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East Side Storey

The New York social élite live not in houses but co-operative apartment blocks. Applicants are subjected to a rigorous vetting procedure which takes as much account of “suitability” as of wealth. Rejection, as the famous have discovered, is humiliating. Andrew Solomon tries to make sense of the system.

998 Fifth Avenue. Facade by Stanford White.

998 Fifth Avenue. Facade by Stanford White.

“It was the worst, worst, worst experience of my entire life, bar none, without exception,” explained a tall blonde woman in a Valentino suit, diamonds glittering at her throat, and emeralds in her ears. She is one of many attractive and prosperous people who have been turned down by the boards of prestige New York co-operative apartment buildings for no apparent reason; the rejection had been delivered after she had settled the terms of purchase with the previous owner of the apartment, and it was inconvenient for the seller, who would have to put the apartment back on the market, and humiliating for the buyer, who would have to continue her search. “We had to fill out endless applications. We had to tell them all about our finances, education, and background, and then about our social activities and our circle of friends. We had seven reference letters; I called an old friend from college who I hadn’t seen in years because she’s in the social register and lives on Park in the Seventies. My husband got a letter from the chairman of the board at his brokerage house. Then there were also letters from good friends. Now everyone’s been asking when we’re moving in, and I have to keep saying that it’s fallen through. It’s just terrible.”

The woman in question lives in an enormous brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But in New York, as in no other major Western city, the élite do not live in houses; they live in apartments, and this woman’s aversion to her opulent residence is wholly unremarkable by New York standards. “I’m gonna be here the rest of my life,” she said, gritting her teeth and gesturing grandly at her 30-foot living-room with its Regency furniture and Abstract Expressionist paintings. “I’m gonna be stuck here and I hate it.”

The better buildings in New York are all co-ops. This means that a resident in one of those buildings does not actually own his apartment; he owns shares in the building as a whole, and is subject to the rules and regulations of the “corporation,” which is the collective of all the building’s residents. The business of the corporation is conducted by a board of directors, who in turn hire a managing agent to carry out the mundane activities of building maintenance, finances, hiring help, negotiating with unions, and so on. The board, however, maintains tight control of the exchange of shares in the corporation; any prospective resident must be approved by the board before his purchase is final. At one level, this makes perfect sense. The members of the corporation have a substantial investment in it, and want to be sure that a new member will have no trouble paying his monthly maintenance charge, which covers the expenses of the building. They want to know that he will not default on his payment for the apartment itself. They also, of course, want residents who are well behaved, who will not stand screaming in the lobby, who will not play obnoxious music at high volume in the middle of the night, who will not have a stream of disreputable guests tramping in and out of the building all day.

But the unstated requirements are far more elaborate than that. People are not desirable if they attract “unfortunate publicity.” They are not desirable if they will “not fit in.” And so boards today admit residents as they would admit members to a private club: on the basis of family, schools, references, connections, social activities, and cultural patronage. Buyers fill out a detailed application, which includes financial information (frequently back tax returns), personal information, and several references. Board members may telephone some of the people who have written references, to confirm the intimacy of the connection. Some boards hire private investigators to put together material on the financial and personal history of the applicants. If all that is approved, there is the interview; sometimes there is a series of as many as a dozen interviews. “It’s easier to get a job with the CIA than to get into a co-op,” say State Assemblyman Pete Grannis.

Richard Nixon, Madonna, Mary Tyler Moore, Paloma Picasso, Woody Allen, Gloria Vanderbilt, Valentino, and a host of millionaires have been turned down by New York co-ops. Most of them were applying for apartments in the Forty-Two buildings, buildings mostly on Park and Fifth Avenues and a few major side streets, all built before the Second World War. The apartments in these buildings are what Tom Wolfe has called “containerised houses”: they are often at least two storeys high, and have high ceilings, libraries, formal dining-rooms, guest-rooms, servants’ quarters, thick walls, grand entrance rooms and, most importantly, what the trade calls “detailing.” The term includes fireplaces, mouldings, pilasters, parquet floors, elaborately wrought banisters, and sometimes the distinctive and fabulous — frescoed ceilings or inlaid marble floors or stained glass windows. Buildings with long histories have the best details: 160 East 72nd Street was originally built as Jay Gould’s townhouse in 1924, and features the detailing Gould installed. One apartment has a 1605 ceiling from a Spanish monastery; another has French rococo mouldings and 30-foot ceilings in what was once the ballroom

