Her marriage to Seymour had been unwinding for years. They argued about freewheeling spending—“buying those shampoos she couldn’t get in the Bronx,” as Fields puts it. They argued about who had first claim on certain celebrity friends. Their lives became more and more separate, and the marriage ended in 1979. Twelve years later, they were still hammering out the fine print, but they were also, amazingly, still friends. She and the girls stayed in the Kenilworth. “Oh, we had Champagne the day the divorce papers were signed,” Fields says. Linda and Fields dissolved their partnership, too, not long after the Ramones moved on to new management. “I would leave the office in a rage,” Fields remembers. “It was like a marriage. The secretary became her secretary. There was a lot of addressing 5th-birthday-party invitations. We fought. She always said she knew better because she’d been married to Seymour Stein.”
Soon after she and Seymour split up, Linda earned a finder’s fee for bringing an apartment to the attention of Edward Lee Cave, who was in charge of Sotheby’s real-estate division. The apartment belonged to Seymour Stein. He’d toss her three more commissions in the years to come.
It takes a certain kind of person to make a study of the rich and famous and to learn to cater to their unconscious needs without it seeming as if that’s what you’re doing. To have a real-estate broker who can speak confidently with a star about such things, without flinching or cringing or sucking up, Linda Stein came to realize, was a highly marketable skill. “People in the public eye, they can sense when you don’t know how to react to them,” one friend says. “But Linda had a knack for that.”
When newlyweds Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley were looking for a place to live, Stein found them two apartments at 88 Central Park West, and the couple joined them into a 7,000-square-foot duplex. When they divorced, Stein helped them sell the place to Sting for $4.8 million. In the eighties and nineties, she helped buy or sell apartments for Andrew Lloyd Webber, Madonna, Bruce Willis, Jann Wenner, Michael Douglas, Steven Spielberg, and her old friend Elton John. In March 1990, when Stein moved from Cave to Douglas Elliman, she signed a deal guaranteeing her a 65 percent share of commissions, not the usual 50-50, a private office, a personal assistant, and a chauffeured BMW. She appeared in “Page Six” eight times that year. When her daughters left the nest, she bought the penthouse on Fifth Avenue. By the mid-nineties, she hit $25 million in sales three years in a row, an enormous sum for the time. Her secret was to treat her clients like children, she said. “Stars and fifth-graders,” she said, laughing, “it’s all the same.”
Stein became an extreme example of a certain kind of character who thrives in the upper echelons of New York real estate. As it was often said, she didn’t have the looks or the money, but she had the force of will. Like the best of the superstar brokers, she dominated clients, told them what to think—yelled at them, cursed even—about how they’d never get past a co-op board on Fifth Avenue and they’d be better off buying a condo on Central Park West. And if there was a co-op board to deal with, watch out: She once snapped at Angelina Jolie to get that fucking vial of Billy Bob’s blood off from around her neck before it cost her a deal.
Her bulldozing didn’t charm everyone. She lost Madonna as a client after she was photographed showing her around co-ops, likely annoying the boards. Patrick McCarthy, the editor of W, demanded his deposit back when she blabbed about a deal of his to this magazine. Sotheby’s fired her when she was quoted in the Times saying, “It’s amazing these guys can ever make a business decision,” referring to businessmen who buy expensive townhouses and then elect not to move in. She repeatedly demanded to her bosses, wherever she worked at the time, that certain colleagues be fired. Many of her peers kept a wary distance. “She was kind of a cheat for small amounts of money,” says one person who did business with her in the nineties. “You had to watch her all the time. She’d beat the dog-walker for $20.” One prominent broker knows “a lot of people at her company who were promised 25 percent or whatever, and when the time came, she just never paid. In her defense, maybe it wasn’t in writing and the person never did any work. But if it happens so often, why don’t you start putting it in writing?”