Then came the backlash. By the fifties, Levittown was being denounced for its bland sterility: little houses, little people, little dreams. Levitt is considered the father of modern suburbia, which also makes him the father of little boxes, ticky-tacky and all the same. He became associated with the worst sins of modern culture as a result. Homogeneity, intolerance. The original standard lease agreement explicitly required renters to sign a notorious clause: “THE TENANT AGREES NOT TO PERMIT THE PREMISES TO BE USED OR OCCUPIED BY ANY PERSON OTHER THAN MEMBERS OF THE CAUCASIAN RACE.” Asked to change this practice, Levitt insisted black inhabitants would scare away whites, and where would we be then? “We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem,” he explained, “but we cannot combine the two.” Accused of racism, Levitt pointed out, persuasively, that when he built his first North Shore developments, he, grandson of a rabbi, excluded Jews. In other words, Levitt was not a racist; he was a businessman.
Whenever I met Simone, the text was Bill Levitt but the subtext was food—great spreads of smoked fish and bagels, pasta salad, little tuna sandwiches, the sort of tiny pickles that have confused me since I was a child. She fed me like it was the last time I would eat. Because of her childhood, she told me with a whispery sigh, because of ancient days on the streets of Paris, when she searched the gutters for cigarette butts, which she sold to buy bread. At one point, she quoted Gone With the Wind, taking on the southern lilt of Scarlett O’Hara, saying, “I tell you, Richie, I am like that girl at the end of that movie: ‘I will never be hungry again!’ ”
When Simone met Bill, he was at the peak moment of his life, having sold his company and amassed one of the world’s great fortunes. He frequented her gallery, buying up whatever she got in, as if throwing money from the back of a train. In him, Simone saw not merely a wonderful man but safety, freedom, and a final hedge against oblivion. In fact, Levitt was already an hour past prime, having made his last deal and achieved his last success. Simone was signing on for the third act, pulling up a chair in time to watch the sun go down. Their love affair began a moment before his tragic decline.
Telling me the story of her love and its aftermath, Simone was fully an actress. She wore scarves when we met, printed garments that covered her head and showed her face, and deployed a whole arsenal of gesture and intonation, younger incarnations of which were the ones that had captivated Levitt. When Simone married Bill, she took on his money and took his homes but most important she took his story, which, when they met, promised to be nothing but a fairy tale from start to finish.
By the end of the fifties, he was among the most successful men in the country. Having gone on to build developments in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Bowie, Maryland, he was also among the richest. For a moment, he seemed to stand for the best of capitalism. Having helped so many people live the American Dream, Levitt seemed, on the surface, to be living his own. But in the sixties, the trajectory of his life began to change. It started with his father, Abraham. He’d grown old by the sixties, slow-footed, watery-eyed. At Levittown, he’d been passionate about the landscaping. He’s considered a pioneer of the modern lawn, a reason rolling weedless perfection became the green screen of suburbia. He died in 1962. After that, the family came apart. Bill and Alfred’s mother died. The brothers became estranged. Alfred quit the firm.
And with the family out of the company, Levitt decided to get out, too. In 1968, he sold the firm to ITT—the International Telephone & Telegraph Company, which was the glamour company of its era. The price was $92 million, $62 million of which went to Bill, who was paid in stock.
Simone was Bill Levitt’s prize, what he reached for when he finally decided it was time to cash out. There was the yacht and the house, and then there was the ingénue. For ten or twelve years, the Levitts lived as well as anyone ever has. “He came from Brooklyn, a poor little boy, and got himself an empire,” Simone told me. “He built the most beautiful home, had the pride of giving, fell in love, gave me the biggest, most beautiful yacht in the world. He had a Rolls-Royce, a chauffeur. He bought me a 1929 Ford for my birthday. He celebrated my anniversary every month for ten years. I had to beg him to stop.”