Max LeRoy, 25, never thought he’d go into the family business until last Oct. 3, the night before his father, restaurateur Warner LeRoy, lifted the curtain on his $20 million renovation of the Russian Tea Room to an invitation-only crowd that included Barbara Walters, cosmetics executive Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer and socialite Gayfryd Steinberg.
The night before the party, Max walked into the restaurant and saw his dad–the son of Warner Bros. potentate and The Wizard of Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy–crouched on the floor, examining paintings that were to be hung on the restaurant’s walls. Max remembered there was a thick layer of gold dust from the freshly gilded ceilings in his father’s hair. Just a few feet away, Max’s sister, Jennifer LeRoy, 21, who had worked at their father’s Tavern on the Green for two years, was dusting, polishing and vacuuming and would continue until dawn.
“It woke me up,” said Max, who on this July afternoon was dressed in a dark suit and sitting at a banquette in his father’s newest restaurant. Max, who has spiky brown hair, brown eyes and a slim frame, hadn’t thought much about going into his father’s line of work. He currently plays guitar in a band, Lil’ Red, that he has with Samantha Ronson. “I always thought I’d be a rock star. For real,” he said. But seeing his old man immersed in the final stages of opening his restaurant, “I saw how much work my father had put into it and I was filled with a real family pride.” That night in October, Max rolled up his sleeves and entered the family business.
Ten months later, Max and his sister Jennifer are managing the Russian Tea Room while their 65-year-old father battles a curable lymphoma that, at press time, had him hospitalized. (“He is responding well to treatment,” said Mr. LeRoy’s spokeswoman, Shelley Clark.) The LeRoy children said that he communicates with them via approximately 30 memos a day. They send him photos of the flower arrangements and report on the state of the Tea Room’s carpet. They also make sure the 15-foot bear aquarium keeps rotating, that the ice sculptures aren’t melting, that the glasses are spot-free.
“We keep up the standard,” said Jennifer, who has long brown hair, hazel eyes and who wore a tan suede suit. “But we have a lot to learn.”
The LeRoy children were both sitting at a front booth in their father’s baroque reinterpretation of the Tea Room, and as they scanned the restaurant looking for potential problems, there was the sense that a transition was underway–a change that was far from complete but one that was happening all over the city. The vivid impresarios of Manhattan’s meritocracy were graying and slowing, and they were being replaced by their own children.
After decades in which the children of Manhattan’s rich and powerful graduated from posh, vaunted universities, took their trust funds and, like Oliver Barrett in Love Story , set out to carve out an independent niche that was as far away as possible from Mom and Dad’s bony-assed shadows, something different is happening. More and more, it seems these privileged offspring–often after brief stints away–are following in Dad’s or Mom’s Gucci footprints. In addition to Mr. LeRoy’s children, Le Cirque 2000 owner Sirio Maccioni’s sons are working to keep the Maccioni name prominent in the city; so are Tim and Nina Zagat’s son Ted Zagat, fashion designer Betsey Johnson’s daughter, Lulu, Hard Rock Hotel owner Peter Morton’s son Harry Morton, real estate developer Donald Trump’s son Donny Trump and various heirs apparent who go by the appellations of Lauder, Lauren, Speyer, Nederlander, Murdoch and Plimpton.
And there are others–surnames that have come to be equated with brand names in Manhattan and the world. If your surname already carries weight in one area of enterprise, the current reasoning seems to be, why break your neck trying to establish some new foothold? Especially in an economy where it takes a helluva lot more dough to live the good life that your guilty parents showered upon you during your prep-school years.
Everyone could learn a lesson from David Lauren, the 28-year-old son of fashion designer Ralph Lauren. David is currently the chief creative officer of Ralph Lauren Media, a partnership with Polo and NBC that’s about to launch polo.com. But before he took that job at his father’s company, David toiled for years in his own wilderness trying to make Swing , his slim magazine for twentysomethings, work.
Will these beneficiaries of the New Nepotism combine pluck and luck to prolong the familial cache and power for another generation, insuring that they will continue to live the vivid, privileged lives that their parents’ success created?
As they sat in the Tea Room, Max and Jennifer acknowledged that, during their childhood, they didn’t understand that their father’s ownership of Maxwell’s Plum and Tavern on the Green as well as his reputation as New York’s showman restaurateur was a big deal, but they knew their lives were unique. “I definitely wanted to own Great Adventure when we were young. It was the coolest thing to have,” Jennifer said, referring to the New Jersey amusement park that her father owned, but sold to Time Warner in 1993.
