At 73, master municipal-bond seller Jim Lebenthal was close to giving it all up, reports jason gay, to make little videos promoting the city he loved. But when the towers on which he’d sold thousands of investors went down, how could he go on?
Jim Lebenthal didn’t have to be in the office anymore. They didn’t need him, really. His capable, beautifully spoken daughter was running the show now. Most of his friends had long since retired to play golf, and though he still looked fit-at 73, he looked more like a wrassler than a golfer-inside him was an aging man’s heart.
Of course, that heart had never truly longed for the family business started by his father, Louis, and his mother, Sayra. Jim Lebenthal was a showman. Raised in New York but trained in Hollywood-as an entertainment reporter for Life, when Life was Life, then as a producer for Disney and NBC-he gave the family business a showbiz makeover when he returned, reluctantly, in 1967, at 39. He had come home to sell … bonds! Was there any business more dry-toast than that? Jim Lebenthal liked show business, so he brought show business to bonds, starring in hundreds of radio spots and TV ads, and somehow he did the impossible and made bonds almost seem sexy.
Of course, he had a co-conspirator, which was New York City. Along with his bonds, Mr. Lebenthal sold his hometown. He was a booster of boosters, even through the mid-1970’s fiscal crisis. His reassuring, ubiquitous ads made New York seem like the best place on earth, even when it was down. New York’s Streets Should Be as Safe as Its Bonds, one read.
Now, after more than three decades, Mr. Lebenthal was getting out, going back to the business he’d left once before. He armed himself with a mini digital camera and set up a Web site with the boosterish address Crazyaboutnewyork.com. It was a silly title, but so what? Mr. Lebenthal was going to walk around town and make silly little movies, vignettes-love letters, really-about his city, its people and places. He didn’t care how many people saw them. He would be happy.
“For many, many years, I have felt like the Birdman of Alcatraz,” he would say. “With my spoon I have been tunneling, tunneling, tunneling out through my cell, down below the hallways, out through the yard, up to the wall-and I’m probably 40 miles beyond the wall. And … the time had come to do this, to tunnel out.”
But then, on the morning of Sept. 11, the sky fell and the buildings collapsed. And not just buildings-his buildings.
Mr. Lebenthal looked at those buildings every weekday from his office on Broadway and Cedar Street. He once starred with them in a television ad. He stood between those towers like a grizzled Godzilla and proclaimed them “two giant economic pumps.” His family made fun of that line, but Mr. Lebenthal was proud of those buildings. They were built by bonds. He made them viable, and they made him glamorous.
That morning, Mr. Lebenthal walked up Church Street amid the dust and debris and sirens and thought he was finished. How could he make silly little movies about New York anymore?
“Back to the salt mine,” he thought.
Late on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 21, Mr. Lebenthal was fussing around his office. For a week and half straight, he’d been on a cell phone, selling, reassuring. The World Trade Center collapse had rendered the land lines useless, and so when he needed to make a call, the chairman of Lebenthal & Company pressed his lean frame up against the window glass and tried to get a signal. He called investors and tried to calm them, assuage them, telling them once more that bonds were a haven.
“I have escaped to the bond business,” Mr. Lebenthal announced in that his crisp, cultivated radio tone, “For the past 10, 11 days, ever since …. ” He stopped himself. “Funny,” he said, “I was just about to say ‘the blast.’ I told our counselor here-we have a counselor here, helping out people who are distressed-I told her, ‘What is my problem? I can’t give it a name.’ Now I call it the attack and the destruction of the World Trade Center.” He paused on that line, as if he’d invented another Lebenthalism, like “giant economic pumps.”
Mr. Lebenthal tucked himself into the corner of a couch. He was dressed in gray suit pants, a light blue shirt and a rose Ermenegildo Zegna tie.
“I was at a meeting on Chambers Street, at the new Tweed Court House,” he said. “I heard the sound, and I said, ‘That’s not a healthy explosion.’ At Princeton we used to hang around when the Firestone Library was being built, watching them dynamiting for a foundation. I knew the sound of the Fraunces Tavern blast and I knew the sound of the first Trade Center attack.
“A workman came in and said that a plane had flown into the building. It was a beautiful day … it was not like the B-25 day-that was a foggy day, when that bomber hit the Empire State Building. So you knew that something untoward was happening.”
Mr. Lebenthal rushed back to his office at 120 Broadway through the dusty, dazed crowds surging uptown. He canceled his appointments, got downstairs and then started uptown himself.
