Looking Back: Sol Goldman, a mogul surrounded by turmoil

His tumultuous personal life overshadowed New York’s largest private real estate empire

Jan.January 02, 2008 12:57 PM

Bestselling novels are written about fictional family titans in turmoil, but few rival the real-life story of the Goldmans, one of New York’s richest real estate clans.

Patriarch Sol was the spunky son of a Brooklyn grocer. He bought his first properties at age 16, scooping up foreclosures by offering $500 cash per building. “He’d go to the bank and lie because he was too young to get a mortgage. He got most of the money from going around the neighborhood, getting $50 from this one and $50 from that one. That’s how he started,” his daughter Jane Goldman told The Real Deal.

Goldman’s strategies worked: By the time he died in 1987 at age 70, he had amassed New York’s largest private real estate empire, more than 600 properties valued at $1 billion. At one point, his trophies included the Chrysler Building, the Stanhope Hotel and many buildings in Midtown.

Sol’s estranged wife Lillian and their four kids inevitably fought over the fortune. The estate was the largest ever brought before the New York Surrogate’s Court, which probates wills.

It’s a story that makes some of today’s mogul vs. mogul battles look tame. Lillian claimed that Sol had affairs, was physically violent and even once dangled her out the window of their Waldorf-Astoria suite – something close friends and relatives say was impossible at the time. Lillian “wasn’t a petite woman,” said her nephew, Lloyd Goldman, owner of BLDG Management and a real estate tycoon in his own right. Sol, meanwhile, was on dialysis and not exactly a bastion of strength during the period when he was accused of these threatening tactics.

“It’s an interesting story we joke about once in a while because it couldn’t happen,” Lloyd said. “Still, one could argue that rational people wouldn’t have this sort of fight publicly.”

Lillian claimed her children wanted to cut her off, and out of the will, completely. The court ruled in Lillian’s favor for partial payments from the estate – but not until 1991.

The entire estate was settled out of court after that, said Jane.

As for the family feud, Jane said: “It was an emotional period … . My mother was needy in a way my father could never have satisfied.”

Scenes from a marriage

In 1984, Lillian Goldman took $400,000 out of a joint account, moved into a $17,000-a-month suite at the Carlyle Hotel and filed for divorce. She made it clear she wanted half of Sol’s $1 billion fortune.

He made a counteroffer: $1 million immediately, $5 million more within six years and one-third of his estate when he died, whether they were still married or not. Sol also promised to buy Lillian an apartment of her choice and pay for her to furnish it at her discretion.

Lillian accepted the counteroffer. She didn’t divorce Sol, but they never lived together again.

But then she found a letter from her lawyer, Roy Cohn, to Goldman’s lawyer, Raoul Felder, that she thought was a smoking gun. She claimed the letter “proved” that Sol paid off Cohn to convince her to drop the divorce filing.

According to Lillian, the Goldmans fought one last time, during which Sol threw her to the ground “like a rag doll.”

She argued for half of his assets, but he wanted their agreement to stand.

A State Supreme Court case dragged on for three years, during which time the couple’s three daughters swore affidavits supporting their dad. The kids argued that Lillian wasn’t really Sol’s wife because she “abandoned” him in 1984 when she left him after 43 years of marriage.

Daughter Jane told the court Lillian was “emotionally ill.” Daughter Diane said that Lillian had “psychiatric problems.” (Lillian reportedly said she saw a psychiatrist because “I had to learn how to live with that strange family.”)

Justice Kristin Booth Glen eventually sided with Sol Goldman, who died 26 days later.

As soon as Goldman was dead, the feud over his billion-dollar empire really began. The kids wanted to nix Lillian’s one-third agreement with Sol – and, allegedly, cut her off completely.

Finally, in 1991, Surrogate Eve Preminger of Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan wrote, “This court concludes, for a number of reasons, that the executors’ belated attempt after their father’s death to disavow the agreement he fought to uphold during his lifetime must be rejected.”

Rise to fortune

Sol Goldman bought and sold real estate over the phone, like a trader. Although he bought the Chrysler Building in 1955, he lost it – and his long-time friend and partner Alex DiLorenzo – in 1975. DiLorenzo had a heart attack at his desk in the landmark building shortly after the partners lost it during the city’s economic crisis.

