One evening in the late 1980s, during my time working at Cafe Nicholson’s in Manhattan, I had a memorable encounter with none other than F. Lee Bailey. This legendary legal giant had built a formidable career spanning over half a century, representing a host of notorious and infamous miscreants.
Bailey first captured my attention during my childhood in 1970s Miami. The buzz around town, and even across the nation, revolved around his defense of Patty Hearst, the heiress to William Randolph Hearst’s media empire—the same Hearst who had been portrayed by Orson Welles in the iconic movie Citizen Kane years before. The case had become a massive sensation. In 1974, Hearst was abducted by a group of unconventional revolutionaries known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, plunging her into over a year of captivity. Astonishingly, she developed a psychological attachment to her captors’ ideology and became entangled in a series of serious crimes committed as a member of their group.
This gripping story captivated the entire nation during a turbulent period in our country’s history. How could a young woman, born into one of America’s wealthiest families, transform into a terrorist? This was the daunting question that Bailey had to tackle when he took on Hearst’s defense after her capture. It was a challenge he was willing to embrace, despite its seemingly insurmountable nature. To support his efforts, Bailey assembled a team of experts who aimed to explain away Hearst’s transformation. Together, they reached the conclusion that she had fallen victim to the horrific traumas she endured, subjected to a systematic process of brainwashing. This phenomenon was later coined as the Stockholm Syndrome, wherein hostages form a psychological bond with their captors during prolonged captivity.
Unfortunately, Hearst’s defense, though compelling, failed to prevent her from serving a prison sentence. Much of the blame could be attributed to Hearst herself, as she proved to be a defiant and uncooperative client, frustrating her legal team’s valiant endeavors. Nevertheless, Bailey’s involvement in this case only served to enhance his reputation as a vigorous and effective trial lawyer, further cementing his notoriety.
During my time working at Cafe Nicholson’s in the late 1980s, I often heard my late half-brother, Richie Puente, jestingly drop F. Lee Bailey’s name. It was a running joke between us. I remember a particular incident when Richie had accumulated a series of traffic violations and was summoned to court. When the judge inquired about his legal representation, Richie cheekily responded, “F. Lee Bailey.” Unamused by his attempt at humor, the judge scolded him and added another $250 to his penalty.
Having heard about Bailey for years, it was quite amusing when I finally had the chance to meet him in person one evening during the late 80s. It happened when he visited my godfather’s renowned restaurant, Cafe Nicholson’s, where I worked as a server while attending college. The establishment had been a staple since 1949 and had earned a reputation as one of the most enchanting and magical restaurants in New York City. Growing up, my mother would often regale me with stories about the place, as she had developed a close relationship with its proprietor, Johnny Nicholson.
Securing a job there much later felt like a stroke of luck. However, Johnny had an unconventional policy of keeping all the tips and paying me a fixed low salary each week, which greatly frustrated me. As the sole server, I attended to all the guests each night, so I believed I deserved and was entitled to those tips. Despite my grievances, I remained grateful for the opportunity to work at such a prestigious establishment, frequented by some of the most fascinating people in the world. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Tennessee Williams, Gloria Vanderbilt, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, and George Plimpton often graced the premises, adding to the allure of the place.
Cafe Nicholson’s had a unique dining experience with no menus and only a handful of tables, occasionally expanding to accommodate increased demand. As the server, it was my role to inform our guests of the fixed meal options. Johnny, the proprietor, had been serving the same signature dishes for years. The prix fixe meal consisted of a cheese souffle as an appetizer, followed by a choice between Filet Mignon or Dover Sole as the main course. For dessert, a delectable chocolate souffle awaited. To complement the meal, a bottle of red or white wine was included in the affordable price of $50 per person. Securing a table was a challenge, as Johnny purposely kept reservations scarce, creating an air of exclusivity and resulting in a lengthy waiting list.
On the evening when Bailey visited, he was accompanied by his then-wife, Patricia Shiers. I seated them at the first banquet on the left, just as you entered the tranquil dining room, which was filled with a calm ambiance, except on occasions with larger parties. Taking their drink orders, Bailey engaged me in conversation, expressing his gratitude for finally obtaining a reservation after his secretary’s unsuccessful attempts. I explained the scarcity of tables due to high demand. This led to a friendly exchange, during which I expressed my admiration for Bailey, and he, in turn, inquired about my studies. As a music major with a minor in philosophy, I mentioned my academic pursuits. Bailey suggested considering a legal career, noting that philosophy fostered critical thinking skills valuable in the practice of law. I thanked him for the advice before taking their dinner order.
Throughout the evening, Bailey intermittently called me over to praise the food and share his enjoyment, particularly because his wife had long wished to dine at Nicholson’s. When Bailey finished his meal, he requested the check, and I promptly delivered it. He paid with his Gold American Express card, which required a manual impression using a credit card machine. After taking the impression, I presented the bill in a check presenter, and Bailey settled the amount with his signature.
A couple of days later, I received a call from Bailey at the restaurant while Johnny was away shopping for the evening’s provisions. He expressed his regret upon realizing that he hadn’t left a tip on his receipt. Apologizing profusely, he attributed it to the effects of alcohol. I reassured him that it was no problem and appreciated his effort to rectify the situation. Bailey insisted on coming over in person to provide the gratuity, so I agreed. When he arrived, I warmly greeted him, acknowledging his busy schedule and thanking him for taking the time to deliver the tip. To my surprise, he handed me a $100 bill, equivalent to the cost of a dinner for two. I initially felt it was excessive, but Bailey insisted, and I eventually accepted his generous gesture.
Later that evening, while organizing the restaurant’s past week’s receipts, I noticed that Bailey had indeed left a tip on his original receipt. He had simply forgotten to create a carbon copy with his signature, tip amount, and total.
Former restauranteur, musician, concert promoter, producer, publisher, manager, and impresario, Charles Carlini has synthesized these roles to become a dynamic force in the music industry–noted for his ability to bring diverse talent together to create innovative concerts and recordings that reach and move music-lovers everywhere.