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Monkey Business

IT WAS 1936, THREE YEARS AFTER PROHIBITION ENDED, WHEN MAYER Quain, a corpulent, mustachioed Turk from Izmir, bought the bankrupt Hotel Elysee at 60 East 54th Street for $473,000.

Quain had made a New World fortune in good time ventures. He peddled candy outside theaters, ran an an ice cream cone factory and held a near monopoly on nightclub hatcheck concessions. Nightclubs were his passion, and Quain lavished his attentions on the little boite he created in the hotel's lobby.

The decor was simple then an upright piano on a tiny stage. The bar itself had only four stools, and affixed to the round mirrors that hung above the banquettes were tiny monkey decals, put there, no doubt, to satisfy the view that when people drink they made monkeys of themselves.

Now, decor alone, even zebra striped wallpaper, can't make or break a gin mill. But in Quain's case, the monkeys, the martinis and the naughty piano acts (delicious copy cartier mens chain exercises in double entendres) tickled all the right show people in town, and soon the Gish sisters, Tennessee Williams, Robert Benchley, Helen Hayes, Ben Hecht and a slew of lesser known lights came to call the Elysee their home away from home.

Life magazine described it as a "a swank version of a theatrical boardinghouse." Dorothy Kilgallen reported (with some excitement) that Ava Gardner had been spotted sunbathing on her Elysee terrace. And Walter Winchell was appalled by what he described as those "risgay [ sic ] ditties."

The ink wasn't restricted to the tabloids, however. Holden Caulfield had his favorite scotch and soda at a thinly disguised Monkey Bar, scoffing: "They used to have these two French babes. . . . He didn't live to hear the hotel's oft repeated nickname (in honor of the showgirls who received their gentlemen callers upstairs and too lewd to repeat here) but he was well aware of the antics of his most famous guest, Tallulah Bankhead, whose habitual instruction to the bartender was: "Just tell Mr. Quain this is on the house." Bankhead lived at the Elysee for 18 years with a menagerie of men and beasts. Among them were Gaylord, her mynah bird, who said "Hello, Darling" in a voice eerily reminiscent of its mistress; her pet monkey (name forgotten), whom she tutored in the etiquette of eating a banana, and her pet lion cub, Winston Churchill, who liked nothing better than to roar through the lobby.

Jimmy Breslin wrote about the night that Bankhead and a chanteuse named Thelma Carpenter were reported to have left a Bankhead party with nothing on but their open mink coats. Asked if it were true, Carpenter explained, " [ The party ] lasted longer than I thought, two extra days maybe." And then she added, "I know we didn't open up our coats until we were out in the street and we needed a taxi."

Quain's permissiveness was read as hospitality, and perhaps that is why Marlon cartier necklace gold fake Brando (registered as Patrick Jaipur), Frank Sinatra (when he visited Ava Gardner) and Joe DiMaggio kept coming back. Vladimir Horowitz lived there for two years in a suite imitation cartier love pendant necklace with two Steinways. Harold Robbins took up residence and wrote four novels. William Paley was no stranger to the rooms upstairs, and Winston Guest chose the Elysee to court his wife to be, C. Z., so they wouldn't run into anyone they knew.

But despite the best efforts of Quain's son, Leon, to spruce the place up with campy monkey murals, by the 1970's the Elysee was on the map only for its off the mapness. A 1975 article in Harper's Bazaar titled "Should You Sleep With Your Boss?" included the Elysee in its accompanying tip sheet on "Where to do 'it.' " A piece on extramarital sex in The SoHo News did likewise, and in a 1980 guide to nightspots John Duka wrote: " [ The Monkey Bar ] is where you go when you feel like Diane Arbus on a good day," whatever that means. In 1983, the Elysee's name was again in the papers, but this time for the tragic distinction of being the place where Tennessee Williams choked to death imitation cartier circle of love necklace on a bottle cap.

Just when it looked as if all was lost and the Monkey Bar was unceremoniously closed in 1992, new management stepped in (Peter and Penny Glazier and Burt and Judy Resnick) and two months ago a new restaurant and refurbished bar opened, designed by David Rockwell of Planet Hollywood fame.

Photos: Wool tuxedo, $1,525, by Donna Karan. At Saks Fifth Avenue. Black silk charmeuse dress, $1,850, by Richard Tyler. To order at Bergdorf Goodman. Sapphire pendant and ring, and ruby earrings from Harry Winston. Tuxedo, $1,650, from Ermenegildo Zegna, 743 Fifth Avenue. Lurex dress, $820, by Marc Jacobs. At Bloomingdale's. Art Deco diamond bracelets, right arm, from Camilla Dietz Bergeron. Other diamond jewelry from Tiffany Company. (pg. 63); Wool tuxedo, $895, from Hickey Freeman. At Barneys New York. Satin dress, $455, by Carmen Marc Valvo. At Bloomingdale's. Diamond and emerald bracelets, earrings and ring from Harry Winston. Silk dress, $898, by Sophie Sitbon. At Henri Bendel. Watch and bracelet by Cartier. Art Deco diamond earrings from Camilla Dietz Bergeron. Chimpanzee's tuxedo by Lord West. (pg. 64 65); Leon Quain (standing, in a photo circa 1970), who inherited the Elysee from his father. Beaded top, $598, from Riazee Boutique. At Henri Bendel. Diamond cluster earrings by Cartier. Wool tuxedo, $1,250, and cotton shirt, $225, by Calvin Klein. At Barneys New York. (pg. 66 67)(PHOTOGRAPHS BY TIMOTHY GREENFIELD SANDERS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)
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