740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building

740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building

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by Michael Gross
     
 

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From the author of House of Outrageous Fortune

For seventy-five years, it’s been Manhattan’s richest apartment building, and one of the most lusted-after addresses in the world. One apartment had 37 rooms, 14 bathrooms, 43 closets, 11 working fireplaces, a private elevator, and his-and-hers saunas; another at one time had a live-in service

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Overview

From the author of House of Outrageous Fortune

For seventy-five years, it’s been Manhattan’s richest apartment building, and one of the most lusted-after addresses in the world. One apartment had 37 rooms, 14 bathrooms, 43 closets, 11 working fireplaces, a private elevator, and his-and-hers saunas; another at one time had a live-in service staff of 16. To this day, it is steeped in the purest luxury, the kind most of us could only imagine, until now.

The last great building to go up along New York’s Gold Coast, construction on 740 Park finished in 1930. Since then, 740 has been home to an ever-evolving cadre of our wealthiest and most powerful families, some of America’s (and the world’s) oldest money—the kind attached to names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Bouvier, Chrysler, Niarchos, Houghton, and Harkness—and some whose names evoke the excesses of today’s monied elite: Kravis, Koch, Bronfman, Perelman, Steinberg, and Schwarzman. All along, the building has housed titans of industry, political power brokers, international royalty, fabulous scam-artists, and even the lowest scoundrels.

The book begins with the tumultuous story of the building’s construction. Conceived in the bubbling financial, artistic, and social cauldron of 1920’s Manhattan, 740 Park rose to its dizzying heights as the stock market plunged in 1929—the building was in dire financial straits before the first apartments were sold. The builders include the architectural genius Rosario Candela, the scheming businessman James T. Lee (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s grandfather), and a raft of financiers, many of whom were little more than white-collar crooks and grand-scale hustlers.

Once finished, 740 became a magnet for the richest, oldest families in the country: the Brewsters, descendents of the leader of the Plymouth Colony; the socially-registered Bordens, Hoppins, Scovilles, Thornes, and Schermerhorns; and top executives of the Chase Bank, American Express, and U.S. Rubber. Outside the walls of 740 Park, these were the people shaping America culturally and economically. Within those walls, they were indulging in all of the Seven Deadly Sins.

As the social climate evolved throughout the last century, so did 740 Park: after World War II, the building’s rulers eased their more restrictive policies and began allowing Jews (though not to this day African Americans) to reside within their hallowed walls. Nowadays, it is full to bursting with new money, people whose fortunes, though freshly-made, are large enough to buy their way in.

At its core this book is a social history of the American rich, and how the locus of power and influence has shifted haltingly from old bloodlines to new money. But it’s also much more than that: filled with meaty, startling, often tragic stories of the people who lived behind 740’s walls, the book gives us an unprecedented access to worlds of wealth, privilege, and extraordinary folly that are usually hidden behind a scrim of money and influence. This is, truly, how the other half—or at least the other one hundredth of one percent—lives.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In 740 Park, Michael Gross penetrates the bewitching and private worlds of the privileged and very rich denizens of 740 Park Avenue on New York’s Upper East Side. Gross, a born storyteller, delights in his tales of upstairs and downstairs over the decades in the grand building. This is social history at its best.” —Dominick Dunne

“740 Park is a concrete capsule of American capitalism as seen through the fates, fortunes, and foibles of its inhabitants. This biography of New York’s most magisterial building is an immensely entertaining, dishy, and ultimately serious book.”
—Jane Stanton Hitchcock

“The Lolita of shelter porn . . . 740 Park delves into the rarified world of one of the city’s most exclusive co-ops, where billionaires like Ronald Lauder, Steve Schwarzman, and David Koch rest their heads.” —Michael Calderone, New York Observer

“740 Park is a historical building that is worthy of the comprehensive and fascinating coverage that Michael Gross has devoted to it. This book is as entertaining as it is informative—it’s a terrific story.” —Donald Trump

"Jaw-dropping apartment porn."
Fortune

"Gobs of real-estate porn."
The New York Times Book Review

"[A] great read... gossipy... revealing,"
People

"As rich as his subjects."
Forbes FYI

“Life after folly-filled life flashes forward like Park Avenue canopies viewed from a speeding town car.”
New York Times

