moving in on her at a moment of weakness. “This spring, Kay was expressing nothing but major hatred toward him, and she was so elated when she got the judge’s ruling,” says one friend. “But then I think she went into a depression after that.”
Kay’s lawyers say that even if the couple reconciles, their relationship will be permanently altered in the eyes of the court. Essentially, Kay LeRoy has secured what amounts to a postnuptial agreement. “Kay will be his financial equal in this new life they are entering,” says Aronson. “Even if the reconciliation doesn’t work out, they won’t have to go through this again.”
Warner is happy to discuss the incipient reconciliation. To the cynics, he only has this to say: “In the first place, I don’t live my life in the past – ever. I don’t carry grudges. Also, I don’t really care what the press says. During the trial, I never read a single word written about me. My wife and I decided to get back together and try again. We were apart for 9 years, but we had 25 fabulous years together.”
To woo her, LeRoy flew to Dublin in August, where Kay, a dignified but shy Brit who is a decade younger than her husband, was visiting family. By the time she returned to the States, Warner was again being allowed to wander his Amagansett rose garden, inspect his rare-tree collection, and feed his Japanese koi fish – now the size of newborn babies – in his man-made pond with its fountain vaguely reminiscent of an Aztec pyramid.
Asked to share the secret behind the couple’s ability to forgive and forget after such an acrimonious and public divorce, LeRoy offers the following explanation: “In the first place, we love each other. In the second place, we were going to spend the next five years in court. There were years of appeals ahead. Forking over money was actually a long way off.” LeRoy adds that he and his sort-of ex discussed how much they had already spent on the more than fifteen attorneys who have been involved with the case at one point or another.
As for the mistresses, Warner resolutely contends he had nothing to do with any of them until after he and Kay separated. He also survived two bouts of cancer: seminoma (soft-cell) and prostate. He points out that he was battling both these cancers during the time he was allegedly tomcatting around town. The prostate cancer did not leave him impotent, he is quick to assert, although it did leave him unable to produce any more children the old-fashioned way. (Just in case, he says, he’s stored enough sperm “to make millions of kids.”)
A friend of the LeRoys sees a classic Warner move behind his sudden, conspicuous affection for Kay. “He doesn’t have any malice, but he’s the most manipulative person, shoving cake down your throat that you don’t want.”
Watching last week from her seat at the table as Warner and his maroon velvet coat were reflected infinitely in the Russian Tea Room’s mirrors and brass, Kay LeRoy said she was pleased for the man she’s battled in court for five years – even though she couldn’t say whether they were going to stay married.
“It’s complicated. We’re still friends. And I’m here,” she said. “We had lunch together during the trial, and my lawyers were very upset. He’s still the most interesting man I’ve ever met.”