A King and his castle

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Sunset in the city. Photo: JH.

Friday July 31, 2020. After a week of hot and humid weather in New York, it’s still hot and humid as I write this on late Thursday night. The weather forecasts some cooler temps coming in but we’ve heard that song before. However, I went to dinner with a friend at Sette Mezzo and all 12 twelve tables were filled. Time to get out folks, humid or not.

A friend recently asked me about a Diary I wrote eight years ago about a social friend of many New Yorkers who had died around that time in his late 60s: Victor Shafferman. Victor was a very successful businessman here in the city whose success was expressed (to the observer) by his large uniformed chauffeur-driven classic Rolls Royce limousine — the kind you’d see the Queen riding (and waving) in. He also lived in one of the few remaining Gilded Age mansions. Built around 1903 and designed by McKim, Mead & White on Fifth Avenue, the house remains a private home.

Detail of 973 Fifth.

Victor was something of a mystery, but a self-created mystery, and he made his way in life through this mystery — either for his own satisfaction or his ambition. He was a very pleasant fellow to be in company with, and also very polite and respectful of others. To me, he was an excellent example of the nature of New York. It has always been a magnet for ambition and creativity. Artists, writers, businessmen and women. We come here to create that Self we dreamed of in our childhood and youth. This is the city’s uniqueness at this time in human history.

Victor was one of those fellows. I enjoyed recalling the story so much, I’m sharing it again …

The House at 973 Fifth. The Daily News announced on Friday that the house at 973 Fifth Avenue had sold to an undisclosed buyer for $42 million. Houses have always fascinated me since I was a small boy. It was the impact of the design and the size, aesthetically speaking, but even more was my curiosity about Who lived there, and What were they like?

It so happens the little boy grew up to be a man who has had the pleasure of learning more about them, and often first-hand. 973 Fifth has always been one of those houses for this New Yorker — along with its birth companion, 972 Fifth, which was built at the beginning of the 20th century for Helen and Payne Whitney as a wedding gift from Mr. Whitney’s uncle Oliver Payne.

When I was that little boy with the big eyes, such houses were imagined to be someone’s dream come true, so enormous, so magnificent. Kings and Queens in their castles. Now that magnificence still resonates at times although the enormity and its posture had proven mainly irrelevant, and even at times a burden, when it comes to human life.

The two “Stanford White” houses, 973, which sold for $42 million in 2012, and the former Payne Whitney house, now the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

The two houses were built at approximately the same time, and both attributed to Stanford White although Christopher Gray in the New York Times has suggested that 973 was not done by White but rather by his partner Charles McKim, considering the personalities and style of the designers.

972’s history is well known. It remained in the Whitney family until Helen Hay Whitney died in 1944 and left it to her children John Hay Whitney and Joan Whitney Payson. A few years later it was sold to the French who use it as part of the French Consulate in New York. Its history is well known because the history of the Whitney owners is well known.

973 has a quieter, lesser, almost unknown history to New Yorkers. The man who built it, Henry Cook, once owned the entire block, from 78th to 79th and Fifth, and from Fifth to Madison. In the late 19th century he built a big Victorian mansion on the corner of 78th where the James B. Duke mansion stands today. Cook had sold his 78th Street house to Mr. Duke early in the new century. Duke tore it down and put up his town palace designed by Horace Trumbauer.

The drawing room at 973 Fifth.

Cook, in the meantime, hired McKim, Mead and White to build a “smaller” house for him on the empty lot at 973. Mr. Cook was far-seeing. He had it written into the deeds of all the lots he sold on the entire block that none of the buildings could be more than five or six stories. And so it remains today for the lucky New York neighborhood.

The building of the house at 973 started in 1902, the same year Cook sold the lot next door for the Whitney house. He did not live to see the house completed, dying in 1905, a couple of years before completion. (Stanford White didn’t see its completion either — he was murdered by Harry Thaw in 1906.)

Henry Cook left the house to his daughter but, according to Christopher Gray, she rarely used it. In 1919 she sold it to a Mr. Joseph Feder. He lived there with his wife and family. Twenty-nine years later in 1948, the family sold it to the Mormon Church. The Mormons used it as a training center. In 1978, they sold it to Victor Shafferman, a real estate investor, for a reported $600,000.

The library at 973 Fifth.
The entrance gallery.
The dining room.