"Finally! A look inside the golden tabernacle of high society."
—Kitty Kelley

Crains New York Business
"Quite wonderful."
September 26, 2005
Vanity Fair
"Worthy."
October 2005
Harpers Bazaar
"Hot read."
October 2005
curbed.com
"The rich and pissed off hit the roof."
October 6, 2005
Janet Maslin
The curb appeal of all this is clear. The reader's role is that of designated ogler; the writer's job is to celebrate wealth, trace bloodlines back to the Mayflower and savor schadenfreude … Outside the work of Edith Wharton or Jane Austen, it's rare to find such brazen speculation about exactly what people are worth.
— The New York Times
The New York Observer
"The Lolita of shelter porn...740 Park delves into the rarified world of one of the city’s most exclusive co-ops, where billionaires like Ronald Lauder, Steve Schwarzman and David Koch rest their heads."
April 18, 2005
Publishers Weekly
Of all Manhattan's fabled East Side dwellings of the super-rich, 740 Park Avenue has perhaps the best pedigree. Designed by Rosario Candela and developed by James T. Lee, Jackie O's maternal grandfather, as a cooperative haven for the elite, it had the misfortune to open just as the stock market crashed in 1930 and was forced to operate partly as a rental for some decades. The last sale was to Lee himself, for son-in-law "Black Jack" Bouvier, his wife and daughters Jackie and Lee. John D. Rockefeller Jr. signed a rental lease in 1936 for a massive apartment (more than 20,000 square feet), and Marshall Field III took another. Gross (Model) has solidly researched the denizens of the building, who they were, what they did, and who and how many times they married. This information, while exhaustive, is also exhausting. Things perk up as we approach the modern era, and the old rich give way to a newer cast of sometimes dubious billionaires. Ron Perelman, Henry Kravis, Steve Ross and Steve Schwartzman are cited among the newer tenants. A bit of a bore for average readers, this will be a useful tome for those interested in New York's social history. Agent, Dan Strone. (Oct. 18) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1930, one of the grandest Manhattan apartment buildings opened for occupancy. Designed by leading architect Rosario Candela and built by developer James T. Lee, the grandfather of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, its simplexes, duplexes, and triplexes, with mansion proportions, provided comfortable shelter to many of the nation's wealthiest families and their servants. Gross (contributing editor, Travel & Leisure magazine; Model) uses the building as a means of telling stories about its rich and famous inhabitants. Among those who lived at 740 Park Avenue were John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Bouviers, and, later, the Steinbergs, Perelmans, and Bronfmans. Gross tells the reader about Manhattan real estate development, social anti-Semitism, and how the richest live: their marriages, eccentric offspring, businesses reverses, and pet charities. It's a long book, much of it a work of synthesis from other titles, but it also offers quotes and anecdotes from the author's own interviews. In addition, it can sometimes be arduous to read, especially when Gross writes about one family, drops them for another, then picks them up in a later chapter. Floor plans on the book's endpapers (not seen) will help keep the reader oriented. Recommended for larger public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/05.]-Elaine Machleder, Bronx, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780767917445
Publisher:
Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/10/2006
Pages:
576
Sales rank:
170,214
Product dimensions:
5.45(w) x 8.19(h) x 1.26(d)

Read an Excerpt

1

At the end of the Roaring Twenties, small conspiracies of the powerful--many of them members of high society--formed investment pools to manipulate stock prices. Among them was Albert Wiggin, the chairman of the Chase National Bank. In 1927, business was booming when President Calvin Coolidge declared that America was "entering upon a new era of prosperity." That March, pool operations peaked, as did Cadillac sales in New York City. In May, trading volume hit a new high. Brokers' loans to speculators shot up to $4.4 billion at interest rates of between 10 and 12 percent. Then, on June 13, 1928, the stock market collapsed. It quickly recovered, but the plunge was a sign--one that few people read.

The market cratered again on March 26, 1929, sending interest rates on loans to speculators soaring to 20 percent. But loans were still being made; it seemed that nothing could end the mad speculation. The Federal Reserve Board urged bankers to stop handing out money. Immediately, one bank announced a fresh $20 million available for loans--and the stock market recovered again.

