Near the end, Levitt pitched two new developments in Florida meant as a retirement community for graying denizens of Levittown. He took money but never finished building, using the cash to pay his debts. When caught dipping into a charitable foundation set up years before, he was prosecuted by the New York attorney general’s office. He was ordered to pay back $11 million—money he did not have. In short, in addition to financial ruin, he suffered humiliation.
“You know what that’s like, when you really get a lot of luck and then it starts going wrong,” Simone told me. “If he’d had time, it would have gone back up, but he didn’t have time. So Venezuela went to pieces, and before you knew it, that was it. That’s when he began … not to give up, but he had no choice. There were terrible articles, and he would say, ‘Ah, Simone, it’s yellow journalism. You can’t believe what you read. Do you trust me?’ And finally, by the time my friend [told me the truth], they closed up the electricity, the phones, [and] he was under Valium.”
It was only at the end, when every step came to seem like a step down, that Simone began to look out for herself. “Before we sold the boat, he bought me a 27-carat diamond that was unbelievably beautiful. And that ring, I will never forget it. By that time, I knew we were in bad trouble. Sitting in the kitchen in a condominium—after this mansion, we rented a condominium—he says, ‘Honey, give me that ring, I’ll make it up eight times for you.’ And I remember saying, ‘Darling, I’ve given you back everything you’ve ever given me. But this ring, I’d rather swallow it.’ After he died, I sold it—this is how I’ve made my life. I sold that diamond at Sotheby’s, and I demanded a million, but it only sold for $800,000. That’s how I made my life again.”
In his final years, when he was wracked and busted, nothing but a name, a legend and a dollar or two, a reporter took Levitt out to Levittown, a ruin coasting beneath the elms. The town had changed. People had added floors and wings to their ranches and Cape Cods, lean-tos, overhangs, dormers, garages. They’d busted out of their boxes. Sparkle and fancy flourished, demonstrating the quality of soul that strives for individual expression. Perhaps Levitt just wanted to see it again, to remind himself it’s real, it’s happened, I did it, it’s here. He was like God drifting through his garden in the cool of the evening, but a suburban God, the only God we deserve, an ailing, faded deity who has lost everything.
William Levitt died on January 28, 1994, in North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, Long Island. The official cause was kidney disease. He was 86 years old and unable to pay for his care.
Simone turned out stronger than Bill. Eventually, after one too many failures, he lay lifeless at the bottom of his string. He ended in a haze. But Simone always comes back, jaguar coat and all. She is poor, she is rich, then poor again, but that was far from the end. I realized that, as much as the story she’d told me was about a tragic man, it was also one of triumph—her triumph. Because she’d kept going, living richly, making things. For years, she was a friend and muse to Janet Brown, a well-known Long Island fashion designer, with whom she’d lived for a decade. Now Brown was gone too—but that opened the door for the next thing. And anyway, her story, the one she’d just told me, was more valuable than any jewel. No husband could take it away.
When I asked about her state of mind—what does that kind of loss of wealth and status feel like?—she smiled the way Ruth Madoff might smile if she became a Buddhist. “We had a life that was unimaginable,” she told me. “But I’m happy with today. Look, I told my daughter—she bought a new apartment—‘Nicole, don’t be cynical. You’re forgetting to enjoy today. Don’t say you can’t wait for it to be finished. Don’t do that. Squeeze everything out of the moment. Don’t look for tomorrow.’ I don’t look back. If I do, I never regret. I appreciate. I believe that nothing is forever. The painting on this wall, in another five years maybe it’ll be on someone else’s wall. My rings and jewelry, the shirt I have on, it will be on somebody else. Nothing and nobody lasts forever. Everything changes hands.”