The Man Who Had Everything

HOME DEPOT: Silverman in his office when he was chairman of Ply Gem. He made $100 million on the sale of the home-building-supplies company.Photo: Sherrie Nickol/ Crain's New York Business

The August birthday party for 3-year-old twins Jack and Lucy Silverman was exactly the kind of event friends had come to expect from financier Jeffrey Silverman and his wife, Lisa, a onetime Olympic equestrienne. Power parents schmoozed as their toddlers frolicked on the vast lawn of the Bridgehampton compound owned by Lisa’s parents, Bear Stearns vice-chairman Mickey Tarnopol and his wife, Lynne, who had recently divided off six large parcels of land for their children to build adjoining houses. On this particular day, they’d brought in pony rides and a petting zoo.

The Silvermans’ social whirl had been like that all through the summer months: afternoons at the polo matches, a table at the Hampton Classic, dinner with friends. Back in Manhattan after Labor Day, they could generally be found at their regular tables at Sette Mezzo or Mr. Chow or their favorite, La Goulue, where they’d always order two bottles of Corton-Charlemagne, which they drank on the rocks, and though they lived just a block away, they kept a driver outside throughout dinner. On Saturday, September 21, they attended a bat mitzvah for the daughter of financier Peter Rothschild, laughing and mingling with friends and making social dates. “He was so involved in conversations that night,” recalls Rothschild, “and I made lunch plans with him for the following week.”

Just two days later, however, when Lisa thought Jeffrey was having a regular Monday at work, he left a chilling message on her cell phone: “I love you very much, I love the children very much.” But he couldn’t go on with his life, he continued, instructing her where to send the police to recover his body: at the end of Steamboat Road on Long Island Sound, which is near the Greenwich estate they’d recently sold. By the time the police arrived, Silverman was dead, and though an investigation is ongoing, there seems to be little question that he’d taken his own life. Almost as shocking as the suicide, however, was the cause of death: a single gunshot wound to the chest, an unusual method of suicide that could result in the victim’s bleeding for as long as ten minutes before losing consciousness.

Nearly a thousand people gathered for the funeral that Wednesday at Central Synagogue, many of them later visiting Lisa at the Silvermans’ magnificent East 64th Street home. Among those shaking their heads in disbelief were former mayor Rudy Giuliani, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump, Ron Perelman, Governor George Pataki, and former governor Hugh Carey. “This is the last person you could see doing this to himself,” said Trump. “He had a really good marriage; they used to come to Mar-a-Lago. He seemed to have so much going for him.”

At the service, a eulogist told of Jeffrey’s walking into one of his favorite restaurants on a torrid summer evening and heading straight over to the coat check to give her his usual lavish tip. “Just because I don’t have a coat, why should she suffer?” he asked. His twin brother, Kenneth, recounted a visit to Los Angeles when Jeffrey, driving a Bentley convertible, had trouble following directions. So he hired a taxi driver to find the way, but insisted on driving behind him in his own car. He couldn’t bear to arrive in a taxi instead of his Bentley.

Silverman’s largesse wasn’t limited to wait staff. “He would cross the street to get to a homeless person and give him money,” said Rose Smith, a friend of more than 25 years, “and he gave a lot of money to charity without ever wanting his name attached. I wish there were a thousand Jeffreys.”

The Tarnopols themselves are very social. They throw parties at their Park Avenue apartment and East End home – one recent anniversary bash drew hundreds – and Mickey is a member of the Atlantic Golf Club in Bridgehampton and the Palm Beach Golf Club. At Central, their fund-raising powers are considered “mythic.”

But as evidence mounted that Silverman’s generosity – coupled with spiraling financial problems in recent years – led to his undoing, acquaintances agonized over why the family’s resources hadn’t saved him.

“Mickey Tarnopol is a very wealthy man, and Lisa made substantial money in real estate,” says Dr. Richard Winter, a close friend of Jeffrey’s. “But whether Jeffrey emotionally could tolerate their support was a different matter. Jeffrey hadn’t seen the inside of a commercial jet in 25 years. Not even Mickey leads that kind of lifestyle.”