"In such circumstances, one might have expected bankers, at least the most important, prestige-laden, and supposedly conservative among them, to lie low, to accept quietly the profits that flowed to them so effortlessly," John Brooks wrote in Once in Golconda, his classic tale of Wall Street's ruination. Instead, men like Wiggin were anything but circumspect. Through holding companies formed to conceal trades and minimize taxes, he played the market, frolicked in pools, and even speculated in Chase stock to the tune of millions of dollars. Only in the summer of 1929 did he start to worry.

Though the economy was showing signs of weakness, the stock market was still soaring, volume hitting records, new fortunes being made. On September 3, the market's averages hit all-time highs--highs that would stand for the next twenty-five years. Though he kept touting Chase stock, Wiggin also started selling it short--borrowing forty-two thousand shares and selling them, expecting to buy them back later for less--effectively, dishonorably, despicably, really, betting that his own company's market value as set by the price of those shares would drop! Which it did. Then he bought the shares back with a loan from Chase.

That's when the house of cards fell in. Stock prices started dropping on Wednesday, October 23--and the next day, later known as Black Thursday, they collapsed. A third precipitous plunge followed on October 29--it would be known as Black Tuesday. Get the feeling things were black? John D. Rockefeller and his namesake son, who was called Junior, tried to brighten the outlook by announcing that they, at least, were buying stocks, but their virtuous stand had no effect on the economy. Within a few weeks, $30 billion worth of equity--more than a third of the market's value--had vanished. The Great Depression was on.

A year later, apple sellers appeared on street corners for the first time. In December 1930, the Bank of the United States closed its doors--the most significant in a wave of failed financial institutions. By 1931, stock prices stood at less than half their 1929 highs. Unemployment rose in inverse proportion. In just two months in the fall of 1931, another eight hundred banks went belly-up. Building ceased. Life went on, if barely, for most.

And what of Wiggin of the Chase? After the crash, he toted up winnings of just over $4 million for selling his company down the river--profits he hid offshore to avoid taxes. That said, his dealings were not only legal but perfectly respectable--at least according to the era's business mores. After Wiggin retired in 1933, the bank awarded him an annual pension of $100,000 for life. But that same year, when he was hauled before a Senate banking investigation, he "asked" the bank to stop the payments, a request with which it "complied," according to The Wall Street Journal's 1951 obituary. Wiggin nonetheless managed to leave a $3 million estate.

History has judged him more harshly, even as it has repeated itself. "[Even if] they had done nothing actually criminal, [they] had treated their own stockholders and the investing public as so many sheep to be fleeced by whatever means the ingenuity of accountants and lawyers could devise," wrote the stock market historian Charles Morris.

This is the backdrop as the curtain rises on the story of the most prestigious apartment house in the world, 740 Park Avenue.

A brief lesson in New York living arrangements is in order. Throughout the 1920s, developers began putting up buildings like 740 Park, full of grand apartments with the proportions of fine, freestanding homes--mansions stacked one atop the other, designed as suitable replacements for the private homes that had led society's march uptown and become obsolete within a single generation.(1)

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Manhattan's social elite, the Knickerbockers, who were descendants of the original Dutch settlers of New York, the English colonists who followed them, and, finally, the American revolutionaries who tossed the English out, went to bed at night exclusively in private houses. The location of those homes had moved inexorably uptown over the years. In the eighteenth century, the city's genteel residential district was a tiny enclave at the southern tip of Manhattan island: south of Chambers Street, clustered around Trinity Church and St. Paul's Chapel, lower Broadway, Bowling Green, and the Battery.

Driven north by fire and yellow fever epidemics, social life first alighted in what is now Tribeca, then, in the 1830s, skittered east to a new district surrounding the intersection of Lafayette Place and Bond Street in today's NoHo. John Jacob Astor, the richest man in America, lived there, as did his son William's future wife, Caroline Schermerhorn, who would become known as "The" Mrs. Astor. Their district's heyday was brief. By the middle of the century, the center of aristocratic gravity shifted again, to Washington Square, from whence society began a slow, steady progress up Fifth Avenue. That march was led by a Knickerbocker, Henry Brevoort, who built a house on Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street in 1834, on what had previously been farm and grazing land, and gave a fancy dress ball there in 1840 that was considered the best party of its era. It was eighty more years before the town-house era ended, years in which new money poured into New York faster than derogatory names for the arrivistes could be coined. According to one historian, by 1929, 98 percent of "respectable New Yorkers" occupied apartments. The reasons for this sea change were as many as the multiple dwellings that had risen all over town. The American economy and New York's population boomed after the Civil War. Public life took on new allure, public spaces for entertaining replaced private ballrooms.

