Remembering two prominent New Yorkers

Trinity Churchyard, at Wall Street and Broadway. 2:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, December 10, 2012. Grey and rainy weekend with day time temperatures reaching up into the low 50s.

We lost two prominent and popular New Yorkers last week: Mona Ackerman and Saul Steinberg.

Mona, who was only 66 when she died this past Wednesday (12/5/) after a long battle with ovarian cancer, was known professionally as Dr. Mona Ackerman. She was a practicing psychotherapist and also wrote an advice column for the Huffington Post called “Dr. Mona Knows.”

Ari Ackerman, his mother Mona Ackerman, and Richard Cohen.
I was never a client/patient, but I am sure she was very good at her practice. She was a jolly, yet serious, naturally empathic person, warm and gregarious, who made friends easily.

She was also an heiress of her father Meshulim Riklis, who made millions or billions, beginning in the Go-Go days of the 1960s stock market. Riklis generously provided his children with the wealth to live well and comfortably. Mona had a big apartment on Fifth Avenue across from the Met, and on occasion, she’d fill it with lots of friends.

The photograph we’ve posted here of Mona and her son Ari Ackerman, and her longtime, devoted companion Richard Cohen, the political columnist, was taken just six years ago almost to the day, at one of those parties.

This was what I wrote about it in the 12/20/06 NYSD:

Ms. Ackerman’s apartment (which she shares with Mr. Cohen) once belonged to Barbara Hutton, the nation’s first Poor Little Rich Girl. The present occupant is a bit of an heiress herself (her father is legendary conglomerateur Meshulem Riklis) but nobody says “poor little Mona.” They say: “oh yippee” when an invitation arrives from her aerie. For she is famous for her gemutlich hosting and her Asian chef’s brilliant creations. And the guestlist is heavy on establishment media and investment banking. Mona herself is a therapist and one of those people you will find yourself telling everything to just as matter of course in the conversation. It’s not the questions because she’s not overly inquiring. It’s the vibe, her vibe. And she’s a no-nonsense listener. Gemutlich.

The building’s entrance gallery was jammed with people. Fifth Avenue going very down home holiday.

Mona’s was packed from the moment you got off the elevator. Mort Zuckerman was talking to Amanda Burden. Charlie Rose was a foot away talking Jamie Goodale. Patricia Duff was talking to George Stephanopoulos and Alexandra Wentworth; Henry and Nancy Silverman,  Alice Mayhew talking to Hannah Pakula, Peter Pringle, Peggy Siegal, Warren and Olivia Hoge, Jim and Kathy Hoge, John and Joan Jakobson, Robert Silvers, Susan Burden, the Rohatyns, Steve Ratner and Maureen White, the Brokaws, Paul Sargent, Editor of the WSJ, Carl and Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, Steve and Cathy Graham, Liz and George Stevens, Judy Miller, Ina and Robert Caro, Lloyd Grove, Governor Jon Corzine and Sharon Elghanayan, and on and on.

The sign in the lobby of the building directing to the Ackerman and Mosbacher holiday parties.
I wouldn’t characterize Mona in any way as a party girl. Although she had a spectacular venue for such and used it advantageously at times. She just loved people, and there are many today who will always remember her for her hospitality and her welcoming presence.

On that particular night, Mona’s neighbor and friend Georgette Mosbacher was giving a holiday party also a few floors below chez Ackerman. So they’d put up a sign (along with coat racks in the lobby).

The party ran from 6 to 9. The block between Fifth and Madison was gridlocked from the limousines double-parked. Hundreds came and went, shuttling between Ms. Mosbacher’s and the Ackerman apartment. The elevator man told me he hadn’t seen something like this since he first went to work in the building several years ago. I never knew her well enough or long enough to form a friendship but there are many who did, who will always cherish her memory, and miss her.

Two days later, last Friday, Saul Steinberg, the legendary entrepreneur and financier, also died, in his sleep at his East Side townhouse. (It so happened that his mother Anne, in her mid-90s, also died on Friday at her home in Florida, unaware of her son's passing.) Saul was 73 and although his health and mobility had been seriously impaired seventeen years before in 1995 when he suffered a stroke, he had otherwise been in robust health.

I had been a guest of him and his wife Gayfryd only this past Thanksgiving when there were 27 at table, only two of whom – myself and designer David Monn – were not close family members. Saul sat at the head of the table, as he always did, and was in a cheerful mood, jovial in the paper crown that he’d acquired from the party favors that were placed by everyone’s plate: King Saul presiding over his loyal subjects (family and friends).

