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Citizen Carnal

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A private detective, frequently employed by the silk-stocking wives of the Upper East Side to smell out their husbands’ affairs, assures me that investments in real estate are the best insurance against people like himself. A man with real estate needn’t fear being spotted in the St. Regis with his art consultant. He just visits a building that he owns, under virtually any plausible pretext, where he happens to have set aside apartment 11B for his mistress.

That is the bit of subterfuge allegedly used recently by developer Harry Macklowe, who reportedly concealed his paramour in the luxury apartment building he owns at 737 Park Avenue, a short jaunt from his home in the Plaza Hotel.

But Macklowe was no Dr. Livingstone. Hearst did it first.

Luxury apartments that were once the love nests of Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl Marion Davies and newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst are currently on the market at 137 Riverside Drive, 91 Central Park West and 1215 Fifth Avenue. And although Hearst is best remembered as the laird of stately San Simeon in California, the New York properties he shared with Davies show every bit of that same genius for outrageous real estate.

At the turn of the century, Hearst lived in a brownstone at 123 Lexington Avenue near 28th Street. Today an Indian spice store, it was once the grand home of our 21st president, Chester A. Arthur. But a home fit for a president was a bungalow in the mind of a man of Hearst’s appetites. His panache for big spending often left him with little pocket change—dismantling the hardware from the palace of a Venetian doge or an entire 12th-century Spanish church, and then shipping it to a Bronx warehouse, didn’t come cheap.

Hearst’s reputation as a spendthrift was legendary in his day. Journalist Gene Fowler recalls Henry Ford admonishing Hearst for never having any money. Ford recommended that he stash $500 million away somewhere and forget about. Arthur Brisbane, the utopian socialist who became America’s highest earning newspaperman and Hearst’s lieutenant in both publishing and real estate, once said that Hearst was the only man he knew who could get along on less than $10 million in pocket money a year. Or at least so claimed the bon vivant Lucius Beebe. 

When Hearst set out to build his next home, there would be nothing log cabin about it. He purchased the entire building at 137 Riverside, known as the Clarendon, for $950,000. He then spent multiples of that transforming the upper floors into something characteristically out of proportion: a custom-built, five-floor apartment with gallery space for his collections of medieval armor, stained glass and art from European palaces.

The mansion’s three-story copper mansard once hid a private roller skating rink, said to have been used by Davies. However, as it was the full-time residence of Hearst’s actual wife, Millicent, one has to wonder how much time Davies really spent skating about chez Hearst. Today, unit 3B in 137—a generous, 11-room co-op with 24 windows—is going for $6.95 million.

“Hearst spent what was at the time an enormous sum on the building,” said Deanna Kory, who listed the property for Corcoran. “He created a 100-foot-long gallery for his medieval tapestries. He created themed rooms to show off his other antiques: an English room, a Julius Caesar room and a Greek room.”

Hearst created another lavish penthouse for Davies at 91 Central Park West, then one of the most desirable new towers on the park’s west side. The sprawling apartment filled with Hearst’s extraordinary hodgepodge collections was decorated in monastic style, with oversized church doors, stained glass and intricately carved woodwork. To this day, the initials “M. D.” are scratched into the ornate hearth in the apartment’s barroom.

Its current owner, T-Mobile CEO John Legere, recently slapped the apartment back onto the market with Heather McDonough and Henry Hershkowitz of CORE. He wants $22 million. Giorgio Armani owns the other portion of the original penthouse on the same floor.

And when Davies couldn’t bring herself to cross the park, she and Hearst would tryst at Brisbane House, the stately co-op building at 1215 Fifth Avenue. Brisbane developed his namesake tower in 1929 with both Hearst’s financial backing and Hearst’s taste for the ostentatious.

“He built this amazing mansion, which extended from the 14th floor to the penthouse, and across both the north and south sides of the building,” 1215 Fifth resident and Corcoran broker Barbara Brewster said. “It would have been four floors, but it was actually three because he built a two-story ballroom and tennis court.”

Brisbane’s mansion also featured a private elevator, a scarcely known luxury at the time that provided a unique level of discretion. Today, the shaft of the now lost elevator can be purchased and incorporated into 1215’s apartments.

Currently, four units are simultaneously on the market in 1215—a rare occurrence according to Brewster. She is marketing a richly wallpapered three-bedroom in the building for $3.95 million, and a slightly larger unit for $4.2 million.

If Davies affairs with Hearst appear somewhat nomadic, it’s worth noting that Hearst was a bit of a taxicab Bedouin himself.

Hearst would stay between his many homes, while also entertaining Davies at a number of East Side hotels, including the Ritz Tower, which he developed with Brisbane, and the Warwick New York Hotel, where Davies had her own floor, and at the office of Hearst’s personal counsel in the 18-story tower at 940 East 40th Street. Davies also occupied the penthouse for a time.

At 331 Riverside, Hearst gave Davies yet another 25-room mansion, this one with a large fountain in the sitting room and a library of rare books. Hearst also bought the neighboring building at 332 Riverside and gave Davies’ father his own apartment there. The New York Buddhist Church now uses both 331 and 332.

In that web of palatial penthouses, luxe hotels and ritzy love shacks, it’s a wonder they even bumped into each other often enough to make it all worthwhile.


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