Published: Jan 01, 2005
Category: Non Fiction
I was once married to an extremely rich woman. When we were out together, her set tended to forget I was a writer — worse, a journalist. That is perhaps why, in a Hamptons living room, a mogul announced to a roomful of wealthy people (with one exception: me), "If you have less than $750 million, you have no hedge against inflation."
I assume — well, I look at your buying patterns on Amazon.com, so, really, I sort of know — that no Butlerite has achieved that barrier against inflation. And so, like me, when you confront a spectacle suited only to the deeply, truly, madly rich, your reaction is the same as mine. That is, you press your nose against the window and gawk.
Okay, you say you don’t. "They’re rich — but are they happy?" you ask. "A craving for material things points to a hole in the soul," you note. Yeah, I’ve said that too. "Donald Trump — I wouldn’t go out with that loser for all the money in the world." Right. But what if he actually called you?
The great thing about books that celebrate or investigate the rich is that we can indulge our very normal curiosity in the privacy of our own homes. No one can see our envy; our noses aren’t literally pressed again the glass. Hey, we’re reading. Improving our minds.
If you like social history — or the novels of Dominick Dunne — you’re going to want to inhale the 500 pages of text in ’740 Park’, a book about a massive apartment building for The Swells on the corner of Park Avenue and 71st Street in New York. And then — say what you will — you’re going to be sad it only has a few photographs, black-and-white at that. [Hard-core devotees may want to track down a book like Architectural Digest New York Interiors and dream.]
Michael Gross, a dogged researcher and a stylish — that is, catty — writer, has taken on a tricky assignment here. Really rich people tend not to give interviews, especially if they are old-line WASPs who have been trained to believe you have your name in the paper only three times in your life: birth, marriage, death. What about the Jews who cracked this bastion of privilege? One would imagine, like salmon swimming upsteam, that they tend to follow the lead of the WASPs. Which would make hard for Michael Gross to get past the doorman.
Undaunted, Gross interviews everyone connected to 740 Park who will see him — and then goes to the archives. Turns out the residents of this building are not exactly paragons of domesticity. They marry often. They lose their money. Sometimes — horrors — they even get caught in scandals.
So expect a bit of history and a ton of name-dropping. Both are fascinating. The building was completed in 1930, and quickly became home to Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Bouviers. (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was raised at 740; her grandfather was one of the builders.) Depression be damned — the smart set gravitated here, making this address what Gross claims in his subtitle: "the world’s richest apartment building."
But as "old money" aged, "new money" came on strong — and there was much more of it than old money could compete with. Old money barred the gates as long as it could, so it wasn’t until 1957 that the building’s single "Jewish apartment" changed hands. After that, it was as if Moses had parted the Red Sea — the Jews entered the Promised Land.
What color to paint the library of Edgar Bronfman? "I remember Mrs. Parrish saying that all this money had come from liquor, so why don’t we paint it the color of whisky?" said decorator Mark Hampton. "And they did. They painted this wonderful glazed cognac color." In the ’70s, some new residents had — gasp! — Mafia connections. Then came the ’80s, and the rise of a new group of robber barons: Henry Kravis, Saul Steinberg and more. They not only moved in, they allowed their apartments to be photographed. And with that, 740 Park Avenue once again became an iconic residence.
The odds you’ll be invited in are small. The odds you’ll ever hear the full story of the families who have lived there are smaller. But Michael Gross produces a yarn that takes you part of the way inside — enough to be glad that you are don’t have to manage the staff of some 30-room aerie and plan dinners for 50, and, every single day, bear the terrible burden of major money.
To buy ’740 Park’ from Amazon.com, click here.