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Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams


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.

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