The invite read: “You are cordially invited to Libby Keatinge’s birthday party. Indian theme encouraged!”
It was July 28, 2011, and I was working as a stringer for Nocturnalist, the New York Times’s short-lived nightlife column. In several months on the job, I’d accidentally stepped on Aretha Franklin’s dress, looked on as Bill Cosby nearly strangled a Getty photographer, and stared at Courtney Love’s iPhone as she swiped through photos of herself and the actor Michael Pitt rummaging through Kurt Cobain’s childhood record collection. (“Here’s his old Flintstones record,” she said. “Isn’t that crazy?”)
On this night, however, no celebrities were expected to appear. Libby Keatinge, the guest of honor, is a voluptuous blonde and former gossip columnist whose LinkedIn profile in 2011 described her as a Senior Editor of Love+Sex at BettyConfidential.com. For her 31st birthday the year before, Keatinge had ridden a white horse into the Theater Bar in Tribeca. (The stunt had been a tribute to Bianca Jagger’s famous entrance into Studio 54 astride a white stallion.) Rumor had it that, for her 32nd birthday, Keatinge planned to take it up a notch by riding a full-sized Indian elephant into the same bar.
I went to see if this was true.
Upon arriving in Tribeca, I noticed a giant white 18-wheeler parked at the corner of Franklin and Church Street. A man and a woman in twin Army-green tank tops were laying a blanket that advertised Bombay Sapphire gin on the sidewalk. Minnie the elephant, they told me, was waiting in the truck.
Down the street at Theater Bar, rose petals had been strewn across the floor. A long-haired guy in loose orange pants was plucking a sitar in the corner, his tunes overpowered by the sound of Whitney Houston blasting from the speakers. I overheard two event coordinators nervously discussing Minnie’s imminent arrival. “I really hope there’s not going to be much of a cleanup process,” one of them said.
I found the owner of the venue, Albert Trummer, mixing drinks behind the bar. The year before, Trummer had been arrested twice for setting alcohol aflame on the bar top of his haute cocktail lounge Apotheke in Chinatown. He’d then rejected a plea deal that would have avoided him jail time.
“It’s not like I put fire in someone’s hair, or a gun in their face,” he told me as he mixed exotic drinks for the guests. “The only person who could have gotten hurt was me!”
As we talked, I mentioned that the bar, though high-ceilinged, seemed awfully small for a full-grown Indian elephant. Would it even make it through the entrance’s double doors?
“Oh, she’s not actually going to ride it into the bar,” he said. “The floor of this place can’t withstand a 5,000-pound elephant. The horse she rode in on last year was a skinny 2,000-pound opera horse.” Instead, he said, Keatinge would be riding Minnie half a block down Franklin Street.
My heart sank. I’d privately been hoping for a disaster, the elephant turning berserk inside the club, rising onto its hind legs and ripping down the chandelier with its trunk as the chic young crowd of socialites scattered in terror. Where was the story in a girl riding an elephant half a block in Tribeca?
“She’s coming!” someone shouted. Everyone rushed out into the street. Keatinge, wearing a flowing red dress and a bindi between her eyes, walked in front of the elephant as it ambled down the sidewalk, guided by the two handlers with bull hooks. She’s not even riding it, I thought. What a letdown.
When they reached the bar, everyone clapped. The handlers enclosed Minnie with metal barricades. Gradually, the guests filed back inside, leaving Minnie there on the sidewalk, looking slightly embarrassed in an Indian headdress and a blanket advertising Bombay Sapphire.
Searching for something to write about, I started polling passersby for their reactions.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so disgusting!” a British woman shouted as she walked past.
“Is that elephant over 21?” said a girl who worked in finance. “Because if not, it shouldn’t be promoting Bombay Sapphire.”
A children’s book illustrator asked if she could touch the elephant. Her request was denied. She frowned and said, “You know, there really hasn’t been a well-known elephant since Babar.”
I looked on as the handlers dumped peppermints, Swedish Fish and Whole California carrots onto the sidewalk and Minnie vacuumed them into her trunk. I took some notes about this, and then thought: Why am I taking notes about this? In fact, why am I here at all?
I was snapping photos of Minnie with my phone when the owner of the building next door arrived. He immediately started shouting at the doorman. “That elephant is standing above a shaftway!” he said. “The sidewalk is hollow under there! What the fuck do you think you’re doing!” The handlers quickly moved the barricades so that Minnie was standing directly in front of the bar.
The handlers, William Commerford and his wife, Darlene, employees of the R.W. Commerford and Sons traveling petting zoo, indulged me by rattling off facts about Minnie and elephants in general. Minnie was 39, they said, but they’d known her since she was 15. She had appeared in “Two for the Money” with Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey. She was raised by an eccentric family in a house in Connecticut, who bottle-fed and potty-trained her. It is a myth that elephants like peanuts. Some of them are afraid of mice, but not Minnie. Also, it is not true that elephants never forget. If you’re away from them for a long time, they will forget you.
Around midnight, a doorman announced that Minnie was leaving. Keatinge and her guests re-emerged drunkenly from the bar and clapped as Minnie walked off down Franklin Street. I decided to tag along.
At the corner of Church, Minnie idly plunged her trunk into a New York City garbage can as she waited for the walk sign. Drivers slowed down to gawk. “Look at that fucking elephant!” a guy in a Mustang shouted out his window. When the light changed, Minnie stepped into the street and up into the trailer bed.
Doug Ward, a personal trainer at Eastern Athletic gym with bulging biceps, walked up. “Oh my god, she’s gorgeous!” he said, peering into the darkened trailer. He’d studied elephants, he told me. He knew that African ones are more territorial and Indian ones are used for the circus. As the handlers closed the trailer doors, Doug shouted, “I’m happy to see you, Minnie! You made the city a better place!”
The notes from the evening made it into the paper two days later, under the headline: “At Theater Bar, the Biggest Star Was Stuck Outside.” The photo shows Trummer and Keatinge posing joyfully in front of Minnie, the red Shaftway sign visible in the background.
Today, when you type Libby Keatinge’s name into Google, that article is the first thing that comes up.