The story of Bill Gottlieb, an eccentric real-estate collector whose Manhattan acquisitions in the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties are estimated to be worth from $700 million to $1 billion, is one of New York real estate’s most interesting. You can read an excellent summary of it here, in a 2008 New York Times Magazine article that tells the tale of Gottlieb and his squabbling heirs. Childless, the man who is credited with saving much of the West Village from being converted into modern buildings and glass towers also died without an official will. His sister Mollie Bender, who was executor of his estate, died in 2007. Her will left out several members of her own family, giving almost everything to her son Neil at the expense of her daughter and her grandchildren. Now, one of the Gottlieb relatives is accusing Neil Bender of Svengali-like control of his mother in her later years, forcing her to change her will for his benefit.
This sounds a little familiar. We just closed the chapter on the Astor family-will trial, in which Anthony Marshall was convicted of improperly coercing his ailing mother, Brooke Astor, into altering her will to benefit him at the expense of other family members and charities. According to the Times back in 2008, Neil Bender’s sister Cheryl Dier had suspicions of her brother’s motives from the get-go:
In a court filing related to the subsequent estate dispute, she complained that his growing influence represented a “bold and brazen attempt to steal the identity of William Gottlieb.” In other court papers, Dier claimed her brother insisted on situating his desk so that he could maintain eye contact with Mollie Bender, in order to exercise “mind control.” Three months after Gottlieb’s death, Dier sent an angry letter to her mother, calling Neil a “rude and nasty dictator.”
Now, Cheryl’s son Michael Corbett is suing his uncle Bender for a slice of his grandfather William Gottlieb’s estate. “My grandmother had always promised me that I would be taken care of,” Corbett told the Post (he has Crohn’s disease and needs the money in part, he claims, for his medical care). “She always promised me that I’d have nothing to worry about.” He wants a one-quarter stake in the real-estate collection, which is estimated to include 150 buildings, including a potentially extremely lucrative group of buildings around the High Line acquired just before Gottlieb’s death in 1999.
The Gottliebs certainly aren’t as famous or as glamorous as the Astors. But the money at stake here is much more vast, and the effects of these trials could have an outsize effect. Many of the buildings in the Gottlieb estate are dilapidated, others are landmarked and one-of-a-kind (the Keller Hotel, the Northern Dispensary), and a lot are both. Bender, in an effort to make the portfolio profitable, has begun waging war on hundreds of tenants who used to enjoy low rent (and tolerate terrible amenities) under his grandfather’s ownership. If you live in the West Village, chances are you live on a block with a Gottlieb building — and if so, this is a story you should start following.