Corcoran is known for such extraordinary motivational tactics, like hiring a street vendor to come upstairs to a meeting and hand out cotton candy. Corcoran's staff thinks she once purposely reversed e-mails sent to two top brokers to stoke competition between them. ("I haven't done that. But I should," she says, laughing.) Until recently, she gave out giant yellow horse-show ribbons for what she deemed noteworthy deals. "You got ribbons for going to the bathroom," says a veteran Corcoran broker. "People thought the ribbons weren't classy," says Corcoran, who did away with them even though she thought they worked.
Still, many of her brokers gush about the notes, the e-mails, and the steady stream of flowers she's known to send. Keeping the troops happy is a priority: An entire wall of her offices at 660 Madison Avenue is a giant refrigerator filled with free soda. A masseur gives brokers back rubs at their desks, and an instructor comes in weekly for in-house yoga and meditation classes. And there are plenty of parties. At her "country residence" in Pawling -- which is what the converted schoolhouse is routinely labeled in press releases -- she has rented an elephant, horse-drawn carriages, and Harley-Davidsons for her crew to tool around on. Her last event was a Cuban pig roast in Pawling for 400 affluent Cuban-Americans. ("Well, I have a Cuban broker.") February's "Sweetheart" party was a black-tie affair at Chelsea Piers for 800.
"Barbara's thing is, she has to be adored," says an ex-Corcoran broker who confesses she never could get into the rah-rah spirit of the place. As for Barbara's parties, "it was an unspoken rule that you had to go or you were like an outsider; you weren't a Barbara worshiper."
Within the Corcoran Group, everyone likes to talk about Barbara's "vision."
"What she has done is create a cult of personality around herself," says Halstead Property founder and competitor Clark Halstead. "And some people pass judgment on that.
"She's a brilliant marketer -- endearing, engaging, generous," says Corcoran broker Wendy Sarasohn. "But people in the business do talk about Barbara's hokiness -- you know, her midwesternness."
Corcoran actually grew up in Edgewater, New Jersey, "one mile long, two blocks wide -- at the foot of the George Washington Bridge," she says. "There was an aluminum factory there, and that was about it." But she had a tantalizing view of the Manhattan skyline from her bedroom window.
Corcoran was from a big Irish Catholic family -- the second of ten children. Her father managed a printing press but moonlighted as a night watchman. "I was the only one in the family who went to college. St. Thomas Aquinas was right nearby," says Corcoran, "and it was new and unaccredited. I was a charity-D student, but I didn't want to marry, have babies, and stay in Edgewater. The nuns thought I was nice. So they took me."
As a senior in college, Corcoran was waitressing at New Jersey's Fort Lee Diner when she began dating a divorced builder named Ray Simone. Simone was eight years her senior. When she was two years out of school, in 1973 -- and after stints as a telephone operator and a flower-delivery girl -- Simone put up $1,000 to help her get started in the rental real-estate business. In exchange, she handed Simone 51 percent of the business.
With her first commissions from Corcoran Simone, Corcoran went to Bergdorf Goodman and bought a brown-and-white wool herringbone coat, with a big swirly collar and cuffs. "I was working out of my home, so I had clients coming in and out. I suppose it looked odd."
Corcoran was living with two roommates in an apartment on East 86th Street when her landlord served her with an eviction notice. "I went to see the landlord, Johnny Campagna -- the most handsome man in New York," Corcoran remembers, "and I asked why I was being evicted. Turns out he thought I was a hooker. That's when I learned my first lesson about image." Corcoran told Campagna she could do a better job renting out his building than the guy who worked for him. "Johnny decided to give me a chance, and so I rented like crazy," says Corcoran. "That building became my bread and butter."
Eventually, Corcoran moved in with Simone and his three children in Fort Lee; Simone kept the books for the firm, now ensconced in offices at 14 East 60th Street. Corcoran sold her first apartment in 1977 by chance -- to somebody who didn't realize she was a rental broker: "I took my 6 percent commission, came back, and hired my first co-op salesperson." Her timing was impeccable; Corcoran moved into the co-op market just as rental-to-co-op conversions were transforming Manhattan's brokerage business. The economy had started to rebound, and existing co-ops quickly started doubling and tripling in price.
"Then one night that year, Ray Simone told me he had fallen in love with Tina Pogue, ten years my junior and much prettier," says Corcoran, still sounding surprised. Pogue was the head of relocation at the firm.
"Barbara knew what was happening," counters Simone. "One day we were all at the ski house we shared with some friends, and Barbara is following Tina with an ax. We were cutting Christmas trees. I don't think it came as a surprise."
"Ray married Tina," Corcoran continues. "But it was a race to the altar." Corcoran proposed to an advertising executive named Dale Barlow who'd spent time at the same ski house, too. In 1979, she married him. She was 30 and he was 25; it lasted seven years.
Corcoran Simone staggered along for a year after the couple split up. "Then, after a year, Ray was a gentleman and he gave the one percent back; we flipped a coin to divide the assets," says Corcoran.
In 1978, Corcoran started the Corcoran Group, and Simone and Pogue started Pogue Simone. "Years later, he asked me to buy out his business," says Corcoran, "but there really was nothing to buy."