October 19, 1998 | Insatiable Critic
We who are his survivors are anxious about confronting the millennium now that Joe Baum isn't staging the party. There would have been caviar, rainbows, Rockettes, perhaps a flight into outer space. Extravagance was not an issue. It's easy enough to say his death ends an era. True, "the end of an era" looms at least once a week in the obituaries. But Joseph H. Baum did invent a new way to feel about dinner. He got people to come to eat at the Newark Airport by flambéing everything in sight. ("When in doubt, flambé," he said.) He went on to whip up a parade of legendary spots for Restaurant Associates that made dining theater: the Hawaiian Room, The Four Seasons, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars (a Roman theme park with silver gladiator helmets as ice buckets).
It cost $7,000 just in overtime to change the Philip-Johnson-designed Four Seasons from fall to winter in Baum's reign. Flowers were forced to bloom, and the whole caboodle -- uniforms, the upholstery of the banquettes, cummerbunds, matches, ashtrays, the color of the typewriter ribbon -- went from rust to gray. Style was all. Nothing would be served in an old-hat way. The ritual of pouring wine at the Forum was different from the pouring style at The Four Seasons. He was a sweetie and a despot. "Let's go out and kick shit," he'd say, touring the empire.
So much extravagance and red ink finally took a toll on Restaurant Associates stock. The bean counters had taken over and unceremoniously dumped Baum in 1970 when I first interviewed him for a piece New York would call "Twilight of the Gods." We lingered till 5 p.m. over lunch at the once-mythic Quo Vadis (now long gone). Dazzled by his musings, I filled my notebooks, but later, transcribing my notes, I couldn't extract a single sentence with a subject and a verb. Weeks later, the Transit Authority hired him to consult on feeding plans for the new World Trade Center. Thus began the long, tortured comeback. In May 1976, with the city on the verge of default, Windows on the World was unveiled -- so ambitious, every view brand-new, a symbol of survival. Uptowners who never ventured below Saks were pulling strings to get a table. Baum was a natural then to gussy up the Rainbow Room in 1988. He rescued the great born-again beauty from dowdy neglect, getting architect Hugh Hardy to redo her cheekbones -- raising floors to better the view, reviving old-fashioned cocktails, and raking in profits.
So good-bye to roller-coaster triumphs and despair, irreverent wit and mischief, cigarette girls and teddy bears in black tie. Good-bye to the thrift-shop chapeau he used to send every year, and the glittering parties he threw to raise money for Citymeals-on-Wheels. His inspiration remains. He left enough ideas to borrow for a century to come.