Breakfast at the Regency

Thursday, November 9, 2017

This article was originally published in the April 1979 issue of AVENUE.

Anyone who drives down Park Avenue a few hours after dawn knows about the traffic jam around Sixty-first Street. Before eight o’clock in the morning, uniformed chauffeurs are lounging about the sidewalk like gang members. Cars and taxis slow to a crawl, gingerly making their way around all the black limousines double-parked in front of the Regency Hotel.

When the limousines are three deep, you know that inside, over the shirred eggs and croissants, the deals are flying. Corporate takeovers and corporate spinoffs; stocks going up and stocks going down; television deals, real estate deals, political deals. You know that it is campaign fundraising time again. Or the city is about to be wrested once more from the abyss of bankruptcy. Or there are going to be fireworks later in the morning on the floor of the stock exchange, five miles south. Or perhaps all three at once. It is Bob and Larry Tisch’s Long-Running, Star-Studded Breakfast Party.

The Regency dining room is one of those true nerve centers of New York, a ganglion from which pulses power from a dozen walks of life radiate. One morning recently, at a large table near the entrance, Lewis Rudin was holding court with Irving Schneider of Helmsley-Speak, attorney Sandy Lindenbaum, and others, talking real estate. At a banquette table Gershon Kekst – whose public relations account include Sunbeam, Marshall Fields, Amstar, and Paine Webber – lingered over his usual toasted bran muffin and slices of cheese to map strategies with a client. At a small table toward the rear, a Time magazine reporter probed Theodore Kheel about his feud with the Post’s Rupert Murdoch.

Howard Samuels and Jay Goldin are breakfast regulars, as is Felix Rohatyn, the Lazard Freres dealmaker and former head of the Municipal Assistance Corporation. John Lindsay sometimes stops by. The National Football League’s negotiations with ABC took place in the Regency dining room – ABC’s Roone Arledge lives across the street. New York University President John Sawhill comes in for breakfast after jogging.

On a given morning, one can encounter anyone from Allie Sherman or AT&T president William Ellinghaus to Detroit industrialist Max Fischer or labor leader Victor Gotbaum. During the last big political season, Larry Buttenwieser spent one hundred and twenty straight days in the Regency dining room raising money for Bob Abrams’ unsuccessful campaign for state attorney general. Then there are the hired guns of the takeover wars. Attorney Joseph Flom, who specializes in giant battles for corporate control, is a breakfast regular. And so is his professional archenemy, attorney Martin Lipton, who is usually on the other side of the same battles. They frequently share a friendly chat over cups of coffee before retiring to their separate corners. “Everybody likes to keep an eye on everybody else,” Bob Tisch says with a grin.

The Tisch brothers themselves usually command a table or two at the center. Larry, the more investment-oriented of the two, might be in deep discussion about financial aspects of the Tisches’ Loews empire – not only (including the Regency) hotels and movie theaters but also Lorillard and CAN Financial Corporation, the huge insurance complex.

Bob, the more gregarious brother, moves about the room greeting friends and acquaintances. There is talk about philanthropic projects, community issues such as the condition of New York’s hospitals, and always, of course, gossip about companies – Larry’s recent deal to buy Bulova, for instance, or speculation about what Jimmy Robinson at American Express might try to grab next, after failing to get McGraw-Hill. Bob smiles and shakes hands as if everybody were his personal guest.

“We serve almost two hundred breakfasts in the restaurant every morning,” Bob explains. It is a virtual club, except that unlike most clubs there is no prohibition against talking business; quite the reverse.

It could almost be described as Wall Street and City Hall Uptown. Japanese businessmen like to stay at the Regency, but most of them take breakfasts in their rooms. Film and rock music stars rarely wake up before noon. That leaves the field largely to the Manhattan movers and shakers. “And when all the heavy hitters are there,” remarks Gershon Kekst, “it can get pretty intense.”

The Tisch Breakfast Party has been running more than a dozen years. (The hotel itself, for all its Old World Elegance, is only sixteen years old.) It all began when Gerald “Jerry” Tsai Jr., the prototype of the 1960s “gun-slinger” portfolio manager, began coming down from Boston and staying at the Regency. Tsai had built a fabulous reputation at Boston’s Fidelity funds, and he was busy putting together a mutual fund on his own called Manhattan fund. He would trundle down to breakfast early, and he and Larry Tisch fell to talking stocks.

It was not long before other people with big investment reputations began making the scene. Carl Lindner, for instance, who runs the American Financial Corporation, started breakfasting there when he was in town. Other charter members include investment banker Archie Albright, Englehard Minerals and Chemicals Corporation’s Mark Kaplan, Leon Hess of Hess Oil, Colt industries’ David Margolis, and Ira Harris, Salomon Brothers’ great merger-and-acquisition king who operates out of Chicago.

As word got around, the Regency dining room became a hotbed not only of brainpower but also of buying power – the sort that can move stocks on its own steam and that attracts followers. By 1969, the dining room entrance was clogged by 7:54 a.m. with aggressive young financiers in their Meledandri suits, peering over each others’ shoulders and angling for tables near the oracles, hoping to overhear tips. A shrewd market analyst could have foreseen, right there, that the go-go era was finished for investment houses: too many Meledandri suits. The market collapsed in the spring of 1970.

Jerry Tsai, who eventually sold out of the mutual fund business, is now something of an institution at the Regency; he stages lunch-time securities analysis seminars in Le Restaurant’s back room. Meanwhile, times have changed, and so has the game. Instead of just picking stocks, people buy and sell entire companies. The new stars of the Breakfast Party are the dealmakers and takeover specialists – Felix Rohatyn, Ira Harris, Joe Flom, Marty Lipton, and the rest.

Nobody much wants to say which acquisitions or mergers were first cooked up over french toast or smoked salmon – the big trend to consolidation of U.S. industry might take on a frivolous image. But more than a few have indeed started there. “If we got one mill, one tenth of a penny, for every deal discussed here – I don’t mean deals concluded, just talked about,” chuckles Bob Tisch, “we wouldn’t have to charge for anything in the hotel.”


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