The Real Deal New York

Park Avenue princess now top broker on Park

Once known as a prominent socialite, today Serena Boardman is in the limelight for scoring Madoff listing and setting sales records

December 01, 2009
By Candace Taylor


Magazines once chronicled her taste in clothes and cosmetics. But Serena Boardman is now known more for morphing herself into one of the city’s top real estate brokers. (Photo credit: Patrick McMullan)
It’s 2005, and golden-haired socialite Serena Boardman is sunning herself on a yacht near the coast of Sardinia in Italy. Nearby, her friend Dori Cooperman — now best known for befriending actress Lindsay Lohan in rehab — is on the phone with a reporter from W Magazine, chronicling the addictive qualities of photo Web site PatrickMcMullan.com.

Boardman interjects with her opinion of the site, which documents the social lives of New York City’s glitterati. “Tell him it captures a moment,” she shouts.

Until recently, the scene was typical for the 39-year-old Boardman, the jet-setting heiress to a banking fortune whose stepmother is a European princess.

Along with society pals like Alexandra von Fürstenberg and Blaine Trump, Boardman spent her 20s being photographed in couture gowns at galas and benefits all over New York and Palm Beach, often with her equally glamorous sister, Samantha.

Magazines chronicled her taste in clothes (Roberto Cavalli ruffled cocktail dresses) and jewelry (Verdura). She held jobs at the Web site Luxuryfinder.com and in the jewelry department at Sotheby’s. But to the media they were a postscript to Boardman’s glamorous social life.

So it comes as a surprise to those who know Boardman that only a few years later, she’s morphed into one of the most successful real estate brokers in the business. The Wall Street Journal recently named her the top-earning broker in the country for 2008, with more than $255 million in sales that year alone.

The youngest senior vice president at Sotheby’s International Realty, Boardman in 2008 set a new co-op record by selling a 2 East 67th Street apartment to Loews Hotel CEO Jonathan Tisch for $48 million. She also unloaded a famously hard-to-sell townhouse at 603 Park Avenue that had been on the market for some 20 years.

More recently, Boardman made international headlines when the U.S. Marshals Service chose her, and Sotheby’s colleague Anne Corey, to sell the Manhattan penthouse at 133 East 64th Street belonging to disgraced Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff.

Even more impressive — at least to New York brokers — is the fact that Boardman found a buyer acceptable to the notoriously picky co-op board at 820 Fifth Avenue, enabling her to sell homebuilder Ara Hovnanian’s apartment for just under the $35 million asking price in the midst of a crippling recession.

Boardman is “by far the best broker in New York,” said Kathryn Steinberg, a senior vice president and managing director at the Edward Lee Cave division of Brown Harris Stevens, who has worked with her frequently.

Or, as another high-end broker put it, Boardman is “certainly the ‘It Girl’ right now.”

So how — and why — did a top socialite climb to the upper echelon of the cutthroat and often grueling world of Manhattan real estate?

“[Boardman] was never thought of as a person who would have a career,” said one insider. “People were surprised to see that she really threw herself into it. She found herself doing something she really loved.”

Observers say Boardman, who began in real estate in 2001, embodies a kind of real estate triple threat: talent, drive and impeccable connections to high-net-worth clients, most notably her brother-in-law, developer Aby Rosen. And in the years since she’s gotten involved in real estate, she’s worked to gain the admiration of colleagues and shake off the label of privileged Park Avenue princess.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to say [social connections] don’t have a tremendous amount to do with her success, but social connections only open the door — you have to take it from there,” said Michele Kleier, the president and chairman of Gumley Haft Kleier.

Long before Nicky and Paris Hilton, there were the Boardman sisters.

Slender, elegant and eminently fashionable, Serena and her younger sister, Samantha, dominated the New York high-society social scene in the ’90s. Constant fixtures at fashion shows, parties and galas, the Boardmans were dubbed “Princesses of the Moment” in a 1995 New York Times story. Three years later, they were named to Vogue’s 100: The Best-Dressed List.

The sisters’ father is hedge-funder D. Dixon Boardman, founder of the $6.5 billion Optima Group. Their mother is Pauline Baker Boardman Pitt, an interior decorator described in gossip columns as “the Queen of Palm Beach.” Pauline is the great-granddaughter of George F. Baker, who founded First National Bank of New York, which later became Citibank.

In true dynastic fashion, Pauline and Dixon are second cousins, tracing their lineage back to prominent social Palm Beach family the Munns, said David Patrick Columbia, cofounder of the Web site NewYorkSocialDiary.com, who has written about New York society since 1992.

The family “has been social in New York since the 19th century,” Columbia said. “They’ve been very rich for a very long time, and very socially connected for a long time, both here and in Europe.”

