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Mike Silverman dies at 90; touted himself as "the Realtor to the stars"

The son of a sweatshop tailor, he started life living above a pickle shop in the Bronx and ended it owning a Cape Cod-style home on a stretch of Malibu called Billionaire's Beach.

April 25, 2010|By Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times

For decades, Mike Silverman touted himself as "the Realtor to the stars," drawing swoons from the news media here and abroad both for his movie-star clientele and his movie-star looks.

In his case, the nickname wasn't just a publicist's creation but a reflection of star-studded fact. He had catered to a seemingly endless string of A-list celebrities that started, according to Silverman, when he sold Frank Sinatra's house to Cary Grant.

Silverman, who retired in 2001, died April 17 of congestive heart failure at his vacation home in Bellingham, Wash., said his wife, Davey. He was 90.

The son of a sweatshop tailor, Silverman started life living above a pickle shop in the Bronx and ended it owning a Cape Cod-style home on a stretch of Malibu called Billionaire's Beach.

In 1949, he was a freelance commercial artist without any obvious job prospects when he moved to Los Angeles on a whim.

At a bar, Silverman met a real estate agent who told him that the post- World War II housing market could make him a millionaire.

He soon earned his real estate license and made the first of a series of Hollywood-esque moves, changing his first name from "Milton" to "Mike."

Gossip columnist Louella Parsons told him to buy "a decent-looking car" so she could invite him to some of her parties, he later recalled. He traded in his Chevy for a second-hand Cadillac.

Another chance encounter, with actress Joan Crawford at a party in Beverly Hills, gave him early entree to the rich and famous — and access to selling their pedigreed homes.

"Doors opened," Silverman told The Times in 1996, after he started escorting Crawford around town and she introduced him to her friends.

For years, he parked himself poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, his pockets filled with waterproof business cards that he handed out to the famous.

The line between client and friend often blurred, as he dated Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jayne Mansfield and Anna Maria Alberghetti and many other actresses. He regularly partied with his clients, often at sit-down dinners.

"Because it was in a controlled atmosphere, it couldn't get too crazy or too wild," Silverman told the New York Times in 2007.

He waited until 1998, the year he turned 79, to marry for the first time. Fittingly, it was to a former actress, Davey Davison, who was more than 20 years his junior. She is his only survivor.

Over the decades, he built a client list that was a veritable who's who of those who could afford Bel-Air and other tony addresses. His celebrity roll call included Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee, Mae West, Debbie Reynolds, Dino De Laurentiis, Bill Cosby, Liberace, Bill Bixby, Betty Hutton, Alice Cooper and Telly Savalas.

Frustrated over a bad telephone connection, Rex Harrison once flew him to England while he was filming "Dr. Dolittle" to talk about renting a house here, Silverman told The Times in 1975.

By 1963, he had opened his own firm and wasn't afraid to peddle mansions by offering offbeat perks. He called it adding "pizzazz to the promotion."

He regularly showed Beverly Hills properties by helicopter, so future buyers could gauge how a mansion compared to the one next door. He once gift-wrapped a house for a buyer and would pay for round-trip tickets to Hawaii or New York to move along a sale.

Born in 1919 in New York City to immigrants from Russia, Silverman was the youngest of four children. He spoke with a pronounced stutter for much of his life.

During World War II, he joined the Army Air Forces and serviced aircraft in North Africa and Italy.

After the war, he studied art in Mexico and worked in New York as a graphic artist before coming west, where he happened into a profession where the homes could sell themselves.

Over drinks at La Scala, John Kluge, then president of Metromedia, said that he was interested in a house that Sinatra had for sale. When Silverman offered to show it to him the next day, Kluge replied that he was too busy and bought it sight unseen.

Silverman later told The Times that the media executive said: "If it's good enough for Frank, it's good enough for me."

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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