But now their thoughts were of a more down-to-earth variety. Max’s band is playing Roseland in August but he works at the Tea Room five days a week. Jennifer works at the Tea Room at least six nights a week. Earlier, Ms. LeRoy worked for two years at Tavern on the Green, where, she said, she worked every job from cutting lemons to dishwashing. At 19, she oversaw the kitchen’s 85 male cooks.
Jennifer picked up a wineglass that a waiter had set on the table and inspected it. “There will definitely never be anyone but a LeRoy owning Tavern or the Russian Tea Room,” she said. She explained that approximately 30 years ago, her father leased the Tavern site from the City of New York for 100 years. “Dad started it, we’ll keep it going,” she said. “We’ll definitely expand, that’s the biggest thing Max and I want to do,” she said. “Our Dad has always done that and we want to keep it going. Create new boundaries.”
LeRoy père declined to be interviewed, but, from his hospital bed, he issued a statement via his spokeswoman: “My restaurants have always been like second family to me, so it’s terrific to have my children involved. Jennifer and Max have really taken to the business. They have a great future in it.”
Mr. LeRoy makes an interesting point about how important his business is to him, and therein lies the rub of children jumping into the family business–especially in the pressure-soaked environs of Manhattan where reputations rise and fall on the fickle, petulant tastes of pampered people. It’s a less-than-ideal way for Junior to learn the ropes when it’s at the expense of Dad’s hard-won, A-list clients.
Just ask Mauro Maccioni, 28, the youngest of three sons of restaurateur Sirio Maccioni, the owner of Le Cirque 2000 restaurant. When he was 7 years old, Mauro remembered, his father would dress him in a bowtie and have him serve champagne to the diners at Le Cirque, which at the time was located in an architecturally cramped space where the airier Daniel now sits. Mauro and his brothers, Mario and Marco, virtually grew up in their father’s restaurant, where the elder Maccioni could often been seen barking orders or looking askance at his sons as they scurried about the room serving the Kissingers, the Kempners or Cindy and Joey Adams. Part of it was an act, of course, Mr. Maccioni’s role as ringleader of the culinary circus, but, eventually, Mauro said, with a smile on his face: “We wanted to get out from actually working in the same restaurant–it would have driven us nuts.”
In 1996, the pressure lessened, a bit, when Sirio opened the $2.5 million Osteria del Circo at 120 W. 55th Street for his sons. Papa Maccioni invested a fortune in Circo, because, Mauro said, “He wanted us to do something on our own, but didn’t want us to have to answer to an investor.”
This afternoon, July 20, the lunch crowd had left, Circo was practically empty and Mauro sat down at a table with a glass of
Mauro handed over his business card, which features the logo of Circo on one side and Le Cirque on the other. He and his brothers still oversee the restaurant when his father is on vacation and, with a second Le Cirque recently opened at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, the understanding in restaurant circles is that eventually, each of the Maccioni sons will inherit a restaurant.
Asked why he decided to go into the family business, Mauro smiled. His bright eyes did not yet carry the skepticism of his father’s gaze. “They put a gun to my head,” he smiled. “I really didn’t have any sort of epiphany,” Mauro said. “I decided because it was something I was very familiar with. As a young child, I was sort of encouraged into thinking that … I probably had the same knack. I never thought twice about doing something else–for the time being.”
Mauro smiled again. “It’s not easy,” he said. “My father is a very intense person, he always wants things his way. Sometimes, you can feel the heat of Le Cirque from over here.” And when his father gives son the speech about growing up poor in Montecatini, Mauro said that he tells him: “Dad, it’s different for us. We don’t have to be slaves.”
They don’t exactly spend all day sipping Montepulciano in the back room either. Ask Mauro who his girlfriend is and he will reply giddily, “Circo!” Six days a week, he manages the restaurant and the mercurial egos of his customer during two shifts that last from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then from 5:30 p.m. until 11:30 p.m.
And always his father is watching. “My friends joke: ‘Uh-oh, he’s late for work, his dad’s going to call now.” And there is the day-to-day reality of living in his father’s substantial shadow. “People come to the restaurant and see how hard we work,” Mauro said. “But it took three sons to do what he did as one father.”