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Indeed, Jeffrey Silverman lived as if the gods had commanded him to be lavish. At 56, he had a beautiful, loving wife seventeen years his junior who had her own career as a successful real-estate agent, adorable twins he doted on, a second home in Palm Beach and another under construction in Bridgehampton, a chauffeured car. And if, like so many other people in the past couple of years, he had encountered financial problems, well, surely his even wealthier father-in-law would come to his aid, as he had so often before.

According to close friends of the Silvermans’, the Tarnopols had helped Jeffrey out several times, to the tune of seven figures. “A lot of fathers-in-law wouldn’t have gotten that involved, but the Tarnopols are the closest family I know,” says one. “Mickey would ask how he could help, but ultimately, Jeffrey shut down. He just couldn’t ask for any more money.

Silverman grew up in a home in which nothing was denied him. His father, Harry, was a corporate raider who lived large in Forest Hills: Even in nursery school, Jeffrey traveled in a limousine. After graduating from Long Island University, he became at 21 the youngest member of the New York Stock Exchange. He spent five years on Wall Street before becoming general partner at an investment partnership and president of a cable-TV company. In 1981, he joined the board of Ply Gem, which produced home-building products, and by 1997, he had become its primary shareholder, orchestrating its sale to Nortek, Inc. He walked away with almost $100 million.

“When he came to work for us, we paid him $85,000 a year,” recalls Albert Hersh, former president of Ply Gem. “He insisted on arriving every day in a limo he had rented from Potamkin. Even I wasn’t allowed to ride in it. And I remember him pleading with me, ‘Please don’t tell Ron’ ” – Perelman – ” ‘how little I’m being paid.’ But the guy used to leave a $20 tip on each drink, at a time when most guys left a dollar or two. They knew him everywhere he went. We had our table at ‘21’ whenever we wanted it. Who wouldn’t like a guy like that? He couldn’t afford it then, sweetheart – the way he couldn’t afford it now.”

Silverman’s life in Bridgehampton and Palm Beach revolved around the horse set, but while Lisa was a professional rider, and her father had been a competitive polo player, Jeffrey wouldn’t even ride for pleasure. At the funeral, another friend recalled that when he had injured his back, he was bemoaning his inability to play golf or tennis, and Jeffrey said, “Come over to my house and I’ll show you how to do nothing.”

“Their house in Palm Beach was right by the Polo Club, but he had no particular interest in riding, or in any sports,” says Neil Hirsch, founder of the Bridgehampton Polo Club and a longtime friend. “He was there to support her hobby. He didn’t really have any hobbies of his own. A few years ago, in Palm Beach, I got him to play golf with me every morning. He agreed to go as long as it was really early, before other people came out. I felt that after Ply Gem was sold, he was sort of lost without something to do. But I never realized he had financial problems.”

Silverman’s big venture after Ply Gem, Brand Partners, wasn’t a success, and many of the friends who invested with him ended up feeling the pinch. “We all bought the stock at $7; I think it’s 3 cents now. To him, it’s an embarrassment,” says Winter. As his own stake in the company plummeted from about $6 million to $260,000, the shareholders in Ply Gem filed a class-action suit against him, alleging that Silverman used his influence over the board to divert money from shareholders into his own pocket during the sale of the company. According to sources close to the situation, the taxes on both his compensation from Nortek and an eight-figure forgiven loan that was part of the sale totaled close to $31 million. Though Silverman had begun paying the IRS, he was unable to keep up payments, and as the interest accrued, he slid further and further into debt.

In early November, brand partners announced that it had an unanticipated reduction in its capital and resources in 2002, because Silverman had paid himself about $265,000 in unauthorized compensation, and more than $130,000 in unauthorized reimbursements and payments for personal expenses. The company is now trying to determine whether there is any recourse against the estate.

“This is the kind of thing that corporate guys have done for years but that winds up on the front pages of the papers now,” says one associate.

“I was enormously fond of Jeffrey,” says Winter. “This situation was overwhelming and potentially humiliating. I’m sure he thought, I’ll never come out of this.”

