Four years ago, Canada's Reichmann brothers sent an envoy to a major bank to ask for a loan of tens of millions of dollars, according to a story published in a Toronto paper.

The loan was for the Reichmanns personally, not for Olympia & York Developments Ltd., the family-owned Toronto holding company through which the three brothers -- Paul, Albert and Ralph -- have built the biggest real estate empire in North America.

When the loan officer asked why the money was needed and requested a peek at the brothers' personal financial records, the envoy reportedly snapped that a Reichmann simply didn't answer such questions. The loan request was put in writing and, bearing only a Reichmann signature, bumped upstairs to more senior bankers. It came back approved.

The story, one of many similar unconfirmed tales about which the company will not comment, is part of the Reichmann mystique, now suddenly shaken by surprise disclosures of financial disarray.

Bankers in Toronto say the family's reputation for a Midas-like business touch and unquestioned reliability has allowed them -- or their lawyers -- to walk into some of the biggest and most powerful banks in North America and obtain secured loans of $50 million or more virtually on the spot, largely on their word and with minimal, if any, disclosure about the financial condition of the family or its business.

The reputation was based partly on Olympia & York's phenomenal successes in real estate and partly on the brothers' conservative, low-profile lifestyle, their almost courtly Old World bearing and secrecy, and their Jewish orthodoxy.

So when Olympia & York last month disclosed that it had a cash crunch so severe it faced possible bankruptcy if lenders didn't cooperate in a massive restructuring of at least $5 billion in debt, the announcement shattered an aura that has surrounded the Reichmann brothers for almost three decades.

Whatever the outcome, it is clear that a new chapter is being written in a family saga that has taken many turns since their father, Samuel Reichmann, a Viennese egg exporter, fled central Europe ahead of the Nazis and began a meandering journey to Canada by way of England, Spain and Morocco.

Olympia & York's stumble and possible fall casts a long shadow over the already depressed international real estate markets, bank analysts say. The problems won't cripple the U.S. banking system or any particular bank here, government and banking officials say. But it is another blow for New York giants Citibank and Chemical Bank, which reportedly are owed $500 million and $200 million, respectively. And it provides the biggest example yet of how recklessly some of the country's biggest bankers, bedazzled by the easy profit of upfront loan fees, lent money during the 1980s.

Robert Blohm, an American investment banker who operates in Toronto and Montreal, said the Reichmanns had taken advantage of "a herd instinct among commercial bankers who just went along with them. ... The banks would say, 'Okay, as long as we're secured, we don't need to know too much. These are the Reichmanns, after all.' "

With an international web of real estate and other investments built on $20 billion in debt, Olympia & York and its affiliate companies have dwarfed rivals and made newly arrived property developers like Donald Trump seem puny and crass.

Shunned the Limelight Bankers appreciated the Reichmanns' preference for shunning the limelight and were willing to indulge them their secrecy and break traditional lending rules in an effort to land an account with the fabled trio.

Now the impact of the lending shortcuts is being felt even more sharply than the missteps of others. Trump, for example, owed less than $3 billion when he tottered near bankruptcy two years ago. By contrast, of the $20 billion in debt Olympia & York and affiliates hold, Olympia & York owes $12 billion directly. Of that total, it's asking that more than $5 billion in bank loans be rewritten to give it more time to pay interest and principal, a spokesman for the Reichmanns said.

Most of the $5 billion has gone into the Canary Wharf project -- a 71-acre commercial development in London's once-derelict Docklands district, which the Reichmanns believed would become the premier financial center of a unified Europe but which, in England's depressed real estate market, has become the next thing to a white elephant.

The $5 billion is secured directly by the wharf property or by Olympia & York shares in newsprint, energy and other companies, a spokesman for Olympia & York and the Reichmanns said. The value of those shares has fallen dramatically in recent months, leading to speculation that bankers are demanding more collateral to back up the borrowing.

In addition, the Reichmanns are seeking a $100 million short-term loan to shore up its Canadian operations, a $175 million short-term loan and as much as $612.5 million in long-term loans for the Canary Wharf project, the spokesman said. Commercial lenders to Olympia & York pledged million of dollars in new cash Friday, but stopped short of the amount sought by the company, news services reported.