An apartment at 160 East 72nd costs about $3 million. Residents in the building include Princess Lee Radziwill, sister to Jacqueline Onassis, and James Niven, David Niven’s son; the chairman of the board, Count Demetrio Guerrini-Maraldi, is fondly described by one New York agent as “the Doge of 72nd Street.” But the building is not on Park or Fifth, and the apartments are each only one floor high. At a building like 740 Park Avenue, where much of the detailing is art deco, apartment may cost three times as much, and the board is much more difficult. Sol Steinberg’s 36-room apartment there was on the market for more than a year, and several applicants who offered more than $10 million were turned down; the apartment has finally been taken off the market. “Practically speaking,” one agent explained, “it was unsellable, because almost anyone who would want an apartment like that is going to be a little vulgar, and that won’t go over well.”

There are four parties to the purchase of any co-op: the seller, the buyer, the lawyer, and the agent. The agent shows the apartment; he is in fact paid by the seller, but really he spends far more time with the prospective buyers. A good agent takes a prospective buyer to see a range of apartments in the price range that he wishes, and then, when the buyer has chosen an apartment, advises him on the bid he should make, which is often lower than the asking price. When a bid has been accepted, the agent advises the buyer on his application to the board; though some agents are non-interventionalist, many advise buyers not only on letters of reference, but on such details as the clothing they will wear to the board interview. If the buyer is accepted by the board, a lawyer comes in to conduct the closing, and the shares are duly given to the new resident.

Of course, the whole proceeding would be far more complicated if there were financing involved, but very few of the Forty-Two permit financing; payment, in general, must be made in full in cash. Buildings often require a particular net worth, usually four times the price of the apartment; one building on Park Avenue requires a net worth of at least $30 million. Agents know these requirements, and will not show apartments to people who do not meet the building’s standards; but the business of working out the unstated requirements can be trickier. Alice Mason is probably the most powerful agent in New York; for 30 years she has sold only the very best apartments at the very highest prices. Her legendary dinner parties are a meeting place for the élite from various walks of life, and many of the people who frequent them have eventually bought or sold apartments through her. She is wonderfully self-possessed, and radiates the tasteful confidence of the people who live in the forty-Two. In a beige couture dress, in a well-appointed apartment full of beautiful things, she explains that the system has changed dramatically since the Fifties, when “getting in” was entirely a matter of being in the social register.

“Now it’s so many things,” she says. “Every single board has a different view. It’s irresponsible of agents to show anybody anything: it’s embarrassing for the clients and it’s embarrassing for the board. You have to know how each board feels.” Most agents would say it’s virtually impossible to know how the board feels, but Alice Mason disagrees. “You can know what boards will do if you know the people. Boards are only people; if you know the directors, you can know how they think. I think there’s a great deal of prejudice, but now I think it has nothing to do with the social register.” What does it have to do with? The best people are WASPs, with inherited money. Money earned in investments or in banking is better than money earned in industry. Good schools help. Some buildings take Jews and others don’t. Some will accept homosexuals if they are getting on in years and are fairly quiet. No one wants people in the theatre or in pop music or in movies, and no one wants people in real estate because they “cause trouble.” One agent with whom I spoke complained for twenty minutes about anti-Semitism in a building on Fifth Avenue. “What about racism?” I asked. There was a short pause. “Oh, my dear, you wouldn’t dream of taking black people to any of these buildings,” she said.