“The odd part is that he was always saying this was the happiest time of his life,” says a woman who worked for him for more than fifteen years. “He regretted that he didn’t have time to spend with the children from his previous marriage, who he felt needed help, and he said he wanted to do it right this time, to really spend time with the little ones. That is the irony.”

Silverman’s two previous marriages were not as harmonious as the one with Lisa. There was a first union with Pam Deutsch, which produced two children, Amanda and Jason. They divorced, and in 1976 he married a beautiful real-estate heiress, Joy Wolosoff. Joy helped finance his investment in Ply Gem, and he promised to adopt Evan, her son from a previous marriage (which he did years later, when Evan turned 18). Together, they adopted a baby girl, Jessica. But friends say the nineteen-year relationship also brought out his dark side. He tormented her with other women, and there were eruptions of violence.

“My parents fought like any other married couple, but my dad had a violent temper,” Evan recalls. “I witnessed him being physically abusive to her, and on one occasion I had to pull him off her.”

Joy began an affair with New York Court of Appeals chief justice Sol Wachtler, who administered the $3 million trust left to her by her stepfather, and told friends she turned to him because she was afraid of Silverman’s control over her money.

“Jeffrey’s friends are all asking what could have driven him to this now if he didn’t kill himself when she got through with him,” Hersh says bitterly.

After his marriage to Lisa Tarnopol, Silverman’s relationship with the children from his previous marriages disintegrated, Evan says. Members of Joy’s family say the split was over the children’s refusal to cooperate with him in the divorce proceedings. Silverman’s friends say she enforced a code of silence; he was so hurt by the alienation that he left a final note asking that none of them attend his funeral. Joy complied, but Jessica and Evan showed up.

“I’ve heard about that note, but I don’t know anyone who has actually seen it,” says Evan. “My mother stayed in the marriage because of my sister and me far longer than she should have. She paid a high price for it, but in no way, shape, or form did she discourage us from talking to him. She encouraged us to have a relationship with him. One time, she ran into him at a restaurant and said, ‘Jeffrey, enough time has gone by, and you’d be so proud of Evan and Jessica.’ He said, ‘Joy, you’re right. Call me tomorrow and we’ll arrange a meeting.’ My mom called me crying, she was so happy, and I said, ‘He’s not going to take your call.’ Sure enough, when she called him the next day, he didn’t take the call, and I never saw him again.

“We loved our father, and I went to the funeral for the good times we had, not the pain my sister and I had over the last eight years.”

By all accounts, the marriage to Lisa was free of such angst. “I remember when he first met her, he was concerned that she was much younger,” says a former colleague. “And I said to him, ‘Just enjoy it; there are no dress rehearsals.’ He loved being able to take care of her, and I think he wasn’t happy that they were increasingly having to live through her parents.”

“Jeffrey built a shitty company into something profitable and made a lot of money for himself, if not the shareholders,” says a Bear Stearns executive. “Recently, Mickey would call people up and ask what they could do to help Jeffrey. People are talking about this as if it’s inconceivable. But Jeffrey was a very generous guy, and he thought of himself as a big shot. He couldn’t stand to think of himself as not a big shot.”

“His wedding to Lisa was not like anything you’ve ever been to,” recalls Hersh. “He seemed to fit into their world so beautifully. He was elegant and a great manipulator of money. But he couldn’t stand owing any, and at this point, he just didn’t know where to get more.”

Not long before his death, Silverman had finally reached out for a different kind of help and started taking antidepressants. “It takes a while for the body to adjust to the medication,” says a friend. “He got help, but too late.”

Lisa has returned to her job as a broker at Ashforth Warburg, and neighbors of the Silvermans report that little Jack likes to ride the elevators. When his nanny says it’s time to come inside, he always asks the same question: “Will Daddy be there?”

Says one man who was involved in a financial deal with Silverman, “It’s so sad. Your children don’t really care how much you have; they just want you around. Jeffrey’s entire self-worth was based on his net worth.”

The Man Who Had Everything