Sunday, November 16, 2008

Farewell, Jay

I just heard the other day that Jay Fiondella passed away. He was 82, and died after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease.

The only reason I know who Jay was is because I love going to the restaurant he owned in Santa Monica, called Chez Jay.

Jay was an actor, appearing in scores of TV shows and films during the 1950's. But it was hard to make a living, so in 1959 he bought a small Santa Monica coffee shop and turned it into Chez Jay.
Chez Jay is a little dive, on Ocean Avenue just south of the Pier, a narrow space with a bar along one side, red leatherette booths along the other, and some tables in between, draped in red-checked tablecloths.

We ate there a couple times. You can get a good steak and potatoes at Chez Jay's. You can get pan-fried sand-dabs. You can get a nice creamed spinach side. And a well-mixed cocktail.

He was a larger than life character - a former Seabee, an actor, hotair balloonist. An adventurer who once gained notoriety when in 1989, he jammed the streets of Culver City for hours, his 65-foot sailboat having fallen from its trailer during transport. In 1970, Cosmopolitan Magazine named him "Bachelor of the Month."

He knew all the famous actors of his day, and because he refused to admit photographers to his restaurant, they came to party. His friends included Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Sean Penn and Richard Harris. Beach Boy Dennis Wilson was a regular here. Quentin Tarantino hung our here. So did the analysts and spooks who worked at the nearby Rand Corporation. There is a legend that Daniel Ellsberg passed off the Pentagon Papers to a reporter during a meal at Chez Jay's. Even Henry Kissinger ate here.

A couple years ago, I got a phone call at my office. I'd been at my current job for about 9 months. Among all the other responsibilities I had in my job, I was the person who could make decisions about the parking lot on my company's property.

The person on the other end of the phone identified himself as the owner of Chez Jay. He wanted to know if he could use our parking lot to unfurl his hot air balloon. He was celebrating his 80th birthday and wanted to take a flight.

I was by myself, with no one to consult, and I had no idea whether we could allow such an activity on our property. Nevertheless, I was charmed by the guy, and by the time we ended our conversation, I had told him that I really had no way of knowing what happened in our parking lot when the office was closed. He told me to make sure to come by the restaurant for dinner on the house.

As far as I know, he didn't launch his balloon from our parking lot. But - I wish he had.

Bet he's floating on air now. Have a great flight, Jay.

1 comment:

McSwain said...

Thank you for posting this here, otherwise I wouldn't have known. I was just thinking of Chez Jay last night--that I needed to take a friend there. Jay was a character! He used to come to a restaurant I worked at very often for a drink before going into his own place. And we often hung out at Chez Jay when we got off. Now I really need to go to Chez Jay in his honor. I hope they keep the place open.