‘Don’t you think it’s lonely as you get older?” Linda Stein asked a friend last month.
As always with Stein, it didn’t sound like a question as much as a pronouncement, emanating in that Bronx rasp from that bright-red-lipsticked mouth atop that tiny, five-foot frame. Existential doubt had never been much of an issue for her: The punk-rock pioneer turned broker to the stars had stormed her way up from middle-class Riverdale to become something of a star herself. In 1975, she’d taken one look at the Ramones, decided they were the future of rock, and helped launch their incendiary ascent. A fixture at CBGB, the Mudd Club, and Studio 54, she leveraged her friendships in the eighties to become the first and greatest celebrity real-estate broker, selling to Madonna, Sting, Donna Karan, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, and Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley. There were moments, many of them, when her personality upstaged her considerable accomplishments: She was a couture-clad Jewish Auntie Mame to her children, a vicious competitor to her colleagues, a heavy drinker and rampant pot-smoker with a volcanic temper she’d unleash even on her friends, and a compulsively profane guru to her entertainment-business clients, who were desperate for someone to guide them through the gilded briar patch of exclusive Manhattan real estate. “If she doesn’t say fuck twenty times a day,” her daughter Mandy, then a teenager, said in 1991, “she’s repressed.”
Lately, though, Stein hadn’t been herself. She had never fully bounced back from two radical mastectomies in the nineties, and last year, doctors discovered something new: a benign brain tumor that didn’t require surgery but did call for a cocktail of mood stabilizers and other drugs that weakened her to the point where she couldn’t lift her hair dryer. Her right arm was also numb—a lasting side effect of chemo. “She could pick up a glass, but she wouldn’t feel it when she did,” a friend says. A yoga nut since long before it was fashionable, she now needed yoga training just to comb her hair. She had sworn off vodka, more or less, though she still chain-smoked joints like they were cigarettes. She was going to AA, but she was no true believer. “We made fun of meetings,” her old friend Danny Fields says. “I’d say to her, ‘Linda, you can always leave,’ but she’d say, ‘I couldn’t! I was sitting in front of blah-blah-blah. She has seven rooms on East 73rd. She could be my next client!'”
There was always work, but the trophy properties she specialized in were harder to come by and sell. She had two particularly high-profile deals she was having trouble with—photographer Peter Beard’s house in Montauk, listed at $26 million, and Sting’s duplex at 88 Central Park West, asking price $24 million. Both were big exclusives, and she’d go into apoplectic fits about them every few days. She fantasized about leaving town, moving to Rome or Paris. But she’d tell friends, ‘Let’s face it. I am not retiring. I don’t know what I’d do.’”
For some years now, she’d sensed the world was passing her by. The Linda Stein of everyone’s imagination was decades younger—still physically whole, and in every way indomitable. “She set very high expectations for herself,” says a friend. “She felt if she didn’t do a huge deal all the time that she wasn’t living up to her own expectations.” At 62, she was in competition with her own iconhood.
What she really wanted, friends say, was a boyfriend. She would never say it like that; that would make her seem too needy. Instead, she’d let out a trademark Linda moan: “I really need to get laid!” She hadn’t had a serious relationship in several years, and her one recent flirtation, with a suave younger colleague, had ended with her feeling played, then having the guy fired. “She was a big one on getting people fired,” says one of her closest friends.
There was someone new in her professional life, however—an assistant whom Stein’s employer, Prudential Douglas Elliman, had sent in over the summer to replace the one she’d fired in June. Natavia Lowery was 26 years old, a lithe, quiet African-American woman with a pretty smile who had grown up in a Harlem housing project and now lived with her parents in a middle-class high-rise in Brooklyn. For months, no one really knew much about her, or talked much about how she and Stein were getting along, though it was understood that Stein grated on everyone around her. And this wasn’t a typical temp job. What kind of assistant has to line up AA meetings for her boss, go jogging with her, do her boss’s hair? Lowery, according to people close to her, was unnerved by the forced sense of intimacy. Stein, meanwhile, may have recognized something of herself in her new assistant: The girl was an outsider looking to break into a world of wealth and privilege, just as Stein herself had once been. When she was young.