The question came by e-mail last summer. Did I know who her husband was, and would I be interested in telling his story? Did I know who Bill Levitt was? Of course! I’d been living in his world all my life. It was the grid of identical houses we passed on the way from La Guardia to my aunt’s house in Hicksville, where I could imagine going out for milk and returning to the wrong living room and the wrong family and spending the rest of my life in a place that was not quite mine. And it was the dozens of copycat tracts that sprang up in the wake of Levitt’s innovations. I’d read lots about Levitt. He was a giant, responsible for the sameness of enormous swaths of American landscape.
But that seemed like a long time ago—could his widow really still be alive and well? I shouldn’t have been surprised. New York apartments are filled with relics and witnesses who played a role in events that happened long ago. I thought of Soong Mei-ling, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, haunting the Upper East Side decades after her husband slipped the coil—in 2003, I remember walking by the funeral home where her body lay.
I was intrigued—Simone Levitt was a living link to a world that I’d thought was gone. I went to see her in July, then kept going back. When she was 40 years old, Simone lived in a 30-room mansion in Mill Neck, Long Island, surrounded by an extensive staff, and spent holidays on one of the largest yachts in the world, which was named for her: La Belle Simone. Now 84, she lives alone in a rented one-bedroom apartment on the East Side. On the days I visited, she had a maid to serve lunch, keeping up appearances.
One reason Simone had reached out to me was that she was, perhaps, a little lonely. But she also had a hunger to tell her husband’s story, which was glorious and tragic in equal measure, and which was her story too—she had unfinished business with the man, which I could help her with. She seemed to need a witness to this reckoning. “My husband always said he wanted to be the poorest man in the cemetery,” she told me, laughing. “Guess what? He was!”
The walls were covered with pictures of the Levitts with the most famous people in the world, movie stars, presidents. If she had not once been half of a storied power couple, you’d figure Simone had once owned a great deli.
An elegantly petite woman, Simone speaks with a lyrical French accent. She told the story of her husband in a roundabout way, each episode set off by a whisper or a sigh. She’s as old as my grandmother ever got, yet you can still see what a beautiful girl she must’ve been in the forties. “My father liked the horses,” she said. “My mother played poker. She was one of the only women in Paris allowed to play with men. But she saved our lives during the war. That’s how we ate. She played poker. Or baccarat. I would know when she won by her face. Are we gonna eat today? She died at 48. She never made it to America after the war. I came from a middle-class Jewish-Greek family. Then the war. I was in jail. I was with the orphans. I almost went to Auschwitz. I was a survivor. At 11, I was raped by a French policeman. That’s why I was afraid of men. To me, a man represented a gun.”
She lived with relatives in Brooklyn after the war and married a man she met on a ship headed back to France. He had money and took Simone to Rome, where she opened an art gallery. It became a salon for wealthy Americans abroad.
It was through her gallery that she met Levitt. Of course, she knew him by reputation: builder of Levittown, at the time one of the richest men in America. He bought so much art on so many occasions it became clear it was not just paintings he was interested in. Simone was married, and Bill was married—his second wife—so she ignored his advances at first. “I had three daughters. I’m not gonna fool around,” she explained. “But he was madly in love, he worshipped the ground I walked on, he followed me and he followed me and I succumbed. Because power. It was overwhelming. I was fascinated by his power, by his knowledge. His ugly teeth … as I fell in love with him, they began to look like pearls.”