Then there were income taxes, introduced in 1913. Running a private house got expensive. And there was something called "the servant problem"--the inability to find good help. It was all compounded by the automobile, which got rich folks thinking they could split their time between sprawling country houses and smaller city residences.

"Apartments gave you choice," says Andrew Alpern, who has written extensively on the history of luxury apartments. "You could lock your door and go away and you had a great deal of security with doormen and elevator men and guards." Some of the new buildings even boasted service departments, "from which servants can be procured by the hour," The New York Times pointed out helpfully, "about as easily as taxicabs can be picked up on Broadway" so that "when Mr. Croesus contemplates returning to his city apartment for a brief sojourn . . . when he arrives he finds his domicile adequately staffed."

Multiple dwellings weren't new. They'd been common in Europe for centuries; "the earliest were Roman tenements," says Alpern. They arrived in France in the eighteenth century, and grand, imperial apartment houses became fashionable when Paris was reconceived in the mid-nineteenth century by the urban planner Baron Georges Haussmann. But they remained a rarity in America.

Tenements had housed New York's lower classes since the 1830s, but the city's first luxury apartment house wasn't built until 1869, when Rutherfurd Stuyvesant, a descendant of New York's first governor, Peter, erected one at Eighteenth Street and Irving Place.

Stuyvesant was a member of New York's elite, the clans who formed the city's first capital-S Society. But his innovation--derided as risque "French flats"--was declared folly by his peers. They soon changed their tune. By the 1870s, John Jacob Astor and August Belmont (both relative upstarts who'd arrived on the social scene at the start of the nineteenth century) were investing in apartments, too, and buildings like the Dakota, erected in splendid isolation on the west side of Central Park in 1884, began making apartments chic. The Dakota was just as exuberantly ostentatious and lavishly tricked out as the single-family mansions on Fifth Avenue, but it was conceived to let the less wealthy live on a similar scale--even allowing tenants to enter their apartments directly from the (then-novel) elevators. They could imagine the show was theirs alone. But the Dakota was a rental; its tenants had no sense of ownership. And its West Side location was odd, almost antisocial, so it didn't attract the elite, who were sometimes called the bon ton.

The first cooperative apartment building in New York, created to be owned by its occupants, was erected in 1880 by a French architect, Philip Gengembre Hubert, backed by a syndicate of artists.2 Soon, Hubert was building more and more luxurious co-ops, and other developers followed suit. When the huge Spanish Flats, which was built as a co-op on a block fronting on Central Park failed, its shareholders lost their investments, and the co-op movement stalled. But the conceptual foundation for co-ops had been laid. Ironically, it was their vaguely socialist intention that would prove enticing to the upper classes. Hubert's Home Clubs, as they were called, held out the promise that birds of a feather--"gentlemen of congenial tastes . . . occupying the same social positions in life," as the Real Estate Record put it--truly would flock together.

First, though, came the age of the urban château. These Gilded Age monstrosities were erected by men who'd made fortunes in the post-Civil War era. They were symbols not just of success but of a new kind of social potency based on astonishing bucks instead of hoary old bloodlines. Until the Industrial Revolution, social status and wealth stemmed from ownership of land. Old money didn't need to be big money. But the expansion of urban mercantile wealth in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the creation of industrial fortunes in the second, changed all that--and old-line society threw up demarcation lines.

Between 1870 and 1880, more new money flooded New York and, at least at first, was greeted as a tidal wave of trash. Mere wealth didn't guarantee acceptance. Substance and ineffable qualities of culture and grace mattered as much. Initially rejected by reigning society, ambitious nouveau-riche families like the Vanderbilts (the Astors had squeaked under the wire and were considered old money; the Jewish-born Belmonts, who'd arrived from Germany in the 1830s, didn't quite measure up) redefined the terms of social engagement, making themselves celebrities with their showy chateaus and the huge parties they held in them. The press used the rich to entice the hoi polloi. The floodgates had opened.

