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No More Mr. Nice Guy


Still, Bernbaum's friends also eagerly mention his ironic wit and grouchy warmth, and his unexpected gestures of friendship. He comped meals at the restaurant for long-standing customers going through hard times, made generous loans, sent meals to friends in the hospital: "When I had hip surgery, he sent a waiter with dinner and a tablecloth, silver, and china," says Kempner. He raised millions of dollars to battle AIDS through his yearly Fête de Famille party, held at the restaurant. "He always wanted us to be nice to people," says Robert Caravaggi, "because he knew he wasn't very nice."

He was born on April 5, 1922, in Philadelphia to Harry Bernbaum, a prosperous retailer who owned Lousols, a Bergdorf Goodman-like specialty store, and his wife, Elsie, a music and art patron who took great pride in the family's antique-filled townhouse on Delancey Place, just off Rittenhouse Square. Their lifestyle was about as Main Line as you can get for a Jewish family: The four Bernbaum children -- Harry, Jeanne, Robert Glenn (then known as Bobby), and Phyllis -- were chauffeured to private schools, given tennis and music lessons (Glenn played the mandolin), and cared for by a staff of seven. Glenn attended Friends Select School and Germantown Academy. "Our parents would go off to Europe quite a bit and leave us with the nurse," recalls Phyllis Gabaeff, a divorcée who now lives in Florida and works at Barnes & Noble. The family belonged to a temple, but they never celebrated Jewish holidays.

Glenn was his mother's favorite, and perhaps he learned from her the social cues that would later guide his door policy at Mortimer's. A source close to the family says of Elsie Bernbaum, "Nobody was good enough for her. If they didn't come from a very particular background, they weren't supposed to come to the house." Ask Gabaeff about her mother and she says with a sigh, "My mother was strict. And mean."

In later years, when he was a well-established figure in New York, Bernbaum rarely spoke of his family. Sam Green, a private art curator who rented an apartment from Bernbaum above Mortimer's and dined with him weekly, says, "His feeling about his family was, 'I don't want those ordinary people in my life; I want extraordinary people.' " Bernbaum kept his family life such a secret that the New York Times obituary failed to mention that he is survived by two sisters instead of just one (brother Harry, a clothing buyer based in Georgia, died of prostate cancer a decade ago). Even Bernbaum's lawyer, Aaron Richard Golub, didn't initially have the sisters' names and addresses to track them down for next-of-kin notification. Gabaeff, who had received a check and a note from her brother as recently as August, found out about his death when a friend sent her the Times obituary. Bernbaum had not spoken to his older sister, Jeanne, for 30 years, declining to respond to her recent notes trying to reestablish a relationship.

Perhaps one of the reasons he kept his distance from family members is that he never felt comfortable acknowledging his homosexuality to them. "He kept it very quiet," says Gabaeff. Bernbaum attended the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia -- both before and after his stint in the Army in World War II -- and during his school years, rumors about his sexuality filtered back to his family. His mother was quite distressed and didn't want the matter discussed, according to a family intimate, and Bernbaum apparently preferred to keep his lifestyle private.

In January 1943, Bernbaum enlisted in the Army, where he was promoted rapidly, eventually achieving the rank of captain. Stationed for a time in France, he was wounded by shrapnel in the leg and hand. "He was so proud of that period of life," says Caravaggi, who says Bernbaum liked to regale the restaurant's staff late at night with war stories. Bernbaum told Mortimer Levitt that he developed his distinctive raspy, deep voice in the Army, after being told by a commanding officer that his cultured Philadelphia consonants lacked the authority for barking orders. Levitt says, "He would go out in the woods and yell and yell," determined to sound like a tough guy.

After the war, Bernbaum bounced through a series of jobs, battling constantly with bosses, convinced of his own superiority and unwilling to suffer fools. First he signed on with the office of the military governor in Germany, editing a magazine for American government workers. He left after a dispute over a drawing he published depicting American officers at a café, which his superiors thought made them look like Nazis.

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