Mortimer’s: Moments in Time—a new coffee table book about the former Upper East Side eatery by Robin Baker Leacock with contributions from Anthony Haden-Guest and other writers and artists is a reminder of New York’s human era and a civilization now lost in time.
A few of my recollections of the restaurant follow. But you have to think your way back to 1976, when Mortimer’s opened at Lexington Avenue and 75th Street. The Nixon administration had taken the US off the gold standard in 1971. Nixon went to China the following year—the first official visit by a US president. The Vietnam War ended in ‘75. Gerald Ford was US President in ’76, following Nixon’s resignation. Nelson Rockefeller was Vice President.
It was a time before the Internet and computers for all, before ATMs, fax machines and cell phones existed. People sent telegrams with urgent messages.
Electric typewriters were fairly recent in Manhattan offices as well, replacing manual typewriters. Mimeograph machines had just been scrapped for photocopy machines.
In the 1970s, Mortimer’s restaurant/”saloon” was an insider’s place where people did not seriously dress up in designer fashions to get in. You dropped in as you were.
I was first invited to lunch there in the late 70s by John Hoey, a former US foreign service officer who then headed the Arab African International Bank’s New York branch inside the Olympic Towers office of John Deuss’s JOC Oil/Transworld Oil. I met John Hoey through John Deuss, who also owned a fashion house at 550 Seventh Avenue—called “Alexandra Christie”—where I was the model.I remember walking into Mortimer’s dressed in a gold-striped woolen dishdasha given to me by a Kuwaiti diplomat, my hair in braids, and coincidentally running into Qatar’s UN ambassador, Jasim Jamal, whose Qatar National Day party at the UN I had recently attended and who was delighted to see Gulf fashions “make an entrance.”
Jamal was Qatar’s first ambassador to the UN and loved New York. He lived in a five-story townhouse with an elevator to a disco on the top floor. The house was the former residence of comedians Bob and Ray.
I had taken a break from journalism for a few years in the 70s and was a runway fashion model for Giorgio Sant’ Angelo, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene and other legendary designers. And I had participated in an American bicentennial fashion tour of the Middle East in April 1976, modeling 16 designer collections and jewels from David Webb in shows in Kuwait
and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s Iran.
The New York fashion scene was very different in the 1970s.
Top New York runway models made a fraction of what they do today per show. And aside from Women’s Wear Daily, there were a mere handful of fashion publications on the newsstands: L’ Officiel and American, French and Italian Vogue.
There was little pretense at Mortimer’s in those days. You could walk in without a reservation or any questions asked. It was a simple brick-walled eatery with few tables and a spectacular mirror opposite the bar. The food was uncomplicated and so was the vibe, even though the crowd represented New York’s movers and shakers. A woman could arrive unescorted, have a glass of wine at the bar or dinner for one at a table—no problem.
There were also two restaurants in the West Village next door to one another that in the 1970s paralleled Mortimer’s: Le Petite Ferme, which Jackie Kennedy frequented, and Le Jules Verne—owned by Steve Baldwin, a descendant of Jules Verne as well as the Knickerbocker and Baldwin families. Baldwin cooked from Julia Child’s recipes and the restaurant was a favorite of Arthur Loeb, with Malcolm Forbes and his motorcycle gang, Michael O’Donoghue and Anne Beatts, Bill Blass, Charles Schwab, among those looking for a simple meal. Like perhaps, sole with beurre blanc, arugula salad, crème brulee and café filtre.
After the public relations industry’s ascent to power in the 1980s, Mortimer’s was ruined. There was escalating scrutiny. One summer evening in the mid-80s, arriving alone, I found it difficult to get a table. Anderson Cooper was a waiter at the restaurant and was kind enough to secure a table for me, although back-of-room.
I especially remember one shocking winter night at Mortimer’s later on in the 80s. There was a hush in the main room. Suddenly police were outside and patrons inside on table tops, including CZ Guest, looking out onto the street. A robbery of fur coats had been thwarted and the thief—a black woman wearing a blonde wig that fell off during her arrest, shouting that she was pregnant—was wrestled down to the ground on the Lexington Avenue curb.
I once shared a bar stool at Mortimer’s with my date, Richard Johnson (who in the mid-80s had taken over as editor of New York Post – “Page Six”) following a party at Pilar Crespi’s and our ride up Park Avenue in Richard’s jalopy with a bad muffler.
In the 1990s, shortly after my appearance on the Charlie Rose Show reporting on the crisis in Sudan I spotted Charlie Rose coming out of Mortimer’s party room. Enough people in the crowd had been guests on his show that it was not surprising that he failed to see me.
Yes, I will miss Mortimer’s forever. . .