‘Seinfeld’: The Real-Life Women Who Inspired Elaine Benes
In all sitcom history, few female characters have crashed through the glass ceiling with as little grace as Elaine. She is confident, loud, opinionated, occasionally childish and perpetually energized to throw a shoulder punch that will pop your arm clean out of its socket. Seinfeld was originally envisioned as a classic boys’ club centered around Jerry, Kramer and George, and when NBC insisted on breaking up the sausage-fest, the show was hastily reworked to include the addition of Jerry’s (mostly) platonic ex-girlfriend into the group. Almost instantly, Elaine became a fan-favorite, and, today, a quarter-century after the show’s conclusion, the incomparable JLD remains the most successful Seinfeld core cast member in her post-show career.
No one woman lays claim to the title of “real-life Elaine” — instead, the character was created from an amalgamation of influences, including IRL ex-girlfriends of both David and Seinfeld himself. Here are the women without whom Elaine Benes would never have been born…
One of the earliest recorded influences, comedian Carol Leifer dated Jerry in his pre-Seinfeld years and remained friends with him after their romance fizzled. Seinfeld himself has stated that their journey from romance to the platonic plane was a major inspiration for Elaine, but Leifer herself has repeatedly attempted to downplay her influence on the character, placing all the acclaim on the shoulders of Louis-Dreyfus for bringing character to life. Leifer even joined the Seinfeld writing staff in Season Five, writing or co-writing six episodes, including the classic “The Hamptons,” proving that at least one Elaine knows about “shrinkage.”
Leifer once commented on the Elaine connection in a Reddit AMA, saying, “As far as direct comparisons go, look: I’m a very good dancer, I don’t push people halfway across the room when I’m surprised, so there you go.”
Monica Yates Shapiro
On the other side of the Seinfeld-David partnership, David’s ex, Monica Yates Shapiro, provided many of the “lore”-focused details of Elaine’s biography. The daughter of novelist Richard Yates, David’s former lover inspired Elaine’s father, the imposing and accomplished author Alton Benes who scares the crap out of George and Jerry in the Season Two episode “The Jacket.” Shapiro and David dated for “a few months,” and, reportedly, remain good friends to this day.
Said Shapiro about her on-screen homage, “He told me they wanted a woman in the show, and he thought of me and our friendship. He had written an episode about the time he met my father.”
Unlike the earlier entries on the list, when Elaine was first created, Susan McNabb was not an ex-girlfriend of either Seinfeld or David — at the time, she was Seinfeld’s current girlfriend. They wouldn’t break up until after Elaine was fleshed out. McNabb is a writer as well as a former actress and model who appeared in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and had an 18-episode arc in Days of our Lives.
Also unlike the other women listed, McNabb’s breakup with Seinfeld was less than amicable. In 2011, McNabb was interviewed in the New York Post by Jerry Oppenheimer, who also penned the biography of Seinfeld in which McNabb’s influence on Elaine was revealed. At the time, the Seinfeld-produced relationship panel show The Marriage Ref was just kicking off. Said, McNabb, “It’s ironic that the man who avoided the mere mention of marriage in my presence for years has now grown into a full-on television-show-producing expert on the subject of marriage and marital problems. And after years of my consciously avoiding any and all news of Jerry Seinfeld, here we go again.”
Seinfeld named Elaine Benes after his friend, fellow stand-up comedian Elayne Boosler. Though, by all accounts, the actual writing of Elaine was the least inspired by Boosler as compared to the other real-life influences, none of the other women can say that their birth certificate looks like Elaine Benes gave her name to a Starbucks employee.