Faith Stewart-Gordon, Doyenne of the Russian Tea Room, Dies at 88

Faith Stewart-Gordon, an actress who traded Broadway for blini when she married the proprietor of the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan after which spent practically three many years as its proprietor, greeting the glitterati who dined there in her incongruous Southern lilt, died on Friday at her house in New Preston, Conn. She was 88.

Her demise was confirmed by her daughter, the singer Ellen Kaye.

Ms. Stewart-Gordon owned the storied restaurant on West 57th Street from 1967, when her husband, Sidney Kaye, died, till 1995, when she offered it to the restaurant impresario Warner LeRoy.

She promoted it as “slightly to the left of Carnegie Hall,” which was geographically correct if metaphorically much less so, because it was based in the late 1920s by White Russian expatriates who had fled the Bolsheviks.

Under Mr. Kaye and Ms. Stewart-Gordon, the Russian Tea Room turned the de rigueur lunch, dinner and after-show gathering and gossiping spot for anybody who was related to the performing arts, or needed to be.

George Balanchine, Salvador Dalí and the talent agent Sam Cohn were regulars. Rudolf Nureyev told Time magazine that the Russian Tea Room was what he liked most about America. It is said that the impresario Sol Hurok, who occupied the first table in the alcove on the left, once entered weeping, explaining that he had just attended a screening of the most affecting film he had ever seen — one about his life.

Although the restaurant attracted an insider clientele, Ms. Stewart-Gordon said she always felt like an outsider: as a woman, as a child of divorced parents, as a Southerner in New York. But she was never overly impressed by all the celebrities she encountered, Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant who worked for her, told The New York Times in 1995.

Shortly before he died, she recalled, Mr. Kaye told her: “I’ll give you three months after my death to decide if you want to keep it. My advice is to take the money and run.”

But, she added, “I felt the Tea Room had to continue. It was a cause. It had to do with him, of course. I’d be letting him down otherwise. This was my destiny.”

Faith Courtney Burwell was born on May 14, 1932, in Spartanburg, S.C., to Ernest Burwell, a Chevrolet dealer and later a lieutenant commander in the Office of Naval Intelligence during World War II, and Faith (Courtney) Burwell, a homemaker.

Two great-uncles fought in the Confederate Army. Her nickname was Plum, short for “sugar plum.”

She attended Converse College in Spartanburg and graduated in 1953 from Northwestern University in Illinois, which she attended on an acting scholarship and where she studied with the director Alvina Krause. She was admitted to the Yale School of Drama, she later recalled, but chose instead to accept a part in a touring production of the musical revue “New Faces of 1952” with Eartha Kitt and Carol Lawrence. She also appeared in the film version.

She made her Broadway debut in 1954, delivering two lines in a production of “Ondine” directed by Alfred Lunt and starring Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer.

When she married Mr. Kaye in 1957, they may have seemed an unlikely couple: He was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, she was a Presbyterian Southerner. But their marriage lasted until his death, 10 years later.

In the epigraph of her memoir, Ms. Stewart-Gordon wrote: “I am growing old and frivolous. I miss the seriosity of my youth.”

That youthful seriousness included transforming a dreary tearoom where aging Russian monarchists pined for the Romanovs, as Mr. Kaye had received it, into an incandescent destination decorated with samovars and Art Deco chandeliers festooned with gold tinsel and red balls so that, as the restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote in The Times, “every day is Christmas.”

Her goal, said Mr. Wolf, the consultant, was “to make the restaurant look the way people remembered it, not the way it was.”

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