William Talcott May is the co-chairman of the storied real-estate brokerage founded by his great grandfather in 1866 and inheritor of the New York real-estate dynasty that bears his father’s name, William B. May.
But when the 44-year-old eccentric bounded into City Bakery on West 18th Street on a recent Thursday morning, wearing a fire-truck-red Scottish kilt and a navy-blue wool sweater, his broad, leonine cheekbones streaked with charcoal-hued face paint, he looked more Braveheart than businessman.
That’s the way it is when you’re defending the family name.
Throughout its 139 years-the firm recently celebrated its anniversary with a party at Fizz, the private members-only club on Madison Avenue recently opened by La Goulue owner John Denoyer-the William B. May name had been paired with the limestone mansions of such families as the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Fricks. Earlier even, its ancient lineage could be traced back to 17th-century England and the management of the crown’s royal property. In more recent times, William B. May assembled land deals for I.B.M.’s Manhattan headquarters.
But on March 30, Mr. May’s attorneys filed a copyright-infringement lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in lower Manhattan against Sherman Advertising Associates, a Manhattan-based real-estate advertising agency. The suit is the most recent kink in a bizarre tangle of internecine battles and corporate infighting: No fewer than 10 lawsuits have been filed in both state and federal courts by the dueling parties in the last year. Now those battles threaten to push the 139-year-old company from its perch among Manhattan’s most exclusive brokerages.
“William B. May has a wonderful reputation. The firm has always had an impeccable reputation; they’re one of the last family-run ones left,” said Laurance Kaiser, the president of Key-Ventures Realty, an Upper East Side brokerage focusing on luxury properties and, like the Mays’ company, one of the last remaining independents left in Manhattan.
Mr. May had donned the Scottish regalia that morning for a photo shoot at the Ken Browar studio on West 17th Street, a boutique shop known for such fashion clients as Roberto Cavalli and Prada, after shooting spots for a marketing campaign he said will revive his flailing company.
As some customers craned their heads to steal a look at Mr. May’s getup, he plunked down at an upstairs table to describe his fight to win back the family company he says was snatched out of the hands of his elderly parents. He spoke in a husky bellow deepened by a two-pack-a-day Marlboro habit. Between sips from a double espresso, he nervously monitored e-mails on his Treo cell phone and raked his hands through his brown mane, already spotted with silver flecks.
“I don’t mind a good fight,” Mr. May said the next day, recalling a barroom brawl he once got into in his early 20′s at an Irish pub on Third Avenue.
“My birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day, and one St. Patrick’s Day I got all tarted up in my kilts and the whole highland dress. I went into an Irish saloon. I was sober as a judge, and started singing “God Save the Queen” and fought my way out. There were eight guys. I left five of them bloody.”
It all started in April of 2004, after Mr. May’s brother-in-law, Peter Marra, left the family shop for rival brokerage Brown Harris Stevens, selling his own 12 percent stake in William B. May to Brown Harris’ owners, the Zeckendorfs.
After some heavy legal wrangling between Mr. May, his sister’s husband and the powerful Zeckendorf clan, all sides laid down arms in June in a deal that had the Zeckendorfs acquiring the Mays’ two Brooklyn branches.
But since then, relations with the Zeckendorfs-if not with his brother-in-law-have been repaired.
“I think Billy is a very straight shooter and is an upfront business man,” said William Lie Zeckendorf, co-chairman of Terra Holdings. Mr. Zeckendorf said he is considering real-estate deals with Mr. May.
Mr. May said he also patched relations with his brother-in-law and his sister Leslie, which had been left smoldering since June.
“I’m embarrassed about some of the things I said [about Peter and Leslie],” Mr. May said.
Mr. Marra, though, sees things differently.
“I’m happy at Brown Harris,” Mr. Marra said by phone when reached for comment. “I really want to put this whole thing behind me, I want nothing to do with Bill May. I have nothing to say about Bill May or the May family.”
About two months after the Marra defection, the firm sold its Madison Avenue branch for $375,000 to William B. May C.E.O. Christian Deutsch and his partner Kevin Brown, a Century 21 franchisee. The duo, now Mr. May’s rivals, kept both names: A recent spate of real-estate ads in The New York Times, which are part of Mr. May’s most recent lawsuit, carried the slogan “Century 21 William B. May.” On Nov. 7, Century 21 William B. May ran an ad in The Times with a letter from Century 21 president and C.E.O. Thomas Kunz welcoming the company into its fold.
