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NY Restaurant Owner Warner LeRoy Dead At 65

NEW YORK – Restaurateur Warner LeRoy, whose Hollywood roots and business savvy brought glamour and pizzazz to world renowned eateries like Tavern on the Green and The Russian Tea Room, died late Thursday at a Manhattan hospital. He was 65.

LEROY DIED AT New York Presbyterian Hospital-New York Weill Cornell Medical Center of complications from lymphoma, said Shelley Clark, LeRoy’s spokeswoman.

LeRoy, the son of The Wizard of Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy and Doris Warner, the daughter of Warner Brothers Studios executive Harry Warner, grew up around movie stars and movie sets, which helped form his personal credo on what a restaurant should be.

“A restaurant is a fantasy, a kind of living theater in which diners are the most important members of the cast,” LeRoy said in a 1976 interview.

Growing up, LeRoy lived the Hollywood life to the hilt. He had a cotton candy maker and popcorn machine in his house and the movie projector in the screening room was hidden beneath a Picasso painting.

“My parents divorced when I was 7. Both their houses were always filled with movie stars. It was nothing to come home and see Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland singing at our piano,” LeRoy wrote in a first person account of his life published last August in The New York Times. “I didn’t know there was anything special about this.”

But how many kids can boast about inheriting Toto, Dorothy’s beloved terrier, which was given to LeRoy after filming on the classic movie ended. Unfortunately, LeRoy didn’t care for the pooch nearly as much as Dorothy, referring to it as an adult as a “nasty little creature.”

His high school classmates at a private high school in Switzerland included the Shah of Iran, a Belgium king, a few Rothschilds and his roomate, Karim, now the Aga Khan.

He studied drama at Stanford University and had minor success as a director and producer, under the tutelage of Garson Kanin. LeRoy leased the York Theater in 1957 and is credited with being a founder of the Off-Broadway movement.

But LeRoy found his true calling when he turned an ordinary corner coffee shop into a New York icon — Maxwell’s Plum.

His idea to reconstruct a Parisian sidewalk cafe resulted in a massive, glass-encased structure, where singles and stars alike went to be seen. The list of in-crowd superstars included Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.

The First Avenue eatery, which opened in 1966 and closed in 1988, was a study in contrasts, serving everything from chili and hamburgers to squab. Maxwell’s Plum had an informal atmosphere yet was formally decorated with LeRoy’s personal — and vast — collection of Tiffany glass.

His next venture opened in 1973, when he took over the financially-troubled Tavern on the Green, located in a former sheep pen in Central Park. After three years of renovations, LeRoy turned the once money-losing pub into a crystal and glass bedecked palace that in the mid 1990s became the highest grossing restaurant in the United States.

He worked his magic again after buying the old world Russian Tea Room in 1995 from original owner Faith Stewart-Gordon. LeRoy closed the beloved meeting spot for musicians, actors and publishers on New Year’s Day 1996 and reopened it three years later after pouring an estimated $30 million into it.

LeRoy’s best known non-eatery experience was the creation of the 1,500 acre Great Adventure amusement and Safari theme park in Jackson Township, NJ. LeRoy sold his interest in the park to Time Warner in 1993 and went on to help design other entertainment parks in five foreign countries.

But not all his entrepreneurial endeavors worked. A second Maxwell’s Plum opened in San Francisco in 1981 but folded after a brief run. His $9 million Potomac restaurant in the historic Georgetown section of Washington D.C., also failed after just a year. LeRoy said the opulent restaurant, which had a five-tiered outdoor terrace on the banks of the Potomac River, closed because of problems with the landlord.

LeRoy made headlines of a different kind in the 1990s when his second wife, Kay, sued for divorce, claiming he abandoned her and their three children for an aspiring singer. The long and very public divorce battle, with intimate details of the couple’s extravagant lifestyle splashed daily in local tabloids, resulted in a judge awarding Kay LeRoy $15 million in cash, and the couple’s $5.5 million Amagansett, Long Island mansion, among other assets. The couple reconciled briefly but split for good last year.

In addition to his ex-wife, LeRoy is survived by daughters Carolyn; Jennifer, who is vice president of The Russian Tea Room and Tavern on the Green; a step-daughter, Bridget, and a son, Max.

Funeral services will be held Feb. 26 at 10:30 a.m. at Temple Emanu-El, Fifth Avenue at 65th Street.

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