Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Sky’s the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan by Steven Gaines


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com








Steven Gaines’ new book, The Sky’s the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan, describes the buildings and people of past and present Manhattan real estate. Voyeurs will enjoy the tales of celebrities and their experiences in front of the powerful boards of the best Manhattan co-ops. Anyone who has lived in Manhattan will recognize the buildings and some of the characters described in this book. Most readers will enter a totally unfamiliar world on the pages of The Sky’s the Limit, and after fifty or so pages may become bored with the social register and the past and present social climbing and status seeking that obsesses Gaines. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter Three, “Turned Away,” pp. 61-67:


Try as one may, there is still about a 5 percent turndown rate in Manhattan luxury real estate. The rejection rate paces the economy; the hotter the market, the more emboldened the boards are to say no. Rejections of the rich and famous are now so common­place that they are rarely accompanied by displays of schadenfreude, nor are they as humiliating as when in 1982 actor Werner Kiemperer, who played Colonel Klink on the TV show Hogan’s Heroes, was rebuffed on an apartment at 5 Riverside Drive. “I don’t involve myself in the rock scene, the dope scene,” the mortified actor told the New York Times. “It makes me almost think back on the fifties when people could insinuate something about other people without saying anything’

Others could care less what people were saying about them as long as they were saying it. Given all the gossip about Madonna and her marriage to actor Sean Penn, she seemed completely unfazed when she was turned down in July 1985 on a $1.2 million twelve-room apart­ment by the board of the celebrity-packed San Remo, the same month Penthouse and Playboy ran pictures of her standing buck naked in the middle of a Miami street. It somehow didn’t impress the board that she showed up for her interview in a little black dress with pearls and two large gold crucifixes dangling from a chain around her neck. Despite the building’s reputation for lenient admissions standards, “if we let her in;’ one board member told the New York Daily News, “we’d have to let everybody in?’ Actress Diane Keaton was reportedly the only San Remo board member to vote to let Madonna in. Not that the San Remo board had any regrets, but down the street at Harperly Hall, 45 Central Park West, where Madonna moved instead, her presence in the building immediately raised the value of all the apartments in the building by 25 percent, brokers estimated.

Neither Klemperer nor Madonna need have been dismayed: there is little logic in terms of true moral, ethical, or financial judgment in many turndowns. Try to figure out why the board of humdrum but dignified 770 Park Avenue felt that 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace wasn’t its kind of neighbor and wished him on his way, which led him to a much more distinguished palazzo-like apartment at the venerated Verona at 32. East Sixty-fourth Street. The showbizzy Dakota board welcomed Rex Reed, John Lennon, Leonard Bernstein, and Roberta Flack* but closed its gates to Billy Joel and Cher. (More under­standably, over the years it has also turned down long-tongued Gene Simmons of the seventies rock group Kiss and actress Joey Heather-ton, who kept canceling board meetings.) Many years ago the board of 927 Fifth Avenue rejected entertainer Barbra Streisand despite her presenting personal letters of recommendation from Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, and Mayor JohnV. Lindsay. The singer and actress was rejected, confided one board member to the press, “because she’d probably give a lot of parties?’

They were wrong. Streisand moved instead to a seventeen-room triplex penthouse at the Ardsley, at 320 Central Park West, where she never gave parties and hardly ever entertained. In fact, she would have been a model tenant at the Ardsley had she not earned a reputation as the building’s chief kvetch and critic, for whom nothing was quite good enough, including the way the lobby was decorated. It was also from the Ardsley that for twenty years she restlessly conducted a search for her dream apartment on the Upper East Side. Unfortunately, her reputation as a diva preceded her and whenever she showed any inter­est in a Good Building, she was invariably advised that she would have a hard time getting past the board. Streisand was furious when it was reported in the press that the board at z Beekman Place had turned her down when she hadn’t even made a bid on an apartment.

In the meantime, her Ardsley penthouse had turned into one of the great white elephants in the annals of New York real estate, mocked in the press for being on the market for more than a dozen years without finding a buyer. Once people got past the cachet of its being Barbra Streisand’s apartment, they discovered that it had a bad layout and a leaky roof, it mostly faced the rear of the building, the price tag of $10 million was inflated, and there was an omnipresent smell of stuffed cabbage being cooked, evidently a favorite of Streisand’s son, Jason, who also lived in the building.

In July 1998, when Streisand married fifty-seven-year-old actor James Brolin at her Malibu, California, home, where they were going to live year-round, she became what is known in real estate parlance as a “motivated seller;’ meaning she wanted to dump the apartment (along with her past life) more than ever. So when the twenty-nine-­year-old pop singer Mariah Carey, part of the next generation of divas, showed up and offered $8 million in cold cash, Streisand said yes, if she could get informal assurance from the board that Mariah Carey wouldn’t be rejected out of hand. Carey was the cynosure of media attention at the moment, newly divorced from Sony Records CEO Tommy Mottola and pursued by photographers. Her every mood fluctuation was documented in supermarket tabloids. In short, she was a co-op board’s nightmare. The board at 95 Central Park West had already turned her down even though that normally celebrity-friendly building’s residents included actor Liam Neeson and his wife, actress Natasha Richardson.

