Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

ShareThis

It is still a mystery to his friends that Bernbaum never fell in love, never lived with anyone. "I've always wondered about that," says Blass. "He'd form crushes on people, but I don't think they were reciprocated. He was full of insecurities about himself, but he never sought psychiatric help." Lane, a confidant who talked to Bernbaum daily for years, echoes those thoughts, saying, "He didn't demand love, and he wasn't very lovable, at least not in that way. He enjoyed sex, but love, no." And in the last fifteen years of his life, Bernbaum gave up sex, or at least that's what he told friends, at times hinting that he didn't want to put himself at risk for AIDS. "Gay? No, he was morose," Sam Green quips. "He parked whatever he used in the garage a long time ago."

Certainly a bizarre event early in the restaurant's history undermined Bernbaum's ability to trust his fellow man. Shortly after the successful launch of Mortimer's, Bernbaum ebulliently told the top four staff members that he had left them the restaurant in his will. A simple thank-you note would have sufficed, but the enterprising maître d' Stefanos Zachariadis -- whom Bernbaum had met on vacation in Crete and brought to New York -- decided instead to murder Bernbaum, hiring a hit man who turned out to be an undercover cop.

In the subsequent publicity, Bernbaum did a great job of playing the debonair and unflappable proprietor, but he was deeply shaken by the betrayal. "He came back from the trial with tears in his eyes," says chef Stephen Attoe. Richard Golub, Bernbaum's lawyer, says, "It left a bitter taste in Glenn's mouth. He had a tremendous distrust of people after that; it really scared him." When Zachariadis was released from prison, he returned to the restaurant to apologize to Bernbaum. "Glenn didn't accept him back in the fold," Golub said, "but that meeting helped resolve the whole thing for him."

Bernbaum relished his new role as the East Side's foremost social dictator, presiding over this nineteen-table empire. Forget the notion that the customer is always right; at Mortimer's, Bernbaum was always right. Those who liked him talk with amusement and affection about the way he bossed them around. When Pamela Gross, a Mortimer's regular and former editorial director of Manhattan File, gave a large dinner some years ago at the restaurant with her then-fiancé Lord Lewisham -- the romance was later broken off -- her intended made the mistake of making a suggestion about the place cards to Bernbaum, who flew into a rage. "Glenn began bellowing, 'Get out of my restaurant,' " says Gross, who was startled but then thought the whole thing was funny.

Blaine Trump, planning a luncheon for twelve friends, discussed the menu with Bernbaum in advance, ordering several courses including soup and grilled chicken. But that's not what they were served. "When the waiter started bringing out artichoke salads, I told him there must be a mistake," she says. The waiter disappeared and returned moments later to announce, "Mr. Bernbaum thought you'd prefer this instead." Her reaction: "I had to laugh. He didn't approve of what I'd ordered, so he changed it. Most of the time he was right. Entertaining in the restaurant was like eating in Glenn's home."

Of course, you're free to invite anyone you want into your home, but a restaurant is supposed to be, well, public. Bernbaum was extremely disdainful of the arrivistes who didn't have the right clothes, pedigree, or star power yet had the nerve to want to dine at Mortimer's. Subtlety was not his strong point; he took some measure of pride in humiliating people. What's so curious is that his tony customers weren't put off by this boorish behavior. Kenneth Lane's mischievous theory: "People don't like to be treated badly. But they like to see others treated badly."

The Zagat Survey has consistently criticized the restaurant with such lines as "If you haven't been on 'Page Six' lately, plan to sit by the coatrack." Susan Mulcahey, who was editor of the glossy monthly Avenue in the eighties, recalls asking Bernbaum how he decided whether someone was worthy of a table. He looked her up and down critically and replied, "You can learn a lot from a person's shoes." His sister Phyllis was embarrassed after a doctor friend went to Mortimer's and had a bad experience. When she called Bernbaum to complain, he turned on her instead.