Expansion is one way of working the offspring into the family and the technological revolution of the last few years is helping that expansion, especially when Dad can’t figure out how to e-mail his clients or even turn on the friggin’ computer monitor. According to Ken Preston, adjunct professor of management a the New York University Stern Graduate School of Business, “More people are working for their parents and the main reason is that with the advent of technology, younger people feel that they have an immediate platform in the family business.”
Mr. Preston added that “Historically, one of the big problems with family businesses has been the issue of simultaneous roles. Children have certain roles in the family–a woman may be Daddy’s Little Girl at home even when she is 25, 30 or 35, and even when she has an M.B.A. from Wharton,” he said. When Dad the C.E.O. treats daughter Missy, the C.O.O. like Daddy’s Little Girl during the quarterly sales meeting, trouble inevitably follows, which is why, Mr. Preston continued, “children who ordinarily might have entered the family business haven’t done so.” But now, he added, “technology gives children identities that transcend the family roles.” In other words, ungrateful, good-for-nothing Junior suddenly looks a whole lot more valuable when he can get the modem to work for Dad.
The digital revolution has also figured in a cultural revolution which, overnight has made a lot of the touchstones of Manhattan power, sex and glamour look so, well, 20th century . So, it would seem that Mr. Preston’s observation would also apply to the extremely with-it children of Manhattan’s rich and famous. Pater LeRoy’s reinvention of the Russian Tea Room has not exactly faired well in the press. No matter how many times Mike Nichols eats lunch there, he, nor Ms. Walters, nor many of the other celebrities that Warner LeRoy has cultivated over the years can make the place hip again.
So when Max told his father he wanted to have a party at the restaurant where his roommate, Mark Ronson, also the brother of Max’s bandmate and New York magazine cover subject, would spin records, Warner happily said yes.
Max has thrown two parties so far, on May 7 and June 7. “He wants us to do it weekly,” said Max about his father, who didn’t seem to mind that the May 7 party was attended by Sean (Puffy) Combs and his entourage. (Paging Mr. Nichols!) Max admitted that he was worried during the first party about possible cigarette burns on the $30,000 bars, but once he sat down and had a drink, he said, he started to enjoy himself. “The young crowd reminds you of how this place used to be,” he said.
It’s hard to be hipper than your mother when Mom’s the one with the orange hair, but Lulu Johnson, 25, spends just about every waking moment with her fashion designer mother, Betsey Johnson. “She’s always asking me my opinion on things,” said Lulu from her mother’s new house in East Hampton, where last Saturday they attended the Polo match in Bridgehampton like a true society couple.
Lulu started working for her mother right out of high school, back when the company didn’t even have assistants. She’s worked in jobs ranging from public relations, to managing the East 60th Street store, to fittings and styling models for shows.
“As soon as I hit 14 [years old], I wore mom’s clothes…I realized I wanted to be in fashion,” said Lulu. My mother never forced me into it, she was extremely happy.” But, when she was 23, Lulu realized that she needed a break, to figure out if she wanted a career of her own. She took some acting classes and taught at a preschool, but she missed working for her mom. “It wasn’t the craziness and the energy of the fashion industry, that I realized I really missed.”
Ted Zagat began working for his parents Tim and Nina Zagat’s guide book empire when they began to expand onto the Internet, but after using his technological know-how to find a role in the family business, it was his knowledge of the city’s hot nightspots that secured him his coming out, so to speak, when he spearheaded the Zagat New York City Nightlife guide that was published earlier this year. Currently, Ted works between 60 and 70 hours a week for his parents, creating, “strategic partnerships, negotiating contracts and developing the web site.” But there is a buffer zone. Ted’s office, while in the same building, is two floors below his parents’.
“Frankly I wanted my own space,” he said, adding that “sometimes it’s a little weird being the bosses’ kid.” Still, he said, “It must be self evident to people that I’ve earned my stripes. I went to respectable schools [Exeter and Harvard] … everyone here knows how hard I work.” Some of those stripes were also earned when he worked in Paul Bocuse’s restaurant in Lyon, France–peeling potatoes for a summer when he was 16 years old. He got the job through “connections”–the chef is a good friend of Ted’s parents. So is Wolfgang Puck, who gave Ted a gig at Spago in Los Angeles the following summer.
