Mar 31 2014

House of Outrageous Fortune by Michael Gross

Amanda Shapiro

web exclusive


Reading the cumbersomely titled House of Outrageous Fortune: Fifteen Central Park West, the World's Most Powerful Address is a lot like watching an episode of VH1's The Fabulous Life Of… Should we feel envious? Disgusted? Or should we just let ourselves be hypnotized by its shmoozy, clubby charm?

For those unfamiliar, Fifteen Central Park West is a very expensive Manhattan apartment building built in 2012. Thanks to a high-profile team of architects and developers, 15CPW was also a media darling long before it rose from the Upper West Side, and it continues to attract attention as an emblem of excess. Last year, a hedge fund manager reportedly sold his three-bedroom condominium in the building for $29 million. The New York real estate blog Curbed refers to it simply as the Limestone Jesus.

Author Michael Gross has a bottomless appetite for real-estate gossip. In 2005, he wrote 740 Park, a 600-page history of an Upper East Side co-op ("the world's richest apartment building"), which the director Alex Gibney later adapted for a documentary. Gross then decamped to Beverly Hills to write Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition, and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles. Gross's House of Outrageous Fortune finds him back in New York, just blocks from his own co-op on the Upper West Side.

Gross is a fastidious researcher, offering a well-considered history of the Upper West Side's development over the last century and of the co-operative housing system in general. Co-ops, which began as artists' enclaves, make tenants shareholders of the building rather than owners of their own space. In New York, they've become synonymous with the old-money establishment and known for their unspoken codes of discrimination. As Gross tells it, 15CPW marks a turning point. Its fortress-like design by Robert A.M. Stern and those limestone walls (not to mention its evasive sales office) suggest the privacy and prestige of an Upper East Side co-op, but 15CPW is a condominium on the Upper West Side. And for that reason it's become a coveted address for status-minded New Yorkers, especially those whose personal affairs wouldn't pass muster with the co-op boards on the other side of the park. If you have an outrageous amount of money, you, too, can live here.

Gross has made a career of covering the upper class, and not always in a flattering light. His 2009 book about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogue's Gallery, ruffled some very well-connected feathers when the galleys were leaked. The book was not reviewed in major New York publications, leading some, including the author himself, to cry foul.

This is exactly the kind of story Gross loves—powerful people, backroom deals—and his newest book is full of them. He's snooped on many of 15CPW's current and former tenants and gotten some tidbits that would make them blush. Hedge-fund managers get sued by their wives, Russian billionaires evade tax laws. Gross revels in these miniature exposes, but he says nothing about what we should take from all this scandal under one roof. The financial meltdown of 2008 is recounted in piecemeal only, it seems, because it made celebrities out of tenants like Citigroup founder Sanford Weill, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan. Gross summarizes their roles in the biggest economic crisis of our time, before moving on to Callan's firefighter boyfriend, Weill's Murano glass chandeliers, and Blankfein's gym routine.

A blurb on the book jacket says that House of Outrageous Fortune will make us understand "what Occupy Wall Street was about," and it's a tantalizing thought. As Gross writes in the introduction, "buildings such as Fifteen have been called redoubts of the .01 percent, symbols of a self-perpetuating conspiracy designed to protect its wealth and privilege while denying them to the 99.99 percent outside its walls." But in the end he has limited interest in anything beyond 15CPW's limestone fašade. Occupy Wall Street is mentioned only once as a segue into another banker's biography.

This lack of critical depth wouldn't matter if the gossip were good. But instead it feels tedious, like listening in on a conversation about people you don't know. Even Gross's account of Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez—who owns an apartment in 15CPW and allegedly has had a revolving door of hookers there—fails to break the spell. Part of the problem is that Gross seems deaf to the most human aspects of his subject's lives. He recounts romance, tragedy, and business deals with the same brisk efficiency. "Between promotions," one banker's brother dies in the World Trade Center attacks. A real-estate developer's wife is killed in a plane crash, but "the tragedy has an upside" because the developer inherits enough money to buy more real estate. Gross's indifference is odd; it's also alienating. He won't indict the tenants of 15CPW, but he won't humanize them either.

Gross was apparently approached to write an authorized book on 15CPW before anything was even built. He declined and wrote House of Outrageous Fortune instead. But, toward the end, it's not clear where Gross's allegiances lie. He lauds the egalitarian spirit of Manhattan's most expensive real estate. Everyone shares the same lobby and the same health club, even the "poorest" residents in the "inexpensive" apartments (although those residing in the cheaper apartments have to use their own "back of the bus" elevator bank). Furthermore, 15CPW is a true American melting pot. "Fifteen is home to people of all kinds, all creeds, colors, and nationalities, all coexisting in a world where conflict is sadly the norm." It may be true that the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates lives in the same building as a Jewish dental-office-magnate. But it's hard to see a slice of America in a pie in which the cheapest apartment is $1.87 million and built for the maid.

Real-estate-obsessed New Yorkers will find enough to ogle in Gross's descriptions of the building itself. There's an inset of color photos including floor plans, baroque living rooms, and jaw-dropping views. The rest of the book seems written for a different audience, but who? Maybe people like Gross, people who live outside the halo of 15CPW but just close enough to peer inside.

Gross thinks we live in an age when the richest of the rich don't care about getting into the country club. "They profess no desire to assimilate into anything other than the floating crap game of wealth," he writes. But the story of 15CPW seems to contradict this notion, proving that a starchitect and a good marketing plan can create exactly the kind of club that the .01 percent wants to join. The rich folks of 15CPW are not so different from the rich folks of the Upper East Side and Tribeca and Los Angeles and Dubai. They may be worth billions, but, on these pages, their stories don't amount to much.

Amanda Shapiro lives in North Carolina and writes for The Oxford American, The New Inquiry, Cosmopolitan, and other publications.

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