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In New York, the Spa That Came In From the Cold

During one session, Cornelia told Sackoff that she dreamed of owning her own spa, and explained that she had everything she needed -- except for millions in start-up capital and knowledge of New York real estate. Sackoff is married to a guy named Richard Aidekman, who just happened to have made a fortune buying and selling buildings in Manhattan.

"I told Cornelia she should meet my husband," Sackoff says, "because he knows a lot of real estate brokers."

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So Cornelia visited Aidekman's office one day in 2002. A few minutes into the description of her business plan, Aidekman decided he'd found his next investment.

"What got me was the level of detail she'd imagined," says Aidekman, now CEO of Cornelia 5th Avenue LLC. "She had it all in her head -- the design of the front desk, the towel stands, how long the attendants would look the clients in the eye. Everything."

Aidekman might also have appreciated the raw nerve of such grand ambitions. A lawyer by training, he ditched his practice years ago after concluding there was far bigger money in brownstones and apartment buildings than in courtrooms. He was financially strapped at the time, so when he and some friends decided in 1986 to buy a building in East Harlem for $190,000, he financed most of his share by getting cash advances on 27 credit cards. That's right -- 27 high-interest mini-loans of $1,500 each.

"I don't recommend it to anyone," he says. "After that I went to friends and relatives to invest." Later, pension funds backed him, and by 2003 he and a partner owned 167 buildings, all of which leapt in value as New York property values soared. A couple of years ago, Aidekman cashed out of all but 10 buildings. When Cornelia came around, he was rich and in the market for a new venture.

"This is my focus now," he says. Aidekman, 56, is large, gray-haired and garrulous, and he's dedicating nearly all of his time to turning Cornelia the spa into a cash machine. But the serious dough, he says, is in turning Cornelia the woman into a luxury brand.

"The product line is where the big money is," he says. If all goes as planned, Cornelia's five-star stuff will soon be on sale at high-end boutiques all over the country. Like Martha, her name will become shorthand for a lifestyle that you can buy, this time with the emphasis on high-end coddling.

It's a remarkable sales pitch, not just because Cornelia herself for long stretches was barely scraping by. She hails from a country known mostly for its bleak, totalitarian past and decades of deprivation. You don't hear "Romania" and think "collagen mask." You think fear and food rationing. But somehow, Cornelia is going to make Romania a cornerstone of her appeal.

"I want to bring Romania to New York," she says on a tour of the spa. She means that literally. She's locked up what she calls exclusive rights to import the mud extracts from a Romanian lake that she says is loaded with sulfates and calcium carbonates and is "the most therapeutic mud in the world." A salt mist, made with salt from a Romanian mine, will be pumped with specialized machines into the air throughout the spa.

"So just being here, just breathing the air, you will receive the benefit," she says.

This home country nostalgia might seem surprising given that, according to Cornelia, she spent all of her money and risked imprisonment to flee Romania. The hardships went well beyond the lack of electricity. Life under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, she says, was dreary and hopeless, and the secret police kept everyone in a state of terror. On the same day Cornelia's brother was arrested in 1984 for his alleged political agitations, her mother had a heart attack and died.

Her trip to the United States is a long and harrowing tale and includes an arrest in Germany, a two-week stay in an immigrant camp in Austria and, for Cornelia, a job polishing leather in a shoe factory. In 1992, she and her husband and son finally were admitted to the United States and given enough money by a division of immigration services to buy mattresses for their apartment in Queens.

"We paid it back," she says, "$50 a month."

Her husband found work immediately, fixing cars. (He's now a manager at the spa.) Cornelia took classes and within a few years was mixing up the dyes and lotions her grandmother had made from whatever could be pulled out of the Romanian ground.

"I have the knowledge of generations," she says. She also boned up on chemistry, which is why the Cornelia approach is a blend of folk medicine and science, with just a touch of hooey. That plus opulence for its own sake.

You can't help asking if this spa is in some way compensation for everything that Cornelia didn't have when she was growing up. The difference between the austerity of her youth and the gold-plated aesthetic that's built into every inch of this place -- it makes you wonder. She pooh-poohs the idea.

"A lot of people think this," she sighs. "But I think luxury comes from manners, from ethics. It's about treating people with respect, which is something my grandparents taught me."

If this is respect, this place is positively reverent. Even the showers are extravagant. A bunch of the tiles are made of sliver.

"Real silver," Cornelia says, pulling back a shower curtain that is stitched, top to bottom, with tiny capital C's.

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