“It’s my great-grandfather’s name. It belongs to us,” Mr. May said over lunch of lobster and kir in the cavernous dining hall of the Union League Club on April 1. “It’s not a question of getting [the name] back, it’s a matter of stopping other people from infringing on it. We still have all rights and title to it … and that license doesn’t allow anyone to call themselves ‘Century 21 William B. May’ all in one breath. It says what we intended: You can be ‘William B. May Company,’ and with our express permission, you can make variations.”
On April 8, the feud over the May family name steered toward détente when the May family’s attorney, Mark Lebow of Sokolow, Carreras and Associates, distributed settlement documents to all parties involved. Settlement terms were not disclosed, and by press time not all parties had signed the accord. A signed settlement would cease all litigation.
In an e-mail, Paul Aloe, Mr. Brown’s attorney, said: “As these matters are currently in litigation, our response to all of the allegations are in papers that are on file with the court. It is neither appropriate nor productive at this time for the parties to adjudicate these matters in the press. We are extremely confident in the correctness and merit of our position and in a favorable outcome.”
Mr. May faces an uphill fight. High-grossing brokers such as Roger Erickson have decamped for rival agencies since the legal machinations began last July, and without their Madison Avenue flagship and the lucrative Brooklyn business that Brown Harris Stevens snapped up, the firm’s major revenue streams have been choked off. Or, as David Burris, the co-chairman of Terra Holdings, the parent company of Brown Harris Stevens, said: “What’s left of William B. May? William B. May will be whatever Bill May makes it. They managed to break up the firm. It basically needs to be built up from ground zero.”
“I don’t really want their money. I just want them to get the fuck off my island. It’s my island,” Mr. May said on a recent Friday evening. Such boasting could be brushed aside as brazen posturing, but for Mr. May, tact and nuance rarely inflect his oratory. He was gathered with several brokers from his firm’s Beekman office at the Brazilian restaurant Circus on East 61st Street, where he dines several times a week. Mr. May, who goes by “Billy,” wore a black leather jacket, trousers held up by suspenders and worn loafers. Perched at the bar, Mr. May clutched a glass of Portuguese red wine in one hand and a deep mug of espresso in the other. He took vigorous sips off both drinks in quick succession.
Mr. May eschews the management tactics championed by the corporate sages at Harvard Business School and instead mines the annals of military history for his business strategy.
“I feel like J.E.B. Stewart at the high-water mark of the confederacy, when J.E.B. Stewart took his cavalry and circled all the way around the Union Army,” Mr. May said.
In business negotiations, he has been known to blast off fiery e-mails known as “Billygrams.”
He lives in an East Side apartment just north of the U.N. headquarters with views overlooking the East River. In 1992, Mr. May said he reset his body clock to Greenwich Mean Time, which allows him to be more productive.
“I need four hours of sleep a night,” he said. On a recent night, he recalled that he slept from 7 p.m. until 4 a.m., and then met brokers from his firm who were out dancing at Crobar. He stayed at the Chelsea club until 8 in the morning.
“Everyone was drunk, it was hilarious. I just had two Red Bulls and danced,” he said.
Five days a week, Mr. May rises at dawn to lift weights with his personal trainer Ahmed, who he said once served in the Egyptian Special Forces.
“I do endurance stuff, mainly. I’m trying to get rid of the fuel tank to my love machine,” he said, tapping the bulbous paunch that peeked just over his waistline.
When he’s not at Circus, he prefers to dine at La Goulue or Russian Samovar with his fiancée, Inna Galerkina, a 29-year-old Russian-born hedge-fund manager with sharp blond hair, who on a recent evening wore a Chanel blazer and Bulgari pearls. The two met last year when Mr. May gave her real-estate advice at the request of a friend.
“It’s time,” he said. “I’ve been wolfing around this city for a long time. I proposed a while ago, and I gave her a token ring that she doesn’t like. So I’m getting her a bling. It’s a diamond sapphire ruby. The Russian colors. I thought it was kind of appropriate. It’s a little East-bloc rock, but it’s bling.”
He said the ring cost “a mortgage.”
Mr. May grew up in Ardsley-on-Hudson, 20 miles north of Manhattan. The family also spent time at a beach house on Fishers Island. He attended the prestigious St. George’s School in Newport, R.I., and worked for his family’s real-estate business.
“I worked in the company’s property-management department out of 3 West 57th Street. It was funny because then, Donald Trump had just gotten started. And we were at 3 West 57th Street on the third floor, and he was across the street in the Crown Building on the third floor, and I used to watch him pacing in his office like a manic crazy person in those goddamn red suits he used to wear in the 1970′s. It was ridiculous.”