The Boardman girls grew up on the Upper East Side and in Palm Beach, attending the Chapin School — Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ alma mater — and Brooks School. Serena, who declined to be interviewed for this story, went on to Brown, while Samantha graduated from Harvard.

But in a classic case of “money doesn’t buy happiness,” things were not easy at home. Dixon Boardman’s romantic dalliances were widely known in society circles and reported in the press. He and Pauline separated several times during their 27-year marriage before finally divorcing in 1999.

In 2000, Pauline married 74-year-old William Pitt, the chairman of William Pitt Real Estate in Stamford, Conn., who died within a year of the wedding. In 2001, Dixon Boardman married a woman younger than both of his daughters, the 25-year-old Spanish Princess Arriana zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg.

Sources say Dixon and Pauline’s tumultuous relationship is viewed as the reason why Serena has not yet married. “Her experience growing up has made her wary of a permanent relationship,” a source said.

Both Serena and Samantha, a psychiatrist, are more professionally driven than most of their social set, at least when it comes to nonfashion, non-Hollywood careers.

Serena “could spend her weekends in Palm Beach and Southampton, but a lot of times she’s in Manhattan because she’s working,” said Columbia. “She doesn’t have any friends who work as hard as she does.”

“Her work ethic is phenomenal,” said Meredyth Smith, a senior vice president at Sotheby’s International Realty and a frequent partner of Boardman’s. “She has a drive for excellence, and she’s not interested in halfway measures.”

But career wasn’t always such a major focus for Boardman.

After graduating from Brown, she took a job in the jewelry department at Sotheby’s, a post dubbed one of the ultimate “glamour jobs” by the New York Times in 1998. The article pointed out that the holders of such posts generally leave before age 35 to marry (though it also noted that they sometimes return later to work as real estate agents).

“The luxury property divisions of Sotheby’s and Christie’s are populated by many second-time glamour-job holders, often in their 40s and 50s, using lifelong connections to bring in listings of multimillion-dollar properties,” the story said.

In 2001, after a stint at now-defunct Web site Luxu ryfinder.com, Boardman did indeed give real estate a try. Because of her wealthy background, she wasn’t motivated by money, and at first, she was mostly interested in the flexible schedule, sources said.

But, as it turned out, she had a passion for it.

“Her great success may have come as a surprise to her,” Columbia said. “She discovered that she really loved her job and is really good at it. It became an all-consuming career.”

Boardman began taking the job seriously, and drawing praise from clients and brokers alike.

“She’s just a terrific professional,” said Kirk Henckels, an executive vice president and director of Stribling Private Brokerage.

Boardman is naturally skilled at making deals and “was a very fast learner,” said Sotheby’s broker Patricia Patterson, who helped show Boardman the ropes when she first started.

In addition, she had the advantage of being familiar with the high-end real estate that Sotheby’s is known for.

“She knows people, she knows the neighborhoods, she knows all the top buildings,” Patterson said.

Moreover, the socialite’s polished manners and composure, honed by years in the public eye, presented a stark contrast to the intensity of many boom-time brokers.

That’s helped her when it comes to attracting high-profile clients, said Rosen, the owner of Park Avenue’s Lever House and Seagram Building, who married Samantha Boardman in 2005. Rosen has enlisted Boardman and Smith to sell his 22 East 71st Street townhouse, former home of the now-bankrupt Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. Listed at $75 million, it’s currently the most expensive home for sale in the city.

“You spend time with a broker, and you want to spend time with someone who is smart and charming. She has all those attributes,” Rosen said of his sister-in-law.

Boardman has become popular among fellow brokers as well, thanks to her reputation for promptly returning calls and e-mails.

“She’s totally accessible,” Brown Harris Stevens’ Steinberg said. “If I’m showing one of her listings to a high-profile client — and they don’t give a range of times, it’s Tuesday at 2 p.m. — with Serena, you know she’s going to make it happen.”

To do that, Boardman often works seven days a week, colleagues said, and her many vacations and weekend trips are now cut short if she needs to work on a deal.

She’s also known for being extremely straightforward, not a trait all brokers share.

“She’s extremely honest and direct,” Steinberg added. “You know what you hear from her is the truth.”

Developer Aby Rosen, left, married Serena Boardman’s younger sister, Samantha, right, in 2005.
Developer Aby Rosen, left, married Serena Boardman’s younger sister, Samantha, right, in 2005.

Boardman’s career hasn’t been all smooth sailing. In 2005, she found herself embroiled in a messy legal spat involving Sotheby’s and ex-publishing magnate Lord Conrad Black, after Boardman found a buyer for his apartment. The case, in which Black claimed Sotheby’s failed to represent the interests of its clients, was settled out of court (with Boardman and others testifying).

