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Lavish, Secluded Lives : New York's Principality of Plenty

January 22, 1987|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The chateaus of the rich that once graced Manhattan's streets have been demolished, victims of high taxes, a shortage of servants and changing life styles.

Although wealthy New York families may still treasure maids and governesses, they no longer keep a dozen faithful retainers. When large numbers of English butlers and French maids are needed at galas and large dinners nowadays, they often are played convincingly by unemployed actors and actresses.

But if the butlers and maids are pretenders, the wealth is still real, and for those who have it, life in New York City can be filled with great comfort, opulence and privacy behind the facades of apartment buildings that give little hint of the vast luxury inside.

Zip Code 10021

The most illustrious of these neighborhoods today is a principality of plenty tucked away within ZIP code 10021, a narrow strip of land running along three of the world's most famous avenues, Park, Madison and 5th, from the Metropolitan Museum on the north at 80th Street to the Regency Hotel at 61st Street on the south.

"I think there has never been such a concentration of wealth in such a small area in the history of man," said Edward Lee Cave, who owns a firm specializing in apartments and town houses for the affluent.

"I don't say it's all piled up in apartments here. It can be in Swiss banks, Hong Kong holding companies or 10,000 acres in Australia somewhere. But everybody who is really important and powerful keeps some sort of presence in New York. . . . There is probably a larger concentration of wealth than ever existed at Versailles or anywhere else. In this town, you don't have to apologize for being rich."

Pay Cash for Homes

ZIP code 10021 is a neighborhood where buyers of multimillion-dollar apartments often must pay for them in cash and display net worth of at least three times the purchase price to pass the scrutiny of co-op boards. Many of its dwellings hold private art collections rivaling those in museums. It is a world of exclusive clubs, lavish charity balls and black tie dinner parties. Like some European duchy, the neighborhood has its own military drill team, housed in an armory largely furnished by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

These days, the style of old wealth once again is fashionable in New York, and many new millionaires are working hard to give the impression that their vast fresh fortunes are old and inherited. The Spartan, minimal look of the 1960s and '70s, when social consciousness was a decorating as well as a social style, has given way. Ball gowns have replaced gingham and blue jeans. It is the time of the lavish decorator, the socially correct florist, the society caterer.

Some residents of ZIP code 10021 believe that they are part of a new belle epoque.

Many More Galas

"It's far more lavish now than Paris. Paris is a very staid city now. I think London has great charm and style of life that is comparable to ours," said Mai Hallingby, the wife of an investment banker. "Maybe the life in New York is more opulent. We have many more galas and grand events and black tie dinner parties. . . . The food is getting better and better. We're right now in our glory. We're at the peak of the Renaissance."

In ZIP code 10021, a life of Champagne wishes and caviar dreams is often lived by many who would hang up if Robin Leach, TV's guide to life styles of the rich and famous, phoned. Privacy is a precious commodity guarded by uniformed doormen. The exteriors of most apartment houses give little hint of the opulent mini-mansions within, often with spectacular views of Central Park.

"The sybaritic style is hidden in New York," said Robert Denning of Denning & Fourcade Inc., decorators of luxurious residences.

"You can achieve a lot of privacy in New York," observed Mark Hampton, another prominent society decorator. "New York is so big it can be impenetrable if you want it to be. There are a lot of people who live public lives and then drop the curtain if they want."

"In many ways, the extremely wealthy live in the city but also above the city," said one perceptive Park Avenue resident who asked that she not be identified. "They don't cope with the same problems. They can insulate themselves from the Sturm und Drang that drags down all of us.

Masseur Comes to Them

"A limousine and driver wait by the front door. Servants pick up the cleaning, fetch the children at school, do the grocery shopping, pay the bills," she said. "Some people have social secretaries. Their secretaries sign their checks. The hairdresser comes to them. The masseur comes to them. Their exercise instructor comes to them. They have large, orderly closets because they have a lot of space. They lead a life of well-kept order.

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