He also found time for carousing around the city.
“In 1976, I was dating a selling agent in the Liberty Tower building,” Mr. May said. “She was great, she was hot. She was six or eight years older than I was. It was like a match made in heaven. She knew all the doormen at all the stupid clubs that were going on. But we always ended up at Studio . I loved Studio,” he said.
After high school, Mr. May studied economics at Duke University, where he dropped out after two and half years for what he said was his refusal to take a course he believed was “too politically correct.” According to university records, Mr. May voluntarily withdrew in October 1982.
At Duke, Mr. May was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, played rugby and co-founded the school’s polo club with 40 ponies he said his cousin won in a craps game in South America. Mr. May said he made his first foray into real estate at 17 when he bought a house in Durham, N.C., for $23,000 with “grass-cutting money and a loan from the bank.” He sold it three years later for $160,000, he said.
“I had to get a note from home,” he said. “I rented it to frat brothers, and they trashed it. That was fine; I kept repairing it. They paid a huge rent. My mortgage was $236 a month, and each bedroom was rented for $200 a month to fraternity brothers with their parents guaranteeing the rent, so who cares? It paid for my Duke education, by the way.”
After Mr. May left Duke, he returned to New York in the early 1980′s and worked in William B. May’s brokerage business while managing some of his own buildings. To hear him tell it, his earthiness has been a boon to him at work. Mr. May said a disgruntled tenant in Washington Heights stabbed him in the abdomen when he showed up to collect rent one morning.
“Most of the tenants uptown were sleepy in the morning, so you kind of had the drop on them. This one opened the door, saw who I was, and went, ‘ Shhheet,’” he said, pointing to the spot where the knife punctured his stomach. Mr. May said he stitched up the wound himself.
Another time, Mr. May said, he walked into a drug deal gone bad during a building inspection in Harlem and took a bullet ricochet to the chest.
“The bullet went in sideways into the breast plate,” he said thumping his chest. “I went to my doctor’s house in Westchester. I jumped in a cab and went there.”
In 1987, Mr. May abruptly quit the family business after a disagreement erupted over a deal to buy 10 townhouses on the West Side.
Mr. May landed in New Orleans and managed property for Brignac-Derbes, a Louisiana real-estate firm. While he was there, Mr. May said he worked as a volunteer cop, patrolling housing projects at night. A few years later, Mr. May returned to New York and said he developed some eight buildings in Brooklyn over the course of 18 months. Throughout the 1990′s, he bounced around, wheeling and dealing. In East Texas, he said he bailed out the Indo-American Refining company; back in New York, he advised a bankrupt bicycle company that he declined to name. More recently, he said he has been developing loft buildings in the Wilmington, Del., area.
Mr. May said Sept. 11 changed his life. As he tells it, he took off from Delaware in his private plane en route to Newport, R.I. When the first airliner struck the north tower, Mr. May said he was some 10,000 feet above New York Harbor and witnessed the entire disaster unfold.
“I was on the radio to McGuire Air Force base in 20 seconds saying there had been a terrorist attack,” Mr. May recalled on a recent afternoon walking across Lexington Avenue. “And I tried to get vectors to run chicken on the second airliner, because I figured, two buildings, two airliners-like that!”
Mr. May said he kept his plane aloft following the attack, rather than heed the grounding order issued by the F.A.A. In the ensuing months, he said he wrote a scathing 400-page report critical of airport security, and became the target of the F.B.I. He said at the time he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I relive that day most nights each week in my dreams. I still wake up sweating,” he wrote in an e-mail message.
In a bizarre twist of events, he turned himself in to authorities in Delaware in December 2001. According to reports in the Associated Press and the Philadelphia Inquirer, the F.B.I. and police arrested Mr. May for allegedly leaving six fake bombs at the New Castle County Airport. According to a report in the News Journal, Mr. May planted phony explosives at the airport that included an empty can with a clock and a note left under an aircraft, a pocket watch taped to a shotgun shell stashed under a staircase, and an ornament placed on a closet light switch.
Mr. May said the ground crew had fueled his plane with the wrong fuel, which severely damaged his aircraft. In response, he became angry and planted the faux bombs to prove how lax airport security was. He described his actions at the time as “strange.”
“I was trying to make a point and did it the wrong way,” he said.
