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On that day in June 1999 when Tommy Hilfiger got into 820 Fifth Avenue, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where these kinds of things duly matter, the news was examined and deciphered like some sort of a social Rosetta stone. The ladies with the tanned, slender arms in their sleeveless Carolina Herrera dresses picked over the details-the square footage, the price, his wife, his money-along with the cheese soufflé every day at lunch that week at Swifty's. Why would eightyish society nabob Jayne Wrightsman, who reportedly controlled everything at 820 Fifth Avenue, down to what color the lampshades were in the lobby, let Tommy Hilfiger in? What did that mean? Was Fifth Avenue turning into Central Park West?
Fifth Avenue is the address against which all others are measured. It cleaves Manhattan down the middle, East from West, the geographic arbiter of status. It divides the Croesusean rich from the merely wealthy, the influential from the truly powerful. From its southernmost tip, at Washington Square in Greenwich Village, to Ninety-sixth Street, where it stops mattering, it is six and a half miles long, most of it high-end retail space and skyscraper office buildings. But on the mile and a half facing Central Park, from Fifty-ninth Street to Ninety-sixth Street, in sixty-three co-operative and five condominium apartment buildings, there lives the greatest consolidation of private wealth ever assembled in one place. Of that stretch of the avenue, 820 Fifth Avenue was one of the top two "great houses," as the old-time management referred to the buildings they lovingly tended.
"I would have thought Eight-twenty Fifth was the best address in the city," Edward Lee Cave, the don of the carriage-trade brokers sniffed, meaning pre-Hilfiger. At the carriage-trade brokerage houses, selling an apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue is the equivalent of receiving the real estate Légion d'Honneur. The building is so exclusive, the co-op board so difficult, that even the loftiest plutocrats have been repelled from its doors, including three billionaires-Revlon chief Ronald Perelman, financier Asher Edelman, and oilman Frederick Koch. Yet there it was, that Wednesday in June 1999, in a big, black bold headline in the salmon-colored New York Observer: TOMMY BOY'S BIG ADDRESS: O.K.'D AT 820 FIFTH. The article confirmed that "baggy-clothing" designer Tommy Hilfiger had been approved to buy, for $12.5 million, an eighteen-room, six-bedroom apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue from the estate of the poet Louise Crane and that "high end brokers were in shock."
Truth be told, nothing seemed shocking anymore on Fifth Avenue. It was safe to say that there wasn't a coupon-clipping WASP dreadnought in sight. The real high-WASP families had long ago moved to quiet little buildings on fashionable side streets where the building profiles were lower-and so were the maintenance fees. As for "real society" on Fifth Avenue, well, the old saw is that "real society" died in 1908 with Mrs. William Backhouse Astor Jr. In any event, Tommy Hilfiger was hardly the first new face to stake his claim to a "rung in the social ladder," as one character in Edith Wharton's House of Mirth describes a Fifth Avenue address. The history of Fifth Avenue has always been that of new money being trumped by newer money. The only difference now is that the cycles come much more quickly, the people are much richer, and new money smells better than it used to. Gertrude Vanderbilt once cautioned her grandchildren about men who made their money from oil and livestock: "It takes three generations to wash off oil and two to exterminate the smell of hogs." She also longed for a more genteel time when "Society was still Society" and not "a hodgepodge of tradesmen and stockbrokers." Men who made their money in oil or steel were known as "shoddyites" and nouveau riche families were nicknamed the McFlimsies. The moneymen who got rich on Wall Street were disparaged as "bouncers." In the 1890s Ward McAllister was still trying to separate the "nobs" of breeding and position and the "swells, who had to entertain to be smart." Entertaining to be smart meant a great deal on Fifth Avenue. All of the generations of Fifth Avenue residents-"Fifth Avenoodles," as the newspapers mocked them in the 1800s-were always furiously social people who showed off their wealth and class by being voracious collectors of art, food, furniture, and clothing and givers of grand parties and balls.
