The panicky phone calls started in July. When Glenn Bernbaum, the owner of Mortimer's restaurant, returned from a European vacation, he looked terrible and complained loudly that he didn't feel well. But he hated seeing doctors and refused to be examined, even as his health deteriorated. So one by one, his rich and famous customers -- those charmed lifers who would often spend their nights off from the spangled-gala circuit encamped in Mortimer's front room -- made pilgrimages to plead with him, conspiring with one another to try to get him help.
Reinaldo Herrera lunched with Bernbaum and was frightened by his appearance. "I told him, 'Glenn, your eyes are yellow, it could be jaundice, you've got to see a doctor,' " says Herrera, the husband of designer Carolina Herrera and Vanity Fair's special-projects editor. Bernbaum brushed him off, growling back, "I'm fine, it's just the light coming through the yellow awning."
Mario Buatta was so upset -- "Glenn was the color of a yellow squash" -- that he called Bill Blass and Nan Kempner to see if they could talk some sense into Bernbaum. "Glenn was furious at me when he found out," says Buatta, the decorator known as the Prince of Chintz. "He was going around saying, 'Mario, that SOB.' " Even socialite Nan Kempner was rebuffed. "I tried my damnedest," she says, detailing her visits and repeated phone calls. "He finally said, 'Stop bullying me; I'm a big boy.' "
Bill Blass, who had befriended Bernbaum back in the fifties when they were both young men in the garment industry, offered to bring a limo and accompany him to the doctor, to no avail. "The possibility of being in the hospital, being cared for, was too intimate for him," Blass says sadly.
Uncomfortable with the attention, his energy flagging, Bernbaum eventually retreated to his apartment above the restaurant, taking few phone calls and refusing visitors. Senga Mortimer, the House & Garden editor who was one of Bernbaum's closest friends, was so concerned that she went to the restaurant, called Glenn, and announced she wasn't leaving until he appeared. Four long hours later, Bernbaum relented, coming down for comfort and conversation, and the next day he did get in touch with a doctor. But after decades of prodigious alcohol consumption, it was too late for Bernbaum to reverse the damage -- weeks or months or perhaps years too late.
"Cirrhosis of the liver isn't necessarily fatal," says Dr. Robert Ascheim, the physician at New York-Cornell Hospital who examined Bernbaum less than two weeks before he died -- Bernbaum hadn't been to see him in years. "But there's a point where the devastation is very significant and irreversible. He never discussed with me, 'Am I going to die this week or next week?' In fact, he avoided the question. But he knew he was very ill." Hospitalization at that stage would not have made much of a difference, he says, and Bernbaum was adamantly against it.
Bernbaum didn't want anyone to know how bad things were. He admitted to Senga Mortimer that he had cirrhosis but insisted the illness was treatable by diet, that his heart was strong; he'd beat this thing. He didn't tell his two loyal employees, chef Stephen Attoe, a 22-year veteran, and maître d' Robert Caravaggi, a nearly-20-year employee, but they had their suspicions; that the usually cantankerous Bernbaum was being so nice seemed to confirm them. "He was very gentle those last few days," says Attoe, a Connaught Hotel-trained British chef who also rents an apartment in the Bernbaum-owned restaurant building. Adds Senga Mortimer, "The thing that terrified me was when I called Glenn, and he told me he loved me. It was so out of character. I told him, 'Don't go soft on me.' "
With the restaurant closed for most of Labor Day weekend and no one around, Bernbaum asked his personal house cleaner, Gregory Mair, to come to his apartment daily. "The first thing he told me to do was to take everything out of the refrigerator and throw it away," says Mair. Bernbaum's body was shutting down, but he put up a jolly front. "I talked to him on Sunday and he was so chipper," says Robert Caravaggi. "He was watching baseball on TV. He was really excited by Mark McGwire's home-run streak."
On Monday afternoon at about 3:30 p.m., Mair says, he was leaving when "I heard this big crash; it sounded like a 500-pound weight had hit the floor. I called out, 'Are you all right?' He said yes." Mair waited awhile, heard what sounded like Bernbaum opening the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, locked up, and left.