Streisand was assured by a member of the board that it was not pre­disposed to blackballing the young singer on principle and would give her a chance, but six months dragged by after Carey signed a contract and put down an $8oo,ooo deposit before a face-to-face meeting was scheduled. When the appointed day finally arrived, Carey showed up not “dressed for a funeral;’ as her broker Dolly Lenz had instructed her, but in an outfit with a bare midriff, chaperoned by three hulking African American bodyguards, all of whom she insisted sit with her during her board interview, which the board must have found odd indeed. One of the board members, trying to be hip but making a fool of herself, asked Carey if “Mr. Biggie” might be visiting the building, meaning the Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls,) a rap impresario who had been murdered.** Flack incurred the ire of the board as well as the city’s Landmarks Preservation Com­mission when she removed original building blocks from the Dakota’s thick walls to install new air-conditioning units; she was allowed to keep the new air conditioners but was ordered to put the original blocks in storage to be replaced at some future date.

 Carey responded blithely, “Mr. Biggie, he be dead.”

She be dead, too, with the board. Carey didn’t look back, She headed downtown, banished to the multimillion-dollar confines of the lofts of TriBeCa, where she dropped $9 million for a penthouse triplex on the seventeenth floor of 90 Franklin Street and hired the uptown “Prince of Chintz;’ Mario Buatta, to decorate the three floors so they looked like a junior version of Streisand’s grown-up triplex uptown.

Back up at the Ardsley, Streisand was fuming. “If an artist can’t live on the Upper West Side;” she said in a statement to the press, “where can they live?” She considered suing the board, or donating her apart­ment to a charity and taking the tax deduction and letting the charity contend with the board. Eventually, fourteen years after she first put it on the market, Streisand sold her apartment to a single woman for $4 million half the price Mariah Carey had offered for it and went to live happily ever after in Los Angeles.

Perhaps the all-time chump of malicious New York co-op board turndowns was Richard Milhous Nixon, who was one of the most hated men in America in 1979 when he tried to buy a place to live in New York, He had spent the previous five, post-Watergate years in igno­minious exile at Casa Pacifica, his San Clemente, California, ranch enough time, he thought, for him to reemerge in public life as an “elder statesman;’ and he believed New York City was the place to do it. It was first announced that he was looking for a house in Connecti­cut, so it took the city by surprise when in July the New York Times reported that Nixon and his wife, Patricia, had received the approval of the twelve-member board of 59 East Seventy-second Street to pur­chase a nine-room penthouse for $1 million. There was an immediate insurrection among the thirty-four other residents in the building. ‘He is very controversial;’ Mrs. Jane Maynard complained to a news­paper about the disgraced ex-president. “Just imagine if the shah of Iran visited him?’ More than a little embarrassed, Nixon withdrew his offer and next tried to buy a condominium with no board to turn him down Abe and Zipora Hirschfeld’s $1 million, eleven-room apartment at 857 Fifth Avenue. Hirschfeld was a millionaire developer of Manhattan parking lots who would later court controversy by reneging on his $1 million offer to Paula Jones to drop her sexual-harassment lawsuit against President Bill Clinton, as well as serving a prison sentence for plotting to kill his business partner. At first Hirschfeld reveled in the publicity that the sale of his apartment gen­erated, but soon anonymous threatening letters started to arrive. “You creeps;’ one letter read. “God will punish you?’ Another said, “When I see you, I hope you are dead?’

It turned out that Richard Nixon got lots of letters like that, and so would his neighbors. Nixon was in constant danger from a multitude of would-be assassins who wanted the honor of taking him down, and wherever he chose to live, the Secret Service was obliged to make the premises safe for him. At 857 Fifth Avenue the Secret Service wanted to control the roof, the basement, and the front lobby, where they intended to establish a twenty-four-hour command post to intercept anyone suspicious. This would also entail occasionally checking the identity of guests of other residents. The $300,000 security tab it would take for all this was going to be paid by the American taxpayers, but the other residents of 857 Fifth would pay with their peace of mind, A group of owners at 857 filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court to bar the sale of the Hirschfeld apartment to Richard Nixon, claiming loss of value to their apartments, as well as their diminished quality of life. Humiliated again, Nixon withdrew his offer, but this time he lost most of his $92,500 deposit, which Hirschfeld refused to return.

Nixon eventually turned to Edward Lee Cave for help. Cave advised him to give up trying to find a co-op and instead to purchase a private home. Cave found Nixon a town house at 542 East Sixty-fifth Street, which turned out to have once been owned by the great federal judge Learned Hand, a progressive who no doubt was spinning in his grave. Nixon spent a few unhappy years in the house before moving to Saddle River, New Jersey, where Pat died, and eventually he moved to Yorba Linda, California, where he died in April 5994. The East Sixty-fourth Street house now belongs to the Syrian government, which uses it as a residence for its chief delegate to the United Nations,


While many readers will find this and other takes in The Sky’s the Limit fascinating, many others will be perplexed by the very notion that someone with the money to buy an apartment will be turned away. Some of the history on these pages becomes tedious, especially if a reader has no particular connection to the people or places being described. With those warnings, be prepared to enter the unique and special world of Manhattan real estate on the pages of The Sky’s the Limit.  


Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2005



Buy The Sky’s the Limit @ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2005 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives







ã 2005 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2005 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Sky's the Limit.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com