When the name FIFTH AVENUE, in capital letters, appeared for the first time on the historic Commissioners Plan of 1811, it was only a designated number on a map, without any special distinction other than it started at what once was a potter's field called Washington Square Park and ran straight up the island, all the way north to the Harlem River. The street's association with the rich began in 1834 when millionaire farmer and landholder Henry Brevoort, age eighty-seven and known as the Old Gentleman by his family, built himself a two-story, flat-roofed Georgian mansion on the corner of Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, then three miles north of the center of the city, and chained a bear to a stake on his front lawn as entertainment. Six years later, one evening in February 1840, Brevoort inaugurated the street as the home of lavish entertaining by giving the second masked ball ever to be held in Manhattan, according to the next day's newspapers, for 500 people. Legend has it that two young guests eloped-the British consul's daughter, who wore a costume "of floating gauzes, bracelets, a small coronet of jewels and a risoe[sic]-colored bridal veil," and a lad from a wealthy southern family, who wore "cap and bells and cockle shells aglistening all in a row," according to one account-and caused such a scandal that society banned masked balls for years to come.
Upper Fifth Avenue of today is a big residential boulevard, 100 feet wide, with mostly tall apartment buildings and hardly a mansion (or a ballroom) for blocks. There are roomy twenty-foot-wide sidewalks on either side of the street-the park side is cut pavement stone-and a center asphalt motorway sixty feet across, which is during the day a tangle of taxis, limousines, and buses headed south. At night the street is less crowded, sleeker, and a little surreal in its Stonehenge-like majesty. The silver-gray apartment buildings, especially the stately limestone fortresses, seem unapproachable and unoccupied. It is rare to see any movement, or even a person, in the windows of an apartment on Fifth Avenue, and oddly at times there are only a few people walking on the street. People who live on Fifth Avenue invariably never stroll on it but walk one block east to Madison Avenue, where there are interesting shop windows and fashionable restaurants. On many a clear spring night you can see for a mile down Fifth Avenue with not a soul in sight, except maybe a jogger or dog walker headed for Central Park. Most people go from taxi or limousine to the protective shield of a building canopy and disappear into the lobby, the portals guarded by uniformed doormen who monitor the street from behind the wrought-iron filigree covering the thick glass front doors.
There are also a few formidable heavy wooden street-level doors along Fifth Avenue, some banded with metal. These are the entrances to one of the city's most luxurious residential treats, a maisonette, literally, a "small house" that is carved out of the larger building surrounding it. Maisonettes are usually triplexes, most with their own private gardens, and they can also be entered from the main building lobby, which is the way most owners prefer (for security purposes). Other doors lead to the many professional offices of a variety of doctors and dentists that populate street-level Fifth Avenue. If Fifth Avenue doctors are not necessarily the best in their specialties, they are at least the most financially successful in being able to pay the rent for their offices, sometimes as much as $35,000 a month for a suite of rooms facing Central Park. The avenue is particularly known for its corps of vanity physicians-dermatologists, cosmetic dentists, diet gurus, and plastic surgeons offering youth-restorative services. For over thirty years the superfine needles used by Dr. Norman Orentreich and his staff at 909 Fifth Avenue have been legendary fonts of wrinkle-filling collagen and Botox injections that smooth out the worry lines of troubled clients such as Elizabeth Taylor. At 1009 Fifth Avenue plastic surgeon Dr. Gerald Imber prefers to start nipping and tucking clients while they're still in their late thirties, so instead of their getting dramatic middle-age overhauls and looking pulled tight, he simply arranges it so that over the decades his patients maintain their youthful visage. One of Fifth Avenue's largest maisonettes, a fifteen-room triplex at 817 Fifth with forty feet of frontage facing the park, was for many years the home and office of Dr. Howard Diamond, the grand master of rhinoplasty in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Thousands of princesses from all five boroughs and New Jersey made the pilgrimage to Dr. Diamond's subterranean operating rooms to sleep under anesthesia for a few hours and awaken with the doctor's famously all-purpose ski-slope nose with his distinctive planed bridge. The maisonette was bought by the late pediatrician and philanthropist Dr. Anne Dyson, who gutted it; installed new wiring, central air conditioning, and six phone lines; and put it on the market for $15 million.
