From New York Times

December 30, 2001

Lords of the Land

The real-estate business in New York City is a dynastic enterprise; the great fortunes are passed down undiluted from generation to generation, yielding a culture that bears a closer anthropological relation to, say, the clan society of Lebanon than to the modern world of the corporation. Individuals are identified in tribal terms -- as a Rose or a Tishman. And so when two of the oligarchs, Lew Rudin and Seymour Milstein, died earlier this year, they were memorialized not just as individuals but also as representatives of their very different clans.

For all the fixity of its ways, the real-estate oligarchy is only a few generations old. The antediluvians -- the Astors or the Goelets -- occupy a different planet, inaccessible but also irrelevant. The modern clans consist almost entirely of Eastern European Jews whose ancestors got dumped on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. Today's oligarchs are thus only a generation or so removed from the pushcart.

The Rudin patriarch, Sam, began the family empire when he branched out from his father's ladies'-coat business to build apartments in the Bronx in the 1920's. Lew and his brother Jack kept the business pretty much as Sam gave it to them, buying or building almost exclusively in Manhattan, selling nothing but accumulating slowly, conducting their affairs with bulletproof respectability. The public thinks of real-estate men as flamboyant buccaneers, but the Rudin fortune is based on prudence, not risk. Jack has long been considered the dealmaker in the family -- and perhaps the brains too -- while the gregarious Lew used the spare time afforded by the family's well-oiled machine to become a public figure.

Lew Rudin will be remembered as the Great Convener. All the tribes gathered every year at his break-the-fast cocktail party after Yom Kippur. But his convening went far beyond the boundaries of the profession. He was the founder, popularizer and M.C. of a body called the Association for a Better New York, which promoted the city's reputation and performed minor good works. Every month or so, A.B.N.Y. would invite an important public figure to speak at a breakfast in a hotel ballroom. Lew would permit half an hour of manic schmoozing before he would take the microphone; then, with the instincts of an Ed Sullivan, he would insist that every last ex-mayor and City Council member in the crowd rise to accept a round of applause.

Lew was associated with many acts of civic virtue, most of which involved spending long hours in the company of his friends. No one ever accused him of trying to profit by his good deeds -- Rudins don't do such things. His funeral, at Central Synagogue, temple of choice of the oligarchy, resembled his annual cocktail party. Lew's beloved golf clubs were placed next to his casket and were caddied off the stage when pallbearers carried off his remains. It was an event no one would have loved more than he.

Seymour Milstein was also something of a philanthropist, and a figure of irreproachable probity in his personal affairs. He had one wife to Lew Rudin's three. He was, however, a Milstein, not a Rudin; and it was said, inside the tribal world, that while with the Rudins, a handshake was enough, with the Milsteins -- well, it wasn't. William Stern, a former chairman of the state's Urban Development Corporation, once referred to the family collectively as ''barbarians.'' And Stern was considered something of a Milstein partisan.

The Milsteins are relative parvenus in the real-estate world. The family patriarch, Morris, was a floor contractor; Seymour and his younger brother, Paul, began buying buildings only in the mid-60's. They were classic risk takers; the brothers bought up not just property but also companies, and at one time or another owned United Brands, the Starrett Housing Corporation and Emigrant Savings Bank. Paul was the little Caesar of real estate, waving a mighty cigar while he shouted curses into the telephone. ''We live in a jungle,'' Paul once rasped. ''In order to survive in a jungle, I guess you've got to be tougher to be a winner.'' Seymour, a muted and diplomatic character, preferred the shadows, where he dealt quietly with the family financiers. Seymour once said, with admirable understatement, ''Part of our problem is that we don't interview well.''

The Milsteins became more famous for litigation than for development, though they did quite a lot of both. In 1981 they promised city officials that they would protect the gilded clock and Palm Court lounge of the Biltmore Hotel, and then demolished both. They sued the city when their bid to build office towers in Times Square was rejected, alleging vague, dreadful conspiracies. And then, as in a tale out of Dreiser -- or Dante -- the family turned its venom upon itself. First Seymour's son, Philip, sued Paul's overweening son, Howard, for cutting him out of a deal; then Seymour himself blocked Howard from developing his own family's lucrative parcel at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue (a leftover from the failed Times Square bid); then Howard tried to get Philip fired as chief executive of Emigrant; and finally, earlier this year, Seymour forced a court-ordered sale of the Times Square property (which Howard bought, for $77.8 million). And so the Milsteins became famous for destroying themselves.

Paul and Seymour ate lunch together at the Rainbow Room every day for years. By the end, they were no longer speaking. When Seymour died, Paul's family -- i.e., Howard -- issued a statement that read in its entirety: ''We will always cherish the happy times we shared and our many years together.''

James Traub is a contributing writer for the magazine.