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No More Mr. Nice Guy

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Senga Mortimer spoke with Bernbaum three times that day and feels certain that their last conversation took place that evening. "He was very up," she says, sounding perplexed. "He was looking forward to parties. He asked me to come arrange flowers for a party Thursday night." She sounds tearful and touched as she says, "He tried to protect me."

At 7 a.m. the next day, Stephen Attoe walked downstairs from his fourth-floor apartment and was startled to hear the TV blasting from Bernbaum's second-floor home. "That wasn't his usual routine," he says. Tuesday is payday at Mortimer's, and by 9:30 a.m., when Bernbaum hadn't come down to sign checks and didn't answer the phone, Attoe and another staff member entered his apartment. Bernbaum was dead; it appeared he'd fallen in the bathroom, landing in the bathtub fully clothed. Even though he was ailing, he'd taken the trouble to put on an ascot. There was no autopsy; in his will, Bernbaum donated his body to medical science, with New York-Cornell Hospital as the beneficiary.

"Why do people love a curmudgeon?" Kenneth Lay Lane, the jewelry designer, is sitting in his office with its sparkling showcases of fabulous fakes, contemplating his four-decade friendship with Glenn Bernbaum. "There has to be one curmudgeon in every crowd. Charming people are a dime a dozen."

Bernbaum cultivated his image as the gruff, tough gatekeeper to society, but charm was also in his repertory, provided the right people were within range. His success was spectacular: Virtually from the day Mortimer's opened its doors in 1976, the restaurant has been ubiquitous in the social columns, attracting an eclectic crowd ranging from Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to Mick Jagger and Boy George to Jackie O., Fergie, and Brooke Astor, and even Cal Ripken Jr. Oh, and the parties -- using set designers, Bernbaum could transform his humble saloon, re-creating the Paris Opéra, the Plaza's Palm Court in 1907, or an overgrown wild jungle in the fairly mundane shell of the restaurant. He'd find unusual entertainers: can-can dancers to kick up their heels on the bar, Zippy the Chimp to deliver a birthday cake, a gospel choir to rock the restaurant. The annual New Year's Eve party at Mortimer's was one of the hottest invites in a chronically jaded town.

But who was Glenn Bernbaum, when he wasn't fulfilling his role as the life of the parties? Even as his friends recount those favorite moments at Mortimer's, they remain bewildered by his quirks, no matter how well they felt they knew him. What to make of a man who could be so imperious in public but so unsure in private that he shied away from romance and intimate relationships? How could a Jew, who was clearly choked up when he visited Auschwitz, be so contemptuous of other Jews that he conspicuously made them unwelcome at his establishment? Why tell friends that he was estranged from his family even as he secretly sent checks to support his younger sister Phyllis? How odd that the same person who was so obsessed with the good breeding, manners, and sartorial style of others would let his own teeth fall out for fear of the dentist. And above all, why was he so mean, even to his closest friends?

"He could be the bitch of all times," says Nan Kempner, who always thought his behavior stemmed from profound insecurity, the need to put down others to feel good about himself. Mortimer Levitt, the founder of the Custom Shops, where Bernbaum worked for twenty years -- and in whose honor, it's said, the restaurant was named -- admits, "He was absolutely, unquestionably a snob." Kenny Lane, who traveled with Bernbaum in Spain and Venice in July, says that in recent months, "he was emulating Scrooge." Adds the diplomatic Senga Mortimer, "To say he was difficult was being kind."

Friends swap stories of his contrary behavior, marveling at his (and their own) perversity. Tim Snell, who for the past ten years has painted the restaurant's special party murals, remembers Bernbaum's insisting that he create racy pinups for a lunch Christie Hefner gave for high-powered women friends shortly after taking over at Playboy. "He wanted us to put in tawdry underwear. She hated it," says Snell, who got a last-minute call to basically airbrush the pictures. "Glenn did that to create trouble. His attitude was, this is a tawdry event, so I'll give it a tawdry edge."


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