“I’ve always known I wanted to be involved in this,” said Ted. “I never wanted to be a firefighter or an astronaut. There’s no one I can think of off hand that I would trade with right now. I feel blessed.”
Who wouldn’t feel blessed having a surname with the clout to score last-minute reservations at practically any restaurant in town? Certainly this isn’t lost on any of the kids. As Jennifer LeRoy put it, “We haven’t been to Ducasse, yet.” She was referring to the impossible-to-get a reservation restaurant that vaunted chef Alain Ducasse recently opened in the Essex House hotel. But, she added, “we will.” Indeed, the LeRoys, Zagat and Maccioni children have been enjoying the fruits of Manhattan’s culinary scene since their childhoods. Max and Jennifer LeRoy’s Dalton School classes took field trips to Tavern on the Green’s pastry kitchen, where the chefs taught the grade schoolers how to flambé.
And Mauro Maccioni remembered the birthday when Le Cirque’s renowned pastry chef, Jacques Torres, baked a fancy dark chocolate cake which was delivered to Mauro’s school. “The kids were used to Betty Crocker,” Mauro recalled. “All my friends said, ‘this cake sucks.'”
Harry Morton, the 19-year-old son of Hard Rock Hotel and Casino owner Peter Morton has had similar experiences, but his experiences with the New Nepotism have been a bit tougher on him. “Brutal” is the word he used to describe the hotel staff’s attitude toward him during his first summer there, three years ago.
“I did one too many summers of sitting in bed all day and my parents decided it was time for me to get my ass in gear,” he said, adding that “being 16 [years old], it was nice to get away from my parents for a summer.” Currently, Harry manages to jet off to his father’s East Hampton estate every other weekend, but he insists that he works hard during his summer vacation from N.Y.U., where he has completed one year of school–an experience he called a disaster. “I’m not a huge supporter of college,” he said.
Harry speaks to his father about four times a day. “I don’t consider it really working for my dad. It’s not like I’m reporting to him. He turns me over to the manager of the hotel.” Mr. Morton fils said that he’s earned himself some respect in the three years he’s worked at the hotel. “They realize maybe I’m not fucking around,” he said. Still, he says, “a lot of people say, oh yeah you went to work for your dad, it’ll be easy.” The opportunity to work for his successful father makes Harry “feel leaps and bounds ahead of people.” But, he added, “It’s not always easy … There’s a lot of pressure. I’m always living in his footsteps. I want to branch out on my own.”
Although Harry’s also taking summer-school classes in Vegas, he does manage to take advantage of his run of the hotel by importing friends from New York, Europe, L.A. to party at the Hard Rock. “Vegas isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” said Harry. “It’s brutal, I miss New York like mad right now … There’s a seriously doggy group of people here.”
And Mr. Morton, sir, please don’t ask your son to share an office with you any time soon. “That’d be awful,” said Harry.
Dr. Robert Katz would probably agree. Dr. Katz is not the guy with the Comedy Central cartoon series, but rather a psychologist trained in psychoanalysis with an office on the Upper East Side. He often counsels children victimized by nepotism–and he said he doesn’t think working for the family business is so great for mental health.
“It’s very similar to not leaving home, to what it means psychologically to not leave home,” said Dr. Katz. “There’s always the potential of lost opportunity to become more yourself and develop yourself apart from the feeling of making it on your own … it’s a way of remaining in the family. Full growth involves leaving the family,” said Dr. Katz.
Donald Trump would have you believe that neither is he. Mr. Trump’s son Donny, 21, graduated from his father’s alma mater, the Wharton School of Business in May and he plans to work for his father when he gets back from a summer trip to Alaska. Donny wasn’t available for comment, but his father was, and he sounded a protective note. “Leave my boy alone,” said Mr. Trump. “It’s a lot of pressure on children when they go into a business like this. A big factor towards their success is whether or not they like it. If they don’t love it as Vince Lombardi would say, it’s not going to work.” Mr. Trump said that he hoped his children “ultimately do something they love.”
Back at the Tea Room, Jennifer and Max LeRoy were thinking about the future.
“I want to have something smaller,” Max said of the restaurant he wants to open one day in New York.
“I want something big!” interjected Jennifer, with a smile.
Max laughed and thought a bit. “I can’t believe my Dad ran Tavern for so long,” he said, noting that the restaurant had 800 employees. “It’s like a town.”
He said it as if maybe one day it would be his town too.
Additional reporting by William Berlind.