Until about five years ago, people who came to New York went to five or six restaurants – that’s all. They would go to ‘21.’ They would go to the Colony. They would go to La Grenouille and Lutèce. I don’t know if it was because they were insecure or whatever, but they kept going to those same restaurants. I started to work at the Colony in March 1958. I remember my first day because the telephone started to ring, and it was Sinatra, three for lunch, his usual table; Onassis, two for lunch, usual table; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Leland Hayward, Truman Capote, all wanting their usual tables. I took down all these names, and around eleven o’clock, the owner came in, and I said, “Would you tell me what is the usual table?” So they took me to a corner table, and they said, “This is the usual table. All of them think that this is their table.”
I stayed there until ’70, and then the Pierre Hotel asked me to open a club. I was there for three years. Then, in about 1973, I was called by the people who owned the Mayfair Hotel. They asked me if I wanted to be the manager, and I said I would like to do something on my own, so they said, “What about having a restaurant?” So that is how Le Cirque happened.
In the eighties, we had the ladies who lunch, the power lunch – everything was power. At the beginning of the nineties, things changed. We always had a photographer outside, and some of the people, the bank people, the business people, were starting to say, “Why, every time we come here, do we have to end up on ‘Page Six’?” And also, at the end of the eighties, big companies cut down on taxis and limos, and 65th Street, from my point of view, became a little bit too much uptown. So I realized it was the time to change. This was the beginning of 1995. The Sultan of Brunei had bought the Palace hotel. They said, “We are taking over the Helmsley Palace; there is space in the Villard Houses, and we would like you to move the restaurant over there.” I said yes, because you have to have the courage to change, to go away from the routine.
Interviewed by Manny Howard