Charlie turned to face me. “Be nice to my son. We’ve been killed enough by the press,” he said. “Just because I’ve been killed, don’t kill him.”
Charlie Kushner’s fall is in one sense a kind of Cain and Abel story. There was never a time when Charlie and Murray Kushner were not in competition. At first it was over the affections of their parents, Joseph and Rae, Holocaust survivors from Poland who arrived in New York in 1949 and went on to build a thriving New Jersey construction company—one of the New Jersey enterprises that came to be known as the Holocaust builders. At first, Joseph plied his trade as a carpenter, sleeping in houses under construction to save on bus fare. There was little time for fun. When Charlie brought a guitar home from school one day, Joseph snapped it over his leg and sniffed, “A boy has to learn how to make a living, not play a fiddle.”
Charlie was an average student. He attended NYU as an undergraduate, then law school at Hofstra while also getting his M.B.A. at NYU. His brother Murray, three years his senior, was exceptional academically—he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, before going on to the university’s law school.
Both brothers followed their father into the real-estate business. In the business world, what Charlie may have lacked in book smarts he more than made up for with drive and charm and ruthless competitiveness. He was a gifted businessman. And his father noticed. In 1985, Charlie asked Joseph to go into business with him, and the pair formed Kushner Companies. Nine months later, Joseph died of a stroke, and Charlie became de facto head of the family, giving his two sisters and Murray stakes in the real-estate businesses as he built his empire.
Charlie had the Spartan virtue of self-discipline. In his closet, ties hung in flawless rows. He sent business associates handwritten notes with impeccable penmanship. Before work, he swam 180 perfectly straight laps in the pool at the Short Hills Hilton. If he wasn’t swimming, he was training for marathons. He trained himself to operate on little sleep.
The Kushners mythologized themselves as scrappy outsiders. Charlie had volunteered as a firefighter, and he liked that his wife Seryl shopped at Costco. “My father’s favorite movie was The Dirty Dozen,” Jared says. “His company was made up of hardworking guys who had a bad break.”
Charlie was also a demanding boss who could be abusive if things went wrong. “It would be cheaper to pay for a monkey than pay you!” Charlie is said to have told a senior executive. Employees especially feared meetings where Jared was present. Charlie berated his executives in front of his son, “to teach him how to handle the help,” as one company observer says. “I expect them to do what I could do,” Charlie tells me, “when they don’t—I get frustrated with them.”
Wealth for its own sake was never Charlie’s goal. He was famously generous, doling out jobs to friends and putting the Kushner name—sometimes in Trump-size letters—on synagogues, schools, and Jewish charities. As time went on, charity became a strategic instrument to advance his interests and a weapon if he didn’t get his way. Starting in the mid-nineties, Charlie pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Democratic politics. He was Jim McGreevey’s largest donor in his campaigns, raising $1.5 million. Charlie hired Golan Cipel, McGreevey’s Israeli lover, and sponsored his work permit. After McGreevey won, he rewarded Charlie by appointing him to the board of the Port Authority and later tried to make him chair, which would have given him huge influence over billions of dollars of development contracts. Over the years, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Bibi Netanyahu all stopped by to see Charlie during swings through the state.
Charlie saw himself as a special man, a leader. The epic generosity is one aspect of this. Another is a sense of personal martyrdom—no one realizes how hard he’s worked, what’s he’s given, how much he’s sacrificed. And some of his persecutors were in his own family—specifically his brother Murray, who he increasingly came to believe was a hindrance in his business. In 1999, Murray backed out of Charlie’s bid to acquire Berkshire Realty, a firm with 24,000 apartments, which would have vaulted the Kushners into the first rank of privately held real-estate firms. Charles pushed forward with another deal that Murray had dragged his feet on and made a profit of $40 million.
Charlie also questioned Murray’s family life. Charlie’s parents took their Jewishness seriously, but Murray had married an assimilated Jew, an attractive brunette named Lee, a fact that Charlie didn’t let them forget.