The Russian Tea Room: A Love Story

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9780684859811: The Russian Tea Room: A Love Story
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"The last thing I expected to do was marry a man eighteen years older than I was who owned a restaurant. The fact that the restaurant was the Russian Tea Room on West 57th Street in New York, I expected even less...." So begins The Russian Tea Room: A Love Story by former owner Faith Stewart-Gordon. Charming and revealing, this highly anticipated memoir shows why the legendary restaurant lives up to its reputation -- and then some. Rudolf Nuteyev told Time magazine that the Russian Tea Room was what he liked most about America. Carol Channing regularly dined there for lunch -- on mysterious items she'd bring herself in a lunch box. Leonard Bernstein scribbled the first bars of "Fancy Free" there on a napkin. And Dustin Hoffman made his hilarious and unforgettable first public appearance as a woman from the famous movie Tootsie at the Russian Tea Room. Now, just in time for the Russian Tea Room's long-awaited reopening, comes this delightful, anecdote-rich story of the famed New York eatery -- and more. It's not just about a famous place, it is a true memoir, at times very funny, always touching, sometimes sad, and often revealing, about a brave and quirky young South Carolina woman, Faith Stewart-Gordon. From the early 1950s and acting on Broadway to her marriage to the Russian Tea Room owner Sidney Kaye and her subsequent struggles to operate the restaurant after his death, she balanced a career and young motherhood, a journey with which many will empathize. Faith Stewart-Gordon never lost sight of what went on behind the scenes, both in the restaurant and in her own life. The Russian Tea Room is not only a story of survival but of the quest for self-knowledge set against the most glamorous of backgrounds.

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Review:

In its heyday--the mid-1980s--the Russian Tea Room was a celebrity force field, known more for its clientele than its food. Frequented by the likes of Jackie O., Rudolph Nureyev, and Leonard Bernstein, it had mutated over the years from a homey refuge for expatriate Russians, musicians, and not-always-solvent artists to a big-deal lunch-spot in the swollen New York tradition. Faith Stewart-Gordon, the Tea Room's owner from 1967 until its 1996 sale, saw it all and has put much of it down in the inevitably named The Russian Tea Room: A Love Story. Part autobiography, part real-estate memoir, all celebrity roll call, the book provides a decent share of the titillation it promises, a diverting bang for the buck.

Tracing her life from her early days as a would-be actress, Stewart-Gordon recounts her marriage to Sidney Kaye, from whom she inherited the restaurant; motherhood (a troubled daughter); intermittent affairs (glancingly depicted); a second marriage (ending in divorce); Tea Room stewardship (resistance from the staff at first then respect and triumph); and the final decision to sell the store ("to find closure" and "begin a new life")--and more. Stewart-Gordon does best when recounting the real-estate wars and other nitty-gritty matters that beset the Tea Room, which is situated on very valuable land, indeed. She is, however, hampered by her use of a circular narrative, which anticipates many events, leaving these touched-upon but frustratingly unexplored. (We learn, for example, of her first husband's death in passing--chapters before we get to the actual details.) It's a parenthetical approach that dissipates what narrative steam the author manages to generate.

In the end, though, it's Woody, Dustin, and Andy we've come to see, and see them we do. And that's what the Tea Room was about for us outsiders who followed it--a chance to feel closer to the buzz. This book promises, and largely delivers, another way in. --Arthur Boehm

About the Author:

Faith Stewart-Gordon ran the Russian Tea Room for nearly thirty years. She is the author of The Russian Tea Room: A Tasting and The Russian Tea Room Cookbook. She lives in New York City and Washington, Connecticut.

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