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No More Mr. Nice Guy


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."

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