I’ve been aware of the house since the 1960s, because of its location, set in a block of 19th and early 20th century mansions. It always looked mysterious, or rather, unoccupied. I don’t recall ever seeing windows with curtains, or even lights from any of the windows except for the window in the entry way. Only shades, closely drawn, covered the inside of the windows, so it always looked like nobody lived there.

I met Victor Shafferman in the early 90s on my return to New York from California. He was a man in his fifties, somewhat portly, appearing at first to be a diffident personality, but decidedly friendly. As it is when you get to know people on a social level in New York, I got to know him slowly and not really well. I didn’t know where he lived for a long time, but surmied that he was a wealthy man because of the chauffeur driven maroon and black Rolls Royce limousine in which he moved around town. Although he was quite personable to be around, the first sight of him, a man of girth and wealth, in the back of his enormous car, he had a stern, European image in my perception.

The original floor plan for 973 Fifth Avenue, designed by McKim Mead and White for Henry Cook in 1903.

He was, he told me, Swiss-born, and an heir to the CIBA-Geigy pharmaceutical fortune. He was an only child and his mother was still alive and living in Switzerland. This I learned when he happened to tell me why he had to travel to Europe so often.

I tend to take people at their word on the subject of themselves and their wealth and placement — until proven otherwise. Victor made the conversation of an intelligent man, worldly in his point of view, knowledgeable about the state of things. He was quite open about his background and financial circumstances, all of which was revealed without any expression of curiosity on my part. He said that he was a private investor in New York real estate. He told me of several buildings that he had bought and sold at great profits — including, coincidentally, the building on the block south of where I live on East End Avenue.

In time I learned that he owned and lived in the house 973. This intrigued me because although I could also see that he was one of those New Yorkers who likes the high profile social world, I had never heard of anyone visiting his mansion. Because I was not aware of him as a host in his house did not mean that he hadn’t been a host there, obviously. But I knew him only to entertain in restaurants.

Victor with Susan Gutfreund in 2002.

Within a few years, I also learned from people who knew I knew Victor, that his story about being a CIBA-Geigy heir was made up. Not true. He’d referred to it so matter-of-factly so many times that it was hard to believe it wasn’t so. And he did live in that enormous Fifth Avenue mansion … alone … (or so I assumed) and got around in his extra large chauffeur-driven Rolls.

He seemed to be a man who liked being somewhat under the radar but nevertheless connected to the center of things. Evidently he rarely did entertain, but he was a frequent guest at major charity and cultural events, often escorting a very social lady to events and openings. Yet, ironically, although many who pursue a high profile social life in New York are drawn to the limelight that surrounds it, Victor seemed to steer clear of it.

When I was eventually invited to a dinner at his house, I saw that it was indeed the picture of a grand mansion on the interior, filled with 18th century furniture — mainly French — giving it an upperclass European feel. The décor seemed appropriate for a rich, well educated, Swiss gentleman. He described himself personally as a “collector” because he liked the finer things that were appropriate for a residence of this calibre. The house, which from the outside looks narrow compared to the Whitney mansion, is actually very large on the inside, enhanced by its high ceilings and parquet and marble floors.

In the early 2000s, Victor developed a relationship with a man much younger than himself, an architectural student. Again, because I knew him only on a passing social basis and not as close friends, it seemed to be a first for Victor. We never discussed it, however, although I could see that theirs was a compatible relationship of shared interests and sensibilities, and a mutual respect. Around the same time Victor acquired another property, over in Peapack, New Jersey — Blairsden — a once famous 38-room Louis XIII style mansion, designed by Carrere and Hastings and built for a Wall Street investment banker named Ledyard Blair. The house had been sold to the Sisters of St. John the Baptist in 1950 after Blair’s death. When Victor acquired it a half century later, most of its acreage had been sold off and the house was in need of major refurbishment and restoration. Victor and his boyfriend began spending more time there overseeing the restoration.

Blairsden, the estate in Peapack, New Jersey purchased for restoration by Victor Shafferman in the early 2000s.

In late 2009, Victor died of pancreatic cancer at age 68. This seemed sudden to me since I had not seen much of him in the year before and was unaware that he had been seriously ill. Although when I did see him in the Spring of that year, he looked unwell. I had no idea what the cause was although on meeting I could see that he was trying to put on a brave face.