For a few blocks, he didn’t pause to look back.
“I was up at around Church Street and Chambers when I did turn back and look at the building,” he said. “I thought, ‘Steel melts.’ I drive down the West Side Highway so frequently and see all the twisted girders of the piers. And I thought, ‘This thing is going to …. ‘ “
Behind Mr. Lebenthal’s massive wooden desk is an enormous photograph of Old Faithful. To the left of the desk, on a window sill, is a multipaneled, panoramic photograph of the World Trade Center observation deck at sunset, visitors standing in an orange vista of distant lights and clouds.
Just around the corner was the smoking remnant of the real thing-ripped steel, tons of paper, carnage.
What did those buildings mean to him?
“Well, I can tell you,” Mr. Lebenthal said, “or I can show you.”
Cut to: the 1991 Lebenthal ad, which begins with a splash of sunlight against steel. There’s a peppy soundtrack, and a shot of businesspeople strolling back and forth, and another of the Twin Towers reflected against a woman’s mirrored sunglasses.
“Sure, it could be shorter or fatter or curvier,” Jim Lebenthal’s voice begins. “But you got to love what it does. Draws 60,000 workers a day to paying jobs right here in the Port of New York and New Jersey and sends them home at night, the richer for a day’s work. You see the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I see two giant economic pumps built by the tax-free bonds I sell.”
Then Mr. Lebenthal appears, 100 stories tall, superimposed between the towers.
“I’m Jim Lebenthal. Love my towers. Love my bonds.”
The screen faded to black. Mr. Lebenthal clicked off the tape player.
“I look at this with no feeling,” he said. “But I nod my head in agreement with what I decided the World Trade Center was-the concept of stimulating the economy, keeping jobs here in New York, bringing people in and sending them home, richer for a day’s work.”
That was what he did, after all. Selling bonds or a pair of hulking 70’s superstructures, Mr. Lebenthal was in the business of making the underappreciated appreciated.
And now he was back at it. That morning, Mr. Lebenthal had tried to talk his daughter, Alexandra-Lebenthal & Company’s president and C.E.O.-into doing a radio ad with him related to the Trade Center disaster. The ad, which Mr. Lebenthal wrote, began with Alexandra making fun of the “economic pumps” line. It segued into Mr. Lebenthal touting “the long, long record of municipal bonds in the face of tornadoes, floods, earthquakes.” It concluded with both father and daughter saying, “Built by bonds.”
The father and daughter arrived at the studio to tape the ad, but then Alexandra Lebenthal decided she couldn’t do it. She didn’t think it was right, not now.
Her father sounded disappointed. “She couldn’t abide it,” he said. “I thought it was a wonderful commercial.”
Mr. Lebenthal was asked if he felt some of the pain, too. After all, he’d been such a cheerleader for the city-wasn’t there something deep within him that hurt now?
He laughed uproariously.
“Hahahahahaha!” he said.
“Yeah. It must. Let me answer that: I hope so. But I may be such a processor of feelings, of right brain–left brain, that I don’t know. I truly don’t know. I have a lot going on, and I just hope I’m not becoming hardened and insensitive in the process. I don’t feel I do. That’s all I can say. We’ll see.”
Of Course, Jim Lebenthal wanted filmmaking to make him feel fully alive again. For months, he gathered his equipment and the occasional shiftless film student-“They don’t have the eye; they don’t know the equipment,” he complained-and trooped out into the city. His subject was the city’s warm, soft underbelly. He filmed a funny piece about people sucking on water bottles. He goofed on people yapping on cell phones. He walked around and asked New Yorkers what they thought being rich was like.
“It was meant to be the frothiest kind of good-natured rib-poking,” he said. He compared his films to the old “Our Man Stanley” pieces in The New Yorker. He’d flirted with trying to get some of them on TV and met with some news executives, but he felt they were just humoring him because he was an advertiser.
“I am aware of them of them being nice to me and not wanting to piss me off,” he said. So he had someone put together Crazyaboutnewyork.com.
The Web site was to be Mr. Lebenthal’s return to plain old fun, like his days on the movie beat for Life, when he went to the Oscars in a limousine with Grace Kelly (after having tea at her apartment) the year she won for The Country Girl. He covered the making of Picnic: “The most fun story I ever did,” he said. “Tensions! Josh Logan just out of sick bay, his first movie …. Bill Holden, a tormented person … so many wonderful things! And Kim Novak!”
