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The Art and the Deal

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From left: 40 Bond; the Seagram Building.  

Letters spilled forth, the brouhaha pitting mother (society dame Emily Frick) against son (sculptor Richard DuPont). Gallery owners generally rallied behind Rosen, but there were exceptions: Dealer and Fifth Avenue dweller Richard Feigen, who objected to the towers’ being cast as a phony art-world venture: “Aby is a key member of the contemporary-art-market-bubble contingent,” Feigen explained.

The clouds parted, and down came a thunderbolt from the desk of Tom Wolfe. His New York Times op-ed sprayed graffiti all over Rosen’s “Mondo Condo glass box” (which would be intolerably visible from Wolfe’s own fourteenth-floor East 79th Street parlor). Months later, spotted at the Upper East Side gym where he faithfully works out at age 77, creaking into full scissor-splits on the floor, Wolfe was still sniggering at the way His Lordship, Norman Foster, had banged on about the “dialogue” between 980 Madison and the Carlyle, the proposed hybrid building’s “horizontality” and “verticality.”

Wolfe was curious: Was Aby wearing blue jeans when I met him? He seemed “a new species of businessman,” a Master-of-the-Universe subphylum Wolfe clearly detested.

Some intuited more nefarious motives. “What Wolfe wrote was almost, like, anti-Semitic,” says Stellan Holm, a gallery-owner friend of Rosen’s. (“What?!,” sputters Wolfe, whose wife is Jewish. “That comment is totally out to lunch, falling off the platter, out of its tree.”) At a hearing earlier, Rosen’s good friend Jeff Koons talked about a kind of “segregation, discrimination taking place … ‘This is old money, you’re not welcome here’.” As if to put everyone on notice, Lindemann began his own testimony, “Although my family didn’t come here on the Mayflower … ”

Growing up Jewish in Frankfurt after the war had hardened him, Rosen admitted to the New York Times. It’s not something he cries into his beer over, but the other kids would say, “They forgot to gas your father.”

“So I have zero fear,” Rosen went on. “Fear is not something I have.” To Vogue, he added, “I looked for the confrontation.”

The commission urged him to reconsider the number of floors, think small—in the single-digit range. One year later, the Upper East Side has yet to hear back from Aby Rosen.

The archaeology of Aby Rosen’s own lost desires begins in Frankfurt, more precisely known as Frankfurt am Main, after the river running through it, and nicknamed Mainhattan. The serrated cityscape—unique in Europe, where every other metropolis tends to bunch its castles in the air—feels big-time. But Frankfurt’s architectural touchstone is older: the I.G. Farben Building, a sprawling, orangey-marble hangnail in the very center of the Westend, the historically Jewish neighborhood where Aby Rosen grew up. Before the war, this was the largest, most modern office building in Europe, occupied by the onetime No. 1 chemical company in the world, which manufactured Zyklon B. Repurposed as American Army headquarters, this is where postwar children came on their bicycles to charm change out of soldiers for candy out of the American vending machines—in this town, the Americans were the source of everything remotely exotic.

Aby’s father, Isak, had been born in Lodz, Poland, the son of a Jewish teacher who was a very pious man. Herded into the ghetto, Isak and his brothers were soon orphaned, and after 1944’s liquidation they survived a series of concentration camps, including Auschwitz. (Two half-sisters didn’t make it.) Isak then found refuge with a half-brother in Toronto as a cook, an upholsterer, and then a stationery-store proprietor. He returned from a trip to Belgium engaged to Aby’s mother, Anni, an art student who’d hidden during the war under the floor of a farmhouse.

The family headed back to Germany, where there were rumblings of opportunity and most everyone in the Rosens’ insular community was a Polish, Yiddish-speaking camp survivor. Frankfurt was post-partition Germany’s Boomburg, but there was a housing and office deficit, especially since its core had been bombed to bits. The Rosens were one of several Polish Jewish families with little or no prior experience in the field who were dealt into the high-risk property game by the banks, who by the sixties were frantically throwing money at anyone who would take it. Like many other Jewish landlords in town, Aby’s father and uncle Charlie (so nicknamed by his G.I. buddies) were accused of sharp-elbowed landlord tactics, killing the heat in partially occupied buildings, vandalizing empty apartments in what became known as “the Wild Westend.” In 1975, the local paper reported that his father and uncle had scuffled with a law student who finished up in a heap at the bottom of the marble stairs in one Rosen building with a concussion. Posters went up around town caricaturing the Spekulanten—as the real-estate developers were now known—a word uttered through clenched teeth. Banners marching down Frankfurt’s streets howled about the SPEKULANTEN SCHWEINE—Speculator Pigs. It was a shock when young Aby heard his father’s name being shouted by the throng.


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