Yet even in 1976, Goldman was the city’s largest private landlord, controlling more than 400 buildings, which ballooned to 600 buildings by the more economically robust mid-1980s.

The buildings included the Stanhope Hotel, chunks of Midtown and the Upper East Side.

“The fact that he was able to get through the ’70s without losing everything – his ability to have survived such a hostile real estate environment – was remarkable,” Arthur Zeckendorf, whose father and grandfather had dealings with Goldman, told The Real Deal.

Goldman was known for a gruff manner that sometimes alienated instead of charmed (he was not a popular landlord). But Zeckendorf, the co-chair of Zeckendorf Realty, recalls a far different persona: a warm man.

“His gruff manner was just to the outside world,” said Zeckendorf. “You can say that all traders have that manner.”

Yet at the time of his death, it was everyone versus Goldman – he was the target of 250 lawsuits claiming more than $300 million against him and his estate. Goldman had also garnered a reputation for paying late and leaving tenants in the lurch regarding services to which they legally were entitled.

How it worked

Even at the tender age of 5, Lloyd Goldman, Sol’s nephew, “tagged along” to business meetings with his father and Sol.

“Sol bought the properties, Alex financed them and my father managed the more difficult ones,” Lloyd said. “Sol bought real estate as if he was trading stock.

“If you offered him a property, in 30 seconds he could tell you what he’d pay for it and whether he wanted it or not.”

In the early days, meetings would end with dinner at Sol’s house, with Lillian cooking. “But as the kids got older, Sol spent more time at the office and they grew apart a little. When he outlived his life expectancy on dialysis, some attorney convinced her she’d get half, and I think it corrupted her,” Lloyd said.

Still, he said, his uncle’s “grocery-store roots were always there. He loved shopping in the Italian markets and he liked to make a deal.” Jane said her dad would always comparison-shop. That meant going to more than one store – and then going back to the first store for milk if the price was better there. It was a method he applied to business. “His heart wasn’t in any building,” Jane added. “It was all about value, not a building’s prestige.”

Lloyd Goldman remembers a man who’d work until 8 p.m. each night and then take whoever was still at the office out for dinner to places like Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse. Sol also answered his own phone after 5 p.m. and talked to whoever called, giving breaks to young brokers and contractors.

“It was part of his success. Young brokers brought him deals others wouldn’t, and he knew it,” Lloyd said.

Jane Goldman’s recollections are essentially the same: a family guy, “despite what you read or heard,” with a great sense of humor who “believed something was wrong with you if you worked on weekends.”

Still, the last 10 years of his life, Sol was on dialysis for five hours a day, three days a week, and he never missed work on those days. “He’d come to work after dialysis, lie down, have lunch and work. He didn’t pity himself at all,” Jane said.

Preserving a legacy

Sol Goldman’s children Allan and Jane are the second generation involved in maintaining the family’s real estate empire and, along with other siblings, his philanthropic legacy.

The estate has made significant contributions. Two charitable trusts were set up – one in Sol’s name, one in Lillian’s. Together, the trusts total about $200 million, said Jane, trustee for the Sol Goldman Charitable Trust and vice president of Sol Goldman Investments. The Sol Goldman Charitable Trust endowed a pancreatic cancer research center at Johns Hopkins with a gift of $10 million. Lillian’s trust, headed by her daughter Amy, has given generously to Yale Law School.

Both trusts continue to give to humanitarian, educational, arts, cultural and Jewish causes.

Dottie Herman, President and CEO of Prudential Douglas Elliman, calls Goldman an “icon.”

“There’s a saying, that cash is king. That’s what he did, and that’s what the market will go back to,” Herman said.

His legacy, said daughter Jane, is “what he bought.”

“He’s been dead for 20 years, but the things he bought 20 years ago are worth so much more. The foresight and vision he had just becomes more evident every day.”

As for the family drama, Jane Goldman said: “I think we all have regrets about that period. It’s a blip on the whole picture of who my father was and the things he accomplished.”

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