My Linda Stein: Powder Keg Full Of Sound, Fury

lindastein3h My Linda Stein: Powder Keg Full Of Sound, FuryOne of the many things I’ll miss about Linda Stein was dropping by her comfy Fifth Avenue penthouse on late weekday afternoons where an impromptu salon of sorts would form. There was always an unexpected collection of people—real estate brokers exchanging co-op board and sales gossip, a pop star down on his luck, a billionaire from Australia to whom Linda was trying to sell a $20 million apartment, or a pot dealer from Harlem whose pager number she had called. It was a small apartment, only three rooms, her boudoir separated from the living area by mahogany pocket doors, but there were big wraparound windows with sweeping views of the sky and rooftops and the majestic tower of the Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue one block away looming in the foreground. All the way at the top of 965 Fifth Avenue, accessible only by an elevator that stopped at her own private landing, her penthouse felt safe and secure and insulated from the clamor of the city below.

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Linda’s visitors were also her spellbound audience. With a glass of red wine in one hand and a forbidden Virginia Slims in the other, she held forth on the dramas, loves and hates of her life. She was only 5 feet tall but she was a big presence. She could curse like a sailor and no one ever knew what was going to come out of her mouth, and probably neither did she. One moment she would be telling a hilarious story about how she had to instruct Angelina Jolie to dress for her co-op board meeting by hiding her tattoos—“And don’t wear that vial of blood around your neck!” she admonished her—and then segue into describing having phone sex with Bob Dylan; or cackling gleefully she could launch into the tale of how while showing the late Jaqueline Onassis’ apartment to clients she discovered John Kennedy Jr.’s wet running shorts in one of the bathrooms where he was staying after his mother died and stuffed them into the pocket of her mink coat to keep them as a trophy. When she was feeling especially wicked she would do a side-splitting imitation of a rival real estate broker giving her lover a blow job while simultaneously mumbling aloud about the prices of her recent co-op sales.

It’s inconceivable to me now to imagine Linda Stein dead in that elegant apartment lying facedown in a pool of blood, the pods of her iPhone, a friend said, still in her ears, bludgeoned to death with a jagged weapon, perhaps a hammer, the hood of her sweatshirt presumably pulled by her murderer to cover the horrible wounds.

Who could have killed Linda Stein this violently? Why? Did she have enemies? Plenty—the line forms on the right. There were dozens of people who were furious with her. But was there anyone who could have been angry enough to kill her?

A lot of her intimates think the answer is yes.

Being friends with Linda Stein was not for the fainthearted. She was sensitive and tempestuous, and histrionics and bitter long-term feuds had become her trademark. I met her in 1974, and I would guess that for at least a third of those years Linda wasn’t speaking to me for some offense or another. Every one of her friends was at some time condemned to periods of exile, and while a spat with a friend or a business associate is not uncommon in this world, the magnitude of Linda’s personal feuds set her apart. There was a whole list of people whose names you were not allowed to mention in her presence.

She repeatedly harangued Howard Lorber and Dottie Herman, the chairman and CEO of Prudential Douglas Elliman, where she worked, to have other brokers fired. Once when Ms. Herman came to visit Linda in the hospital during one of her many hospital stays, Stein began shrieking at the top of her lungs that Ms. Herman had to fire senior vice president Paul Brennan for something he had said to a reporter. “I can live through my ex-husband,” Stein shrieked. “I can live through cancer, but I can’t live through Paul Brennan.” Linda carried on so loudly that security guards came to the room, but when she calmed down she wept and held Ms. Herman’s hand.

Why did so many people remain loyal to her when she was so difficult? Explanations fall flat. She wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, to say the least, but even with all the grief she caused she remained fascinating—and loving—enough to make the bad times worth it. For me she was an irreplaceable part of the city, and I was thrilled to know her. As the rabbi said at her funeral, “She lived in New York and New York lived in her.” She hated big but she loved big too. She was empathetic and protective, generous to a fault, not just by picking up the check at dinner, but ready to cover a friend’s rent for a few months if he was broke; she knew what it was like to scrape bottom and worked her way back from near bankruptcy twice in the past 25 years. “If Linda’s life was an opera,” said Seymour Stein, “she would be the Valkyrie.”

 

WHEN THEY MET, Seymour Stein changed Linda’s world. He was the owner of Sire records, a small but burgeoning independent label, and lived in a two-bedroom Central Park West apartment filled with exquisite museum-quality furniture and curio cabinets filled with objets d’art and treasures he bought over the years at auction. He was gifted, sardonic and brilliant. They had instant chemistry and passion, according to them both, and married less than a year after meeting. They had two daughters: Samantha, born in 1971, and Mandy, born in 1973. They both described the marriage as “a roller coaster ride with no seat belts” and divorced after six years but maintained a close yet volatile relationship.

In 1994 when she was selling real estate for Cave, she discovered a lump in her left breast, and within 24 hours she underwent a radical mastectomy and breast reconstruction. She was 56 years old—exactly the age her mother was when she died of breast cancer. She was scared but indomitable, fighting every step of the way, determined to get better. She channeled all of her anger and competitiveness into her battles with cancer. By the time she had regained her strength, she discovered that the reconstructed breast had malignant nodes, and she underwent a second operation to remove it. This second bout nearly killed her. The winter of 1996 Linda took enough chemotherapy, she said, “to kill three people.” She rented a house on the beach in East Hampton and she bundled up every afternoon and walked along the beach and looked at the ocean and willed herself to live. And she never stopped selling real estate. “I did deals from my hospital bed,” she told me. “I needed the money. One day I was bald, on my way back from chemo, trying to sell a property owned by (movie producer) Keith Barish, and I was so weak I needed help getting up the steps of the building.” Mr. Barish looked at Linda with her bald head wrapped in a turban and said, “Who do you think you are, Josephine Baker?”

The near-death experiences brought Linda lots of attention and sympathy, and her cancer kept threatening to come back and back, or so it seemed. As the years passed, there were so many cancer scares and curable reoccurrences that friends began to wonder if all of it was real. In some peculiar way cancer had become the leitmotif of her life. She talked about it a lot. I was walking down Madison Avenue with her last fall when she ran into Bette Midler, who wanted to gossip about real estate, but Linda only wanted to talk about cancer. Ms. Midler told her to start a macrobiotic diet and hurried away.