Thursday, December 21, 2006

New York's "21" Club Loses A Legend - Jerry Berns - NY Times

This NY Times article was sent to me by my friend Mike Dotterer, who I took to dinner at 21 this year. It's my favorite restaurant in all the World.

Jerry Berns, '21' Club’s Pre-eminent Greeter, Is Dead at 99

Published: December 22, 2006

Jerry Berns, a proprietor of the “21” Club for a half-century and the last link to the restaurant’s past as Manhattan’s most celebrated speakeasy, died yesterday in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 99 and had homes in Rancho Mirage, Manhattan and Southampton, N.Y.

At top, Jerry Berns, right, and H. Peter Kriendler in 1985. Above, Artie D. DiRusso, a doorman, early that year trying to find a taxi for a patron.

His daughter, Cecily Berns Rosenthal, his banquet manager for 14 years, noted that he died on Dec. 21. The cause, she said, was complications of surgery.

Under a ceiling hung with toy planes and trucks, Mr. Berns, his brother, Charlie, and their cousin, H. Peter Kriendler, created a center of Manhattan’s social swirl at “21.”

For the better part of the 20th century, Mr. Berns and his two partners were the faces of “21.” He received the most powerful people in the nation as they arrived at the restaurant, housed in a brownstone at 21 West 52nd Street, walked past an honor guard of lawn jockeys and stepped inside. He was a host to every president of the United States from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, the chiefs of corporate America, potentates and panjandrums. He made a practice of kissing prominent women on both cheeks.

Some well-heeled regulars ate at “21” almost every day for 50 years, and the ever-present Mr. Berns helped make the club a tradition through generations. Couples celebrated the birth of a child by stocking wine to be opened when the newborn turned 21. The consummation of a business deal or a love affair was a cause for a table for two.

The best tables at “21” were in the original building; the outer-room Siberias opened when the restaurant expanded two doors down on 52nd Street. Mr. Berns knew who sat where, whether it was Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra or Humphrey Bogart, who proposed to Lauren Bacall in the restaurant.

More than once, his daughter said, Mr. Berns averted disaster by making sure that the third party in a love triangle was seated out of sight.

Mr. Berns saw “21” evolve from a clandestine saloon to a grand salon. Before World War II, writers and actors and slumming millionaires drank elbow-to-elbow. Groucho Marx might rub shoulders with J. Paul Getty. After the war, the scene began to shift to brokers, bankers and the business elite.

The rooms smelled of cigars and money. The place practically invented the power lunch. It was very likely the first restaurant to charge $21 for a hamburger, a pinnacle it hit 21 years ago. It was perhaps the priciest place in the world to chow down on chicken hash.

The menu became fancier but the aura faded after the Berns and Kriendler families sold the restaurant to a business magnate in 1985 for $21 million. But “21” was never about the food. It was about the mood.

Herman Jerome Bernfeld was born on Feb. 19, 1907, one block north and five blocks west of “21” in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. His parents had emigrated from what is now Poland. His father, Abraham, was a tinsmith who made the old-fashioned ceilings still found in Manhattan tenements.

His brother, Charlie, ran a string of speakeasies that were “21” precursors. His mother, Sophia, demanded that Jerry leave Columbia College to avoid the risks of running rum in New York. Sent to Ohio, Mr. Berns received an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Cincinnati in 1929.

His first wife, the former Martha Baeffsky, died in 1976 after 45 years of marriage. Their daughter Diane died in 1986. He married Suzanne Pogany in 1977; she died in 2000. In addition to Mrs. Rosenthal, he is survived by his wife, the former Dorothy Lyons, whom he married in 2005; six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Charlie Berns died in 1970; H. Peter Kriendler in 2001.

The club opened at its present address on New Year’s Day 1930. In 1938, Jerry Berns, then the drama critic for The Cincinnati Enquirer, left the footlights of the Midwest for the grander stage on 52nd Street. For more than 12,000 nights thereafter, he was the first man the guests of the “21” Club met after they checked their hats and coats.
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