What about the estate in Mill Neck?
“It was impressive,” said Simone. “Off the bay. A beautiful mansion. Seventy-five acres. We had our own superintendent, our own nursery, vegetables, chickens, eggs. When you came to visit, we would fill your car with gasoline, put lettuce and flowers in your trunk.”
Simone loves literature, has read everything. Now and then, as I lingered in her doorway, she pressed a book into my hands, a text meant to elucidate her own story. (Upstairs, at this moment, Simone’s copy of The Paris Wife sits, waiting to be read.) She knew the sad fate of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. She knew about third acts and second chances and poignant last-minute turns of plot. For this reason, she was not ruinously surprised to discover that things were not quite as they seemed with Bill. In fact, as Simone was turning like the bride atop the wedding cake, the ITT stock was losing value—some 90 percent in the four years after the sale. The corporation was failing, taking Levitt’s fortune with it.
But it took Bill too long to notice. Perhaps this was the fatal weakness of the Brooklyn mind. No matter how smart, the outer-borough boys always put too much faith in the storied concerns of capitalist America. “[He’d been] mesmerized [by ITT],” Simone told me. “He was very impressed by these people, and they could do no wrong. And he put all of his eggs in one basket, which was a huge mistake.” Worse still: Levitt, who, as part of the sale, agreed not to build houses in the United States for ten years, had borrowed millions against the stock to finance overseas projects. As the stock lost value, he had to make up the difference to the banks. By the mid-seventies, he was in the sort of trouble only a gold strike can fix. Which is why he tried, rather insanely, to build houses first in Nigeria, then Iran. Each plan, sold with great fanfare, ran into reality: ayatollah, oil crisis. This man, who rode the historical winds to fame and fortune, was plunged to Earth by those same forces. Pilots call it a wind shear: One minute, you’re soaring; the next, they’re picking up your remains with tweezers.
The decisive blow came in Venezuela, where Levitt lost millions when a change in oil prices made the government cut back on mortgage guarantees. “It was the day before Thanksgiving,” Simone told me. “I had 22 people over for dinner. I hear [Bill] on the phone asking them to wait one more day, please, we’re having company. In the car [later], he said, ‘Honey, they’re going to come to appraise the paintings.’ ”
Levitt tried to shelter Simone as his business fell apart, but desperate men have a way of letting the world in. One night, in Las Vegas, where the Levitts were attending an Alan King charity ball, Bill told Simone to wear her best jewels—he’d given her millions in diamonds and rubies over the years. She assumed he wanted to show her off.
On the way back to the room, Bill asked Simone to share a nightcap. It was a strange drink she later suspected was a Mickey Finn. And then it was late and everything was spinning. He told her to forget about putting the jewels in the safe at the registration desk as she’d done previously. “Before we went up, Bill said, ‘Let’s not go through the casino because there’s gambling and people are drunk,’ ” Simone told me. “ ‘There’s a sign that said BOLT YOUR DOORS. Let’s bolt our doors.’
“In the morning, I’m in the bathroom brushing my teeth and I say, ‘Honey, don’t forget the jewelry.’ And he said, ‘What jewelry?’ He told me not to put it in the safe! I said I took it off and put it right there. There was no jewelry.”
At the time, Simone believed the diamonds and rubies that had disappeared from her bedside had been stolen by a hotel employee or other intruder as they slept. But suddenly, as she spoke to me, a doubt appeared, a further mystery. “Something was put in my drink,” she said. “Whether something was put in Bill’s … until this second, I assumed he had it too! Because the minute I hit the pillow … but in the morning, come to think of it, he said ‘your jewelry’ as if he wasn’t surprised. All of a sudden, this is hitting me. Why wasn’t he surprised? Why wasn’t he upset for me?” She’ll never know.
By the late eighties, Levitt was out of everything: money, patience, ideas. When he could not pay his debts, he sold the yacht and the house in Mill Neck. Simone sighed as she catalogued each loss, eyes sparkling. She told me that her early travails “taught me how to survive. I don’t get excited; I don’t feel sorry. My brain goes immediately to ‘What am I going to do? How do I solve it?’ So when Christie’s took everything, I have no self-pity. I sold everything that was left to my neighbors. I sold everything and brought the checks to Bill to make him happy.”