Between trial and sentencing, he served 31 days in solitary confinement and said he read Moby-Dick seven times.
Mr. May received a felony conviction and four years probation for the incident. He is barred from flying during his probation and banned from airports without approval from his probation officer. Mr. May’s attorney at the time, Penelope Marshall, said in reports that Mr. May was not medicated for his bipolar disorder. In federal affidavits, Mr. May’s sister, Leslie May Marra, said her brother was treated for bipolar disorder in 1984 and suffered from manic depression, and in the months before the incident Mr. May had tried to commit suicide.
He’s “not a kook,” Jeanne May, his mother, told reporters at the time. Today Mr. May denies his sister’s account.
“When you’re in jail, you have no voice,” he said.
Over dinner at Circus, Mr. May ordered a salad tropical and spoke about his two principal adversaries, Mr. Deutsch and Mr. Brown of Century 21, the real-estate franchise network controlled by the $21 billion Cendant holding company that has gobbled up real-estate brands including the Corcoran Group, Sotheby’s International Realty and Coldwell Banker, with more than 280,000 brokers worldwide.
Just how Mr. May’s relations with Mr. Deutsch, William B. May’s former C.E.O., and his partner Mr. Brown devolved remains a mystery spiked with bitter acrimony and personal attacks. Both sides, in dueling lawsuits and court documents, offer vastly differing accounts of the financial transaction that had Messrs. Deutsch and Brown purchasing the assets of the May family’s office at 575 Madison Avenue to operate it under the Century 21 moniker. Mr. May alleges that Mr. Deutsch-who joined the family’s firm in 1993-misrepresented his stake in the new Century 21 venture; that he altered financial statements to misstate the family’s financial health by seven figures to pressure the Mays into selling and exact a more favorable deal for himself; and extracted funds from the company without approval. Mr. May’s father, Bruce May, said in one instance he was pressured to sign a deal on the hood of his car outside a restaurant in Maryland at night. Mr. May is also suing Mr. Deutsch, his wife Alexandra and William B. May’s former comptroller Linda Bower, seeking $15 million in damages and $25 million in punitive damages.
In October, Brown Harris Stevens Brooklyn, the brokerage controlled by the powerful Zeckendorf family, filed a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court alleging that Mr. Deutsch refused to release commission checks totaling some $650,000 from the Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights offices of William B. May that the Zeckendorfs had purchased following Mr. Marra’s decampment, along with another $177,000 that disappeared from company coffers. Mr. May said he has spent some $40,000 on a private investigator to prove his case, as well as $40,000 more on forensic accounting to verify his firm’s finances.
In response, Mr. Deutsch said in court documents that the May family was clearly aware the entire time of the deal’s structure and his and Mr. Brown’s plan to operate the 575 Madison Avenue office as a Century 21 franchise with the name William B. May attached. In no way were they in violation of the license, Mr. Deutsch said.
Mr. Brown summed up his view of the Mays’ actions in a court statement: “They are in effect asking the court to unscramble an egg that they themselves scrambled.”
Mr. Brown declined to comment on the record about the case.
In another court statement, Mr. Brown said that on July 26, Mr. May and his father, accompanied by several people, entered the 575 Madison Avenue office proclaiming it their own, and refused to leave. The police were summoned to the premises and the Mays eventually left. Mr. Brown also said that Mr. May had boasted to him that he had “planted” a previously reported article in The Observer last June.
Mr. May denied having boasted about his statements to The Observer, and said he wanted to sit for an interview after he saw an article in the New York Post that first broke Mr. Marra’s jump to Brown Harris Stevens.
“I will just litigate forever, and keep them so mired in muck for doing what they did, they won’t be able to do any business, they’ll be so busy dealing with me,” Mr. May said.
As he seeks to unwind the web of legal entanglements that has ensnared his company over the past year, Mr. May continues to operate three New York offices with branches in Beekman, Tribeca and Greenwich Village, and a fourth branch in Westchester in Irvington, N.Y. He said he’s pursuing expansions into New Jersey and London. As a privately held company, financial records are not available, but Mr. May said business is reviving-and the company profitable. In the next 12 months, he expects to turn $15 million in commissions. He is renovating a new headquarters on the fifth floor at 135 East 55th Street, and plans to open the space in May.
Whether that’s enough to get his family business back on its feet remains to be seen. Mr. May, who says he has already spent $1 million of his own money to stanch the attacks on his family’s business, said he will not surrender until his family wins its name back.
“I’m like a one-man pack of wild dogs when I get angry,” he said.