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Journalism Student Is a Graduate of Elaine's
Brian McDonald has moved from one side of the bar at Elaine's, the famous
New York literary gathering spot, to the other - thanks to a book contract for an
idea he polished in a journalism class at Columbia University.
"I never thought it could go this far," he said, preparing for his Columbia
graduation next Wednesday (May 21). "I was the youngest of four kids in my
family and it was a rough and tumble time, with a lot of yelling and fighting
between us, so I didn't say a lot when I was young and kept to myself for years
because I guess I was a little intimidated. But bartending helped bring me out."
Two years ago, McDonald cut his five nights at Elaine's to four, enrolled in
the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism's part-time program and took the
non-fiction book-writing course. There he developed a proposal for a memoir
titled "My Father's Gun," about three generations of New York City policemen in
his family. He sold it to E.P. Dutton in February. And left Elaine's.
"It changed my life," he said, still a little awed. "I don't tend bar anymore.
I'm a writer, and I'm making a living at it." He's doing research for the book
now and expects to finish the manuscript next May for publication in 1999.
McDonald is a tall, good-natured New Yorker of 42 who talks like a cop, but
more tender than tough.
"I was born in the Bronx and grew up in Pearl River in Rockland County,"
he said. "In the late 1950's we all moved up there. It was like the Bronx with
trees. The only thing missing was the clotheslines between the houses."
"I decided I wanted to be a writer in my 20's when my father gave me his
old typewriter from the 41st Precinct station house. It was an old Royal with a
crooked "e" that Mickey Spillane would have been proud of. I think my father
always wanted to be a writer, too. I told him about the book I was proposing about
our family, and a few days later he sent me a thick stack of notes so beautifully
written that I could have put them in the book without changing a word."
McDonald's grandfather was a Yorkville patrolman at the turn-of-the-
century under Tammany bosses, his father a lieutenant in the embattled South
Bronx of the 1950's and his older brother a city police detective in the Serpico 70's.
"I come from a conservative cop family, but inside I'm different," he said.
"I'm a late bloomer. I wanted to be a cop and took the New York City Police test
and was put on the list, but the force was being cut back then in the 70's and the
list disappeared. Partly, I did it to see what I missed. My family was the whole
cop universe; it dyes everything you do."
For a while, he wanted to be an actor. He began bartending at Elaine's 11
years ago to support himself, and he appeared in some brief off-off Broadway
shows. But he liked the popular Upper East Side restaurant, with its real and
would-be literary clientele, and he could have stayed forever except that owner
Elaine Kaufman told him he could do better. He went back to school. Nine more
years of nights behind the bar and days in class earned him his bachelor's degree
from Fordham and now his master's from Columbia.
"He was clearly the star of a very strong class," said his book course
journalism professor, Samuel Freedman, a former reporter for The New York
Times and author of three books himself. "I wanted to get Brian from one
side of the bar to the other, so I made a deal with him to go to Elaine's, which
writers, if he sold his book. We had the party last Monday, and a dozen people
from the class showed up and some who couldn't make it phoned - one from
Montgomery and another from Istanbul."
McDonald is grateful to Freedman for "making suggestions, like a coach,
nudging me along." He remembers critic and Professor Judith Crist's "deft ear
for first person." And he recalls staying awake in Anthony Lewis's course in
journalism law that began early Friday mornings not long after McDonald
finished work at Elaine's.