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NYC club loses an icon of civility

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

Ladies and gentlemen, Harry Lavin has left the building.

After 27 years of service on his feet, the legendary doorman of the 21 Club on 52nd Street has decided to retire. But why?

“For the simple reason,” the soft-spoken Sligo man put it, “I am 72 years of age, I have been standing on my feet for 40 years, and my wife, Una, and I and my family decided it was time to sit down.”

With his leaving, the 21 Club has lost an icon as visible as the colorful jockey statues that adorn its wrought iron entrance. In a fast-changing city, Lavin was one of a few constants, greeting and policing the door at the 21 Club with a smile, a handshake and a touch of magic — his mysterious diplomacy that allowed the most famous to the lowliest, to enter the establishment and feel at home, important and welcome.

“People need to know that they are welcome, that there’s a friendly atmosphere, a home away from home,” said Lavin, reflecting on his job.

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“There has to be just something more than a public restaurant. It’s our job to be friendly and polite. There is more to eating in a place like this than just the food.”

Indeed, for hundreds of patrons over the years, Harry Lavin embodied the 21 Club, to the extent that he even starred in several Hollywood movies, usually as himself, such as “One Fine Day” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” How did it feel to be at a nexus of power and prestige?

“If I were writing a book,” Lavin told the Echo, ” I could call it ‘The Whole World Passed By Here.’ ” Taking a moment to sit down after yet another busy Friday lunchtime, his last on the job, Lavin reflected on some of the names that had passed through his welcoming care. “Frank Gifford, Mr. Doubleday of the Mets, Mr. Steinbrenner of the Yankees, Mr. Tom Moran and Mr. Bill Flynn of Mutual of America, governors, senators.”

In fact, the only living U.S. president whom Lavin has not met, is the current one.

Presidents come and go, but as Bryan McGuire, general manager of the 21 Club said, “You don’t replace Harry Lavin.”

“Harry is a very recognizable face in New York,” he continued. “He’s a big part of the feeling people have at the 21 Club. It is almost like being welcomed into one’s own home. He is rock solid. There are certain things that are vital, such as the greeting. Get greeted coldly, and it’s going to be an uphill battle to enjoy yourself. Harry has an incredible memory for the smallest detail.”

One famous detail that Harry handled was the 21 Club’s ban on jeans and sneakers and the requirement for men to wear jackets and ties. While McGuire explained that the rule was relaxed slightly as corporate America began to dress down in the ’90s, so that a tie was optional at lunchtime, Lavin remained discreet about any moments when he had to exercise the rules of the house.

“I never turned people away, people turned themselves away by not being properly dressed,” he said.

Several patrons took time after their lunch on Friday to say farewell to Lavin. “God bless you, sir,” said one. “Remember all the good times,” said another.

“Someone asked me where I was going to put my feet up,” he said. “Where else? New York.” And now that retirement has arrived, the always immaculate Lavin said that he plans to put on his own sneakers, and come into Manhattan to see some of the other icons of the city that over the years he has, well, been too busy on his feet to visit. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are at the top of his list to visit with his wife.

“There’s no place like New York. Look at what I have achieved. New York has been good to me, and God bless America,” he said.

It sounds like farewell, but in reality it isn’t. As his colleague Bryan McGuire put it, “This really isn’t goodbye. No one really ever retires from the 21 Club.”

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