Ever since he was suspended from the practice of law 5 1/2 years ago for lying to a judge about his slum property, Jeffrey Alan Levitt has been scrambling to improve his image.
Levitt has become a philanthropist, patron of the arts, opera buff, restorationist and preservationist and has been highly visible at charity events in New York, Miami and his home town of Baltimore. If his social life was a hit, his business life was sensational: He took command of a small-town savings and loan association, moved it to Baltimore and powered it into a billion-dollar financial institution with investments around the nation.
But in May, Levitt was abruptly removed as president of Old Court Savings & Loan Association, amid contentions by Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs that Old Court was swimming in "a sea of illegalities." A conservator quickly appointed by the governor said in a civil suit filed last month that dealings at the thrift may constitute "the largest financial fraud in the history of the state of Maryland."
Until this spring, Levitt had come a long way toward erasing his 1970s image as one of Baltimore's most audacious slumlords.
Just the way they park the cars at the Woodholme Country Club fits the image that Jeffrey Levitt, who is a member of the board of governors there, cultivated. Attendants line up the cars in rows by model -- a row of Mercedeses, two rows of Cadillacs, a row of sports cars, Jaguars, MGs, BMWs, with the Rolls-Royces up front, nearest to the portico.
Levitt's cars could be parked in almost any of the rows -- by one recent count he has 10 of them -- a Rolls, a rare four-seat MG convertible, a new, $55,000 hand-made Bitter from Germany, two original 1955 Thunderbirds and assorted Mercedeses.
Nearly all of Levitt's top associates drive fancy cars, many of them purchased from The Motor Coach, an agency in which Levitt and another partner, Jerome Cardin, each bought a 25 percent interest last summer.
Scott Propper, president of Motor Coach, said he got to know Levitt while fixing his Mercedeses over the years.
Last summer, when Propper let it be known that he would like to open a new-car agency, Levitt and Cardin became his partners. Propper said he recently bought them out.
Motor Coach took over an abandoned Pontiac showroom near Old Court's Randallstown branch and became a distributor of Lotus, Lamborghini, Bitter and Avanti. Levitt and his partners and businesses became its best customers, accounting for three of the firm's seven sales of Bitters, a custom-made German sedan that Propper calls "a thinking man's Mercedes," and two $30,000 Avantis.
"Jeffrey never passed up a deal," said a Baltimore businessman who once flirted with the idea of going into business with Levitt.
"He fought like hell to find them and then consummate them. Nothing was ever enough. If I ever met a guy who wanted to be the richest guy in the country, it was him.
"Jeffrey liked the glamor of being a dynamo. There was no synergy. He'd buy anything, this business included," the man said, spreading his hands out toward his sprawling warehouse.
"He didn't need people to put together real estate deals; he had the bank."
The man echoed a refrain popular with Levitt intimates: Jeffrey meant no harm.
"He always thought every deal he put together would work out in the end. He didn't realize he wasn't going to get to the end of the rainbow." Widespread Businesses
Levitt's pursuit of the pot of gold took him or companies he controlled up and down the East Coast. In Florida, he became a partner with builder William Levitt, creator of Levittown and a distant relative, in the 26,000-unit Poinciana Park, planned to be the United States' largest housing development, and bought a golf course near Jacksonville and two aging hotels in Miami Beach.
On Long Island, with developer Alan August, he bought another golf course. In Gettysburg, Pa., he bought several historic buildings. On his beloved Eastern Shore of Maryland, he became a part owner of the popular Henlopen Hotel in Rehoboth Beach. And with Ocean City builder Walter L. Otstot, he embarked on an ambitious building program, powered by speculative, insider loans that are at the heart of the investigation.
For a while, the returns came fast. Otstot, a jolly, white-bearded Burl Ives look-alike, drew $730,419 last year from Old Court and its subsidiaries.
But the strain of recent events is beginning to tear at some of the partnerships. At Jeff and Walt's Car Wash (named for Levitt and Otstot) in Ocean City, manager Joe Nastasi said recently, "I think Otstot wants Jeffrey out of here: He told me to charge him to have his Cadillac washed." Memphis Activities
Despite Levitt's bulky frame (about 5-foot-9, 220 pounds), he is a nine-handicap golf player. His love of golf and his recent activities for charitable causes took him to Memphis two summers ago to play in a benefit event.
Levitt later told friends back home that he envisioned Memphis as being where Baltimore was 10 years earlier -- ripe for massive renewal. So Levitt and one of his partners in Old Court, Alan Pearlstein, went into joint ventures with Memphis developer Lyman Aldrich, including the conversion of half a dozen buildings in Memphis into condominiums and offices, the purchase of a parking garage in Nashville and the rehabilitation of a department store warehouse into apartments at the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
But in Memphis, too, the bloom is off the romance: Aldrich said he has filed suit against Old Court, "seeking to shake loose some funds," which are among those frozen by Old Court's conservator.
