When the economy disintegrates and Manhattan bursts into flames, the board of the block-long co-op 765/775 Park Avenue will still be begging the day help and dog walkers to take the service elevator; the co-op board members at 820 Fifth will still be turning away unsatisfactory multibillionaires like Ron Perelman and Steve Wynn; and Ambassador Donald Blinken’s living room at the iron-gated River House will still have five Mark Rothkos.
The city’s most epically exclusive co-ops are the last bastions of old, over-proper, clubby, nice-nosed, perfectly heeled New York. They have values and they’re sticking to them—despite, or maybe because of, the city’s creeping anxiety.
“It’s a special island in the midst of Manhattan,” Mr. Blinken, a co-founder of E. M. Warburg, Pincus & Co, said about his co-op, where he was a board member before becoming President Clinton’s emissary to Hungary.
At Upper East Side buildings like his, where the buyers have tiptop society credentials to go with their immense wealth, a board’s standards are a protective sheath. “I would think that the people at River House, they’re certainly not flash-by-night, recent zillionaires in the last two years. They’re people who have been comfortable,” Mr. Blinken said, “and I don’t think current economic problems on Wall Street will have any impact on River House, will make any difference at all.”
Impenetrability means invincibility. “You find that people at River House are rather serious and not as exposed to the vicissitudes,” he said.
The meticulous, monogram-shirted, Virginia-born broker Edward Lee Cave said the best buildings want buyers with three times the apartment price in liquid assets. “It’s never been more important than today,” he said. “I’ll tell you why! They don’t want you going belly up, they don’t want you, your fabulous company—Bear Stearns, excuse me—all of a sudden going face down, and you have to sell apartments and you can’t pay your maintenance,” Mr. Cave said. “The current crunch doesn’t affect them at all.”
Impenetrability also means whiteness. Most of the godliest co-ops, like 820 Fifth, have exactly zero people of color. “I don’t recall ever hearing of any,” said financier H. Fred Krimendahl II, an 820 board member and a past president of the Philharmonic. “But if Tiger Woods wanted to live here, we’d be happy to talk to him.”
Considering that good co-ops loathe celebrities, Mr. Woods probably wouldn’t get very far at 820 Fifth. But to be fair, there aren’t many minorities applying to these buildings in the first place, although the late Reginald Lewis bought at 834 Fifth, Mr. Krimendahl’s old building. “If a Reg Lewis came along,” he said, “we would certainly entertain that possibility.”
“I don’t have turn-downs, thank God and pray to God,” said another broker, A. Laurance Kaiser IV. “You know before you show who can get into what building. You’re very frank with your own customer.”
When asked to describe the co-op 19 East 72nd, probably the hardest building off Fifth and Park Avenue, one top broker said: “You wouldn’t bring in a rap singer into 19 East 72nd Street—just as you wouldn’t take 19 East 72nd into some rap building. They’re divergent cultures.”
A board president around the corner brought up rappers, too, but said they’d be turned away from his building because of sensitivity about publicity, not skin: Richard Nixon, after all, got chased from that East 72nd castle (afterward, he asked Mr. Cave for help).
EXPOSURE IS SO despised back at River House, Ambassador Blinken’s co-op, that brokers can’t use the building’s name in listings. That fear of hype made things hard on Gloria Vanderbilt, Diane Keaton and Joan Crawford, who all got turned away.
And consider Chicago producer Marty Richards, who first put his $22.7 million duplex there on the market with Brown Harris Stevens’ Kathy Sloane eight years ago. Two weeks ago, the Post reported that the listing had gone to contract, naming fashion-show mogul Elyse Kroll as the buyer. The board probably didn’t appreciate the leak—or the news that Ms. Sloane was under investigation in Albany for tax evasion.
So, of course, the Kroll deal fell through, and the broker no longer has the listing. “I asked Marty to take me off because I’m going to be traveling with my husband,” the broker told The Observer, “and Marty does really need to sell.”