So it was with great sadness that I learned of his death later that year. For it seemed that up until he was stricken, he had found a way to make a very good life for himself, one that he could share with someone he cared for. This is no small feat for any of us.

I wrote about Victor on these pages shortly after he died. I expressed my interest in him and how I had learned I really didn’t know him at all; that in fact his story about CIBA-Geigy was false and that his mother lived not in Switzerland but in Quebec in a suburb of Montreal.

In my own life, I have had the experience of close relationship with another who fabricated his reality to the point of departure. When I was a young man, I should also add, I learned that my own father had done a similar thing, affecting everyone related to him, including this son (he had several). It is an odd and off-putting experience. It doesn’t anger me, the way it seems to affect some people, but remains oddly and forevermore inexplicable. Nevertheless, it spreads the seeds of deceit, which always makes an indelible and disturbing impression.

Victor Shafferman’s boyhood home in a suburb of Montreal.

In terms of my relationship with Victor Shafferman, it was always never more than an acquaintanceship. I liked him and enjoyed his company and conversation, so whatever the truth of his background, it had no direct effect on my life.

However. After I wrote about Victor’s death, I heard from several people including some who had known him earlier in his life. I got a message from a man who had worked for him as houseman at 973. He expressed his sorrow on hearing of his former employer’s fate, but also commented that Victor was always a mystery to him. He knew by the way Victor handled staff (nervously and uncomfortably) that he was “unused to it, that it was not part of his upbringing.”

Several people who wrote knew him from his college days at McGill, and before when he lived with his parents in Montreal. So his visits to his ailing mother during the years I knew him were not to Europe as he always announced, but to Montreal where she “lived alone for many years before she died.” Her house, one old friend reported had in more recent years “seemed to be falling apart.” Another wrote to tell me that Victor hadn’t been born in Switzerland but rather in Israel during the Second World War, and that his father had been a diamond merchant who moved his family to Canada after the War.

Gaetana Enders and Victor Shafferman in 2008.

College friends who liked him very much recalled that he was “always spinning stories” about his background, including vaguely connecting himself with the Rothschild family. Those who were aware of his habit of dissembling,  wrote it off as his own fantasy world, because they liked him — imagining himself as a man of another century.

Another friend from his youth wrote describing him as “a curious and amazing character worthy of a Victorian novel.” And how did he acquire his fortune? According to the same friend: “the old fashioned way — he was the only child of a fairly wealthy family. His father, Ben Shafferman, was a partner in a diamond concern in Israel.

Another, who was a classmate at McGill wrote: “I got to know him somewhat. I say ‘somewhat’ because he was never a forthright person and often said things about his family’s holdings and experiences which strained credulity. I still remember him telling me that his father wrote the tax code of Lichtenstein. Many years ago I visited him in New York where he had an office in the diamond district, in a building which he said he owned. The purpose of my visit was to discuss the purchase of the building by some people I was representing who were from Israel. Victor made some claims about connections in Israel which we later found to be false. My clients chose not to do business with him.

“I think that you captured him very well: wealthy, mysterious, prone to great exaggeration like a con man, articulate, condescending at times. The mystery remains as to the source of his wealth.

“Despite all this, I liked Victor and am sad to learn that he passed away and suffered in doing so.”

So. That was Victor. Or, that wasn’t Victor. There were others I know of who had closer relationships with him in business. Perhaps they knew, perhaps they understood him.

For this “social friend,” this writer, the question remained as it always does: “What was it that he felt he had to conceal?  Was it his Jewishness? I never knew that he was Jewish, nor did it occur to me, but then it’s not a matter I’d thought about or would think about.

He clearly felt he had something to hide. I knew that he was gay but so did many people. He was very well liked in the social world, not the least because he was rich, which always impresses many New Yorkers — rich or not, but also because he was kind and generous in his courtesies. He liked people and wanted people to like him. His property evidently was all holdings within a foundation. Evidently he had a business partner who had previously been a boyfriend, with whom he owned everything.

All remains cloudy. Many were sorry to hear of his death. So I am still left wondering why he lied about himself.  His habit and his need to dissemble started in his youth, long before he had business connections, long before he was out in the world. It was an inclination, a cover really, for the Victor who felt he really needed to be someone else. Ironically, he had succeeded in his quest.

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