"This story, what Pataki said -- you never told me this before," Abe says.
"Abe, you were standing right next to the man," Frank says. "You heard him say it."
An awkward silence. Abe shrugs and turns back to his forkful of hot dog.
Crude and irrational he may be, but at least Hirschfeld is consistent. Whether running for Miami Beach city commissioner in the eighties or Manhattan borough president in 1997, battling for ownership of the Post in 1993 or publishing, for five months, a newspaper called Open Air PM that was supposed to support itself by selling space for obituaries, he craves not simply publicity but also approval. "Abe thinks he's getting popular acceptance by running for office. He takes it as a validation," says Jerry Skurnick, a consultant on Hirschfeld's 1986 run for lieutenant governor. "And a lot of people, because Abe is willing to pay them money, play along and indulge him. I'm somewhat guilty of it myself. I still do business with him, selling him mailing labels for campaigns."
Hirschfeld made a fortune building 40 innovative open-air parking garages, but the last one went up around twenty years ago, and the structures never bought him the esteem that accrues to builders of
office complexes or even shopping centers. A call to John Tishman, the veteran New York construction executive, yields a typical reaction: "Mr. Tishman socializes with people like Ace Greenberg," sniffs a spokesman. "He travels in different circles than Abe Hirschfeld." An aide on another of Hirschfeld's political campaigns says the snubs were frequent. "I remember going to one event, a cocktail party with a bunch of real-estate people, and they'd nod their heads at Abe, but not one of them came over to talk to him," says the consultant. "They just ignored him."
The only time Hirschfeld's jovial demeanor crumbles, though, is when his children are mentioned. His 49-year-old son, Elie, has built a thriving real-estate business of his own from a start in his father's company, yet Elie refuses to talk about Abe. His 52-year-old daughter, Rachel, is suing him, saying Abe cheated her out of millions of dollars. "It's painful," he says. "Very painful. And I just looked up the record -- I gave her, from 1990 to '97, over two and a half million dollars. So Stanley had to give her more to have her go against me." He looks down at the table. "She writes me letters, 'I love you . . .' But I don't know." (Rachel, in a brief, tense conversation, says Stahl isn't paying her, and claims it was her father who started the fight six years ago: "That's incorrect, that I decided to sue him. He sued me, and I'm just answering it. No one is aware of that. I'm just going to say good-bye." Then she hangs up.)
Abe claims that Rachel is just one of an expanding group of people who've been bribed to bring him down: His secretary, Rosemary Singer, one of his ex-lawyers, even Robert Morgenthau. The mastermind of the conspiracy? Stanley Stahl. Hirschfeld says the criminal-solicitation charge has it all backward. "In reality," he says, "Stanley wanted to kill me."
Hirschfeld says he Met Stahl, the ursine son of a Brooklyn butcher, for the first time in 1957. In what became a recurrent pattern, Abe gained the rights to a valuable piece of property but didn't have the capital to do anything with the land. The first site was on the east side of Park Avenue, between 47th and 48th Streets. The New York Central Railroad owned the ground under a gracious low-rise apartment complex, home to Joseph P. Kennedy, among others; the railroad was having financial troubles and wanted to sell. Hirschfeld made the winning bid, then couldn't meet the payments. He was introduced to Stanley Stahl, who was beginning a career in real estate. For $25,000, Stahl bought out Hirschfeld, and in 1962 he gambled his entire business on constructing a new 50-story office tower at 277 Park Avenue (today, the building is headquarters to Stahl's Apple Bank). "Now that site is probably worth, on a low estimate, $600 million," Hirschfeld says, sounding as if he feels cheated. "No, I'm happy," he says. "I'm happy that Stanley made money and I made money. For me, at that time, $25,000 was a lot of money."
The pair formed Hirstan Associates in 1969 and bought three Sutton Place apartment houses. But Hirschfeld's primary business became unglamorous parking garages, while Stahl, who lunches at Le Périgord, sought out prestige properties. In 1982, Stahl became a real-estate legend. Through a series of savvy maneuvers, he secretly assembled property rights for the new AT&T headquarters on Madison between 55th and 56th Streets.