Lions and Tigers and Debt: Auctioning Off Tavern on the Green Some of the elements of Tavern on the Green’s decor that are to be sold at auction next month. By GLENN COLLINSPublished: December 8, 2009
ON an April night in 1966, Kay O’Reilly, a dishy 22-year-old English “air hostess” for TWA — her job title back in the “Mad Men” decade — swept into the sprawling wonderland of Maxwell’s Plum.
Robert Caplin for The New York TimesMEMORIES Kay LeRoy, the ex-wife of Tavern on the Green’s longtime operator, Warner LeRoy, is preparing to auction the restaurant’s artifacts on Jan. 13. More Photos » Readers' CommentsReaders shared their thoughts on this article.· Read All Comments (51) »The restaurant embodied not only the city’s culinary revolution, but the sexual one as well, for it was New York’s most flamboyant singles bar. So it wasn’t entirely surprising that she came under the eye of Warner LeRoy himself — the very large, very charismatic 31-year-old owner, a canny showman who was given to wearing screaming paisley-patterned outfits. He promptly uttered his first words to her: “Hello, I’m Warner LeRoy, and I’m going to marry you.” He persisted. And persisted. And she became his second wife in 1970, she recalled recently, on the seventh floor of Carnegie Hall. (“I was Catholic,” she said, “and somehow he found a rabbi to perform a Jewish ceremony involving an O’Reilly.”) The marriage would land her a role in the excellent adventure of Warner LeRoy’s Tavern on the Green, and then, this fall, in the muddle of its harrowing collapse. On a recent evening as scurrying waiters assembled a banquet in the landmark restaurant in Central Park, Kay LeRoy, one of its owners, was preparing for Tavern’s bankruptcy sale next month. Accompanied by the owner of an auction house, she meandered through artifacts from what some are calling the fall of the house of LeRoy. The once-thrilling saga of the twinkly-tree restaurant has devolved into a breathtaking cautionary tale. As she navigated the mirrored time warp of cut crystal, animal sculptures and rare chestnut paneling, Ms. LeRoy shared her memories of the restaurant’s relicts. She had scouted many of them with Mr. LeRoy, a scion of Hollywood royalty whose father, Mervyn, produced “The Wizard of Oz.” Mr. LeRoy left a $48 million estate at his death at the age of 65 in 2001; Ms. LeRoy had been divorced from him two years before. “It is very difficult to see it all go,” she said in her Tunbridge Wells lilt. “Everything here is a memory. Hard to believe all this won’t exist anymore.” And even harder to believe it could all end so badly just before the holiday season, traditionally the most joyous, frenzied and profitable time for the restaurant that for years generated the nation’s highest sales. The auction, starting Jan. 13, could help placate a ravenous pack of more than 450 creditors, of which Ms. LeRoy happens to be the largest. She lent $1.9 million to the company headed by her daughter, Jennifer Oz LeRoy, enabling the restaurant to meet its payroll. “Our workers are the heart of Tavern,” Kay LeRoy said. But the city, itself a creditor owed $76,923.08, claims ownership of dozens of auction artifacts along with what may be the restaurant’s greatest asset: its name, valued at $19 million. That claim is one of several simmering Tavern disputes that now fill a swirl of courtrooms. As the arguments metastasize, some 400 employees face an uncertain future. No new contract has been concluded between their union — the Hotel Trades Council — and Dean J. Poll, who in August was awarded the new 20-year license to run Tavern beginning in 2010. Nor has Mr. Poll, the operator of the Boathouse in Central Park, signed a contract with Tavern’s landlord, the Parks Department. “This is all so heartbreaking for the people here,” Ms. LeRoy said. “Where can you get a job in January in this economy?”She paused, the
n pointed to a mossy fin-de-siècle stone lion in the restaurant’s main corridor. “We liked this because it looked like the cowardly lion,” she said, recalling that she and Mr. LeRoy had seen the sculpture in a shop window in London, and loved it madly. She added, “We traveled the world looking for things that belonged at Tavern.” Ms. LeRoy was walking with Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s Auction House, who said, “It is a bit humbling when you think that this is a place that touched the lives of millions.” It has had nearly 20 million patrons since Mr. LeRoy reopened it in 1976.Ms. LeRoy created the restaurant’s lucrative gift shop and was a dedicated collaborator in the assemblage of its down-the-rabbit-hole design elements with Warner, Tavern’s Mad Hatter. For five years during Tavern’s gestation she scoured the country for orphaned shards of Tiffany glass, which artists would fashion into the stained-glass windows and rows of chandeliers that gave Tavern the opulent aspect of a Central Park sultanate. Times Topics: Tavern on the GreenRelated Posts on Diner's Journal Soon she was pointing out 10 historic chandeliers — some by Baccarat, others by Waterford, and one dating from 1790 — in a formerly dusty, gray, rat-infested courtyard that Mr. LeRoy proudly showed to her in 1975. “This will be the Crystal Room,” he decreed with customary panache. And it was. Now the whole sui generis collection must go: The silver candelabras. The gilded copper weathervanes. The baby grand piano whose ivories were once tickled by Eddy Duchin. The carved pair of white-painted wooden elk. The samovars. The three-foot-tall carved monkey from the Black Forest. The 19th-century Murano chandelier in the Bride’s Room. Not to mention the mural on the West side of the Crystal Room, featuring a tiny painted likeness of the maestro himself, dancing ecstatically as a topiary figure.Even Tavern’s exterior topiaries, including King Kong, must be gaveled away. (Ms. LeRoy said that Kong’s debut at Tavern was, of course, hosted by the actress Fay Wray.) “These are so much more than beautiful pieces of art,” Mr. Ettinger said. “They have an extraordinary history.” Indeed, Ms. LeRoy has a special fondness for the two crystal chandeliers and the seven-foot-tall Venetian glass mirror in the Terrace Room, where after walking across the street from the Dakota, John Lennon would celebrate his birthdays. Also part of the sale to be held in the Crystal Room — which will feature absentee