In the face of this dire threat, the Old Guard closed ranks, inventing exclusionary groups such as the social arbiter Ward McAllister's Patriarchs (in 1872), lists like the social leader Mrs. Astor's Four Hundred and more expansive successors like the Social Register (in 1887), exclusive enclaves for the right people like New York's Tuxedo Park and Georgia's Jekyll Island, and hereditary societies like the Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the Revolution, Colonial Dames, and Society of Mayflower Descendants. They sought to exclude, but it was in vain.

New people with new money set a new standard. One's home was no longer one's castle but one's calling card. Fifth Avenue turned into Show-Off Row. Famously, the Vanderbilts, the newest richest family in the world, could not win Mrs. Astor's approval. "Railroad people!" she called them. But Willie Vanderbilt, grandson of the Commodore, and his wife, Alva, finally gained entry to an Astor ball in 1883, just after their limestone ch‰teau rose on Fifth Avenue and they gave the latest party of the decade there. Railroad money might not be old money, but given time to mature, it proved acceptable. Mrs. Astor ended up moving to Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street in the 1860s, and then, in 1893, to Sixty-fifth and Fifth, where she lived in a sixteenth-century-style limestone ch‰teau until her death in 1908.

New York absorbed its outer boroughs in 1898 and was inching toward a new role as a world-class city, second only to London, and beginning to reach for the sky. Nothing was permanent in this new New York, least of all living arrangements; the famous skyline was created as thousands of new apartment buildings and grand new office and public buildings rose in Manhattan and redefined fashionable life. The wealthy couldn't help but notice as entrepreneurs sought land on which to raise the new behemoths, and private homes fell victim to their ambition and the unquenchable demand for new housing.

The east side of Central Park was dubbed the city's emerging "aristocratic residential section" in 1906 by the Real Estate Record, which also pointed out that thanks to Park Avenue's width, it was well suited to large buildings. The first apartment house to gain favor with New York's elite (indeed, the first to rise among the mansions of Fifth Avenue) was 998 Fifth Avenue, at Eighty-first Street, designed by McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1912. An Italian Renaissance palazzo based on Rome's Farnese Palace, incredibly luxurious yet restrained, with a subdued limestone, granite, and marble facade, an elaborate terra-cotta cornice, and a huge iron-and-glass marquee over its side-street entrance, it was billed as the most expensive and exclusive apartment house in the city. Its seventeen simplex and duplex apartments, including two full-floor units of ten thousand square feet apiece, featured every modern convenience--even jewelry safes for each bedroom, a large silver vault in each kitchen, an ice-making plant and individual refrigerated wine cellars, and private laundry rooms in the basement.

These were the first of the sorts of apartments that, eighty years later, inspired the fictional one created by Tom Wolfe for Sherman McCoy, the hapless lead character in the novel The Bonfire of the Vanities: "the sort of apartment the mere thought of which ignites flames of greed and covetousness under people all over New York, and for that matter, all over the world."

The first renters at 998--attracted by a lavish hardcover brochure--included a granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt; Levi Morton, U.S. vice president under Benjamin Harrison; the former secretary of state and war Elihu Root; John Jacob "Jack" Astor V, who moved in after surviving, in utero, the sinking of the Titanic; and Murray Guggenheim of the mining Guggenheims. Root, who had been a leader of society's move uptown when he built a private house for himself at Seventy-first Street and Park Avenue, was offered a cut rate to sign a lease at 998. Morton, who was the governor of New York from 1895 to 1897, followed.

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What People are saying about this

Fortune
"Jaw-dropping apartment porn."
October 31, 2005
Donald Trump
"740 Park is a historical building that is worthy of the comprehensive and fascinating coverage that Michael Gross has devoted to it. This book is as entertaining as it is informative...it’s a terrific story."
Star
Shocking and sometimes tragic."
October 31, 2005
Dominick Dunne
"In 740 Park Avenue: The World’s Richest Apartment Building, Michael Gross penetrates the bewitching and private worlds of the privileged and very rich denizens of 740 Park Avenue on New York’s Upper East Side. Gross, a born story teller, delights in his tales of upstairs and downstairs over the decades in the grand building. This is social history at its best."
People
"[A] great read...a gossipy history with revealing tales."
November 14,2005
The Jewish Week
"[An] erudite work about the American dream...The book probes - and prods and skewers, enticing readers."
Oct 28, 2005
Hartford Courant
"Epic...truly, the story of American capitalism...a fascinating glimpse inside...the most fabulous living spaces known to man."
Nov 4, 2005

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