Simply the Best in the World: Anatomy of a Fabled Building

Flashes of intense envy are inevitable when you’re reading about the personal palaces and larger-than-life inhabitants of 740 Park Avenue. The walls of your cramped walk-up close in on you inch by inch with every page you turn—but a little envy-induced claustrophobia isn’t too high a price to pay for a leisurely look around Manhattan’s grandest apartment building.

As a former Daily News gossip columnist and best-selling chronicler of the city’s elite, Michael Gross is well-suited to the task of mining the luxurious co-op’s 75-year life span for the juiciest bits, the eccentric heirs, rejected celebrities, jilted lovers. There are the boldface names of industry (John D. Rockefeller Jr., Marshall Field III, Irene Guggenheim), as well as contemporary billionaires (Steve Schwarzman, Ronald Lauder, David Koch). Somehow, all these oversized egos and piggybanks fit under one stately roof at the northwest corner of 71st Street and Park.

It should come as no surprise that the building was billed from the beginning as the “most expensive, the most exclusive, simply the best apartment house in the world.” Despite an unhappy childhood (the Great Depression, when there weren’t enough patrician bodies to fill the place) and some growing pains along the way (recessions), the septuagenarian structure has matured to meet the great expectations with which it was erected.

Construction got off to an inauspicious start in September 1929, only a month before the stock-market crash. Bankruptcies were rife; demand for palatial apartments was weak. Despite falling into dire financial straits from the start, the developer, James T. Lee (grandfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), persevered. He chose the renowned architect Rosario Candela to design the building.

“The high hopes of 1929 had turned into dashed hopes in seven depressing years,” writes Mr. Gross. In the mid-1930’s, Rockefeller came into the picture and kept the concern afloat. Junior—as Mr. Gross refers to him—was undoubtedly the building’s savior: When he plumped for the largest unit, Time magazine dubbed it the “most notable lease of the year.” But that was only a warm-up for the magnate’s main act: In 1952, Rockefeller purchased the entire building from developer William Zeckendorf and offered residents the option to buy their apartments.

Similar books, like Stephen Birmingham’s Life at the Dakota (1979), have successfully delved into the intricacies of a single building; Mr. Gross, however, goes into more meticulous detail. The cast of characters who lived, died, ate, drank, partied or were thrown out of the building can be dizzying. Keeping straight whether one’s grandfather sailed on the Mayflower or rode on horseback alongside General Washington inevitably proves difficult. Just when things settle down, someone runs off to Reno for a divorce. In many cases, there are second, third and fourth wives, with scandalous details wedged between each one.

Through gossip columns and interviews, the author airs the building’s dirty laundry, some of which is now frankly antique. During the 1960’s, he writes, the limestone façade couldn’t resist the changing times, as “family names, dynastic fortunes, and quasi-religious institutions of old money lost their confidences, their allure, and their power.” Peggy Bancroft turned a checkerboard entrance gallery into a dance floor and threw much-talked-about blowouts. Bright young offspring were choosing the Beatles over bridge. Today, the heirs of vast fortunes can be found table-dancing at Bungalow 8—nothing’s changed, except perhaps for the advent of videotaped sexploits and reality shows.

As in The Sky’s the Limit, Steven Gaines’ recent book on Manhattan luxury real estate, co-op-board turndowns stand out. Although they never went strictly by the book (i.e., the Social Register), the board at 740 Park was wary of celebrities and either formally or informally—with a wink and a nudge—turned down Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, John Crawford and Neil Sedaka. (How could they turn down Neil Sedaka?) There was, of course, knee-jerk anti-Semitism in the early years, but 740 Park would eventually house a number of Jewish residents—and a Saudi prince for good measure.

Personal wealth was always the pivotal factor in a building where capital ruled. Residents were inheritors of old money, accumulators of new money or skillful manipulators of other people’s money. For someone like Steve Schwarzman, dropping over $30 million on the 34-room penthouse that belonged to Mr. Rockefeller was a no-brainer. In one swift real-estate coup, the Blackstone financier solidified his social standing (Saul Steinberg owned it post-Rockefeller). Mr. Gross believes that the deal shows how 740 Park has changed from a “shrine to family accomplishment over generations into one that respected and honored only one accomplishment: the individual accumulation of cash money.” In other words, they don’t make rich folk like they used to.

740 Park isn’t just a laundry list of awe-inspiring floor plans and eye-popping extras. The book offers a narrative look at the 20th-century American aristocracy through one legendary residence. “Blood, brains, wealth and power drive the story of 740,” Mr. Gross writes. “But so do excess, greed, scandal and extravagant folly.” Honestly, what more could you ask for?

Michael Calderone writes the Manhattan Transfers column for The Observer.

Simply the Best in the World: Anatomy of a Fabled Building