Harry Rosen with a photo of himself from his early 20s. Dining out energises him, he says.
Harry Rosen with a photo of himself from his early 20s. Dining out energises him, he says. Photo: The New York Times

Corey Kilgannon

It never fails, Harry Rosen said on Wednesday evening as he enjoyed another fine meal by himself in another top-rated Manhattan restaurant.

“Maybe because I’m eating alone at my age, people at other tables start conversations,” he said.

I’m still open to meeting someone 

Yes, he tells them, he lives alone, in a modest studio apartment on West 57th Street in Manhattan, and he always eats dinner out, always orders the fish.

“They always ask my age, and I often lie and tell them I’m 90,” he said. “If I tell them my real age, it becomes the whole subject of conversation and makes it look like I’m looking for attention, which I’m not.”

Mr Rosen is 103 but he doesn’t look a day over 90. His mother died at 53 and his father at 70, but he says he feels fine and has had no major operations or health problems.

“I read in a newspaper column a long time ago that the key to a long life is sleeping on your back, so I always did that,” said Mr. Rosen, who often finds that his bill has been paid by those friendly diners. Not that he needs it. He made a bundle with his office supply company and is spending it — $100 a night, on average — on dinners out.

Much of his work involved wooing clients over lunch and dinner, so after retiring a few years back because of hearing loss, he continued to put on a fine work suit every afternoon, grab his satchel, and head out to hail a yellow cab to one of his favourite restaurants. Café Boulud perhaps, on East 76th Street, or Boulud Sud near Lincoln Center, or Avra Estiatorio on East 48th Street.

“I haven’t eaten dinner home in many years,” said Mr. Rosen, who tried singles groups and other activities after his wife of 70 years, Lillian, died five years ago, when she was 95.

But nothing brought him the comfort of a fine restaurant.

“It’s my therapy, it lifts my spirits,” he said Wednesday evening while examining the menu with a magnifying glass at David Burke Townhouse on East 61st Street.

Twice a week, a server there greets him, walks him to his usual corner table and brings his regular glass of chardonnay, his appetizer of raw salmon and tuna, and then the swordfish, skin removed, with vegetables specially puréed for his dentures to handle.

“The food and the ambience, it’s my therapy — it gives me energy,” he said.

Mr. Rosen has lived long enough to see New York City fill with fine restaurants. In a city of foodies, he may be the oldest.

Call it payback for the meagre meals he ate growing up in Russia, where as a boy, he recalled, he marched with protesters during the Russian Revolution. He and his family fled the pogroms, came through Ellis Island and moved into a railroad apartment on Pitt Street on the Lower East Side. By the time he was 11, young Harry’s meals improved to pickled herring sold from barrels on the street, and he worked as a delivery boy for pennies before taking a job at an office supply company.

“I knew it was the business for me, the same way you know you’re in love with a woman,” Mr. Rosen said. He started Radio Centre Stationery in Midtown — back then, “you could look down Sixth Avenue and not see a single office building” — whose staff of 50 included his sons, Stan and Jerry. They regularly join him for dinner.

The deals to land clients like Walt Disney, ABC and the Hearst Corporation were made in top restaurants, Mr. Rosen said. You don’t win over the likes of Jack Linsky, the founder of Swingline staplers, by dining at dumps.

But as much as any fine meal, Mr. Rosen savours the memories of his deal making, including landing J. C. Penney with a great price on notepads, and fighting back from bankruptcy as computers encroached upon the industry.

On Wednesday, he backed up these recollections with photos and documents stored meticulously in folder boxes in his apartment.

“They’re called Pendaflex folders,” he said. “I was the first one in the industry to recognise they’d be a big seller.”

Mr Rosen said he would like to find a regular dining companion. A recent six-month fling with a 90-year-old woman he met at synagogue did not work out.

“I’m still open to meeting someone,” he said, his eyes twinkling as he prepared to order coffee and dessert. “I still have the desire. That’s what counts.”