In a manner that seems aristocratic and antique, Levitt actually asked for Simone’s hand from her husband—and he assented. Her first marriage was tired and chaste, and when I asked Simone about just how the separation was arranged, she smiled and told me her first husband saw the logic in it right away—he wouldn’t even take the money Levitt offered. “He said, ‘Simone, if I was Bill Levitt, I would have also done the same.’ ”
After he had popped the question, Bill took Simone to the Dorchester in London. “It was very proper,” she told me. “We had a big suite with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and he greeted me with a bucket of Champagne, with caviar, set me down, gave me a little pin with a real emerald, a pussycat, then takes me by the hand to his room. So I say to myself, ‘Uh-oh, come on, you’re in for it sooner or later.’ I had already said I would marry him. I went in, he opened his closet. He said, ‘I want you to see what kind of a crazy man you’re marrying. What kind of clothes I wear.’ He was impeccable, a beautiful dresser. We open the closet, and there is a jaguar coat he had made for me. I felt like a queen. It’s like leopard, but even more rare.”
Simone stood as she talked about the coat, telling me how it wore to tatters over the years. “For sentimental reasons, I finally made a jacket [out of it],” she said, “then the jacket wore off, so I made beaver sleeves. Finally, what was left of it, I made a vest. I just had it touched up.”
Ducking out of the room, she reappeared with the tattered skin of an animal that must have run free an eon ago. It was very soft. She stroked it and I stroked it and she smiled as she stroked it. It’s one of the few items salvaged from the wreck of her old life.
“Bill was at his peak” when they got married, Simone said. “He had just sold his company for $65 million. He was in love, and there was no stopping him. Oh my God, so many stories on the boat and the crew and the captain and we would dive for fresh sea urchins and lobsters. We used to cut them when they were still alive. Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes got married on La Belle Simone. And everybody wore my clothes, Eugenia Sheppard and all these people, because it was unexpected. My captain married them. We owned the 34th floor of the Sherry-Netherland. All we did was use it to change our clothes.”
It makes sense that Bill Levitt grew up in Brooklyn. It takes a figure of the stoops and the pavement to create the dream and nightmare of suburbia. He attended P.S. 44 and Boys High, but was restless, with neither the patience nor temperament for school. “I got itchy,” he once said. “I wanted to make money. I wanted a big car and a lot of clothes.” Even then, he was a dandy, a man in worsted and silk, dressing not for the life he had but for the life he wanted. He was narrow-shouldered and more curious-looking than handsome, with sleepy eyes and the beady cast of an extra in a Frank Capra movie. He was five-eight but seemed bigger, more alive than he had any right to be.
On the boat, Bill would sit at the piano and play while Simone sang. The song on the radio, the song in his head. “Richie, he had this quality,” Simone said, closing her fingers around my wrist. “He was a wonderful man.”
In 1927, Bill went to work for his father, who practiced law in the city. “His father was a very short man called Abraham,” she told me, though she’d never met him. “He ended up taking care of the shrubberies; he used to give pennies on the street to kids.” Around the time Bill quit school, his father came into possession of land on the South Shore of Long Island. This had to do with a land deal the old man made to a developer that went bad. The property was covered with half-built houses, making it hard to sell. The only way out was ahead—finish the work, sell the development. The Levitts realized a huge profit, and the old man threw in with his boy as a homebuilder. Bill was the motor of the operation, the talker, salesman, schemer. At 22, he was president of Levitt & Sons, where he was joined by his kid brother Alfred, the artist in the family. He’d been studying art at NYU, a science-fiction freak and spare-time doodler who’d never built a thing. But it was Alfred, with his own dream of country plush, who designed the homes. He drew the first house: six rooms, two baths. An English Tudor, the McMansion of its day. It was built in 1929 and sold that August, three months before the stock market crashed. Levitt & Sons built high end in those years—only rich people could afford country life. The early developments were on the North Shore of Long Island. Bill Levitt, a salesman with antecedents in Russia, gave the developments Waspy names: The Strathmore. By 1934, Levitt & Sons had sold over 250 houses for close to $3 million—nothing compared with what they would do a few years later.