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Nailing Your New York Number

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Finally, he sketches a box labeled RICH. Make it into this box, he says, and you can afford to spend weeks abroad, belong to a gated golf community, charter jets, find yourself at parties with Henry and Marie-Josee Kravis, even though, compared with them, you’re a pauper. Deep Pockets lives in this box, the New York Number being $20 million.

Deep Pockets crumples and tosses the paper. “Anything more than twenty,” he says, “is irrelevant.”

Now and then, not that often, I run into people for whom the New York Number carries little trepidation, and not just because they have a ton of money. I’m thinking of Marvin Tolkin. Not only have people like Marvin done the math, they understand that a financial plan is more than a glorified budget. It’s an idealized self-portrait.

Marvin and his wife, Carole, a gerontologist as it happens, live on Long Island, in Hewlett. They also keep an apartment in Murray Hill. It is here one morning that they set out a deli’s worth of smoked fish and bagels and graciously answer every impertinent question I hurl across the table. At 79, Marvin has found a second wind, nearly gale force. He is a poster mensch for how someone can build and manage a New York Number and, in so doing, enjoy a meaningful later life.

“If you’re just trying to scrape by, the number doesn’t apply. It’s obscene.”

The first lesson you can learn from Marvin is, life throws sudden financial punches—so it pays to learn how to sidestep. Marvin made a very good living in the rag trade, building out a company started by his father: Style Undies. The name still looms over Sixth Avenue—just look up at the building at 64 West 36th Street, and there you’ll see it—style undies—painted right on top. In the early years, the company’s mainstay product was an item called the Gertrude, a tiny slip made for toddlers. The Gertrude enabled the business to take giant baby steps. Then, in 1951, Marvin launched a product that set Style Undies on fire: a nylon horsehairlike slip so thick and sturdy it stood up on its own. Women bought them to poof up their bouffant dresses, newly imported from Paris and all the rage. “We were on the cover of Life!” Marvin says.

Marvin’s stories about the Gertrude and the stand-up slip may sound antiquated, but the moral to them is important. Even when business was great, Marvin didn’t get cocky, didn’t spend it before he had it nailed down. He knew that this year’s poufy dress was next year’s disaster waiting to happen. He realized that Style Undies, like any business, had to adapt to changing times. After all, a huge number of Gertrude wearers, baby boomers, were rapidly outgrowing their knickers. Style Undies gave way to a bras-and-panties brand Marvin named Jennifer Dale, after a niece. (“We were the first to design bras in prints!” he says, beaming.) By the seventies, Marvin’s new lines were providing him with a take-home of a half-million dollars a year. But there were clouds above the sign on West 36th. Department stores had figured out that they could make bigger margins by outsourcing their own lines and squeezing the Jennifer Dales out of existence. Marvin didn’t procrastinate. Instead, he put a plan in place, which he believes everyone should do by the time one hits 50. Twenty years before he intended to retire, Marvin started to gather twigs for his New York nest egg.

Marvin’s preparation underscores another lesson: A wise bird diversifies; an even wiser one diversifies creatively. Marvin pulls some notes out of his pocket that outline exactly how he went about planning for retirement. Compared with conventional financial advice, which urges you to assemble a well-balanced pie chart of stocks, bonds, home equity, and sufficient cash for three months of rainy days, Marvin’s list is quirky. It instructs that each of us could sweeten our pies if, in addition to deploying conventional investment formulas, we drew on our own experience and expertise. Most important, don’t get hung up on a big, fat brokerage balance; it can be volatile. Go after things that’ll provide a long-term income stream.

When he sold his share of Jennifer Dale, he took a chunk of available change and bought into a commercial building in Ozone Park, knowing that it would generate monthly income for decades to come. Today, that building is worth about $3 million, which isn’t the point. The point is the monthly rent checks that arrive in the mailbox. “That building is how we’re living, kiddo,” Marvin says, nodding to Carole. I ask what the building brings in.

“Two hundred and twenty thousand a year,” Marvin says without pause.


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