Mr. Lebenthal was nominated for an Oscar himself, in 1958, for a short film, T Is for Tumbleweed. And he produced a film for Disney on otters. And now the Web site was to be a return to fun, the purest form of expression he’d ever had. He had had a heart attack once, he said, but he felt young again, liberated.
“I have never felt as free,” he said.
But on Sept. 11, Mr. Lebenthal wrestled with ways to follow the story, and he couldn’t find one. “I didn’t want to shoot flickering candles,” he said. “I didn’t want to shoot crepe flowers.” He tried going out the first weekend after the attack, interviewing the people who inhabit the park benches on the Upper West Side, but all anyone did was talk about the World Trade Center.
He was flummoxed. “You don’t do tragedy,” he remembered saying to himself. “You don’t do bad news.”
Maybe that was true: He just couldn’t do it. It made him sound a little cold, a little bit like an executive, as if he wanted to put the city’s darkest dark memory behind him and move forward. He was the ultimate New York proponent, but maybe this was too much. Maybe this is how he dealt with tragedy, by not dealing with it.
But then he remembered things from the 11th, and they pulled him forward. He remembered the way the buildings looked just before they fell, with the dust and the papers floating downward. He remembered how the papers were backlit.
And he kept coming back to the photographs. “The walls of snapshots that are up there,” he said, referring to the missing-persons posters throughout the city. “Those are not Bachrach photographs, nor are they passport ID’s. They are snapshots from weddings, from outings. There is no question that there is a rare manifestation of life as it was lived in those pictures. I’m so delighted by how pretty so many of the people look, so many of the women look, how happy they are. It isn’t that they are missing, it’s that they are.
“That is life,” he said. “That is life reaching out.”
Mr. Lebenthal had made up his mind. O.K., he said. He would go out tomorrow.
On Saturday morning, Sept. 22, Mr. Lebenthal showed up in Union Square Park dressed in a pair of khaki pants and a long-sleeved black polo shirt and carrying a small brown equipment bag. He was wide awake and alert, as if he’d been up already for 10 hours.
He was worried he wouldn’t find anything to shoot. “This is like going fishing after you’ve been told the anchovies have stopped running off the coast of Peru,” he’d said on the phone earlier that morning.
For about 20 minutes, he tried a few shots. He filmed a string of candles and missing-persons posters along on the corner of 14th Street and Fifth Avenue. He interviewed a couple of people with dogs in the dog park. He let a Springer spaniel rub his runny nose right up against his lens.
But then, walking east, Mr. Lebenthal noticed a small shrine for a missing woman named Marina Gertsberg. There were bouquets of flowers and a small set of candles, and a handful of photographs taped to the fence. The photos were mostly party shots of Ms. Gertsberg-a tan, pretty brunette-having fun with friends. One photograph showed her at a dinner table on a cruise ship with a young man. She looked radiant. She was 25 years old.
Mr. Lebenthal plopped his bag on the ground. “I’m going to sit and be inconspicuous,” he said.
For the next half hour or so, Mr. Lebenthal sat just a few feet away, headphones on, one eye locked into the camera, training the lens upon Marina Gertsberg’s shrine. He captured dozens of people stopping before the photographs, looking at the young woman’s photos, whispering. From time to time, Mr. Lebenthal would whisper, too, about what he was seeing. “Woman leans over,” he said, focusing on a woman in front of him. “Hair falling down shoulder …. “
A man stopped by the shrine with a baby in a blue carriage. “Baby carriage!” Mr. Lebenthal cried out. “Baby feet! Little baby feet!”
Mr. Lebenthal was rocking back and forth now, sobbing as he held the camera.
About 10 minutes later, Mr. Lebenthal packed up his bag and pronounced his filmmaking over for the day. “This is so right; this is all I’m going to do,” he said.
He said he planned to go to his studio and edit the film that afternoon. Maybe, if he was lucky, he’d have a little movie about Marina Gertsberg’s shrine on his Web site by the middle of next week.
“It was there,” he said. “The living. Those people were acting out my appreciation of life.”
Mr. Lebenthal was back in business. Behind him, to the south, were the shiny superstores and new apartment buildings surrounding Union Square-new, multiple, giant economic pumps.
There was also the smell of autumn in the air.
“I think it is wonderful, what there is now,” Jim Lebenthal said. “That is all I can say.”