A job in Baltimore's garment industry prompted Levitt's family to move there from Brooklyn when Jeffrey was nine. As a young man, he married Karol L. Lapides, a member of a wealthy and established Baltimore family, whose holdings included the local Pepsi Cola franchise.
Levitt is, by all accounts, a devoted husband and father.
In tribute to his wife, Levitt named a number of acquistions for her, from their $200,000 beachfront town house in Ocean City, Karroll I, to joint ventures with names such as Karoland, Karolett, Karosel and Karol's Landing.
Along with fancy cars, Levitt developed a taste for fine food and fine clothes.
Until his recent troubles caused him to drop out of sight, he was a frequent customer at several of Baltimore's finest restaurants, often wearing Gucci clothes from the two stores of that exclusive firm in which he has invested.
At the Pimlico Restaurant, recently relocated from near the race track whose name it bears to a suburban location, across the street from Woodholme, cohosts Lenny and Gail Kaplan said it was not unusual for Levitt and his wife to eat there five nights a week.
"He was an exceptional customer," said Gail Kaplan. "Always paid on time, with checks from Old Court. He'd call, often from the phone in his car, and say he was coming in. One night he called at midnight -- the kitchen was closed -- and said he was bringing eight people from some benefit. We opened up the kitchen for him. He wanted to be special, wanted to be taken care of, although he never made unreasonable requests. But if 100 people were waiting, he wanted a table."
Lenny Kaplan said that for a while the restaurant had a policy of not accepting personal accounts, and, "Until that changed, Jeffrey stayed away. It wasn't the money, it was the prestige of saying, 'Put it on my tab.' "
"He needed to feel important," Gail Kaplan added, "and we helped him. We seated him prominently; we got special foods for them when they were dieting, and he loved our mile-high pie; we tried to keep it available for him." Legendary Sweet Tooth
The Levitts' love of desserts is legendary. Jesus Perez Goenaga, maitre'd at Restaurante Tio Pepe in downtown Baltimore, said Levitt ate lunch there three or four times a week and "sometimes he'd eat two desserts and then have us wrap some from the tray to take home in a box." One Levitt associate, who describes Jeffrey and Karol Levitt "sweet freaks," maintains that at one dinner at the posh Belvedere Hotel, "they each ate six desserts."
That person, an executive of an Old Court subsidiary, hastened to defend the Levitts: "There's no question the association Old Court profited because of Jeffrey. Old Court will come out of it terrific, unless there is a fire sale. Jeffrey knew it would be a four- to six-year build-out." The associate said Old Court is still raking in $7 million a month in mortgage payments, and because of the freeze on withdrawals, nothing is going out and it is only paying 5 1/2 percent interest on accounts.
The civil suit filed by the conservator says that Levitt and his family and entities took $8.3 million in fees from various Old Court entities between August 1983 and this June. "I don't justify the fees, but it was his company. I don't know he's done anything illegal, although I do know he didn't conform to banking procedures," the executive said. They Gave Freely
If the Levitts took freely, they also gave.
Several persons recalled that when Karol Levitt learned that for $6,000 an Ethiopian Jew could be airlifted to safety in Israel as part of Operation Moses, "She said, 'We have four lives at our house,' and wrote out a check for $24,000," one said.
When Karol Levitt heard that a 283-piece collection of 19th century Maryland silver was headed for the auction block in New York, "she couldn't deal with that," according to a friend, so she and her husband bought it for about $200,000 and gave it to the Maryland Historical Society on a long-term loan.
The loan of that silver hardly left the Levitts' closets bare, though.
Arthur Magida, a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times, visited the Levitts' home in February for an article he was doing about their charitable giving and their concurrent rise to prominence in Baltimore's Jewish community.
"When Karol was showing me around the house," he recalled, she opened a dining room cabinet," and like Fibber McGee's closet, silver "poured out onto to the floor. Samovars, plates, candelabra were everywhere."
In their home's main room, a Steuben glass collection fills floor-to-ceiling shelves along one wall. In the middle sits a glass-and-mirror-encased piano that converts to a player piano. A pair of silver candelabra, big enough to make Liberace jealous, sit at the piano's edges.
Behind the see-through piano is a glass wall, and beyond that an indoor swimming pool with a roof that, at the touch of a button, rolls open.