Despite years of posing for cameras, Boardman is one of the city’s most press-shy brokers, nearly always declining interviews. That’s likely because many high-end clients — including Rosen — prefer to keep their real estate dealings quiet.

“She’s very discreet,” Rosen said. “That’s something some of the brokers don’t have. She doesn’t talk about things, but she gets things done. That’s what you want in a broker.”

As a result, Boardman tends to fly under the radar. It wasn’t until 2008 that she began attracting serious press attention for her real estate accomplishments.

That year, Boardman represented both the seller and buyer in the record-breaking sale of a 14-room apartment at 2 East 67th Street, the most ever paid for a New York co-op at the time –$48 million.

“Everyone still talks about” that deal, said one broker, noting that “both sides were happy with the outcome, which is very tricky to do in a transaction that high-profile.”

Also in 2008, Boardman sold developer Sherman Cohen’s townhouse at 603 Park Avenue, a bizarrely configured house that had been on the market, off and on, for 20 years, with a range of different prices and some of the city’s top brokers, including Prudential Douglas Elliman powerhouse Dolly Lenz. Boardman and Sotheby’s colleague Leila Stone took over the listing in May of 2008, and within a month, it had gone into contract for $31.7 million.

“It looks like Serena Boardman and Leila Stone have pulled off the impossible,” the real estate Web site Curbed wrote at the time.

The long and narrow house was difficult to sell because of its odd layout — it had 100 feet of frontage on Park Avenue but is “only 20 feet wide, with a very high price,” said Kleier, one of the brokers who had the listing before Boardman.

When Kleier heard about the sale, “I just remember being astounded,” she said. “I don’t know how she did it. It just needed the right buyer, and she found it.”

In that deal, Boardman’s connections had clearly come into play: The buyer was Harry Lis, Rosen’s business partner.

Skilled and hard-working as Boardman is, brokers say she owes part of her success to her A-list society connections, and in particular to her ties to Rosen.

One broker noted that while Boardman always showed aptitude, she “didn’t do much at all” until her sister married Rosen.

“I think she’s been helped a lot by her sister’s husband,” the source said, calling Rosen “the top real estate man in New York,” and adding, “that can only help.”

Rosen, who said he has frequently recommended Boardman to others, allowed that her connections to him and others are “definitely helpful,” especially in getting exclusives. But, he said, “If she hadn’t been a good broker, I never would have hired her.”

“It’s just a side effect that she’s my sister-in-law,” he said.

“She finds potential buyers that nobody is working with,” he said. “She always has a good ear for who’s in the market, looking for what.”

While Rosen’s help may have assisted in launching Boardman onto a larger stage, her track record now speaks for itself. While the recent Wall Street Journal ranking surprised some observers who were used to seeing other names at the top of such lists — the paper’s rankings were made after reviewing tax returns and applications submitted by the brokers themselves — it clearly etched her place among the city’s real estate superstars.

“The sellers want Boardman to sell her apartment because they think she’ll get them the best deal,” Columbia said. “That’s not because of her connections. That’s because of her talent.”

That was clear in September, when she was selected from a group of top brokers to list Madoff’s apartment. Selections were based on proposals prepared by the brokers that explained how they would market the unit, how much they would list it for and what kind of commission they’d receive.

Following that coup, in October Boardman sold Hovnanian’s co-op at 820 Fifth Avenue to Kenneth Griffin, CEO of Citadel Investment Group, reportedly for just under the $35 million asking price. That was after the board rejected Related Companies president Jeff Blau’s $31 million bid in May.

Boardman’s vast network of social connections has its drawbacks. Colleagues say she’s worked hard to be taken seriously, but buzz about her tends to emphasize her high-society background. “Madoff Broker Boardman Brings Social Register Allure,” a recent Bloomberg headline read.

“This stuff of her as a Park Avenue princess that’s floating around — it couldn’t be further from the truth,” said one acquaintance. “She could have been drifting around Southampton, and she’s not. She takes it seriously.”

This summer, Page Six and later New York Magazine reported that Boardman lost a client, Jamie Tisch, because Tisch discovered e-mails between Boardman and Todd Meister, Tisch’s boyfriend and son of insurance tycoon Robert Meister. Suspecting a romance between the two, Tisch broke up with Meister, and she is no longer speaking to Boardman.

At the time, a pal of Boardman told the Post nothing was going on between Boardman and Meister, an old boyfriend of Samantha.

Socialite or not, Boardman has unquestionably earned the respect of colleagues and clients.

“It doesn’t matter who her family is,” Steinberg said. “Somebody can only open the door for you once.”

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