Internet bidding — will be the glass ceilings from Maxwell’s Plum and the Russian Tea Room, which Mr. LeRoy once owned as well, and a treasure trove of his sequined, flocked and otherwise caparisoned outfits.In summoning up his memory so frequently, Ms. LeRoy noted that she does not want to be defined by their 1999 divorce, in which she was awarded $15 million and a $5 million house. As Kay O’Reilly, she departed her native Kent in England at the age of 15 when her mother died “and I left school,” she said. “I was on my own.” As an au pair in Paris she acquired fluent French — a language that landed her in first-class cabin service at TWA — “but I never went to college.” Ms. LeRoy finally remedied that in 2007 when she earned a bachelor’s degree with honors from New York University. Now 66, she is a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence. Before he died, Mr. LeRoy named their daughter Jennifer, now 30, chief executive of the restaurant company. In recent weeks, she has been exploring new business opportunities in Florida and other East Coast locations. But her mother remained a presence at Tavern on the Green, seen by some as a living embodiment of Tavern’s story. Everyone from managers to table runners greets her with familiarity. Kay LeRoy was heavily involved in the application to renew the operating license earlier this year, and said the Parks Department’s decision “was a shock.” “It’s tragic that we’re all going to split,” Ms. LeRoy said softly as she pondered the Tavern diaspora. “The city will realize it has lost something precious. And by the time it realizes that? It will be too late.” Nonetheless, she insisted that the family will have a new beginning. “The LeRoys are not going away, we will be welcoming New Yorkers somewhere else,” she said. “We know better than anyone how to give a party.” But as December unspools, the messy transition at Tavern on the Green moves ahead inexorably. One major issue has finally been resolved: according to court papers, Judge Allan L. Gropper in the United States Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan ordered late last month that the LeRoys’ license be extended from Jan. 31 to Feb. 14, long enough for the family to remove items it owns and to conduct the auction. The LeRoys must pay $123,288 for the privilege. (The city had wanted the LeRoys to depart Jan. 1.) The court order even ins
ists that LeRoy employees “will not disparage in any manner” Mr. Poll’s future restaurant to Tavern customers who are booking future events. The meter is running on many other dust-ups, adding to the legal costs that will paid out of money that creditors might otherwise receive. For example, seven lawyers were arrayed at a federal court hearing last week before Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, who will decide whether the city, or the LeRoys, owns the trademark on the name Tavern on the Green. The city managed to shift the dispute from bankruptcy court to a federal court that has superior jurisdiction.Meanwhile, the creditors, who are owed $8 million, have taken aim at the city. Norman N. Kinel, lawyer for 450 of them, has savaged the city for asserting its ownership of the Tavern trademark and mounting “a scorched-earth battle against Tavern and its creditors,” a charge the city has dismissed.And a new confrontation looms over the items to be auctioned off for the benefit of the creditors: It appears that Mr. Poll hopes to inherit many fixtures that the LeRoys planned to sell. Judge Gropper’s order lists 40 items at Tavern as Parks Department property, including 942 upholstered chairs that are listed on the Guernsey’s Web site as being among the Tavern curios to be auctioned. In a memorandum to the Parks Department from Mr. Poll’s lawyer, Barry B. LePatner, obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Poll said that the LeRoys “intend to auction what appear to be numerous items which the current operator is not entitled to remove.” Mr. LePatner said the memorandum was “sent in furtherance of our ongoing negotiations with the city for the new licensing agreement,” but declined further comment. Mr. Poll contends that the LeRoys failed to abide by a 1985 license agreement that required them to notify the Parks Department about any new fixtures purchased for Tavern on the Green. Since 1985, the LeRoys have renovated portions of the Pavilion Room, the Crystal Room and the bar, and added other amenities. In addition to the chairs, the items in dispute could include new mural panels in the Pavilion Room, which bear a small portrait of Ms. LeRoy’s son, Max, who died in 2005 at the age of 30 in a motorcycle accident. Nearby, on a door panel, there is a painting of a diminutive Central Park carousel, a favorite of Ms. LeRoy’s, attached to a small painted tag that says “Kay.” It is listed among the Guernsey’s auction lots. “Nothing owned by the city, or listed as city inventory, is being sold,” said Keith N. Costa, Tavern’s bankruptcy lawyer. And the artifacts bought after 1985 involve “an insignificant list of inventory,” said Elizabeth Austin, Kay LeRoy’s bankruptcy lawyer. Any dispute would result “from an inaccurate reading of the license agreement.”A spokeswoman for the department, Vickie Karp, said, “we will review the items they plan to sell prior to the auction date to ensure they do not sell anything that belongs to the city.” Mr. Ettinger declined to estimate the total auction value or that of any individual items, saying it was premature. “Prices will really depend on the quality,” said Mario Buatta, the interior designer who was a regular visitor at Tavern and a guest at Mr. LeRoy’s emphatically decorated apartment. “There is still money out there, and for many this will be a memory sale, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to recall their marriage proposal — or to see things you just don’t see anymore. Everything is so beige and contemporary now, and people are yearning for outrageous fantasy. I’m thinking about a couple of those chandeliers myself.”Since Guernsey’s was drawn into the Tavern vortex so recently, it has not yet had time to produce a catalog detailing the provenance or history of auction items. If the décor might charitably be called eccentrically eclectic — or uncharitably called bizarre — Ms. LeRoy had no difficulty in giving it a label. “It is,” she said, “Warner.”