The Madness of the Upper Class

03/19/2008 12:00 AM |

Readers humbled by New York City’s billionaire hedge fund managers and their trustafarian progeny may take some comfort in knowing that Andrew Carnegie’s warning about wealth slipping between the fingers of subsequent generations−“from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”−still applies.

Manhattan’s only unambiguous indicator of wealth, status and power is a penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue, across the street from Central Park. You can wear designer knock-offs, lease a yacht or a private jet, and with enough effort and credit you could conceivably leverage your way into becoming a paper billionaire and briefly bluff your own bank, but you would never be able to fake your way past the horrific requirements of a Fifth Avenue co-op board and into the penthouse. That is, unless you inherit it.

You don’t own a co-op apartment; instead, you own shares of a corporation that entitle you to live in one of the apartments in the building. The larger the apartment, the more shares you own. The advantage of a co-op is that you and the other tenants, as the co-op’s board of directors, get to decide who buys shares in the building.
However, this can be a huge disadvantage if you’re attempting to sell your shares. There aren’t too many people willing to shell out eight figures for an apartment, and if your neighbors know that a new tenant will entail several excruciating years of loud renovations, it can make selling that apartment difficult. When your financial future hangs in the balance and your neighbors have hated you for generations, the situation can become quite fraught.

*  *  *  *  *

I moved to New York City in 2002, and, after being shuffled through the homes of several family friends, not only did I find myself living at one of the most exclusive addresses in New York City, I became an unwitting pawn in a co-op power struggle.

I can’t tell you which family I stayed with. It was a household name about a generation back; suffice to say the illustrious grandfather, whose name remains on several important foundations, raised his shirtsleeves and made a tremendous fortune doing something relatively mundane very cheaply. In the 1920s, as he began to turn his attention to philanthropy, he bought a two-story penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the capstone of an illustrious career. 

When he died, the penthouse was passed on to his brother, who died soon after and left it to his wife. I didn’t pry too much into her life, but considering the only anecdote I heard about her was that she once dated Al Capone, I can only imagine it as decadent.

When the gangster’s moll died, she left the palatial penthouse to her five children. Most of the original estate had been dispersed, donated to major universities and used to endow charitable institutions, and she probably intended the apartment to be sold and the proceeds distributed among the children. However, one of the children moved her own family into the apartment while the moll was dying of Alzheimer’s, ostensibly to take care of her, but in the process she managed to take the place over.  

All penthouse apartments are difficult to maintain, but this one was a monster. For one, the family was paying to maintain an 80-year-old roof over a large building in New York City; plus everything in the apartment, from the windows to the hose-pipes in the rooftop garden, was custom-designed in the 1920s, so even something as mundane as fixing a faucet or a window lock would require mind-bogglingly expensive custom fabrication. And this on top of all the normal maintenance fees and taxes that a two-story penthouse apartment incurs.  

The squatting family couldn’t afford to maintain the place on its own, and the other four family heirs weren’t eager to chip in. Complicating matters further, the house was full of priceless artwork, including a Caravaggio, a Goya, an Albrecht Dürer engraving and several medieval tapestries. Almost all of the family’s wealth was contained in this apartment, but it had deteriorated to the point were the paintings were actually being threatened.
The other four siblings were dispersed throughout the United States, but would drop by unannounced and spend weeks at a time in the apartment, as it was theirs as well and they had every right to do so. There was plenty of room, so really there was no polite way to refuse the visitors. But these intrusions were made with ulterior motives. Depending on the family member, they ranged from simply mooching a place to stay for a couple of weeks to outright theft. (Once, during a posh dinner party, one of the siblings supposedly walked past a dining room full of guests, unhooked a painting worth several million dollars from the wall and walked out the front door.)

*  *  *  *  *

The squatter and her husband were introduced to me at a dinner party as empty-nesters with a couple of spare rooms they occasionally rented to discreet, artistic tenants. An opera singer was already there. And as luck would have it, their other tenant, a ballet dancer, had just moved out. Would I like to move in? What could possibly be wrong with the place? I agreed on the spot, sight unseen.

I was a little curious as to why such a distinguished pair would need me to pay rent, given the nine-figure net-worth that living in a such ritzy building would require. But I let it slide, thinking it would have been impertinent to ask.

I took a cab over the next morning. The entrance was on a tree-lined side street. The cab driver looked at my two-dollar tip like I’d handed him a turd. The doormen sneered when I told them which apartment I wanted and didn’t offer to carry my luggage. The elevator was ancient and heavily carpeted, with a brass lever like something off a steam engine. 
I stepped out into an unlit alcove. The elevator doors closed behind me, plunging the room into darkness. I scrabbled around until I felt a doorknob. I knocked, but no one answered. I turned the handle and the door swung open. 

