When I asked Simone how her husband had made his breakthrough, she became serious, somber, speaking of Bill as you might speak of an enigmatic historical figure, someone in a book who can be puzzled over but never fully understood. “Bill Levitt was a brilliant man,” she said again and again. “Brilliant!”
The heady moment came in the forties, she explained, because of the deprivation and scarcity of the Second World War. In other words, the same calamity that had robbed Simone of everything and put her on the street would make Levitt rich. After Pearl Harbor, if you built homes, you either had to hang it up or improvise. For Levitt, it meant the only kind of housing acceptable during the war: rental homes for officers.
So the firm signed a deal to build Navy houses in Norfolk, Virginia. In the manner of a riverboat roustabout who says he can love every woman in the course of a night, Bill agreed to finish the job in a year. It did not take long to realize it had been a stupid boast. In a boom, a developer might build 750 houses in four years; Bill promised them in one. In a fit of panic, he began to innovate. “It’s a known fact that he used Henry Ford’s method,” Simone told me. “Like [Ford] did cars, Bill did houses.”
Levitt divided home building into 27 distinct tasks, then trained 27 teams that went lot to lot, each executing a single job. In the past, house construction had been a craft, done over the course of months by a handful of men. Levitt turned it into an industry. And by the end of the war, Levitt & Sons had built close to 2,500 structures for the government.
Levitt performed his military service in the Seabees, the Navy construction division. He was stationed in Hawaii, and asked every soldier and sailor the same question: What will you do after the war?
Time and again, he got variations of a Hollywood answer: marry my girl, have a family, buy a house at the bend in the river where the cotton trees grow. But as a builder, he knew there were no houses near the bend in the river, nor on the lakeshore, nor in the forest glade. Few houses had been built during the Depression, virtually none during the war. While stationed in Oahu, as if in a flash, Levitt recognized this tremendous unmeetable need, this horde of potential consumers rushing toward a product that did not yet exist: cheap houses, bullet-size portions of the dream. It was then, as the transports filled with home-going doughboys, that he sent the telegram to his father that was overheard and repeated until it became a Long Island legend: Look for land.
The land Levitt found was in the largely empty farmland of Hempstead, Long Island, and Levitt amassed thousands of acres. His timing could not have been more perfect. Sixteen million G.I.’s were returning from the war, many needing a place to live. There were abundant hard-luck stories of couples living with parents, sleeping in back rooms, or, worse, in tents, boxcars, or the fuselages of old Army bombers. What’s more, the federal government had passed the G.I. Bill, which, among other benefits, gave ex-soldiers access to cheap loans. Perhaps most important, the banks were rolling out a product that was just as world-changing as the smartphone: the 30-year fixed mortgage. It made buying a house, which, for most Americans, had been a carrot on a stick—always chased but hardly ever caught—suddenly seem like no big deal.
Levitt broke ground in Hempstead in 1947. His method was the one he’d pioneered in Norfolk—the modern suburb, with its rows of cookie-cutter sameness, is, like so many modern institutions, a relic of the Second World War. He laid the building materials every hundred feet, the 27 teams with their 27 tasks moving across the waste. It took thirteen minutes to dig a foundation. Then came walls, the roof, a refrigerator. By 1948, the Levitts were finishing 30 houses a day. One day in 1949, Levitt wrote 1,400 contracts. He worked the desk himself, says Simone. “He was a humble man. As brilliant as he was, he would stand there, take the hundred dollars, thank the customers, and wish them good luck.”
Four years after breaking ground, the last house in the development sold—number 17,447. By then, the village had changed its name from Island Trees to Levittown. You can hold up the pictures side by side: Hempstead before William Levitt and after. In the first picture, featureless flatland punctuated by the occasional barn. In the second, a geometric swirl, everything as numbingly neat as circuits in a transistor radio. By the mid-fifties, there were 70,000 people in Levittown, and the green country of old German farmers had been turned into the Long Island of Joey Buttafuoco and my aunt Renee.