No More Mr. Nice Guy

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.

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.”

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.

He then finished up at Penn, graduating with a degree in political science, and ran the family store briefly after his father died. But Bernbaum argued with his mother, and the store was ultimately sold. He subsequently worked as a buyer at a Philadelphia ladies store, then moved to New York and became the general merchandise manager at the Franklin Simon department store, where he showed some panache. “He had Andy Warhol do silk screens for the store awnings,” recalls Kenneth Lane. “He wasn’t very avant-garde, but he had good taste.” Bernbaum left Franklin Simon after fighting with management and joined – never mind the indignity of being part of such a lowbrow enterprise – the famous discounter E.J. Korvette’s. He didn’t last very long there either.

Wanting to get away from the Custom Shops’ day-to-day operations, Mortimer Levitt ran an ad in 1959 for a “presidential trainee.” He remembers pulling Bernbaum’s résumé out of a stack of 400 to exclaim with amusement to his wife, Mimi, ” ‘Look at this hack applying for the job.’ Glenn had come from cheap stores.” Levitt tossed out the résumé, only to get a call a few days later from a headhunter who said, “I’ve got a great merchandiser for you, if you can stand him.”

All of Bernbaum’s friends (detractors, too) talk admiringly about his extraordinary taste and attention to detail, even if, as Pat Buckley points out, “he wore very good clothes, bought in London, but he always looked like a rumpled bed.” Levitt, a spry 91-year-old, credits Bernbaum with great vision in running the Custom Shops, adding, “He knew what to buy.” Bernbaum would travel to London with friends like Bill Blass and Kenneth Lane to pick fabrics. He was soon earning enough to afford a 52nd Street townhouse, beautifully decorated by Albert Hadley. Hadley would later decorate Bernbaum’s apartment over Mortimer’s, a luxurious retreat with a custom-designed sleigh bed, Venetian chairs, and fur throws.

Even during this prosperous early period, bernbaum was not an easy man to be around. Levitt describes seeing Bernbaum “literally foaming at the mouth” in anger at a fellow staffer, and on many occasions, “I could hear him yelling from one end of the floor to another. What’s interesting is that people didn’t leave him – I guess they respected him.” Bernbaum was already drinking heavily during those years, although it apparently didn’t interfere with his work. He confided to Levitt, “I can’t go to sleep without drinking.”

In fact, it was his love for a few pops at night that first gave Bernbaum the idea to open a restaurant. As he posed the question to Mimi Levitt, “Why can’t I drink at my own bar? Why do I have to drink at someone else’s bar?” He decided to open a neighborhood place, nothing too posh, and run it as a hobby while continuing at the Custom Shops. He really wasn’t expecting a society crowd. Indeed, after taking over the space that had lodged Tangerine, a failed jazz bar, and spending a year renovating, Bernbaum panicked that no one would come to his joint. “He called me up and said he had this brilliant idea,” says Lane, “that he’d offer doctors and nurses from Lenox Hill Hospital a discount price for lunch. I told him I didn’t think that was a good way to start.”

Although Bernbaum wasn’t well connected to New York’s elite tastemakers, his friends were, and they opened the mullioned doors to this chic world he quickly came to adore. “Jerry Zipkin dragged me to Mortimer’s,” says Mica Ertegun, the decorator and wife of record-industry legend Ahmet Ertegun, who liked the atmosphere and convenient location and returned with friends. “I was there the first day for lunch,” says Blass, who frequently took clients to the restaurant. “It caught on fast.” Lane brought Diana Vreeland and gave a party at the restaurant that attracted the likes of Countess Jacqueline de Ribes and Elsie Woodward. As Bernbaum was fond of pointing out, the rich are cheap and they appreciate a bargain. The food was deliberately unambitious and the prices low: The first lunch menu featured salmon croquettes for $5.50. But it wasn’t the food that mattered; it was the scene.

For Bernbaum, who was essentially a very solitary man, it was thrilling to be taken up by this crowd. “It was a source of absolute joy to him that his social idol, Nan Kempner, was crazy about him,” says Christopher Mason, the writer and former society songster. But Kempner, the Herreras, C. Z. Guest, and A-list others didn’t just eat in Bernbaum’s restaurant; they paid him the ultimate compliment of including him in their lives. “He loved to gossip, and he always made me giggle,” says Pat Buckley, who traveled in Belgium several years ago with a group of friends, including Bernbaum. “I was the first person to invite him to my home,” says Guest, the gardening columnist and steel heiress who lives in Old Westbury. “I thought he was lonely.”

He was. For a while, his loneliness was assuaged by a pug named Swifty (after agent pal Swifty Lazar) that was given to him by Senga and John Jay Mortimer; he had been planning to name the dog “Lauder” after Estée and family, says Senga Mortimer, but Estée objected. “It was like his child,” says Mortimer. Bernbaum was distraught after he left Swifty with friends during a vacation in Europe and the dog disappeared. “Glenn was desperate,” says Mortimer. “He wanted me to drive up and down Long Island looking for him. He vowed he’d never have another dog.”

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.”

No More Mr. Nice Guy