In typical hard-bargain style, the Reichmanns are asking for these concessions while still refusing to open their books to bankers. After a meeting two weeks ago when the firm sat down with nearly 100 lenders to discuss its problems, bankers came away grumbling that, while the Reichmanns had supplied more information than ever, it was still not enough to make informed decisions.

As in the past, the Reichmanns insisted, even while begging for help, that a bank should know everything about a property or other asset that secures the bank's loan, but that information about how much else Olympia & York owes, to whom and under what terms would not be divulged.

One Canadian investment counselor, who asked that he not be identified, said, "That's what got them into trouble. Nobody could find out what kind of shape their other assets were in."

Banks Can't Say 'No' But the Reichmanns' strategy may succeed. The banks can't afford to push such a large creditor into bankruptcy, banking experts point out, and the banks could not find anyone better than the Reichmanns to lead their empire out of trouble.

"For a long while, people thought the Reichmanns walked on water when it came to real estate," said Paul A. Mackey, first vice president and bank analyst at the investment banking firm of Dean Witter Reynolds Inc.

"There was a herd instinct. Now the lenders will do everything to keep Olympia & York intact."

(Olympia & York has a local connection: The Rouse Co., the mall developer based in Columbia, Md. A company that Olympia & York controls in turn owns 22 percent of Rouse, but it is unlikely to be affected by any restructuring of the Reichmann holdings, according to officials at Rouse and the real estate firm that owns a stake in Rouse.)

The Reichmanns' troubles began several years ago, according to Paul Isaac, chief economist at Mabon Securities Corp. Like everyone else, they were borrowing and building on the philosophy of the 1980s: short-term income from a project need not cover the cost of building it; in the long term, inflation and skyrocketing real estate values would more than make up the difference. But then inflation slowed, rents dropped and the Reichmanns watched the prospects for the Canary Wharf fade.

The rest of the Reichmanns' portfolio of real estate and other holdings also has suffered, but a spokesman for the brothers said that it can, with a little help, withstand the downturn. It's the unfinished, cash-consuming London project that is the source of real trouble, the spokesman said.

That may be, but the Reichmann empire is an interwoven mesh of projects with cash flows and budgets intertwined. That was clear in late February and early March, when the financial community became aware that Olympia & York was having trouble repaying its short-term loans in the commercial paper market. That scared off additional loans, amplifying the company's cash crunch, and forcing it, for example, to divert rent from a profitable Wall Street property to pay short-term bills rather than to pay the mortgage on the building.

The banks most hurt by the fiasco are Canadian. The Montreal-based National Bank of Canada already has felt the effects of investor anxiety over the Reichmann brothers' troubles, with its shares dropping by over 20 percent on the Toronto Stock Exchange since the debt restructuring efforts began.

The part of the Reichmanns' mystique that was built on their demonstrable financial genius over the years is relatively easy to track.

Since immigrating to Canada from Morocco in the 1950s and starting a successful tile and marble importing business, the Reichmanns have had one spectacular real estate success after another. They turned 500 acres of cheap farmland in the northeastern suburbs into a sprawling Toronto office park in 1965. Ten years later in the city's financial district, they transformed the Toronto skyline by constructing the 72-story First Canadian Place, which at the time was the tallest bank building in the world.

Following their trademark pattern of buying property at depressed prices and developing it into quality commercial space more quickly than anyone else, the Reichmanns soon extended their reach to Manhattan at a time when New York was approaching bankruptcy and real estate prices were at rock bottom. Paying $320 million for eight aging skyscrapers, the brothers soon found their investment worth more than $1 billion in a rebounded economy, and their rent revenue quadrupled.

The Reichmanns then mortgaged those buildings and started work on the $1.5 billion, 7.5 million-square-foot World Financial Center project in Manhattan's Battery Park.

The Reichmanns parlayed those successes to undertake their most ambitious leveraged project of all, the $7 billion Canary Wharf. Said a Toronto investment consultant, "It was their unbroken string of successes that contributed most to the Reichmann mystique. They had great vision. For that you've got to give them credit. Everything they did was absolutely first class."

