In part one of this tale, we’re introduced to Jilly’s Saloon, Frank Sinatra’s favorite bar, and the story of his friendship with owner Jilly Rizzo. Next we learn about the mobster plot to kill regular patron/TV talk show host Johnny Carson, and Jilly’s transition from casual midtown saloon to vodka emporium/Russian restaurant owned by famous exiles.
There’s still music at Russian Samovar, and Frank’s booth is still there though few people out for the evening are aware of the role the spot once played in the life of the Chairman of the Board. Jilly Rizzo wasn’t going to run the place forever, and as the inevitable procession of time faded the glory of the Rat Pack era, Jilly retired. The place ended up in the hands of Roman Kaplan, Joseph Brodsky, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
All three men were expatriates and exiles. Brodsky was born in 1940 in Leningrad, and while still a child he endured anti-Semitism, poverty, and the brutal siege of Leningrad during World War II. He was a rebellious child who developed at an early age a dislike for the omnipresent images of Lenin that peppered the Soviet Union. After dropping out of school, he bounced through a series of jobs and, in 1955, started writing poetry for the underground journal Sintaksis. His fame spread through the underground rapidly, and for several years he enjoyed a great deal of acclaim and success. As acclaim and success were wont to do during the increasingly paranoid later years of Stalin’s reign, they got Brodsky on the bad side of the government. He was denounced as a poor contributor to society, a pornographer, anti-Communist, and most outlandishly, “a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers.” He was sentenced to five years of hard labor in the icy Arctic north, only 18 months of which he served before protests by prominent Soviet and foreign citizens secured his release. Contrary to the intentions of his rivals, Brodsky was rather fond of his time in the Arctic, enjoying the labor and the amount of time for quiet contemplation, reading, and writing his rustic isolation afforded him. After his return to Leningrad, he continued to write and continued to rub authorities the wrong way. In 1972, the Soviet government strongly suggested that Brodsky would be happier in Israel or, really, anywhere other than the USSR. Brodsky disagreed, stating flatly that he wanted to stay in Leningrad. Less than two weeks later, the government again suggested that he leave the country — this time by burglarizing his home, stealing all his papers, and forcibly placing him on a plane bound for Vienna. Shortly thereafter, having no interest in Israel or England, the exiled poet settled in the United States.
The same year Brodsky found himself being hustled onto a plane by KGB agents, his countryman Roman Kaplan was boarding a plane for Israel with no intention of coming back to the Soviet Union. In 1974, the most famous Soviet ballet dancer in the world, Mikhail Baryshnikov, defected while in Toronto. Kaplan, like Brodsky, was born in Leningrad around the same time (1938) and endured many of the same hardships during the war. He moved to Moscow and became a Professor of American English and Literature, but by the 1970s, he was ready to live somewhere less oppressive. Eventually, Kaplan found himself in New York, where his passion for Russian art led to a job in a gallery. His position there introduced him to many prominent people, many of them similarly exiled from their home, their culture, and their food. Inspired by this, Kaplan opened his first restaurant, Kalinka, in 1984. In 1986, he sold Kalinka and opened a new restaurant at 256 W 52nd St., the former home of Jilly’s.
His contacts in the art world brought two business partners into Russian Samovar. In 1986, Baryshnikov became a naturalized citizen of the United States and agreed to get involved with Russian Samovar. In 1987, Brodsky won the Nobel Prize in Literature and invested the earnings into his friend’s new restaurant. They all shared a vision of a friendly, open space that would encourage art and expression. Kaplan, having read about the process of infusing vodka with various flavors, introduced the first infused vodka bar in the restaurant, a trend that would be copied by many bars and restaurants and that shouldn’t be entirely blamed for the eventual proliferation of whipped cream and birthday cake flavored Smirnoff.
The Killer and the Comedian
There’s no record of what Tonight Show host Johnny Carson was drinking one night at Jilly’s in 1970 when inebriation got the better of his judgment and led to him flirting with a woman who’d caught his eye. According to Carson biographer Henry Bushkin, the popular funnyman was doing his best to convince the pretty young woman to leave with him. Unfortunately for Carson, that pretty young woman was already spoken for — by a rather jealous and humorless New York mobster. Enraged by Carson’s amorous attentions toward his girlfriend, the unnamed mobster and his crew roughed Carson up, even throwing him down a flight of stairs. It would have gotten even uglier had Jilly Rizzo himself not intervened and cooled the situation down. But level heads prevailed only briefly — long enough for Carson to limp away and discover, shortly thereafter, that all was not forgiven. The mobster, still fuming, decided the world would be better off without Johnny Carson. A hit was issued. Carson spent the next three days hunkered down in his room at the UN Plaza hotel, canceling multiple appearances and hoping things might simmer down.
They did eventually, but only after Carson cut a deal with crime boss and civil activist Joseph Colombo. Under the terms of his agreement with Columbo, Carson brokered a deal with NBC to cover an Italian-American Civil Rights League rally. Mafioso Columbo had recently formed the League as a way to protest the stereotyping of Italian-Americans as a bunch of mafiosos. The hit was called off, and Carson was free to resume his life as America’s most beloved variety show host. Joe Columbo, on the other hand, was less fortunate. He was gunned down in 1971 at the second and final Italian Unity Day rally in Columbus Circle. The trigger man was a street hustler named Jerome Johnson, working presumably on orders from Vincenzo Aloi, right hand man of Colombo’s rival crime boss Joe Gallo. Colombo survived but was left completely paralyzed. He passed away in 1978 and was buried in Saint John Cemetery in Queens. Gallo was himself gunned down in 1972 while dining at Umberto’s Clam House (129 Mulberry St.). Coincidentally, Gallo, his family, and his crew had just come from seeing Sinatra’s favorite comedian, Don Rickles, at the Copacabana on the West Side — a club made famous by Sinatra when he threatened to boycott the entire place over their treatment of black performers (Sinatra’s Summit pal Sammy Davis Jr. had been allowed to perform at the Copa — but not walk in through the front door).
A Taste of Russia, A Toast from Tennessee
Infused vodkas may be easy to find these days, but back in 1986 when Roman Kaplan got the idea from old Russian texts it was still new. Originally fabled to be aphrodisiacs (isn’t everything?), Kaplan and his bartenders encourage drinkers to drink their vodka the traditional way — with a compliment of pickles. Samovar partner Joseph Brodsky passed away in 1996 of a heart attack. he was 55, and Kaplan still mourns the passing of his friend, one of the most famous poets to ever come from the Soviet Union. Though the restaurant has been around for decades now, Roman Kaplan still eats at Russian Samovar regularly. Gregarious, and welcoming, with a wizened, jolly face lined by a fringe of well-groomed facial hair, he’s no hands-off owner. He’s there almost every night, and if you want to talk about the history of the place, he’ll make time over the sounds of diners and live music. It might not be Sinatra, but the music is lively and, like everything at Russian Samovar, a reflection of the restaurant’s commitment to Russian arts. Kaplan is well versed in the history of Jilly’s and the booth Sinatra once used when he held court.