Elaine Kaufman barely passed high school, preferring instead to educate herself by reading books on her own and sneaking the New York Daily News under her desk. It was fitting, then, that soon after opening her Manhattan restaurant, Elaine's, in 1963, Kaufman developed a loyal clientele of writers and editors who regularly stayed until the wee hours.
Kaufman died Dec. 3 at 81, but her legacy as a friend, confidante and champion of struggling scribes as well as New York's literary elite (George Plimpton, Tom Wolfe and Kurt Vonnegut among them) remains. The feisty proprietress who eventually became as well known as the politicians, musicians and other celebrities who frequented her exclusive eatery over the decades was a New York City institution. Woody Allen shot the opening scene for Manhattan at Elaine's (the director also met future wife Mia Farrow there), and in 2003, the New York Landmarks Conservancy declared Kaufman a Living Landmark.
It was common knowledge that patrons frequented Elaine's not for the food (basic Italian fare) or decor ($5 lights from Little Italy) but for the colorful Elaine herself, a hostess unafraid to slap unruly customers or call Norman Mailer's writing "boring." So while the restaurant will continue on after her passing, it will do so without its spirited soul.
This text originally appeared in the Dec. 20, 2010 issue of TIME Magazine.