Abe Hirschfeld, 85, the publicity-obsessed New York real estate tycoon whose prison sentence in a murder-for-hire plot against a business partner was merely one episode in a colorful, often-macabre career, died of cardiac arrest Aug. 9 at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He had cancer.
Known for his $2 ties and heavy Yiddish accent, the Polish-born Mr. Hirschfeld made his fortune in commercial properties, mostly multi-level, open-air parking garages. "Cars don't catch cold," he liked to say. Other Hirschfeldisms included, "Kiss! Kiss!" when greeting people and, "All I know how to write is checks" when describing his fifth-grade education.
Time magazine, he endlessly repeated, listed him among the "most influential business geniuses of the century." He failed to note that the magazine listed him with the eccentric likes of Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty, under the headline "Crazy and In Charge," a title he lifted for his self-published memoir.
His money financed constant intrigues, which extended to gadfly politics (he ran for every office from Manhattan borough president to U.S. Senate); journalism (for 16 days, he tried to buy the New York Post, which ran the headline, "Who Is This Nut?"); and shameless quests for media attention (constant interviews when he was behind bars).
"Oh, yes, I love publicity," he told the Jerusalem Post in 1998. "The only difference is, everybody loves publicity and doesn't admit to it. I love publicity and admit to it."
That same year, he offered Paula Jones $1 million if she would drop her sexual harassment lawsuit against President Bill Clinton. She later sued Mr. Hirschfeld unsuccessfully when the money was not forthcoming.
There was no question of having money. He made millions of dollars as the "garage king" of New York, though some of his methods were unsavory. When a city environmental official refused to approve one of his garage plans in 1977, Mr. Hirschfeld and his associates locked her in her office and barred her from using the phone for more than an hour.
On the positive side, he said, he never tried to bribe her. He donated $25,000 to the United Jewish Appeal and paid an undisclosed sum to the official to settle her $16 million suit.
Other lawsuits flourished over the years, and his response was usually brazen. He once offered to pay jury members $2,500 each when they deadlocked in his 1999 tax-evasion trial. That resulted in a new state law that made it illegal for anyone associated with a civil or criminal case to reward jurors.
He made wild claims as an inventor, bankrolled a musical flop on Broadway, spat on politicians and reporters he detested, dropped his pants when really mad and saw himself as a world statesman without portfolio. He offered bizarre, complex plans for achieving peace in the Middle East -- a "snapped synapse with reality," in the words of one Israeli journalist.
Under various party affiliations, he ran for higher office in what often seemed like ill-planned stunts that brought chills to established New York politicians. "I only sleep three or four hours a night now," Gov. Mario Cuomo said in 1986. "How much sleep do you think I'd get if Abe Hirschfeld was elected lieutenant governor?"
In what was characterized as his boldest bid for respectability, Mr. Hirschfeld offered $3 million to buy the bankrupt New York Post in March 1993. He called himself the "savior and reviver" of the paper, but he was loathed by Post employees.
"I think he's got a very refined gift for malice," wrote Post editor Pete Hamill, who was fired and rehired by Mr. Hirschfeld, who briefly controlled the paper. "He's not this affable, road show Vaudevillian entertainer."
Mr. Hirschfeld proposed a massive layoff and demanded that the paper run his elaborate Middle East peace plan, promote his idea of replacing subway tokens with Susan B. Anthony dollars and feature his wife's poetry.
The staff revolt culminated in a cover showing Post founder Alexander Hamilton with a tear running down his cheek. Rupert Murdoch bought the newspaper two weeks later.
In 1998, Mr. Hirschfeld was arrested and charged with working with an intermediary to place a $150,000 hit on Stanley Stahl, with whom Mr. Hirschfeld was acrimoniously trying to dissolve a "survivor take all" business partnership. Stahl had a fatal stroke the next year.
Mr. Hirschfeld was convicted in June 2000 of criminal solicitation. He served two years in prison, where he reportedly struck up a friendship with "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz and found him to be "a very, very nice, friendly man, but a little overweight."
After his release, Mr. Hirschfeld performed stand-up comedy of a Borscht Belt persuasion. He was a fan of comedian Jackie Mason, who returned the favor by calling him "a common, deranged maniac."
Abraham Jacob Hirschfeld was born to a Jewish merchant family in Tarnow, Poland, on Dec. 20, 1919. He moved with his family to the British mandate of Palestine in the early 1930s.
As a young man, he worked watering an orange grove. He told the Jerusalem Post: "I went to the owner and said to him, 'I'll do it on a per-tree basis, at half the price.' He said, 'Why?' I said, 'What do you care, it's half the price.' And I was making four times as much -- I bought a small donkey, and I put four gallons of water, and I was able to pour four to six times as many trees."
Years later, he started importing and selling nonferrous metals. He immigrated to the United States about 1950 and invested in parking garages and real estate from New York to Miami. He started the Vertical Club, a tony gymnasium built atop a parking garage in Manhattan.
He gave generously to political parties and, after becoming a U.S. citizen, sought office himself.
In 2004, flirting with a U.S. Senate run, he promoted himself as "one of the world's best-known real estate entrepreneurs, inventors, theatrical producers, peace advocates, politicians, and joke-tellers."
Ending dissent among world religions was on the agenda for "Honest Abe." His publicity materials said he "understands the problem and the fact that he can speak fluent Hebrew, Arabic and broken English will be of tremendous benefit in getting this done."
In recent years, he battled his two children, Rachel and Elie, over business and personal matters. He also cared for his wife, the former Zipora Teicher, who had Alzheimer's disease. He is survived by all three.