Sometimes the board has a special connection to the seller which influences the purchase. One agent described an apartment on which dozens of buyers had bid and had all been turned down — apparently because the board had a vendetta against the seller, who, because of these refusals, was left carrying the apartment almost two years after it went on the market. One buyer described receiving a telephone call from an agent late at night. “I’ve got just the apartment for you,” said the agent triumphantly, and gave the address and the floor. “But I was told yesterday that that apartment had been sold,” said the confused buyer. “Offer him a little more,” the agent replied, “and he’ll see to it that the current purchaser is turned down by the board.”

Most board members would say that this kind of behaviour is aberrant. Leon Allen was chairman of the board at 530 East 86th Street for three years, until the spring of 1986. The building is not one of the Forty-Two, but it is just as exclusive. “Even more so,” said one agent. “Those buildings that aren’t on the main list are really the most snobbish of all; there’s a pure WASP ethos there that you can never get around at all.” But Lee Allen’s manner is calm; he is soft-spoken, warm, earnest, and drily witty. “Our financial requirements are not cast in concrete; we really want people with families who will make a contribution to the building. But it’s not that easy to determine your course; you have to rely on instincts, and ask basic questions, like where they went to school. We’re really looking for people a lot like us.”

People like the Allens are few and far between. Most of the people who are turned down ever know why the board didn’t like them; their application for some reason failed to capture the instincts of the board members, and, like the woman at the beginning of this article, they are humiliated. Some continue the search, and others give up the ghost.

Some cases have received great notoriety. Gloria Vanderbilt tried to buy an apartment in River House several years ago, which she would have shared with Bobby Short, the black pianist who has for many years played at the Café Carlyle, where the residents of the Forty-Two go in the evenings. When they were turned down, there were cries of racism everywhere, but the board claimed they were concerned only that the couple would give noisy parties; Ms. Vanderbilt was subsequently accepted by another of the Forty-Two. A prominent New York designer was turned down at two buildings before he applied for an apartment in which another, more socially connected designer was already living, and was helped to residence in one of the loveliest buildings in the city.

Richard Nixon tried, many years ago, to buy an apartment at 19 East 72nd Street and was turned down. Some years later, when his ailing wife was receiving treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital on Park and 75th Street, he applied for an apartment at 760 Park, and was again turned down. Terrific unfavourable publicity for the building followed; this man was, after all, a President of the United States, and his wife was dying. So the building, while protesting that they had only objected to the presence of Secret Service men, accepted the Nixons but informed them that many of the other residents of the building would not ride in the elevator with them. The Nixons were deeply offended, and did not after all most in.

But there are happy stories as well. One agent describes having a client who was moving to New York after a career in academia, who didn’t quite meet the financial and social standards of the building he hoped to live in. “I just told him to list everything, every single honour he had ever received, in high school, in college, from basketball awards to academic things, and to list every prize he had ever won. He sent me the list, and I sent it to the board. Two days later the chairman of the board called me on the phone, at home, and said, “We would be honoured to have your client in our building. We’re all, frankly, overwhelmed.” I just hugged myself, and they closed on the apartment right away.”

Another agent describes insistent clients who bid on an apartment in “one of the most snobbish buildings in New York. And I knew they weren’t right for it. They were very wealthy, and very refined and sophisticated, but not socially connected. I thought it was hopeless. but it turned out that they kept cairn terriers, and that one of the board members also kept cairn terriers, and he told the clients that anyone who loved cairns he loved, and consequently they got the apartment.”

Of course those who do not live in New York tend to think of the city as a glorious amalgam of glass-box modernist buildings. Europeans buying in New York often want to live in the newest buildings, like the Trump Tower, where, despite low ceilings and lack of detailing, they find the panoramic views and glossy glamour for which New York is famous. But the chosen few of New York — the real élite — are happily ensconced in the Forty-Two, the grand old buildings of the Upper East Side.

Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York City. Photo: Alex Maisuradze. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York City. Photo: Alex Maisuradze. Source: Wikimedia Commons.