Her temper often cost her not just deals but friendships. Even her daughters weren’t exempt from her fury. “I’m not talking to that bitch today,” she’d often say about one or the other. But she defended them to others, like any mother would. “Everything concerned her,” a friend says. “Where are they going to live, can they pass the board? And, in the middle of it, ferocious fights. I’d cower in the corner.” She even severed her friendship with Danny Fields over one of her daughters. He’d allowed Mandy to use 60 of his photos in a documentary she produced about the Ramones and, the day before the premiere, he still hadn’t been paid. When his lawyer complained, Fields got a certified check the next day and a phone message from Stein: “Have a nice life.” They didn’t speak for months, he says—over $13,000 that wasn’t even her daughter’s money to pay.
Then there was her cancer. In 1994, she had her first mastectomy and breast reconstruction. The second mastectomy came in 1996. She threw herself into fighting the disease; in some ways, it came to define her. Her theme song, Mandy said at the funeral, was “I Will Survive.” She joined the board of Evelyn Lauder’s Breast Cancer Research Foundation and got Elton John to perform for it in 2001. But she was still Linda. After one event she co-chaired, she called Lauder, furious that the photograph about the event that appeared in the paper didn’t have her in it. “She said, ‘I want to resign from the board,’” Lauder says, but she talked her down from the ledge. “You’re not resigning, and that’s the end of it!” she told her. She now recalls, “I learned you had to talk to her the way she talked to you.”
Stein became an extreme example of a certain kind of character that 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.
Her last known lover, a 68-year-old Italian contractor named Francisco Arena, did several renovations for Stein—he helped her through her latest bout of surgery, and they remained close after breaking up. In 2005, she started spending more time with 49-year-old Raul Garcia Bernal, her sales assistant at Elliman. Her friends called him “the Cuban.” “She felt hurt by him,” one friend says. “She definitely wanted more of a relationship than there ended up being.” The final straw came last year, when he walked away from her at a $5,000-a-plate breast-cancer benefit she’d paid for him to come to so that he could work the room. It became clear, friends say, that Bernal only wanted her for her contacts.
This past summer, Stein had been seeing a doctor about her brain tumor while renting a house in East Hampton, paid for, she said, by her bosses at Elliman. “It was definitely below-grade for Linda,” says a friend—on the correct side of the Montauk Highway but with fixtures that looked like they came from Home Depot. “She hated that house. She would call it ‘the horrible rental.’” She made the best of it by visiting with new friends like Jamie Drake, the interior designer, whom she asked to fix her up with any eligible men, and old friends like Paul Morrissey, who for several summers loaned her a cottage on the beach at Eothen, his estate in Montauk. She’d decided to return to Montauk next summer. There were ghosts from those years, like Linda McCartney, with whom she bonded over cancer. But Montauk, she believed, was the answer. It spoke to her of a younger self, one more alive and potent. “This is for me,” she told Morrissey. “I’m gonna be in Montauk again.”
A few weeks before she died, Robby Browne, a friend and broker from Corcoran, saw her at an event at the Sherry-Netherland. “I hugged her really tight. I was worried about her over the summer.” Browne pressed against Stein’s reconstructed chest.
“Well,” Browne said, “your boobs feel good, so you must be doing all right.”
“Yes,” she said. Pretty terse, for Linda.
“And your brain-tumor thing?” he asked.
“That’s all right, too.”
Stein was questioning everything. She told people she was leaving Elliman because she’d didn’t like the people there. She suggested to an interviewer in the spring that boldface names didn’t matter to her the way they once had, that it was possible the fame of her clients was actually an albatross for her, something that kept her from getting deals done. “The press has been extremely detrimental to my career,” she said. “Basically, people of great wealth do not want it discussed by anybody. Discretion, discretion, discretion!” For Linda Stein to wave off the press was a little like Joey Ramone’s renouncing leather.
Natavia Lowery had her own rivers to cross in life. She was born and raised in the Grant projects on Amsterdam Avenue and 125th Street, the only child of a housekeeper and a maintenance man. Her father died when she was a baby, and until her teen years, she lived with her mother, aunt, and uncle in a three-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor. When Lowery was in junior high, her mother, Lottie, met and married a man named Daniel Walsh, and the family moved to a twentieth-floor apartment about a half-mile from the Williamsburg Bridge, in Brooklyn. The goal for her family had always been to lift her up. “Our family worked very hard to get this child through school,” says her aunt, Julia Carrow. “We had no trouble with her. No teenage pregnancy, no drugs, no alcohol. This child is not a violent child.”