Like every fashionable center of life, Fifth Avenue has had its share of white-collar scandal, but once the frisson of schadenfreude passes, manners and civility prevail and a brisk "howdyado?" (as Dominick Dunne captured the perfunctory greeting) is always offered in the elevator or lobby. The two impermissible breaches of conduct for a resident of a Fifth Avenue building are suicide and murder-either to be the victim or the perpetrator causes neighbors distress, although Ann Woodward's taking her own life at 1133 Fifth Avenue years after she accidentally shot her husband at their country estate gave the building more cachet than it ever had before. But there was no small feeling of satisfaction when Serge Rubinstein, the infamous crooked financier, was strangled to death in his art-filled town house at 814 Fifth Avenue, where, noted the newspapers, there were "nineteen pieces of furniture and fifteen paintings in the murder bedroom alone." Claus von Bülow had the good taste to sell his eighth-floor apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue after he was acquitted of attempting to murder his wife, Sunny, at his second trial, thereby depriving his neighbors of the pleasure of snubbing him in the lobby. At the time of his murder, Wall Street financier Ted Ammon was suing his neighbors at 1125 Fifth Avenue, including actor Kevin Kline, claiming he had lost an $8.5 million buyer for his tenth-floor apartment because of the co-op board's failure to give his buyer a board meeting in a timely manner. When Ammon was found bludgeoned to death at his Middle Lane mansion in East Hampton in October 2001, the attorneys for his estate dropped the lawsuit and the apartment was quickly and quietly sold for $10 million to a partner at Goldman Sachs.
Despite the persistent notion that Fifth Avenue is somehow not welcoming to Jews, there is at least one Jewish family in every building, although the majority dwell in the newer, post-World War II buildings that are easier to get into. Rich Jews first claimed the street in the late nineteenth century. Clothing manufacturer Isaac V. Brokaw assembled a family compound: a French Renaissance mansion with turrets for himself at Seventy-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, twin houses next door for his two sons, and one for his daughter around the corner. Felix and Frieda Schiff Warburg's Gothic mansion at Ninety-second Street was so grand that it was turned into a museum housing the greatest collection of Judaica in the world. The banker and patron of the arts Otto Kahn, one of the most admired Jewish men of his time, built the last private house on Fifth Avenue in 1918; and to be different, he sheathed his 13,000-square-foot mansion in limestone imported from France. The present Temple Emanu-El, built in 1929 on East Sixty-fifth Street, is considered one of the richest Jewish temples in America, with more seats than Saint Patrick's Cathedral, and it stands on the exact spot where the apex of society once stood, the home of John Jacob Astor IV.
The avenue was also once the home of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations at 838 Fifth, a building whose interior has been gutted and transformed into luxury condominiums that start at $9 million (maids' rooms in the first-floor rear can be purchased separately for $500,000 each) by one of the street's most prominent Jewish residents, Alfred Taubman, the seventy-nine-year-old shopping-mall developer and former chairman of Sotheby's, who lives right next door at 834 Fifth Avenue. Taubman has left intact the commandment chiseled across the facade of the old Hebrew Congregations' building, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," which is pretty much what his neighbors at 834 did after he was incarcerated in a federal penitentiary for seven months for price-fixing between his company and the auction house Christie's. He returned home to his building without the least bit of diminution in his social standing.
Of course, the people at 834 Fifth, a building that rivals 820 for supremacy on the street, are getting used to high-profile hijinks. In 1991 one of the building's best-known highfliers, John Gutfreund, the so-called King of Wall Street, was forced to resign as the chief executive of Salomon Brothers because of his complicity in a Treasury bond scandal. Ten years before that, the building was in the spotlight because John DeLorean, the inventor of the gull-wing automobile that he named after himself, was arrested for laundering drug money so he could raise development funds for his car. DeLorean went bankrupt and was forced to sell his apartment-which was bought by one of the few people of color to own an apartment in a "Good Building" on Fifth Avenue, Reginald Lewis, an African American who was chairman of Beatrice Foods, and his Filipino-born wife, Loida.
The most famous person of color who lived on Fifth Avenue, now moved away, was a longtime resident at 1158 Fifth-the actor Sidney Poitier. It was the broker Dolly Lenz of Douglas Elliman who brought Poitier to see the apartment in the WASPy building, booking the appointment using the maiden name of the actor's wife.
Excerpted from The Sky's the Limit by Steven Gaines Copyright © 2005 by Steven Gaines. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 1, 2009
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