Bernbaum was absolutely unabashed about refusing to take reservations for many years, shooing people away who didn't fit the image, telling them his place was fully booked even if tables were empty. In the end, that reputation hurt him: Mortimer's revenues peaked in the mid-eighties at $3 million a year but dropped to $2 million in recent years, causing a worried Bernbaum to make a concerted effort to improve the food. "It had gotten really good by the end," says Christopher Mason. "Glenn was allowing us to be more adventurous," says chef Stephen Attoe, "to add more contemporary dishes like sautéed foie gras." Bernbaum also tried to be somewhat more democratic in welcoming customers.

Still, at the height of the restaurant's popularity, Bernbaum's unwritten rules were quite discriminatory: African-Americans were unlikely to get a chance to taste twinburgers Mortimer unless they were as famous as Bobby Short, and Jews often got second-class treatment as well. "He was Jewish, but he didn't encourage Jewish clients," says Bill Blass. Mortimer Levitt recalls running into Gerry Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, who was absolutely shaking with fury over how rudely he'd been treated at Mortimer's. "They wouldn't give him a table until his guests arrived," Levitt says, "and then they sat him near the kitchen." (Schoenfeld, through a spokesman, declined to comment.)

Yet four years ago, when Blaine Trump ran into Bernbaum in a hotel lobby in Warsaw and mentioned she wanted to visit Auschwitz, he was eager to accompany her. "We both just wept as we walked through the camps," she says. "He could show such immense vulnerability and sympathy." By then, perhaps, he'd reached a point in his life where he could confront the Holocaust and his own Jewish identity, particularly in the safe company of a much-admired reigning member of New York's Wasp aristocracy.

Back in the mid-eighties, when a socialite woman friend contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and died, Bernbaum was devastated. "He kept saying, 'This is a terrible thing,' " says Robert Caravaggi. Bernbaum was haunted enough to want to do something; in 1986, he launched Fête de Famille, a yearly charity block party that has raised $7 million for AIDS research at the New York-Cornell Hospital. At a point when AIDS was still a disease with a stigma, Bernbaum was a pioneer in lending his name and prestige to the cause.

But the disease that Bernbaum couldn't acknowledge was his own alcoholism. For decades, he drank Bellows rye, but in recent years switched to wine, knocking back at least a full bottle, sometimes staggering around the restaurant and falling asleep in the back. "I don't think he drank out of desperation," says Bill Blass. "He drank because it was there, and he'd start at noon." People tried to talk to him about it, but he didn't want to listen. Even the patrician C. Z. Guest took Bernbaum aside to say, 'I'm only going to tell you this once, but this has got to stop.' " He eventually did cut back enough so that he was no longer obviously drunk in public, but he couldn't quit.

In his will, Bernbaum left virtually all of his more than $4 million estate to New York-Cornell Hospital for AIDS research and patient care, leaving undisclosed bequests to his staff but nothing to his family. ("I'm going to contest the will," declares Phyllis Gabaeff.) He specified that the restaurant be shut immediately and permanently. Bernbaum insisted that there be no funeral or memorial service. He didn't want friends talking about him once he was gone.

But they are talking, incessantly, of course, as they try to understand this unusual man who was such a fixture in their lives. "I miss him terribly," wails Nan Kempner. She's got a lot of company. "No matter how important or rich you are," says Richard Golub, "there's a lonely button everyone has to press each day. This crowd could relieve that desperation at Mortimer's. Glenn Bernbaum knew how to make people feel that it was all right. That they belonged."

It was the last place in town where you might spot Nancy Reagan nibbling on a $13.50 chicken salad, and the man who kept an eye on things is gone, the ladies and gentlemen of his club locked out on Lexington Avenue. Attoe and Caravaggi are in talks with the estate's executor, Chase Manhattan Bank, trying to raise financing to re-open the restaurant in its current space. But it won't be Mortimer's. It won't be the same. Says Mario Buatta, "We're like little birds in the nest, chirping and hungry. And our mother hasn't come back to feed us."


Related:

Advertising
Current Issue
Subscribe to New York
Subscribe

Give a Gift

Advertising