Full Version of New York Times Op-Ed Letter by Judy Collins
I am writing this the morning after my last dinner at the Russian Tea Room, the restaurant The New York Times called "that preserve of infused vodka, glinting caviar and buttery blini."
For forty years I called the Russian Tea room a home away from home, eating and celebrating in its glorious, painting-filled, elegant, samavor-studded, red, gold, light-filled palace, an ante-room to all the glamour and gifts, sizzle and pulse, art, intelligence and determination of this great city, my home for the same forty years I have reveled in its golden rooms. Except for the four years it was closed for renovations, I was faithful to the food, the people, and the golden samovars of the Russian Tea room.
My Russian Tea Room celebrations started in 1962 after my very first performance at Carnegie Hall, the famed next-door-neighbor to the Tea Room, a few steps to the right from the brilliant red awning. After that first Carnegie concert, when I was the guest of Theo Bikel, actor and singer, there were dozens of post-Carnegie parties at the Tea Room, where the conversation, the celebrities and the vodka flowed late into the night.
I took my mother and father to the Tea Room on their first trip to the city in 1962. I often ate lunch there, and usually saw Sam Cohen at his special front table, when I dined with record producers, managers, and other friends. The glorious spot was the place to go-for a date, for a hoot, for a lift. My husband Louis's first Tea Room meal, 24 years ago, was take-out, their famous pre-Warner LeRoy Lamb Karski, bulgar wheat and a Caesar salad served up in a plastic plate covered with foil, in a Russian Tea Room shopping bag, and taken home after my own meal to my new lover, who was working late.
I took my son Clark there, before he and I went to hear Horowitz play his 1966 concert at Carnegie. Clark was 7. Years later, I took Clark and ("we'll have the Beluga!" they announced in unison-) My husband danced our granddaughter on the table, her tiny nine-month old white-clad figure lighting up the red room. It was Christmas Eve. At a nearby table, Marion Seldes feted her niece with Chicken Kiev and Czar Salad and champagne.
Antonia Brico, the conductor and my teacher, about whom I made a film in 1974, (Antonia, A Portrait of the Woman) always took me to the Russian Tea Room for lunch on her trips to New York, which preceded her voyages to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth 2. "Why don't you go with me, little Judy?" she would ask. "No onions, pork, or garlic," she would invariably tell a red-clad waiter, who would assure her that the Borscht had no such vile ingredients, and we would talk and talk, enjoying our meal, and then she would pick up her luggage at the Mayflower Hotel and climb aboard the Queen Elizabeth for the music festivals in Salzburg and Europe. One year, I went with her on the QE2, after lunch at the Tea Room.
At the first closing party in 1996 for the Tea Room, when the food and the celebrities flowed through the red rooms among the Samovars, I told Faith Stewart Gordon I hoped for a glass tea holder as a token of my close relationship with the Tea Room and she said that everything from the restaurant was 'on the block'. But the next day I received a package by hand from Ms. Gordon'"a lithograph of a cello player'"a picture that had hung at the Tea Room for at least some of the four those sweet decades. When Warner LeRoy got the re-done Tea Room open again we returned, for dinner and lunches and the Christmas Eve dinner that has been Russian Tea Room night in our family for thirty years, after the four o'clock Evensong at St. Thomas Church, before going home to wait for Santa. For parties--I went to a party for Paul McCartny and raised a toast to his longevity and social conscience with Billy Crystal and Barry Levinson, and Steve Buscemi and I stood together near the dancing bear full of fish, with Paul's brother Michael. We toasted the Firemen of New York City. I gave Katherine De Paul, my executive assistant and the President of my record Label, Wildflower Records, a party there just three months ago, to celebrate her seventh year with the company. I took my employees to lunch at the Tea Room, my managers. Sometimes even mere acquaintances. It was the place to be, in the city, for special nights. Last October I gave a party for my husband, Louis Nelson, his 65th birthday, at which sixty-five of our closest friends, including President William Jefferson Clinton, were in attendance. It was our first party after 9/11, and people felt uncomfortable at first, not at all sure they were ready to smile and have a toast to life (Na Zdorovye! in Russian!), But the sadness melted a little in the glorious gilded rooms of the Russian eatery, and the party turned into a celebration of life, and friendship.
On Saturday, the 27th of July, as I headed out to do my concert at the Greenbriar Resort in West Virginia, for a group of West Virginia Bankers, I read in the New York Times that the Tea Room would close the following day. I was shocked. I rescheduled my return travel on Sunday, so that Louis and I and a friend or two could have one last meal at the Russian shrine to culture and continuity. Bizmark Irving, the restaurant manager, greeted us with a stunned look on his face. Everyone had found out only that Friday, and many would be losing their jobs. Bizmark, who followed a long line of courteous, kind, professional and helpful head waiters at the Tea Room, will go on to Warner LeRoy's other restaurant in New York, Tavern on the Green, along with some of the other employees, but where will all those wonderful serving people go? The chefs? Waiters?
The Tea Room was originally founded in 1926 by former members of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Just a few days ago, the Kirov Ballet finished its season as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. This kind of historical resonance is what makes this city so enduring. In a year when the city has lost so much, it's sad to see the Tea Room, one of its happiest places, close. Let us hope that, once again, someone with the forsight of the Russian ballet dancers, Faith Stewart Gordon, and Warner Leroy, will let the light of the Russian Tea Room shine