Enid Haupt, the TV Guide heiress who died recently at 99, used to pull up in front of her Park Avenue apartment in a station wagon filled with flowers for her penthouse. She griped when the limousines blocked her way.
Wolfgang Flottl, whose father used to run the Austrian bank that Refco Group Ltd. named as its biggest creditor when filing for Chapter 11, plunked down $8 million for an apartment in the same building in 1992, then decided against moving in. "It was too big for me," said his wife, Anne, granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Michael Gross reports all this and more in "740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building" (Broadway Books, $26.95). The result is a tantalizing history of 75 years of American wealth as seen through the prism of this 19-story New York City cooperative that has blackballed unwanted neighbors including Barbra Streisand.
Gross, a society reporter, sneaks the reader past the doorman. Inside, we find architect Rosario Candela's vast ballrooms, winding marble staircases and gold doorknobs. We meet past and present residents including John D. Rockefeller Jr., Canadian liquor magnate Edgar M. Bronfman and former Reliance Group Holdings Inc. chairman Saul Steinberg.
The author also tells us how much it costs to get in. Stephen A. Schwarzman, chairman of Blackstone Group LP, bought Rockefeller's former three-floor home for $30 million in 2000, then the most ever paid for a New York apartment. Flottl sold his place for $15 million that year, Gross says.
Haupt's family put her apartment on the market in 2000 after she suffered a stroke. The place, which the philanthropist filled with art by Monet, Gauguin and Renoir, was valued at $18 million, Gross says. The family didn't sell. A committee of the building's residents now considers only buyers with $100 million in liquid assets, he says.
The building was conceived in the late 1920s by James T. Lee, the grandfather of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, who later lived there. Inspired by a decade of growing fortunes and rising skyscrapers, Lee set out to build the finest apartment house in the city.
At the time, rich New Yorkers were moving from houses to apartments, a migration that Rockefeller underscored in 1938 by leaving a nine-story townhouse on 53rd Street to take a 23-room apartment at 740 Park Ave., Gross says. The family donated their 53rd Street property to the Museum of Modern Art.
The author writes, too, of famous people excluded from 740 Park. Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor were discouraged (actresses!). Charles Stevenson Jr., a hedge-fund manager who now heads the building's board of directors, was accepted only after investment banker Felix G. Rohatyn, later the U.S. ambassador to France, made a few phone calls, Gross says.
Streisand was rejected in 1971, recalls Patrick O'Connor, who manned the elevators and doors for more than 40 years. "They were worried about parties," he tells Gross. "And she was a Democratic fundraiser, so the Republicans didn't want her."
For Candela, 740 Park was a jewel in a career that lined Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue with grand buildings. The architect laid out 30 units for Lee, many with two or three floors and terraces and libraries. Despite the 1929 stock market crash, units were listed for between $72,000 and $215,000 in 1930, Gross says.
The author offers intimate details of the families who came and went, including the Dukes (tobacco), Chryslers (automobiles) and Dorrances (Campbell's soup). Steinberg, who bought the Rockefeller apartment in 1971, lived there with three successive spouses. His breakup with wife No. 2, Laura, fills a chapter, including her police-escorted exit wearing a full-length mink coat. When Bronfman's eldest son, Sam, was kidnapped in 1975, the building's superintendent received the ransom note.
These tales are engrossing because the characters are still in our midst. Less compelling are Gross's lengthy stories of a litany of forgotten heiresses and their numerous foreign husbands. In chronicling family connections, the author might have stopped before getting to Martin Lorber's "great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather" on page 439.
If your eyes glaze, skip ahead to the section on the billionaire investor and the tale of his affair with a florist on the Upper East Side.
Gross, whose earlier books include "Genuine Authentic: the Real Life of Ralph Lauren," is a former New York Times society reporter who's also written for New York magazine and Vanity Fair. With "740 Park," he has produced a deeply researched book that deserves a prominent place among the social histories of 20th-century Manhattan.
Though the book, at 510 pages, is on the long side, it does supply intriguing anecdotes that a slimmer volume might have left out. Among them is a February 1938 letter that Rockefeller sent to two young neighbors, Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier, after they met in the elevator.
"I love the Valentine you sent me and thank you many times for it," Rockefeller wrote. "I am glad we live in the same building and I shall hope to see you again some day."