Taking a chance on Alice

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Driving past the Queensboro Bridge. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, January 9, 2023. The great snowstorm that was predicted skipped the Big Town once again.

Alice Mason was a woman who naturally took a chance in life. She was born in Philadelphia — raised by parents who urged/suggested she “cross over” since she was so light-skinned that she could “pass” as white. We white people haven’t got a clue what enormous inner power is required to make that move (guts, curiosity, intelligence, charm, and ambition doesn’t even scratch the surface). But Alice’s parents clearly saw that she could make it in a “white world.” And indeed, she did; aces all the way. But not without her lessons.

Alice Mason, the legendary doyenne of private residential real estate in Manhattan.

It retrospect, besides being intelligent and naturally self-confident, her life was well known. She was an extremely successful broker in New York private real estate. In her day she had no competition.

After attending Colby College (class of ’44), she’d come to New York from Philadelphia with a young man from her world who was indeed “crossing over also.” They were “married” before they came to New York. But the marriage was simply a step-one device and the couple went their separate ways. Mission accomplished.

She could charm, she could easily laugh to express her amusement. But she was also naturally commanding. No more than 5’2 or 3, she was a powerful authority. My way or No Way; Alice was powerful in her business because she was strong by nature.

She liked numbers and she kept lists. They weren’t hobbies; they were instruments of knowledge and its connections — and timely.

Her pleasure in a social life in New York after the end of World War II began at home. She gave dinner parties regularly. In her first apartment, a one bedroom, she even served guests seated in the bedroom.

Her early acquaintance with Alfred Vanderbilt, Jr., pictured here with Ginger Rogers, opened another door that Alice could not have achieved on her own as a single woman in New York.

When she took her clients to look at “the perfect residence in New York” — after the build-up, as the tour covered all of the apartment — Alice made a point of not uttering a word except to direct their tour. Instead she listened and watched, always learning. Her client was rich and wanted only the best. That is exactly what Alice wanted in her sale. And they often came together.

She was also a student of astrology and used her knowledge and skill in making decisions in business. A new client revealing the date of birth details would also help her to learn more about the client. She made a point of being informed on matters affecting the client when possible. In another life Alice could have been a brilliant detective. She used all roads of reason and intelligence.

By her late 30s, she was the only game in town for a certain wealthy client. Around that time, she wanted to have a child, a daughter, and she wanted her to be born under the sign of Taurus. First she had to find a husband. Which meant someone special. Which she did, marrying a tall handsome Frenchman — a professor named Richard (or Ree-shard).

They had an unusual living relationship because Alice didn’t want a man around the house all the time. So he wasn’t; in fact he didn’t even have a key to her apartment. It evidently suited him and a child was born, a girl named Dominique, and under the sign of Taurus (just as Alice manifested).

Growing up, Dominique spent Summers with her father in France which among other things gave her a sense of people in the world, outside of her world in New York. In the years that I met and knew Alice, Dominique had grown up, married, and moved out — although she had been a crackerjack executive in her mother’s business.

Alice at home with daughter, Dominique, and Jan Schumacher, Dominique’s stepfather and Alice’s third husband.

Alice’s dinner parties were her road to that success. That was her intention and also a fact that gave her pleasure. Her work with her clients were handled in the same way. They would frequently come from being a guest at one of her dinners. The lists of guests was impressive to other New Yorkers coming from fame and fortune.

The table seatings and the guest book at one of Alice’s dinners.
A view of the dining room and living room of Alice’s apartment where she sat her 60 guests.

One day at Colby College, when Alice was playing cards in the women’s dorm (she always loved playing cards, especially the games which required real talent and cash money) one of the girls at the table said: “You know there’s a Negro woman in our class.”

Over the years Alice wore Galanos at her dinners. This one is from the ’80s or “the Reagan years,” according to Alice. By that time, the little girl who once found apartments for actors was the most influential real estate broker in New York. Her influence was a reflection of her natural political shrewdness and her self-confidence in sharing it with others.

The remark was almost shocking, yet at the same time Alice shared: “That would be me.” And went on with the game.

Years later after identifying herself in college, a young man who had attended a dinner, invited by Dominique and her husband at the time, wrote a book about black Society in which he identified Alice’s family in Philadelphia. The item was naturally picked up by the New York papers and Alice was very upset about the “outing.”

In her state of upset she asked several times what I thought of her (under her imagined circumstances at having been “outed”). Naturally I heard the news, although having been in Alice’s company scores of times I’d never had a thought about “race” since she was light-skinned. If indeed it were true — which it turned out to be — I could only admire and respect her success, both financially and spiritually, at achieving her efforts and opening up a bigger life for herself.

I never knew how that felt for her, deep inside, except I think she was afraid people wouldn’t believe her anymore — and that brought with it a kind of deep embarrassment.

In the early 2000s, Alice decided to close shop after a number of her top producers left her for newer challenges, marking the completion of six decades of a great business success. Alice had offers in the millions to sell her business but she had turned them all down.

You didn’t feel sorry or pity her. She was naturally confident and self-reliant without a complaint. Her highly successful business life was all image, and her social and intellectual background as well as her light complexion provided opportunities that otherwise might not have been accessible, or as easily accessible. That was her great and commendable achievement. And as a friend she was a great one to know and to learn from.

She once confided to me that when she got involved with Jimmy Carter’s campaign before she gave a great fundraising dinner for him, she had to travel to Georgia to meet the then Governor Carter.

In anticipating the trip she had a brief but horrifying reminder, learned when she was just a young girl, of what a white man in Georgia might do to a black man or woman — hang them from a tree.

She acknowledged it was a childhood anxiety. And yet there it was yet again for the woman now 52 years old, the fear accompanying a new, further experience in what became a truly remarkable life.

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