I have never thought, ‘Oh, I have to make millions of dollars,’” Alice Mason said last week in her Upper East Side living room, panther-shaped Cartier brooch pinned to her black Armani pantsuit. “What I wanted to do was change the way New York worked.”
In December, the 77-year-old Manhattan real estate doyenne closed her boutique brokerage’s office, essentially ending a five-decade career of steering handpicked clients into the city’s most important co-ops. “I changed it because in all the good buildings, everyone was in the Eastern establishment. I put them in the Eastern establishment when I sold them these apartments and got them in. So that’s the point. I changed New York.”
Ms. Mason is having her second hip-replacement surgery later this month; 69-year-old Edward Lee Cave, New York’s other iconically genteel real estate broker, had his first in February. The morning that the news of Ms. Mason’s firm’s fate was announced, a Web site reported that Mr. Cave would be closing his office, too. As it turned out, Edward Lee Cave Inc. will be continuing on as an affiliate of the larger Brown Harris Stevens. “They’re going to be Brown Harris Stevens brokers,” firm president Hall Willkie told The Observer last month.
“He and I, in a lot of ways, are a lot alike in how we approach real estate, because he has always worked with the same kind of people I have worked with,” Ms. Mason said. “You know, I’m a numerologist, and our names even add up to the same number. We have the same number so we’re a lot alike.”
But Mr. Cave will continue to be active, while Ms. Mason has been throwing fewer of her iconic dinner parties and brokering less deals for nearly a decade (when she got Tommy Hilfiger into 820 Fifth Avenue, then flipped his $10 million co-op there to the widow Lily Safra for $18 million). “The R-word,” Mr. Cave said this week, when asked about retirement, “is so irrelevant.”
But his Brown Harris agreement and Ms. Mason’s closed office show just how far New York has come from the days when the city’s most proper real estate was handled almost entirely by the proper people properly. “There are so many new rich people who aren’t really established,” she said. “And now that they’ve lost their money, they certainly aren’t established.”
She says her great epiphany was that good people who happened not to be listed in the Social Register deserved to be in good buildings. “It’s nothing to do with social grace,” she explained. “It’s due to who you are in this town. I mean, everybody, you have to assume, has social grace. That has nothing to do with it because everybody had that.”
“You have to have a good eye, but also a good ear,” the unimpeachable late art dealer Leo Castelli once intoned. “You hear things, feel vibrations, gauge reactions.”
THOUGH THERE’S A SMATTER of younger top brokers with her genteel Barbara Walters accent or Mr. Cave’s monogrammed shirts, or their shared ability to divine the inborn differences between, say, 770 and 778 Park Avenue, most are slicker and more brutal. “I don’t think Edward Cave and Alice Mason will survive. Real estate is not about chatting at a dinner party anymore,” Corcoran CEO Pam Liebman told New York magazine in 2003. (Ms. Mason’s fetes have hosted Woody Allen and Cronkite and Bill Clinton and Mailer.) “It’s a big business, and you’re talking about big numbers.”
Michael Shvo, the handsome condo broker who left Elliman to start his own marketing firm after falling out with the powerful Dolly Lenz, has been harsher. “Do you think a 38-year-old partner in Goldman Sachs who makes eight million a year knows who Alice Mason or Edward Lee Cave is? You know what? They’re all going to drop dead soon,” he told the writer Steven Gaines. “I’m the new generation of real estate broker.”
“He’s right! He can say that! He said it proudly, but I don’t think it made him better than us,” Ms. Mason offered last week. “Maybe he felt he did more business than we do and that’s probably true. That’s O.K. … I’ve talked with brokers from big firms who’ve never heard of 4 East 66th Street, just never heard of it!”
“It’s called change. It’s change,” Mr. Cave said. “When I first started, all the doormen had white gloves. They did—on Park Avenue. And they don’t anymore. It’s called change.”
Brokers like Mr. Shvo or Corcoran’s Carrie Chiang have specialized in selling gobs of condominiums (where there are no co-op boards) to a wealthy clientele, often foreign. “Carrie and I are almost not in the same business. I sell one thing: traditional residential real estate, the best of its kind,” said Mr. Cave, who co-founded Sotheby’s International Realty before starting his own firm. “When I started in real estate, there were no condominiums.”
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