By Linda O’Flanagan
Mel Brooks as Harry Macklowe in a Steven Spielberg blockbuster about the titans of New York real estate?
Jeff Daniels as Donald Trump? Brad Pitt playing ex-Vornado chief Mike Fascitelli? It could happen if a searing new book by author Vicky Ward translates to big bucks on the bookshelves.
In an exclusive interview with Real Estate Weekly to coincide with this publication’s free giveaway of her book, The Liar’s Ball, about the men who have battled to win the GM Building, Ward revealed, that Hollywood is “very curious” about real estate’s dream chasers.
“I sat next to Steven Spielberg a year ago and he told me that Hollywood is very curious about the King Lear elements of the Macklowe story,” said the best-selling author, who was admittedly mesmerized by the man who nearly threw it all away to buy the GM Building.
“Harry Macklowe … is so articulate, charismatic and so complex – a veritable modern Jay Gatsby,” she said.
Ward gained unfettered access to Macklowe and a cast of the most powerful and secretive men in the real estate business for her book.
For the first time ever, they spoke candidly about the cloak-and-dagger meetings, conspiracy and downright criminal behavior of the world’s ultimate trophy hunters.
But while their methods may have often appeared mad, Ward claims these mavericks have plenty to teach today’s wannabe tycoons.
“The lesson is; talk less, do more, shoot for the moon and believe in yourself no matter what’s going on round the water-cooler,” Ward told Real Estate Weekly.
Beginning with William “Boss” Tweed and including Macklowe, Donald J. Trump, William Zeckendorf, Mort Zuckerman, Stephen C. Hilbert, Disque D. Deane, Lord Max Rayne, Cecilia Benattar, and Harry S. Black, Ward’s rise-and-fall story spans 150 years.
The author said their often ruthless ambition left her stunned.
Cecilia Benattar — the so-called “housewife tycoon” and one of the few women mentioned in the book — “was a remarkable woman; how many women — or men for that matter — don’t name their newborn babies because they are too busy at work? And who hires and fires their spouses both professionally and personally?ˮ Ward asked.
Rob Horowitz, the Cooper-Horowitz broker who did all of Macklowe’s bidding among big-name lenders, was among the author’s main sources. Harry Macklowe and Rob Horowitz did everything together. They golfed most Fridays, they dined and they went away on trips. They kept each others secrets, writes Ward in her book.
“I always felt everything Rob said completely checked out,” Ward told Real Estate Weekly. “He has a mind like a steel trap and is a natural story-teller.” Ward, who gained critical acclaim for her last book, The Devil’s Casino about Lehman Brothers, said her peek into the real estate world was an eye opener.
“In The Devil’s Casino, the Lehman men and women talked the same language – it was if they were soldiers in the same army,” she said.
“But the real estate crowd has no culture except a cut-throat one. Everyone is out for themselves – and, because of this, the toughest thing of all was getting people’s stories to match up. Ego distorted truth to an alarming extent. I was left wondering if certain people had really attended the same meeting. Many of the men were also openly misogynistic.”
Among her real-life characters is one who as good as killed his wife with cruelty. Another helicoptered five miles to work each day and married a woman who jumped nearly naked out of a cake.
Abe Wallach, who was Donald Trump’s executive vice president for finance and acquisitions, appeared to go to unbelievable lengths for the sake of money, his career – and loyalty.
Recalled Ward, “Abe talked about how at one point in his career (and Donald is quick to say this was not on his watch) he drugged someone on a flight to look inside the contents of their briefcase. When he signed a piece of paper agreeing I could use this anecdote, I asked him why he was okay doing this.
“He replied that he thought it was funny and revealed something about how nutty the industry is.”
Of a chance meeting with Roy March, the CEO of the powerful Eastdil Secured brokerage on a Concorde flight to France, Ward recounts Macklowe describing the then long-haired dealmaker as a “freak. He’s got shit-kicker boots, with these pointy toes, like he’s going to kill a cockroach in the corner,” Macklowe told her.
The two men and their wives were later invited to lunch at the home of Italian hotelier, Giovanni Russo on one of the private Li Galli islands.
Recounts Macklowe in The Liar’s Ball, “So we go off sailing, and we have an afternoon at Li Galli with Russo entertaining us and a guns dealer from Lichtenstein and a gambling operator from somewhere else.
“We have this wonderful afternoon, you know – swimming, eating, wine. It’s just fabulous … and, you know, there’s Barbara [March] swimming topless in the pool.”
As the clock was ticking on the due date for Macklowe’s staggering $7 billion loan to buy Sam Zell’s EOP New York portfolio, the developer retained investment banker Joe Perella, of Perella Weinberg Partners, to find him equity partners.
In the book, Ward recounts Perella telling Macklowe not to underestimate the business savvy of the Middle Eastern investors. “I said, ‘Don’t think there’s a bunch of greybeards over there living in a tent and you’re going to go over there with a wheelbarrow and they’re going to fill it up with money saying ‘Tell us when to stop, Harry.’ That’s not how it works.”
In a revelation that may surprise many, Donald Trump “was actually a decent, sympathetic boss,” said Ward. In one chapter, Trump was visibly crushed by what he felt was a betrayal by his then good friend, Ben Lambert, another Eastdil rainmaker. “I think Donald comes across as very human in the book. People have remarked on it,” said Ward.
Trying to untangle the real estate web woven by the industry’s elite has left the author in little doubt that, even in today’s global market, when it comes to winning, it’s still all about who you know.
“Obviously, the companies are bigger and public – but look at who owns the GM building now. Boston Properties, a REIT led by Mort Zuckerman – in partnership with two families that Mort Zuckerman knows really, really well personally, and so he trusts their money.”
But the New York Times bestselling author said that if she learned one thing from these high-stakes gamesmen, it is that true success can only be achieved through a willingness to chase a dream. “Stop worrying about the details and just get out there and do it,” is her second-hand advice from the titans of real estate.
“I don’t mean rashly, as Harry did with EOP, but as Cecilia brazenly negotiated with GM; as Donald found a way to go for the building with Steve Hilbert; and as Harry Macklowe did in 2003 – and is now going for it when everyone had written him off.”
Ward is also in no doubt that the “rough and tumble macho world” of real estate would make for a big screen blockbuster akin to Martin Scorses’s Wolf Of Wall Street. She has even picked out the big screen stars – like Mel Brooks and Jeff Daniels – who’d play the real life stars of her book.
Her introduction to the world of New York real estate was made at an annual Real Estate Board of New York gala, an event she recalled, “Has a black tie dress code, but that’s the only nod to decorum.ˮ
Known in the business at The Liars Ball, Ward writes: “To an outsider, the behavior seems bizarre. To witness a mod in tuxedo and tulle yelling over a US Senator?
“The party celebrates the characteristics moist of us condemn; brashness, mendacity; greed. On this one night, the industry revels in who and what It really is – and it does not care who sees.
“It’s rough, it’s vulgar and it’s a riveting show.”
The Liar’s Ball, published by Wiley, will be available in bookstores October 22, priced $29.95.