The space beyond was huge — it could have swallowed two stacked Gristedes supermarkets whole, with room to spare on the sides. High above me, a vaulted ceiling receded into murky brownness; two spiral staircases curled upwards at either end of the room. The floor beneath my feet was an intricate marble intarsia, a mosaic of reds, beiges and yellows inlaid in dark green stone. There was a slight breeze blowing through the house and I could hear faraway traffic through a distant open window.

I heard heels clicking toward me. It was the matriarch, a tall blonde in her fifties, wearing the same outfit she had on the night we’d been introduced. She led me into the library.

Sunbeams stirred dust motes among stacks of leather tomes, while cruel-looking Renaissance portraits glared down at us from gilt frames. Once I had her convinced that I wouldn’t make off with the silverware, she led me down a long, dim passageway, past fraying tapestries and lurking boxes studded with metal knurls that jutted out at shin level.

We passed through the kitchen. There was a working mail chute, a dumbwaiter — it hadn’t worked for decades — and a wind-up, horn-and-dial Butterfield 8-era telephone. Filthy dishes soaked in a half-dozen deep, porcelain-tiled sinks. The maid was on vacation.

My room was in the servants’ quarters. I would later learn that the dancer who had slept there before me had been dying of bone cancer and had lived in the room while recovering from an amputated foot. The room was about as long as a coffin and narrow enough so that I could reach out and touch both sides of it at once. The bed was a sliver of foam laid over a slab of plywood, propped up over the radiator, next to the window. One bad nightmare and I could have rolled out onto Fifth Avenue.

The ceiling had flaked a fine layer of plaster dust over every surface of the room, and the maid’s belongings were being slowly piled up everywhere. The walls were crammed with her clothes, her collections of weird religious artifacts and the family’s collection of Granta magazines. There was a Dürer engraving above my bed being consumed by a water stain. The bathroom had a ‘throne’ made of wicker and a scale set in the floor.
I settled into a slight existence. I didn’t think much. I staggered around the city in a state of profound culture shock. I had barely any money, just what my father had grubstaked me before I’d moved to the East Coast, but I came home to this weird old mansion.

One day, one of the equity holders arrived unexpectedly at night. He was a young man about my age. He came to stay toward the end of the summer, after a year or two as a groundskeeper at some club up in the Adirondacks. He was completely broke, but we went out on the town one night. After cadging my last twenty-dollar bill at Dorian’s Red Hand (of preppy killer fame) for a round of drinks, he promised to pay me back in kind.

When we got home he walked directly into the master bedroom. The couple was in Cambodia at this point, on vacation. The ceiling was in worse shape than it was in my room, and the floor was carpeted with its remnants. We walked into their closet. “Give me a boost,” he said. “And close your eyes.”

I didn’t. He jiggled a piece of wainscoting and a carved panel popped open. Behind it was a row of dusty bottles. “These are usually ok,” he said. It was port. The label read 1837.

We rinsed out two snifters from the kitchen and walked a half-flight of stairs down into the gallery. We switched the halogen spotlights on to all the paintings, and poured our port beneath the eyes of the Caravaggio. The gilt frames around us glowed, and for an instant the worn velvet cushions and weathered leather settees were restored to their former glory.

The first sip was sublime. The wine was ruddy gold and beneath the alcoholic burn swirled little eddies of unthinkable complexity. But gradually it began to grey in our glasses and the flavor vanished, oxidized into something creepy, ancient and undrinkable. I woke up the next afternoon with my head throbbing.

Eventually I had an ugly dispute with the family over my rent, and ended up sneaking out in the middle of the night. I had to bribe their illiterate non-English-speaking maid to smuggle my passport and coat out of the apartment. But before I left, I did meet a few members of the third generation, who seemed remarkably sane and normal. One was joining the army; another was an aspiring documentary filmmaker. The idea of losing the apartment didn’t seem to bother them too much, but it was clear that neither was on track to buy another. To them at least, the investment of time and labor necessary to turn themselves into tycoons simply wasn’t worth the effort. Too boring. Perhaps by the third generation the scales fall from the eyes, and wealth seems more of a bother than anything else.

As for me, like a young male wolf spider who forever sears the leg-band markings of the first female he ever sees into his memory and seeks that pattern out in his mates, I will always expect to find a stash of Prohibition-era port secreted in my wainscoting whenever I rent a new apartment. 

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