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Russian Roulette

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At Warner LeRoy's office, seventeen floors above Broadway with a view of Central Park, very little has changed since his death. The ornately carved wooden desk that belonged to his grandfather, movie mogul Harry Warner, still faces Central Park, and a glass bear, a miniature of the enormous bear aquarium at the Russian Tea Room, sits on a coffee table.

But sitting now in his large leather chair is Jenny, a tall, ebullient woman inblack casual slacks and T-shirt, who cuddles her Maltese, Chloë, in her lap during meetings. She's girlish, a bit naïve, still feeling her way in a job where she is suddenly responsible for more than 700 employees and learning to assert herself with staffers twice her age. "I am not afraid of these things," she politely but firmly chastises Allan Kurtz over the phone, discussing Tavern's malfunctioning air conditioning. "I'm not afraid to spend $100,000 on a new unit." When she interviews a former Moomba staffer for a job at the Russian Tea Room, they swap ideas about wooing younger customers."People have the impression it's a stuffy place for older people," Jenny says, "I need some way to blow the image out." The downtown denizen ruefully replies, "It's hard to get people to go above 14th Street."

Jenny's waist-length brown hair is always pulled sedately back, but when she leans forward to grab her squirming dog, her ponytail flies around, revealing a fuchsia-dyed streak at the nape of her neck. "I can hide it," she says, laughing. "But I decided I have to act my age sometimes."

The legendary dangers of Oz -- "lions and tigers and bears, oh, my" -- seem tame compared with the vicissitudes of operating a high-end food empire in a depressed economy, not to mention coping with New Yorkers' fickle attitudes toward restaurants viewed as passé tourist attractions. With its gorgeous Central Park setting, Tavern on the Green, which turns 25 in August, is a cash cow where weddings, graduations, and corporate getaways bring in as much as $37 million in sales, the record set last year. (It is the second-highest-grossing restaurant in the country, after Windows on the World.)

But the revamped Russian Tea Room, co-owned by Steve Roth, head of the giant real-estate developer Vornado, is a ghost of its once-glorious past, overburdened with debt and typically half-empty at night. Last year, the restaurant grossed $17 million, below LeRoy's break-even estimate. "Steve has been very nice and supportive of Jenny, but he's a tough businessman," says Janklow, who helped put her brother and Roth together.

"Clearly, Warner didn't think he was going to die and leave a 22-year-old with this much responsibility," says Linda LeRoy Janklow. "I know Jenny must be frightened."

Rumors abound that Roth, who failed this spring in his bid to take over the World Trade Center, is edgy about relying on a novice to turn around this lackluster investment and is pursuing a management change for the struggling restaurant. Through a spokeswoman, Steve Roth says, "Vornado has no current intention to make any changes." The word "current" speaks for itself.

To help reverse the Tea Room's fortunes, Jenny has turned to the people she trusts most: her family -- specifically, her brother and her mother. Max LeRoy, a handsome guy with mussed hair and a sleepy grin, moved back to New York from Los Angeles this spring at his sister's request, camping for a few weeks in the Village apartment she shares with her boyfriend, a former Russian Tea Room chef, before finding his own place. "He's crawled back into the business," Jenny jokes. Max responds with a jab at his sister's penchant for chefs. "I used to think that all you needed to get my sister was apair of checked pants and a knife set."

Max has always been the family rebel, the prodigal son who walks away from expensive possessions but occasionally shows up in the tabloids. (The Post recently retailed his too-close encounter with a nightclub bouncer; Max is pressing assault charges.)

"Jenny called and said she needed me," says Max, who always seems to wear the same uniform of worn jeans, T-shirt, and his father's enormous gold Cartier watch. "I thought I'd give it a year and see what happens." His role, which is not a nine-to-five desk job, seems to be morale-booster, idea guy, and general kibitzer. Rather than hype the family restaurants, he's candid about the problems of reviving these not-exactly-hot spots, saying with disgust, "Tavern needs an exorcism."

Meanwhile, Kay LeRoy, who enrolled last year at NYU to fulfill a long-held dream of earning a college degree, is back in the family business after years of being persona non grata. A fragile yet steely beauty at 58, she and Warner separated and reconciled repeatedly for nearly a decade, even after their 1999 divorce, virtually up until his death. "In the hospital, we joked about who'd play us in the movie of our lives," says Kay, who still has the lilting British accent of her youth. "He wanted Danny DeVito, I wanted Michelle Pfeiffer." Now on summer break from classes, Kay has taken over the two stores at the restaurants, supervising renovations, ordering new merchandise.

"My father was a perfectionist; he could be impossible," Jenny says, describing his fury with her after Kathleen Turner stormed out of the Russian Tea Room when Jenny failed to unseat a foursome at the actress's desired banquette. "Now I understand it -- now I'm the one saying 'Just get it done, don't tell me it can't bedone.' " (She's unlikely to match her father's turn-back-the-tides zeal: He once famously called a Tavern staffer to complain that leaves were falling from the trees in the garden; "Can't you do something?" he demanded.)

Yet even as Jenny throws herself into the daily marathon of problem solving, she's still mourning her father. She found it unbearable to watch him in agony going through chemotherapy. "I couldn't do it and work,"she says. "I'd see him and break down for days." Then, in early February, she contracted walking pneumonia and wasn't permitted to visit. "The day he died was really weird for me," she recalls. "My aunt Linda and uncle Mort and my mom all told me to see him that day. Carolyn called." Torn between visiting her father and proving to him how conscientious she was after the Michael Jackson screw-up, she decided to work late at the Russian Tea Room. The choice still haunts her.

Several months later, out one evening in June at nightclub Suite 16 with friends, with loud music pounding and a raucous knock-back-the drinks crowd, Jenny, in a pink lace camisole, low-cut blue jeans, and her sparkly Oz belt, soberly confided that it can be excruciating carrying on without Dad. "There are days when I'll cancel all my meetings," she says, "and drive out to the Hamptons and sit at my father's grave and talk to him."


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