Manhattan’s Mightiest Brokers: A Peer Review

Phoning the well-tanned, Italian-suited conquerors of Manhattan real-estate brokerage is frightening, especially when you’re calling to ask which local agents they admire. “I know everybody said me,” said Carrie Chiang, the Corcoran Group’s top salesperson. “Did everybody say me?”

They did.

Almost all of the brokers contacted by The Observer praised Ms. Chiang’s extravagant persistence, and the old-world Virginian nobility of Edward Lee Cave, and Roger Erickson’s Ferrari-driving gusto.

How do you earn such respect from real- estate royalty? By returning phone calls, and having a little elegance, and keeping devious bullshit to a minimum. “There’s honor amongst thieves,” said the eminent townhouse broker Jed Garfield.

“I think we all know who our cohorts and competition are, and they’re the same people,” said the independent co-op broker A. Laurance Kaiser IV. “However, we respect people who are on the same level.” Why? “We have long memories.”

But like anyone who uses lunch as a verb, or says simplex to refer to a one-floor apartment, many of the tip-top brokers here aren’t unanimously adored: For example, the monolithic Prudential Douglas Elliman vice chairman Dolly Lenz is widely feared.

“They have ballroom dancing, tennis, golf—whatever they do,” Ms. Lenz told The Observer. (Ms. Chiang, incidentally, is a competitive ballroom dancer.) “But if you have no other outside interest, and this is your passion and life and job, then it’s going to be different.

“I don’t do anything else,” Ms. Lenz said. “In other words, everything else suffers as a result.” So real estate is both profession and pastime? “And my hobby, and my children, and my husband.”

But she has a reputation for not calling back other brokers, despite her 18-hour days. “To be the number one broker in the country, if not the world, that’s like being the President of the United States,” her Elliman colleague Leonard Steinberg said. “You’re going to have 50 percent loving you and 50 percent hating.”

Mr. Steinberg is admired more cozily. “I love Leonard!” said Wendy Maitland, a Brown Harris Stevens broker who works with Woody Allen and Madonna. “First of all, he’s got such a fabulous accent. How could you not love that?”

Maybe it’s because of his smooth South African vocals that Mr. Steinberg, an executive vice president at Elliman, has 17 listings in contract (six more than Ms. Lenz).

“He’s just professional, he’s charming, he’s funny, he’s good at what he does, he’s delightful to work with,” Ms. Maitland said.

Mr. Steinberg is a younger, downtown version of Mr. Cave—whose family is rumored to go back to Gen. Robert E. Lee. “Hogwash,” Mr. Cave said. “We came to—we honestly did—Saint Mary’s County in Maryland in 1680, with a group that had been formed by Lord Calvert.” Yet he drolly pointed out that his surname is Latin: “We’ve only been English since 1066.”

Corcoran’s Deborah Grubman described the old-school broker thusly: “Absolutely meticulous, in appearance and behavior, and a perfect gentleman.” Mr. Cave, who founded his meticulous, eponymous brokerage 25 years ago, wears monogrammed shirts, has silver hair and drinks martinis on the rocks.

“Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover,” Ms. Grubman said. Same goes for classy-looking Cave employees like Kathy Steinberg and Caroline Guthrie.

Kirk Henckels, the director of the Stribling Private Brokerage, has a similar glow of well-educated appropriateness. “Kirk is a great guy—you can’t not like him,” said Barbara Fox, who owns an eponymous boutique brokerage. “There are so many brokers, you ask them, ‘Can you change the windows in the apartment?’, and they say, ‘Uh …. ’ But he understands.”

“He is a very smart negotiator, a very good real-estate broker, and one of my friends,” Mr. Erickson said.

Corcoran senior vice president Sharon Baum is a flashier gal. Even though the license plate on her Veuve Clicquot–filled Rolls-Royce says “SOLD 1”—and her rhinestone lapel pins have similar messages—the swagger is justified.

“She’s always been an inspiration into how brokerage should be: ethical, honest, upfront, efficient, no B.S.,” Mr. Steinberg said. But what of the glittery Baum veneer? “It’s a little bit Florida-and-Beverly-Hills-meets-Manhattan …. You might hate the brooch, you might hate the Rolls, but you cannot hate the broker.”

Among other things, Ms. Baum is currently listing an 18-room duplex at 279 Central Park West for $24.5 million.

The only broker with nicer wheels is Mr. Erickson, who drives a platinum Ferrari F430. “He has a lovely way about him,” Ms. Fox said.

“The problem with most people in real estate is, they’re not business people—they’re glorified housewives or God knows what else,” Ms. Lenz said. “But Roger’s a business person.”

Mr. Erickson, a senior managing director at Sotheby’s International Realty, has worked with Steve Jobs and Bono, Edgar Bronfman Jr. and David Geffen, Tatum O’Neill and Madonna, too.

Can flashiness be bad? It depends on your standards: “People have certain skills and a set of abilities that apply well to brokerage,” s
aid Mr. Garfield, the townhouse broker, “but I’m not sure they’re the same skills that apply to being a super human being.”

Manhattan’s Mightiest Brokers: A Peer Review