Linda Stein, the punk-music pioneer turned real-estate broker, was found murdered in her Fifth Avenue penthouse on Tuesday. According to the AP, the medical examiner says an autopsy found that she died from fatal blows to the head and neck. Stein was the original “broker to the stars,” helping turn the sale of fancy real estate in the city into the gossipy, publicity-driven soap opera that it has become today, where we all know, or think we know, which boldfaced name lives where, and how much they paid. A tempestuous, bawdy, funny woman who, through her marriage in to Sire Records founder Seymour Stein (the man who discovered and nurtured Madonna as well as the Talking Heads), transformed herself from a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx to Ramones manager and international party girl (best friends with Elton John and Studio 54 regular). And then, after she and Stein divorced, she transformed herself again. Like many a divorcée, she got her real-estate license. But she had something else going for her. “I saw that there was money to be made,” she told New York Magazine when Michael Gross profiled her back in 1991. “My clients are my friends.” They included Bruce Willis, Billy Joel, Sting, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Calvin Klein, Joan Rivers, Sylvester Stallone, Jann Wenner and Rupert Everett.
Publicity didn’t always work for Stein. Years ago, she lost Madonna as a client when a photograph of them looking at co-ops appeared on the front page of the New York Post (Madonna was rejected by the board at the San Remo). “Page Six” once put her in “publicity rehab” after she got another columnist to, tongue-in-cheek, imply she was romantically linked to its editor, Richard Johnson. In 1996, she was fired from Sotheby’s International Realty after commenting for a story in the Times about rich men, like David Geffen and Ronald Perelman, who buy townhouses and never move into them (“It’s amazing these guys can ever make a business decision,” she said).
But she kept bouncing back, selling Donna Karan her ex-husband Seymour’s apartment at 55 Central Park West and cultivating hip-hop elites like Damon Dash. Steven Gaines devoted an entire chapter to her in his 2005 book The Sky’s the Limit, about Manhattan real estate. “Sometimes this broker to the stars thing is not all it’s cracked up to be,” she told Gaines. “Sometimes, I think I have more hype than commissions. People are impressed that my clients are movie stars, but what they don’t realize is that in the long run it doesn’t matter if your client is a movie star or a dog. What matters is closing the deal.”
She was the mother of two daughters, Mandy and Samantha, and had raised millions of dollars for breast cancer, which she had overcome twice. But most people would know her as the inspiration for the name-dropping real-estate agent in Wall Street played by Sylvia Miles and the sexually predatory record-company executive in the movie 54 played by Sela Ward. —Carl Swanson
Read Michael Gross’s 1991 Linda Stein profile for New York Magazine here.