The late Charlie Kafferman, the West Street Grill partner who died on Saturday. Contributed photo
Below, Charlie Kafferman in his familiar seat on a warm day at the restaurant. Cathy Oneglia photo
By Bill O’Shaughnessy
In my business we “warehouse” obits … so that when someone departs for another and, we are sure, a better world … we are ready with the details, minutiae and landmarks of a person’s life. No such trove or repository exists for Charlie Kafferman because everyone in Litchfield fully expected him to be around forever to feed us, to counsel us and to entertain and anchor us with his wisdom of 88 years.
But at 2:30 on the summer Saturday just past, the legendary Mr. Charles Kafferman (I know the word is overused, but he was that), proprietor of the West Street Grill, an iconic eatery which has existed for 25 years in his lovely Connecticut town, died in Danbury Hospital after 10 days in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. The formal notices of his passing will mention the culprit as “congestive heart failure.”
But earlier, and for many years, Charlie had battled lung cancer with visits to Memorial Sloan-Kettering in the great City, so many that he was known among the doctors and nurses as “Lazarus Kafferman.”
He is survived by his shy, modest, retiring life and business partner James O’Shea who knew his genius and goodness for 42 years. They lived together in a Colonial era house in the historic district of Litchfield which was once owned by J.P. Morgan.
By day and on most nights, Charlie and James repaired to their labor of love known by locals as “The Grill” and was operated almost as a private club. But Charlie made everyone feel welcome … from the landed gentry and hilltoppers of Litchfield and residents of Morris, Bantam, Woodridge Lake, Washington Depot, Bethlehem, New Preston and even as far away as Newport … to the newest arrivals in town for whom Kafferman was a generous, benevolent and knowledgeable counsellor. He took great pleasure in personally welcoming these tentative young couples and providing them with his food and inexhaustible repository of wisdom and his love for the town and its colorful and influential inhabitants.
They loved his stories about Sinatra and Mia Farrow. “I was there the night they got engaged … and I told Frank I knew her before he did!” Or the night at the Latin Quarter where he was mistaken for William B. Williams, the famous “Make Believe Ballroom” disc jockey. He also regaled listeners with the tale told by the great writer Philip Roth that when President Obama presented him with an award at the White House … the president whispered “Where’s Charlie?” who, as a favor to his pal Roth, had picked up an earlier award for Roth from the governor of Connecticut. (Roth swore it was true!)
He could also discuss the rock groups U-2, Mumford and Sons and the Rolling Stones with the Millennials. And he once trooped all the way uptown to Harlem for a concert.
Day after day, in nice weather, Charlie would sit with his beloved labrador Cashel. As both were somewhat aging and together battling the diminishments, Cashel and Charlie had a special bond. Everyone would stop to pet Cashel and greet the restaurant proprietor who one day told me “Cashel and I are ‘hookers.’ We tell them ‘The food is great … go on in. You can pet him.”
His warm, agreeable and welcoming personality – as well as his canon of stories and jokes (many of which could not be told on the radio) helped transform the Grill from your usual, run-ofthe-mill “country restaurant” to a dazzling mecca of influence and celebrity.
Night after night actors, publishers, artists, newspaper and magazine editors, Wall Street types, merchant princes, famous authors, Broadway and television producers, food critics and wine aficionados and colorful townie characters repaired to the Grill. Among them: Henry Kissinger … William Styron … Philip Roth … Richard Widmer … Mia Farrow … Sheila Nevins … Daniel Glass … Milos Foreman … Judge Anne Dranginis and Judge Charlie Gill … Arthur Hill Diedrick … Tara Stacom Diedrick … Rex Reed … Debra and Declan Murphy … Sirio Maccioni … Bill Plunkett, Esq. … Teno West … Richard Gere … Cathy and Greg Oneglia … Ellen and Ray Oneglia … Rod Oneglia and Michael Quadland … David Pecker … Julian Niccolini … Lauren and Armand Della Monica … Danny Meyer … Bob Summer … Norman Drubner … Nancy Kissinger … Joe Cicio … Lou Amendola … Norman Sunshine … Douglas Clement … Ron Leal and Joseph Montebello … Alan Shayne … Andrew Thompson and Bradley Stephens … Gina and Alexander Duckworth … Ann Sutherland Fuchs … Francine du Plessix Gray … Margo Wick … Wendy and Royal Victor IV a/k/a “Mike” (I love the name!) But everyone was welcome except an occasional ill-educated “gavone” who insisted on wearing a baseball hat in the dining room! That would never do.
Charlie was a class act in every season. And there was a big, broad range to his life. His patron, admirer and friend Daniel Glass, the music impresario and record producer, was also taken by the unique professional and personal relationship between Kafferman and his partner O’Shea. “It was a merger of two cultures: the Irish and the Jewish. They were a perfect team!” I myself saw this for many years as Charlie and James covered for each other. They protected and sustained each other. James was, shall we say, a little more “colorful,” ahem, “outspoken” and, if you will, a little more “dynamic.” But
Charlie was always wonderful, calming and reassuring. And it worked. They worked together.
James attracted and mentored many young, talented chefs while Charlie “dressed” the dining room of an evening … moving people around like Nelson Riddle arranged notes and making them feel important. But he was much more than a skillful “maitre’d” or talented restaurateur.
He could sense when people at his tables were hurting and life turned sad and difficult. That was his genius. He just “knew.” He would sit for hours trying to reconcile warring husbands and wives and help them sort out their marital problems. And he “adopted” their offspring and followed them and their exploits down through the years.
He’d often trot out one of his marvelous stories (or a risqué joke). Daniel Glass, the record producer, had a lovely line, “He gave us the nourishment of his own life before he gave up the nourishment of his food. His ability to deliver a punch line was flawless. I’d try to remember them … but they never worked for me.” Glass, the discoverer of Mumford and Sons, also admired Charlie’s attire and way of dressing … “dapper, with such flair … all casual elegance.”
I’ve run on too long. But how do you distill a Life of 88 years that included his enthusiasm for Litchfield County … Florida … Ireland … and the fashion world in Manhattan. He especially loved Ireland and took his last trip over there all alone at the age of 88, leaving James home to watch over things at the Grill. He also loved to head south in Ray and Greg Oneglia’s jet which was acquired from Ted Turner.
Before becoming a celebrated restaurateur and country squire late in life, Charlie Kafferman had an earlier career in the world of merchandising and fashion. As a young man he teamed with John Pomerantz, the founder of Leslie Fay … becoming one of the youngest vice presidents in the history of the famous conglomerate which, to this day, still makes women’s dresses and apparel. And Charlie then went on to own his own dress factories in this country and abroad the products of which were featured at Macy’s, Gimbels, J.C. Penney, Saks, Dillard’s, Belk’s and I. Magnin.
He will be buried this week in a Catholic cemetery in his beloved Litchfield as a result of only the most recent gracious and thoughtful gesture of one absolutely unique Reverend Father Robert Tucker, the popular and charismatic Roman Catholic pastor for Litchfield and surrounding towns.
That black lab named Cashel, however, is just moping around today, feeling “few” … and missing his pal “The Hooker.”
So is most of the town Charlie so loved.
He was a dear man. We thought he’d be around forever.
Bill O’Shaugnessy lives in Litchfield and is president and editorial director of Whitney Global Media.