But on another level, the aura of invincibility and reliability grew because of the brothers' personalities, which in the public eye became synonymous with discretion and austerity in a business often characterized by flamboyance, ostentatious displays of wealth and facile public relations.

Dour, devout and mysterious, the brothers not only shunned the limelight, but also wrapped themselves in their reclusiveness and used the Byzantine complexity of their empire of interlocking partnerships to foster their reputation for unshakeability.

It is widely known in the financial world that the Reichmanns run Olympia & York according to strict Orthodox Jewish practices, never working on the Sabbath or allowing their employees or outside advisers to work on their behalf from sundown on Friday to sundown Saturday.

Each weekday afternoon, an orthodox rabbi presides over a prayer meeting at the company headquarters at First Canadian Place in Toronto, a religious observance that is rarely missed by Paul Reichmann, 61, the brilliant, soft-spoken chief strategist of the firm that is wholly owned by him and his brothers, Albert, 63, and Ralph, 58.

Lifestyles Belie Wealth Standing over six feet tall, with broad, sloping shoulders and gangling limbs, Paul Reichmann carries a vaguely rabbinical demeanor and is seldom seen not wearing his black yarmulke, or skullcap.

The Reichmann brothers and most of their children live in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Toronto in spacious but unpretentious middle-class homes that belie their wealth. This modest, retiring lifestyle, too, has added to their aura as conservative businessmen.

The family history is the stuff of legend, sketchy as the publicly known details are.

The patriarch of the family, Samuel Reichmann, immigrated to Vienna from Hungary in 1920 and operated a thriving egg exporting business that quickly spread throughout Europe and to Britain.

In 1938, with Nazi Germany threatening to annex Austria, Samuel, his wife, Renee, and their sons fled to Paris. Two years later, the Reichmanns fled again, first to Spain and then to the relative safety of Tangier, Morocco, where many Jews and wartime refugees were gathering.

With connections to British merchant bankers, including the Rothschilds, Samuel was said to have obtained enough capital that, when combined with savings from his egg business safeguarded in British banks, allowed him to develop a prospering currency trading business. He eventually founded the Tangier Exchange and became one of the North African city's most influential businessmen.

Helped Nazi Survivors

In Tangier, Renee Reichmann cared for survivors of Nazi death camps and is said to have raised funds for food parcels for Jews in Europe and to ransom thousands of camp inmates from certain death.

Samuel Reichmann died in 1975. Another son, Louis, lives in New York, and another, Edward, lives in Israel.

After the war, the younger Reichmann brothers traveled to London and then to North America, settling in Canada, the first truly secure home of their tumultuous lives.

Olympia & York Properties

PROPERTY................VACANCY RATE

CANADA

TORONTO

First Canadian Place............19%

Scotia Plaza....................15

Exchange Tower..................16

Aetna Canada Building...........16

Queen's Quay Terminal...........21

5140 Yonge St. .................2

CALGARY

Esso Plaza ....................12

Shell Centre................... 0

Gulf Canada Building...........NA

Amoco Building.................10

OTTAWA

C.D. Howe Building............. 0

Esplanade Laurier.............. 0

EDMONTON.

City Centre Building..........26

NEW YORK

World Financial Center....... 3

237 Park Avenue.............. 0

245 Park Avenue............ 2.5

320 Park Avenue.............100

425 Lexington Ave. .......... 0

1290 Avenue of the Americas.. 3

60 Broad St..................60

125 Broad St.................36

55 Water St...................9

59 Maiden Lane............... 4

1 Liberty Plaza.............. 5

2 Broadway...................40

ORLANDO, FLA.

28 Olympia Place............26%

DALLAS

1999 Bryan ST................14

LOS ANGELES

400 South Hope St............ 3

11601 Wilshire Blvd. ........19

CHICAGO

15 Olympia Centre............11

PORTLAND, ORE.

16 Koin Center...............19

HARTFORD

1 Commercial Plaza..........17

1 Corporate Center..........31

SRPINGFIELD, MASS.

1 Financial Plaza........... 9

BOSTON

Exchange Place............. 3

LONDON

Canary Wharf...............40

SOURCE: Olympia & York