The young Saul Steinberg, genius tycoon, budding corporate raider headed for the big life.
Saul Philip Steinberg was always a brilliant boy, born and bred in Brooklyn, the eldest son of four, children of Anne and Julian Steinberg. At 11 he was a world chess champion. He had the kind of mind that could easily comprehend and create programs, models, projections, profiles, integrations, simulations, strictures, systems and finally, computers. If he had been born only ten years later, he very well might have beceome a resident genius in Silicon Valley. Such was his intellect.

At age 22, in 1961, after graduating from Penn in 1959, he burst upon the financial scene with the idea of acquiring 2nd generation computers – which in those days were so huge they could occupy a space as large as a small gymnasium – and leasing them out to corporations. It sounds like a no-brainer today with computers now accessible to any individual, let alone a huge company.  But then the future flourishing of computers was unimaginable to almost all.

His initial idea came as a result of his instructor at Wharton asking him to write his senior thesis on “The Decline and Fall of IBM” (which was the hottest  stock of the late '50s and throughout the 1960s). His research led him to conclude that his instructor was way off-base with the idea of “decline and fall” of Big Blue.

“I discovered,” he later recalled, “that IBM  was an incredible, fantastic, brilliantly conceived company with a very rosy future.” When he told this to his instructor, he wasn’t believed, and ended up writing about another subject, the topic of which he later forgot.
Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg, circa 1990, surrounded by their collection of Old Masters in the drawing room of their enormous triplex at 740 Park Avenue. When fortunes reversed, the 19,000 square foot apartment that had once belonged to John D. Rockefeller Jr. was sold for a record (at the time) $31 million. Photo: WWD.
His research, however, convinced him that computers were the future, and that there was a lot of money to be made in themIBM had been charging a 50% premium on rentals which gave the lessee the privilege of returning the machine before the end of the lease. Saul figured he could sign up clients for uncancellable long term leases at reduced rates.

IBM wasn’t anxious to do business with the kid and his partner, his college roommate, Hank Sweetbaum. However, other manufacturers, such as Honeywell and RCA were anxious to sell their machines, and they followed the boy.

Saul’s early enterprise was financed by his father Julian Steinberg, and his father’s brother, his uncle Michael Steinberg. At first he called it Ideal Leasing Company. They set up shop in a tiny cement 200-square-foot floor space in a loft in the lowest rent district of Brooklyn.

Ideal Leasing soon became Leasco Data Processing Corporation. Within four years, he quickly built a company with assets of $7.9 million. Three years later Leasco had become the world’s largest independent computer services company with 8500 employs in 50 countries and assets of more than $1 billion.
The Steinbergs out and about, and with their son Rayne and his partner Arevik Torosian.
The company had gone public in 1965. Leasco’s sensational success was buoyed further as one of the hottest stocks of the Go-Go years. The wunderkind of Wall Street, using his company’s stock for leverage, was soon expanding. He was personally worth $60 million (or ten times that in today’s currency). He made a bid for the Chemical Bank, then the fifth largest bank in the country with assets of $8.5 billion.

The bid caused a sensation, considering the bidder, then regarded as a crass upstart from the wrong side of the (class) tracks. The forces of the then heavily WASP establishment put the kibosh on Saul Steinberg’s plan, and it was a lesson for him. “I learned that there really was an establishment,” he later commented.

Undaunted and unfettered, however, the Chemical Bank foray had put him on the map as a force to be reckoned with by the big boys. Wall Street bankers became well aware of Saul Steinberg, and no matter what else they thought, they took him seriously.

He had moved on to Reliance Insurance. Running the debt-free expanding enterprise Leasco, he realized that insurance companies had deep pools of cash, which is what computer leasing companies needed. Reliance was a 150-year-old fire, life and casualty company in Philadelphia with assets of $700 million and annual revenues of more than a quarter of a billion.
The Steinberg family photographed by Jill Krementz on September 14th, 1996.
In 1968, at 29, Saul Steinberg acquired Reliance, which was ten times the size of Leasco.The takeover increased his personal wealth substantially. It also gave him the opportunity to continue acquiring other companies, including  Penn Central, the railroad holding company with a wealth of commercial real estate, and Flying Tiger Airlines, which he eventually sold to FedEx. These deals brought him tens of millions in profits and established him as a “corporate raider” par excellence.

