The Real Deal New York

New book on a famous address with infamous details

November 27, 2007
By Stuart W. Elliott

Just like a star who only needs one name, a handful of New York apartment buildings need only a number for instant recognition. Think 740.

Everything you ever wanted to know about 740 Park Avenue and probably more can be found in Michael Gross’ 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building (531 pages; Broadway Books), which hit bookstores this month. Built in 1930, the building has long housed the moneyed and illustrious, drawing names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Chrysler, serving as the childhood home of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (and built by her grandfather), and in more recent times, admitting titans like Ron Perelman, Henry Kravis, Saul Steinberg and Stephen Schwarzman.

At the hands of Gross, a New York Times best-selling author and magazine journalist whose most recent book was Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren, 740 Park is nothing if not exhaustive. It’s a blow-by-blow, who cheated-on-whom account of the building’s residents from days long gone to the present.

Particular attention is paid to corporate raider Saul Steinberg, who lived in a triplex penthouse once belonging to John D. Rockefeller Jr., before selling it for a then-record $35 million in 2000, a price bested by a condo sale at the Time Warner Center three years later. Turns out, Gross writes, that the reported price paid by Stephen Schwarzman for the pad might have been exaggerated by several million dollars, though fellow residents didn’t mind, because it enhanced the value of their apartments.

Some excerpts:

[In 1936], John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s plan to move made national news confirmed on the front page of The New York Times after several days of rumors. It was declared the end of the era of the urban elite living in private houses; fully 90 percent of Manhattan’s wealthiest now occupied apartments. But this, this was the ultimate apartment, as the World Telegram made clear when it helpfully printed a picture of 740 with the huge Rockefeller residence highlighted by a dotted line under the headline “Rockefeller Jrs. Take to Aerial Living.”

When Saul Steinberg bought the Brewster/Rockefeller apartment, it was the nadir of 740′s once great fortunes. Stocks went into a slow free fall. By 1971, the market had lost $300 billion in equity and the apartment was, unbelievably, worth less than its 1929 asking price. The apartment was empty, and the estate was desperate to get rid of it, “It was a buy,” Saul’s friend chortles. “It had been sitting on the market forever. It was called the White Elephant.”

The $225,000 price Saul negotiated wasn’t a problem, though the monthly costs were high and his wife thought thirty-four rooms were a bit much. But Saul got what he wanted. He’d sometimes referred to himself as a lost child of the Rockefellers.

When Saul came before the board, its chairman, Ronald Jeancon, already knew him as a brokerage client. “I interviewed him alone; no one else was there, and I told the board, ‘Let ‘em in,”‘ Jeancon says. Holding their noses, the directors agreed.

Steinberg’s glory days were almost over. He began reorganizing his company Reliance and developed risky new products like nuclear plant insurance to raise revenues. But regulators were trying to tame Reliance, too. In January 2000, with Reliance’s vital credit rating in doubt, his wife called Saul’s former sister-in-law Kathy Steinberg, the realtor.

In February 2000, [investment banker and chief executive of the Blackstone Group, a buyout firm] Steve Schwarzman made an offer of about $30 million on the Steinberg’s apartment.

Schwarzman was asked to join the co-op board as soon as he moved in. His neighbors, many of whom now drink and nibble beneath the $5 million Cy Twombly painting in his living room, probably also liked the fact that it was reported that he paid as much as $37 million for the apartment, for that false claim but likely enhanced the value of their apartments.

And although he is trying hard, Steve Schwarzman is no Junior, not even a Saul Steinberg. Schwarzman, having only just arrived, still has a very big pair of floors to fill.

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