Snobbism about money is at the core of this illuminating social history, in which we are treated to a captivating cast of tycoons, entrepreneurs, wayward heirs, eccentric widows, idlers, spendthrifts, rogues, villains, and other exemplars of the maladjusted rich.
740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building
Michael Gross Broadway
The Astors once dismissed the Vanderbilts as a railroad people, but one early resident of 740, Rosina Sherman Hoyt, who was a grandniece of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, says a family member, ‘would have thought Mrs Astor a parvenue’. Snobbism about money is at the core of this illuminating social history, in which we are treated to a captivating cast of tycoons, entrepreneurs, wayward heirs, eccentric widows, idlers, spendthrifts, rogues, villains, and other exemplars of the maladjusted rich.
The building was the brainchild of Jackie Kennedy’s grandfather, James T Lee, an Irish-American property developer (who apparently kept his own mother upstairs when visitors came to call, on account of her impenetrable Irish brogue) and Rosario Candela, an innovative Sicilian-born architect with a penchant for crosswords and cryptography, and the ‘masterbuilder of uptown New York’.
Candela ‘set out to build a stack of mansions, four triplex maisonettes and another 20 grand duplex apartments, most with between ten and 13 spacious rooms, galleries, conservatories, and loggias, all designed to offer maximum sunlight and corss-venitlation’, Gross explains. ‘It was a beehive of apartments, each fit for its own Queen.’ Or princess. Jackie Kennedy’s father, Jack Bouvier, was given an apartment by his father in-law, but he didn’t have enough furniture, so the Bouvier girls, Lee and Jackie, learned to roller-skate and rode tricycles around rooms with 18 feet-high ceilings.
As Gross points out, ‘nobody with serious money would have lived on Park’ before the mid-1920s when the Grand Central Terminal was completed and the rail yards hidden underground. In that brief, golden moment before the Depression set in, 740 Park began life as a proposed 100 per cent co-operative. Co-ops, with their ‘vaguely socialist intention’ of semi-communal apartment living, were for the elite. James T Lee envisioned it as ‘a building where the meritocracy met the Episcocracy for the common good of both’.
What got the building off the ground was a network of chancers who either worked for the Chase National, favoured bank of the WASP class, or were business associates of John D Rockefeller Jr As a result of sluggish sales, it became only part co-operative, the first rentals being offered in 1932. Gradually, more tenants arrived, linked to the building’s ‘matrix of family influence’.
However, the building became established as a significant presence only when John D Rockefeller Jr moved in. Although Junior was a renter for years, by the time he died his apartment, which had expanded over the years, consisted of no fewer than 34 rooms and 17 baths on three floors, with its own internal elevators. Indeed, the back-elevator gossip was that Martha Rockefeller ‘had ten in staff, one of whom did nothing but clean chandeliers.’ (Yet when a fire broke out in one apartment and residents were evacuated, ‘one noted that all Martha Rockefeller had carried downstairs were two small bars of soap.’)
The principal on the building’s mortgage was due in 1949, but the 740 Park Avenue Corporation was short of the capital required. The building was saved by a genius property developer named William Zeckendorf (a Jew who was never allowed an apartment himself in spite of his pains) in 1952, and Junior Rockefeller made the building a co-operative again in 1953, offering apartments at advantageous rates ‘to keep his own home, and ensure they all bought theirs and made the plan effective, Junior was being astonishingly generous to his neighbours.’
Because of James T Lee’s antecendents, beign Irish-American had been a bar to residency at 740. Being Jewish was a different matter, though. At the behest of one resident, Belle Ledyard, the 71st Street entrance to 740 Park was given its own address of 71 East Seventy-first Street, because she considered Park Avenue a Jewish address.
The first Jew to be admitted, in 1948, one Colonel Schiff, was a practising Episcopalian; the first Jew came several years later. Then in 1959, when property developer Henry Epstein moved in to a ‘Jewish’ apartment, two grand widows, Electra Webb and Martha Rockefeller, said to him ‘we know you Jews are clever and we want to be the building’s treasurer.’ A Jew trumped ac actress when Elizabeth Taylor applied for an apartment in 1960.
‘WASPS haven’t been turning down Jews for 50 years,’ says realtor Alice Mason of more recent times. ‘Now its Jews turning down Jews. They don’t want another powerful Jew in the building.’ With the arrival in the 1970s and 1980s of arbitrageurs Saul Steinberg, Henry Kravis, and Ron Perelman, the observation that there were too many ‘Wall Street guys’ was still perhaps a euphemism for ‘too many Jew,’ but the prejudice also reflected a genuine concern that the building had become too money-orientated.
The balance tipped in 2005 and is now predominantly Jewish, with a few old-style patricians in evidence. An apartment that sold in 1965 for $200,000 went for $17 million in 2004. ‘For so many years,’ explains Gross, ‘from the 1930s through the 1970s, 740 Park was an impregnable fortress from without, while, within, its empty, echoing unsold and unwanted rooms, built to stand something, stood only for folly. It was an emptied ballroom after a raucous but forgettable party.’
Nonetheless, Gross has produced an unforgettable chronicle. Plenty of fortunes are dissipated in the course of its 500 pages and there are some spectacular feuds, such as Junior Rockefeller’s 16-year long, low-intensity battle with Hearst ally Clarence Shearn, in which the latter ‘apparently sought to profit from Junior’s desire for his apartment and Junior did his best to downplay interest while working assiduously to rid the building of his one time antagonist.’
Seven forty ‘was never known as a Social Register building,’ says the realto Alice Mason. ‘It was always a money building.’ One Halloween in the mid-1950s, soon after a young couple of low-profile Jews moved into the building, their three-year-old son went trick-o-treating and came back with ‘not candy corn, but caviar, paté, and salmon canapés.’
As well as the Wall Street arbitrageurs, the 1980s introduced as residents a new breed of corporate executives grown spectacularly rich on stock options. Seven forty was no longer a family building.
Michael Leader, whose father had taken his family there at the beginning of the 1960s, looks back without sentiment: ‘Seven forty was one of the serious clubs for the rich, and I fount it to be underwhelming. It was a magnificent place to live, but I was never taken with my neighbours’.
Gross claims that today’s 740 residents are atomized, separate, and don’t generally know or care to know each other.’ Whether they would care to have known Peggy Bedford is uncertain. The pre-eminent social hostess of her age, she arrived at 740 Park in the early 1950s. She has parties with flamenco dancers, much to the chagrin of her downstairs neighbours.
“The she had her Indian period,’ recalls her daughter Muffie. ‘She brought up an elephant and it broke the elevator. You can imagine how that went down.’