It had just seemed the right place to go that evening. Cristina Zilkha, the social locomotive and one-time chanteuse, had taken me to some fashiony event on the Upper East Side and we went on to Swifty’s for a bite.
The front room was full so we headed to the back, the room where I had hung some drawings not so long before, and were seated next to David Patrick Columbia, the potentate of the on-line New York Social Diary, who was with the writer, Christopher Mason.
We chatted about this and that, nothing consequential. Bold-face names could be seen here and there—Michael Kors, the designer, with Aerin Lauder—so it was just another Swifty’s evening.
Except it wasn’t. Next day I learned it had been the last. For sixteen years Swifty’s been a dominant boîte for a whole Upper East Side social whirl.
But last Wednesday, after the last diner had walked out onto Lexington, its doors had closed for good. So it’s not just Downtown Bohemia that’s in a financial squirmish—a word I borrow from Sarah Palin—it’s Manhattan in toto.
Some social history. Robert Caravaggi and Stephen Attoe, who partnered at Swifty’s as manager and chef, both worked many years at Mortimer’s, a few blocks up Lex. This was the totemic eatery created by that splendid growler, Glenn Bernbaum.
Not only had Mortimer’s been hotter than hot but also quite a mix.
Namedrop One. Mortimer’s was where I was taken by Bruce Willis when he was studying for his part as an obnoxious tabloid journalist in Bonfire Of The Vanities.
Namedrop Two. Sometime in the late 80s I was lunching in the back, at a table by the corridor that lead to the loos. The ultra-chic table was the round one at the front and the group occupying it had included Jackie Kennedy, known on all gossip pages, the gossip pages she despised, as Jackie O.
Well, I have told this tale before but here goes again. Some thought or other occurred to me during the meal so I took out a pocketbook and scribbled myself a note. When done, I sat back, and saw that Jackie O was looking at me. It was not a friendly look.
Well, I knew that Mrs. Kennedy was aware that I was a British writer. Another Brit had once told me had found himself sitting alongside her on a plane and he had told her that he was a journalist.
She had responded, ice sheeting, that whenever she met a Brit she “always assumed they were a journalist.” Until proven human, perhaps. I swiftly put my book away, returned to the conversation and the meal.
Another thought zigzagged towards coherence. Out came the black book and I was scribbling away when I became aware of a presence at my shoulder.
Mrs. Kennedy, who was on her way bathroom-wards, was taking a time-out to eye my scribble.
A few days later one of the Manhattan tabloids noted that Jackie O had been spotted lunching at Mortimer’s. I realized that nothing in the world would convince her that I had not been the source of this scurrilous leak.
Glenn Bernbaum died unexpectedly in September 1989. Mortimer’s, which had been the crucial connective element in that whole world, was pfft!. There was much threshing around looking for a successor—the New York Times crowned La Goulue early the following year—but then Robert Caravaggi and Stephen Attoe stepped into the breach and Swifty’s opened on October 1, 1999.
And here there’s social history too. Swifty’s was named for Glenn Bernbaum’s pug dog, which was itself named for “Swifty” Lazar, the Hollywood agent, who had been nicknamed thus by one of his clients, Humphrey Bogart.
And it was Swifty Lazar who gave the oh-so-desirable Oscars party in Hollywood, a role now assumed by Vanity Fair. Lazar had been a fixture at Mortimer’s and at Swifty’s also.
Moreover, the space that Swifty’s occupied had formerly been occupied by the Kiosk, the second venture of Nell Campbell, the diva behind Nell’s, the hotter-than-hot club on West 14th Street of the later 80s.
Swifty’s was a comfier place than Mortimer’s, though, softer-hearted. There was no Siberia there for folk who looked as if they had strayed in from the wrong postal code, no Mount Bernbaum in the background, liable to intermittent eruptions.
They played the niceness card.
“You’re sitting there,” Caravaggi said. “You make friends. You suddenly find you are having a wonderful evening with them. This doesn’t often happen in New York.”
So what happened? “The rents tripled,” Caravaggi said. “After sixteen years Stephen and I just felt that the economic conditions were no longer right, that it’s time to be moving on to something new.”
And the bereft clientele? Well, they do have places to go. Like Amaranth and Nello’s on Madison, Via Quadronno on East 73rd, and Primola’s on Second. They’re survivors, these Upper East Siders.