I was reminded of an encounter I had with F. Lee Bailey one evening while working at Cafe Nicholson’s in Manhattan in the late 1980s. F. Lee Bailey was a legendary legal giant who in a career spanning more than fifty years represented some of the most well-known and infamous miscreants.
Bailey first came to my attention when I was a boy growing up in Miami during the 70s. At the time, Bailey’s defense of Patty Hearst, the heir to William Randolph Hearst’s media empire, who Orson Welles had portrayed in his movie Citizen Kane years before, was the huge case that was the talk of the town—nay, nation. She had been kidnapped in 1974 by an obscure revolutionary group of misfits called the Symbionese Liberation Army. In captivity for over a year, Hearst astonishingly became psychologically attached to her captor’s ideology and got embroiled in several serious crimes as one of its members. It was a story that gripped the nation during a turbulent time in our country’s history. How was it possible for a little poor rich girl from one of America’s wealthiest families to become a terrorist? This question is what Bailey had to answer when he took on Hearst’s defense after authorities captured her. It was a challenge that Bailey was ready to take, but seemingly impossible to meet. He enlisted a bevy of experts to help him explain away Hearst’s terrorist conversion. Together, they concluded Hearst had become a victim of her terrifyingly traumatic situation and was systematically brainwashed, resulting in what became known as the Stockholm Syndrome—a condition in which hostages develop a psychological bond with their captors during captivity. Unfortunately, this defense wasn’t compelling enough to keep Hearst from serving time. Much of the blame may have been Hearst’s, as she had been a defiant and recalcitrant client to defend, thwarting her legal team’s valiant efforts. Nonetheless, due to this case, Bailey’s notoriety only increased as a vigorous and effective trial lawyer.
My late half-brother, Richie Puente, also used to drop Bailey’s name occasionally in jest. I can remember going to court with him one day, as he had piled up a considerable series of traffic violations and was summoned to answer them. When asked by the judge if he had any legal representation, he said, “F. Lee Bailey.” Unamused, the judge scolded my brother for making light of the situation and increased his penalty by another $250.
When I finally met Bailey one evening in the late 80s, it tickled me, having only heard about him for years. I met Bailey on a visit to my godfather’s restaurant, Cafe Nicholson’s, where I worked as a server while attending college. Nicholson’s had been around since 1949 and had established itself as one of the most magical and charming restaurants in New York City. My mother often told me about it as a boy, as she had become close to the proprietor, Johnny Nicholson when living in New York. So when I had a chance to work there much later, I was extremely fortunate. During my tenure there, Johnny had a policy of keeping all the tips and paying me a straight low salary each week, which annoyed me to no end. I had expressed my grievance to him a few times because I was the restaurant’s only server and the one who was attending to all the guests each night. So as far as I was concerned, I earned and was entitled to those tips. Nonetheless, I was grateful for the privilege of working at such a prestigious restaurant as it was home to some of the most interesting people in the world. Frank Sinatra, Tennessee Williams, Gloria Vanderbilt, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, and George Plimpton were some of the guests who often graced its premises.
There was no menu and only 8 tables in the restaurant (or sometimes 12 if we expanded to accommodate increased demand). I would let our visitors know what they could expect to eat—the same dishes Johnny had been serving for years. The prix fixe meal included a cheese souffle as an appetizer, Filet Mignon or Dover Sole for the main course, and chocolate souffle for dessert. A bottle of red or white wine was also included in the cost of the meal. If you were fortunate enough to obtain a table, it was a steal at $50 per person. Every day, Johnny would answer the phone to accept reservations, and even when we had openings, he frequently turned away customers. He did this to give the impression that making a reservation at Nicholson’s was nearly impossible, which it occasionally was. This ruse created so much pent-up demand that we had a waiting list for months.
When Bailey arrived one evening, he was accompanied by his then-wife Patricia Shiers. I seated them at the first banquet on the left as you entered the dining room. The room was full yet tranquil, as it always was, unless we had bigger parties. When I approached Bailey’s table to take his drink order, as we served cocktails before dinner, he engaged me in conversation by telling me how he appreciated getting a reservation as his secretary had been trying for some time without success. I told him we had very few tables and so much demand that reservations were scarce. After a minute of banter, I returned with his drinks. I told him I had been a big admirer of his, and he asked me what I was studying. I told him I was a music major and was minoring in philosophy. He suggested I consider a career in law and that philosophy was a good prerequisite, as it teaches you critical thinking skills needed in the practice of law. I thanked him for his advice and then took his dinner order.
Throughout the evening, Bailey would hail me over to comment on how good the food was, and that he was enjoying the experience, mainly because his wife had wanted to come to the restaurant for a long time. When Bailey finished his meal, he asked for the check and I delivered it at once and he plopped down his Gold Amex. At the time, we ran credit cards on a manual machine that took an impression of the credit card itself. So after I took an impression of his card, I delivered his bill in a check presenter. He signed his card and left.
About two days later, I received a call from Bailey at the restaurant, as Johnny was away shopping for food for the evening’s customers. He said that upon inspecting his receipt, he noticed he hadn’t left me a tip. He apologized profusely and blamed it on the alcohol. I told him it was fine and that I appreciated his call to correct the situation. He insisted on coming over with cash. So I said that would be fine. When he arrived, I greeted him and thanked him for taking the time to deliver the gratuity, as I appreciated how busy he was. He then handed me a $100 bill, which was equivalent to the cost of a dinner for two, and I said it was just too much. Again, he insisted. And so I accepted it.
Later that evening, as I was shuffling through the restaurant’s past week’s receipts, I noticed Bailey had indeed left a tip. He simply forgot to create a carbon copy of his signature, tip, 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.