Judith Cohen doesn’t hide the fact that she agrees about little with Rieff. She also says that perhaps if her sister had lived, Leibovitz might not have found herself in such a financial predicament. “Susan was really prudent about a lot of things,” Cohen says. “She was not a big spender. And I think she did advise against certain things Annie did, like Greenwich Village.”
Leibovitz purchased the two adjacent Greek Revival–style townhouses on 11th Street near Greenwich Street in 2002 and immediately began converting them into a single residence. Initially, she intended to keep the renovations simple. At one point, she aimed to limit the budget to about $500,000, not that great a sum considering that the buildings contained more than 8,500 square feet of space. She made token efforts to keep expenses down, Kellum says; she once scolded him for bringing Starbucks iced cappuccinos to a construction meeting. But as time went on, she continued to add expensive design elements, like having a sub-basement in which she could stand, rather than the original five-feet-high crawl space. The budget grew accordingly.
On Friday, October 11, 2002, Kellum was busy coordinating Sarah’s first birthday party, scheduled for the next day in Rhinebeck. The plans included a petting zoo and performances by hipster kiddie singer Dan Zanes and country singer Rosanne Cash, who was being flown in to sing Sarah’s favorite lullaby. Leibovitz was upset because the forecast called for rain; she didn’t want 300 mud-caked guests traipsing through the buildings. Early that afternoon, Kellum had answered his phone to hear the panicked voice of Mark Zeff, the Greenwich Village project’s designer. Something had happened at the construction site.
For days, a crew had been digging below the townhouses to build the sub-basement. The ground beneath the buildings had actually been underwater until 1820, when landfill turned what had been the Hudson River into buildable land west of Hudson Street. In the midst of the excavation, the wall Leibovitz’s building shared with the little trapezoidal building at 311 West 11th Street groaned and sank several inches. The wall separated from the floors, leaving a gaping hole. Fire trucks encircled the scene, and Con Ed workers raced to locate and repair a burst gas line. Insurance covered much of the damage, but the young family next door, whose home was immediately condemned, sued Leibovitz. Under a settlement the parties reached in 2003, Leibovitz would have to purchase their home for $1.87 million.
In late 2006, she secured almost $7.25 million in mortgages from Rhinebeck Properties LLC, whose address is at Condé Nast’s 4 Times Square headquarters.
As large as that sum was, Leibovitz, by all appearances, should have been able to cover it. But that wasn’t the case. For one, Leibovitz wasn’t earning as much as people thought. The $5 million annual salary from Condé Nast? “That’s probably considerably high,” says Carter, who adds that he doesn’t know the exact sum because her contract is negotiated with Condé Nast, not Vanity Fair. A person close to Leibovitz insists that her oft-mentioned “contract for life” is pure fiction. In fact, a copy of Leibovitz’s contract that came to light in a recent lawsuit indicates that she is being paid $2 million per year, and only through 2011. The rumored $250,000 day rate to do an advertising job also appears to have been greatly exaggerated. “It’s not half that,” says a source with direct knowledge of Leibovitz’s finances.
Leibovitz was never particularly interested in side gigs either. Despite a $100,000 price tag for commissioned portraits (a business that kept Andy Warhol rich in middle age), there was always demand, says her former and recently rehired gallerist James Danziger. Still, the hurdles involved tended to scare off potential clients. Leibovitz might not take the job at all, if she did it could take years to schedule, and she had been known to cancel at the last minute to do a late-breaking Condé Nast assignment. In 1990, gallery owner Mary Boone paid Leibovitz $197,000 to take five portraits of artists she represented to promote her gallery. For various reasons, Leibovitz shot only four portraits but promised Boone she’d make good by taking a portrait of Boone’s then-5-year-old son, Max. In 2003, thirteen years and several postponements after Leibovitz took the assignment, Boone sued Leibovitz. A judge dismissed the suit, owing to a six-year statute of limitations.
Neither did Leibovitz behave as if the money to be earned in the fine-art market was worth the effort. Edwynn Houk, her gallerist until last year, had no trouble selling her images. Leibovitz, however, could never get around to signing the prints. A buyer might have paid in full but still not get his picture for two years. “Nothing seems easier to me,” Houk says of the stack of photos perpetually collecting dust in her studio. “It’s a mystery why it took so long.” It was a complaint Houk was unable to register with Leibovitz directly because of her habit of postponing their scheduled calls. “Our record was sixteen months,” he says with a sigh. Says a onetime business associate, “I think there was an element of satisfaction, thinking that everyone would just understand she was too busy meeting Tom Cruise here or Oprah there.”