One visitor described the house -- valued at $326,350 according to records at the Baltimore County courthouse -- and its eclectic furnishings as nouveau riche, "with the emphasis on the nouveau." A Taste for Gambling
If the teetotaling, nonsmoking, Levitt has a vice, it is gambling.
Whether it is at the craps and blackjack tables in Atlantic City, N.J., on the golf course, or via a bookie on college and professional sports, friends say Levitt isn't a man to pass up a bet.
His influence with a Baltimore bookie was such that when a friend wanted to bet on the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl two years ago, but did not like the point spread, "Jeffrey called the guy and got the spread reduced by half a point," the friend said.
"He'd go to Atlantic City every six or eight weeks," added the friend, who has gambled with Levitt at the Golden Nugget there. "He'd fly up, win $10,000 one night, lose $8,000 another -- maybe as much as $18,000 in a partnership. But he never bet enough to hurt. It was a controlled habit."
Another person who went to Atlantic City with Levitt to see a fight recalled that, like many high-rollers, Levitt, and his guests, stayed free at a hotel, usually The Sands, and seldom carried cash, preferring to play on credit.
"We were walking through the Playboy Club where he apparently did not have an account and he wanted to shoot craps, so he borrowed $200 from us, and promptly lost it. Then we went next door to the Sands and he won $45,000 in a matter of minutes."
Employes at Levitt's enterprises said they could always tell when he had been lucky at Atlantic City. "He'd come back and pass out gift certificates to Joseph Banks clothier and have a catered lunch sent in," one said. Loyal to Employes
Levitt's loyalty to his employes is similar to that to his family. One of his associates recalled that when the run on Old Court began, some of his partners advised him to flee to Florida, "but he stayed."
At the height of the run, when the line of depositors seeking to withdraw their money snaked through the parking lot of the Old Court branch in Randallstown, they too were treated to a catered lunch at Old Court's expense.
Although Levitt has assumed a low profile in recent weeks -- his lawyers would not allow him to be interviewed for this article -- Levitt still visits or calls Old Court and its subsidiaries daily, asking how everyone is doing.
Levitt's days as a slumlord may have come back to haunt him.
The judge assigned to preside over a $200 million civil lawsuit brought against him by the state of Maryland is Baltimore City Circuit Court Joseph H.H. Kaplan, the judge to whom Levitt lied in 1979. Kaplan even testified against Levitt during an appeal by Levitt to the Maryland Attorney Grievance Committee. Kaplan said Friday that he sees "no conflict" in his latest encounter with Levitt. "I wasn't the prosecutor."
Susan Tannenbaum, who was the prosecutor, recalled the other day that Levitt's tenants were "exclusively black and poor, although the rent was no different than we paid in the white suburbs for good housing."
She said Levitt's buildings, in the Park Heights section of northwest Baltimore, had so many housing violations lodged against them that parts of each Friday afternoon were set aside in housing court exclusively for Levitt cases.
"He was always there, representing himself," she said. "Sometimes he cross-examined them the complaining tenants . His response was always technical, never a failure of compassion for the tenants." Tannenbaum said that "even the maximum fine of $300, rarely imposed, was still cheaper than making the repairs. It was a cost of doing business to him." Suspended From Practice
On Nov. 2, 1979, the Maryland Court of Appeals, by a vote of 5-to-2, suspended him from the practice of law for a year for lying to Kaplan during an appeal of a housing violation involving a 14-year-old girl injured in a fall at one of Levitt's properties.
The two dissenting voters, including the state's chief judge, Robert C. Murphy, thought the penalty was too lenient -- they wanted Levitt disbarred.
A few months later, Levitt was indicted in Baltimore County on charges of filing a false liquor license renewal application. Prosecutors alleged that the application listed his mother Nettie as owner of the bar, although it had been sold earlier. It was Circuit Court Judge John E. Raine Jr. who threw out the case. He said he told the prosecutors, "I believed he [Levitt] lied to the liquor board, but they [the prosecutors] used the wrong weapon." Subsequently, the record was expunged. A Boyhood Friend
To defend him against the latest civil suits involving Old Court, Levitt called a boyhood friend, Paul Mark Sandler, who lived next door to him when they were growing up. (Levitt also has retained William L. Hundley, a prominent Washington criminal attorney, to represent him in any criminal proceeding.)
The call to Sandler from Levitt around Memorial Day, and subsequent meetings with his client, brought back a rush of memories for them, Sandler said. The 40-year-old Sandler recalled a winter 35 years ago when, at the direction of Levitt, "We collected all the snow on the block and built a huge igloo in Jeffrey's back yard."
Did the young Jeffrey Levitt have grandiose plans for the ice, his old playmate was asked. "Even then," Sandler remarked, "Jeffrey was . . . but I'm not going to talk about that."