Alice F. Mason was a legendary real estate agent but kept a secret for decades
For more than 50 years, at a time of racial exclusion, Mason hid that she was Black
Legendary agent Alice F. Mason told The Real Deal back in 2010 that her success in real estate was changing New York by getting people to live together in an era when many prewar buildings were monied silos.
“When I started there were four managing agents and they only hired people in the social register, because they mainly worked in all those prewar buildings that were mainly WASP-y buildings,” she told TRD in The Closing. “When I had Alfred Vanderbilt for a client, I called many buildings and they said, “We would never take a Vanderbilt or an Astor — they’re the 1880s, and we’re the 1620s.
“I sold him an apartment at 31 East 79th Street, a penthouse. I knew a lot of different kinds of people, and I decided they all should be able to live in the same buildings. Building by building, I got different people in.”
Mason may have been motivated by a secret she kept — her Black heritage — for nearly 50 years, even from close friends like Henry Kissinger, Barbara Walters, Mike Wallace, and Gloria Vanderbilt, Air Mail reported.
The details are contained within her unpublished 334-page memoir, which begins with her birth in 1923 into a “bourgeois family of color” in Philadelphia.
Mason’s light skin — her last name at birth was Christmas — allowed her to pass as white when she moved to New York in 1952, an era marked by racial prejudice.
“The family was so fair skinned, they were called the ‘White Christmases,’” she wrote, according to the outlet.
She made the choice to keep her secret during an exclusionary period when racial distinctions were critical for professional success.
“I had irrepressible joie de vivre and bubbly enthusiasm that was contagious, and a natural irreverence,” she wrote, “so people were attracted to me and they shed their inhibitions, and so no matter how famous and high profile they were they loved laughing and talking with me as I added fun to their lives.”
She found apartments for Marylin Monroe, which burnished Mason’s bona fides.
She played a pivotal role in supporting Jimmy Carter’s political campaign, raising significant funds for his presidential campaign. The effort highlighted a quirkier side that included relying on astrology as well as her background in psychology and sociology to make major decisions.
“Jimmy Carter was the first politician I ever met. I was sitting next to him at a dinner at ‘21’ and he asked if I would support him. I said, ‘I’m an astrologer so I’ll look up your chart, and if you have energy in it I’ll consider supporting you.’ He had so much energy in his chart,” she told TRD, noting the famous dinners she once hosted for the wealthy and powerful. “When Carter was president I had a lot of people from Washington at my dinners, like the head of the CIA. I [also] had Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters and Tom Brokaw.”
Outed in Lawrence Otis Graham’s 1999 book, “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” Mason continued her successful real estate career, with the news barely making a ripple.
Mason, who at 100 still lives in a rent-controlled building in New York, told her secret to model Carmen Dell’Orefice.
“My hat has always been off to Alice,” Dell’Orefice told Air Mail. “She worked hard, and she overcame and navigated every prejudice.”
— Ted Glanzer