In 1984 he made a famous attempt on Disney which established him as a “corporate raider” and brought the word “greenmailer” into the financial lexicon. The Disney attempt was not completed successfully but the company paid Saul Steinberg $60 million just to go away.

In 1984, he was named to the initial Forbes 400 List with a fortune over $200 million. He had also made his entirely family rich – his brother Robert, his two sisters, his mother and his children. It was that same year that the then twice married financial mogul gave a dinner party one night in which he invited among others, his friend Richard Feigen, the art dealer.

Feigen had brought along a friend of his, Gayfryd Johnson, a 35-five-year-old businesswoman from New Orleans. Saul took one look at Gayfryd, and immediately switched place cards at the table, seating her next to him. It was a coup de foudre.

Saul Steinberg photographed by Jill Krementz on January 6th, 1996 in his Reliance office a year after he had his stroke.
They were married the same year.

This was the roaring '80s, the days of Nouvelle Society. Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg together cut a wide swath among the dazzling crowd of bankers, socialites and philanthropists of New York. With Gayfryd’s leadership and guidance, he became involved with, among other institutions, the Met, the New York Public Library, and PEN. He had become a serious art collector. He bought the John D. Rockefeller Jr. 19,000 square foot triplex at 740 Park Avenue, as well as an enormous beach house in Quoque.

Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg had become a social force in New York philanthropy as his fortune multiplied. They were living high, wide and handsome.

Then in 1995, fate struck the charmed life of the brilliant entrepreneur and his beautiful lady fair. He had a stroke. He was only 56. Initially his left side was paralyzed. He was able to overcome much of the impairment, although never entirely.

The portentousness of his misfortune was not initially apparent to friends and to the public. However, the next few years demanded focus on his recovery. What followed naturally was a decline in the man’s business activity.

In 2000 Saul Steinberg retired from Reliance, installing his brother Robert, as CEO. However, the fortunes of Reliance were already waning disastrously. But 2001, the 184-year-company filed for bankruptcy.

What followed was a mass divestiture of Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg’s personal property. The great apartment was famously sold to Stephen and Christine Schwarman for what was then an astounding record price: $31 million. Its contents were put up for auction at Sotheby’s, fetching many more millions. All to pay press debt. The world class collection of Old Masters went on the block.

The famous “downsizing” was highly publicized.

Therein ended a 20th century great saga of New York and the financial world, complete with a rise from youthful obscurity to legendary fame, fortune and then on to a great fall. Or so it seemed. The couple moved to a three bedroom rental on the Upper East Side.

But, along with his brilliance, Saul Steinberg had been blessed with a very special good luck. His wife, the beautiful Gayfryd, impeccable hostess, member of the Best Dressed List, mother of his daughter Holden, and his adopted son Rayne, was forced to take over the reins of the family and manage her husband’s health. As those who knew the situation, knew the couple and even those who didn’t know them assumed, they were defeated (and broke). Gayfryd, however, the former executive who once ran her own company, rose to the occasion.

Within a few years, Saul’s impairment had improved from rehabilitation. He was able to walk and get around. They acquired a townhouse on the East Side which Gayfryd, herself handy with a hammer and nails, stapler and paint brush, converted into a comfortable and elegant abode for herself, her husband, and their family (to visit, and sometimes to stay).

Saul two years ago seated for dinner at the New York Public Library's Literary Lions gala, reading his program.
Although he would never work again, Saul began to get out and about again, making regular walks through the neighborhood with a friend, or lunch or dinner with friends and with family. His great collection of books (Saul was an inveterate reader – especially of history – three or four books a week) including all of Churchill’s works and everything written about the man, created an impressive library.

Surrounded by his books, his children – Laura, Jonathan (by his first wife Barbara), Holden, Rayne, and Julian (by his second wife Laura) and their spouses and children, by the family dogs (always two or three, including those of family members, his in-laws, including Gayfryd’s parents), Saul never foundered. He declared himself, whenever asked, to have “never felt better” and happier in his life.

The great life he made from early youth, the flashbulbs his celebrity faced for years whenever he left his house or his office, or attended the opera, the library and museum galas, were now merely a memory. His wife had made a home and a haven for him, and he passed his days in that serene atmosphere, buoyed by his natural interests and his books. The Steinbergs’ marriage was his saving grace, a perfect denouement to a spectacular career and the fabled life of fame and fortune. When he passed in his sleep in his bedroom on this past Friday morning, Saul Steinberg was already a man at peace.
 

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