Barb Wired

Is this really James? You don’t sound like yourself. You sound sexy.” Barbara Corcoran, chairman of the city’s second-largest residential-real-estate agency, has just grabbed one of her six phone lines. “How can I help you?” she says with a low chuckle. It’s 5:15 p.m., and James Barron of the New York Times is the sixth reporter to call Corcoran today about the impending sale of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s TriBeCa loft. Sotheby’s, the firm handling the listing, wasn’t talking.

“Don’t you know someone at Sotheby’s?” Corcoran asks senior vice-president and sidekick Scott Durkin, who shares Corcoran’s almost bare blond-wood desk. “I’ll tell you what I do know,” Corcoran tells Barron. “I know that David Letterman lives on the second floor of that very building, and he owns half the floor. And that this apartment is half the top floor, 2,600 square feet. The elevator opens only to that floor. It faces east and north.”

“And south,” Durkin chimes in.

“North Moore Street is the Fifth Avenue of TriBeCa!” Corcoran crows into the phone.

Barron thanks her for the sound bite. It doesn’t matter that Corcoran isn’t even handling this exclusive. In her interview that afternoon with Entertainment Tonight, Corcoran will again describe this space she’s never actually been in and announce the loft’s price. “I don’t know where I got it. Maybe from the Post this morning,” she says, laughing.

It’s business as usual at the Corcoran Group’s Madison Avenue offices. Hours after the Clintons announced they were house-hunting in Westchester, Corcoran had a checklist ready for the First Family that was faxed to every media outlet her group could think of. Everyone received a copy but the Clintons themselves, it seems. “It didn’t even occur to us,” says Corcoran. “And besides, they don’t own a newspaper.” Two hours later, Corcoran was planted at a desk in CNN’s Penn Plaza studio, chatting with Judy Woodruff about Westchester house-hunting on WorldView.

“I’m a marketing person, not a real-estate person,” says Corcoran, whose powerhouse brokerage doubles as a press-release snow machine, operating on the theory that if you let enough people in on every single thing you’ve been up to, networks and newspapers will whack a path to your door. And clients will follow.

“She’s a brilliant marketer. But people in the business do talk about Barbara’s midwesternness,” says broker Sarasohn.

Corcoran has four public-relations handlers, two full-time, two on retainer, including an old-time Hollywood-style press guy paid $700 per item when he gets the Corcoran Group into the tabloids. But even she finds it hard to keep track of her firm’s myriad stunts.

“What icon?” she said on an earlier visit, shooting a glance across the desk at Scott Durkin. A press release touting the new office “icon” had just hit the media’s mailboxes, and Durkin reminded her about that twenty-inch-high glass box etched with flowers, fruits, and words like earth, power, space, home, and vision in what the release referred to as the firm’s “sacred space” – really the top of a file cabinet in the corner of the research director’s office.

Spiritual kitsch isn’t what you expect to find in the cutthroat trenches of today’s real-estate market, but Corcoran figures it can’t hurt. The Über-broker has also been known to call on the services of a professional smudger, referred by Barbara Walters’s makeup artist, who waves bells and incense to cleanse a troublesome space of evil spirits. “American Indians used to do it in their tepees,” Corcoran notes, fondly remembering an eleven-room Park Avenue spread three years ago that didn’t sell until her smudger paid a house call. “The very next morning, a couple sitting on the bed in the master bedroom offered the full $3.2 million asking price,” she says.

Corcoran’s blue eyes widen in horror as she takes a call from a potential client. He wants her to personally handle his $10 million listing, but by the end of the conversation, Corcoran has gently charmed him into using one of her brokers instead.

It’s a good thing, too: The founder and chief executive of the Corcoran Group has sold just three apartments in her life. And yet Barbara Corcoran is the most quoted, most visible Manhattan real-estate agent on the scene today. In her trademark camera-friendly red suit (she now owns twelve of them), Corcoran can be counted on for statistics on million-dollar homes, a mini-dissertation on the newest trends among the “jet set,” and an explanation of why LoLIta – Lower Little Italy – is suddenly the “highly hip” neighborhood.

“I find a way to give them what they need. After all,” says Corcoran, “the most important thing to a seller is that you be perceived as big.

Just how big is she? in 1998, the Corcoran Group did $1.175 billion in sales volume, solidifying the firm’s position as the second-largest residential-real-estate brokerage in Manhattan. And Corcoran says her company is on track to do $2 billion worth of business in 1999 (though industry insiders say that number is a stretch).

Corcoran’s also going after venture-capital financing – hoping to raise $7 million by January to bolster her real-estate service on the Internet. There’s talk of an IPO somewhere down the line, even though Corcoran admits people have bought only four apartments sight-unseen off the 5-year-old Internet site. Corcoran maintains her brokers get one phone call a day generated by the Web listings. This fall, she signed an agreement with, meaning Corcoran will be able to offer 360-degree “virtual home tours.”

Not that her properties aren’t pretty heavily exposed already. A hefty 15 percent chunk of the firm’s revenues is diverted into advertising: Barbara spinning a globe on her finger on the TV guide that arrives with the Sunday Times. Barbara grinning under that cartoonish Statue of Liberty headdress on the front of her newsletter. Barbara on her Website and in the New York Observer, squeezed into a box and wearing a short sleeveless red dress and heels, her arms wrapped tightly around her airbrushed legs.

That one got eyes rolling in real estate’s clubby ranks. “We’re trying to be taken seriously, and she gets herself photographed in a tight miniskirt,” says one female competitor.

Corcoran maintains the compliments outweigh the criticism from those she calls “the uptown ladies.” But even brokers at her own firm sometimes wish she’d tone down the shtick: Corcoran’s old home page – which showed her dressed like a traffic cop under the headline more traffic – “was not at the level of taste of what we’re doing,” Sharon Baum sniffs.

Two of the city’s best-known brokers, Baum and Carrie Chiang, work at the firm; Chiang, known in the business as the “condo queen,” operates out of a chauffeur-driven Cadillac; Baum runs her clients around in a black Rolls-Royce. And Corcoran brokers have been in on some high-profile deals – Jerry Seinfeld, Puff Daddy, Giorgio Armani. But the Corcoran Group’s image is not nearly as Tiffany-blue as those of such quietly swank boutiques around town as Edward Lee Cave, Alice Mason, and Stribling & Associates. Even the megabrokerage Douglas Elliman somehow carries more cachet, despite the fact that its average 1998 sale ($580,000) was just slightly higher than Corcoran’s ($550,000). In contrast, Stribling’s average sale was $960,000.

“Barbara’s a little, um, overexuberant in some ways,” says Donald Trump. “But she’s a natural promoter. She can’t help herself.”

Corcoran insists apartments priced above $1 million represent an estimated 20 percent of the company’s business. And though she says she’s never felt entirely at ease with the pearls-and-sweater-set gals who have traditionally handled the more lucrative sales, she tries to play the game. “I’m not part of the Upper East Side crowd, and I don’t want to be part of it,” Corcoran says curtly. “But the Junior League represents the wives of a lot of old money in town, and as a businessperson, I’d be foolish not to have my fair share of Junior Leaguers in the firm. As long as I have them, I don’t have to be that myself.”

Corcoran has been luckier scoring high-profile on-site projects downtown – including the Northmoore, the Ice House, and the Bazzini building in TriBeCa – than she has uptown. This year, she ambitiously hired a “celebrity broker,” a 26-year-old named Jeffrey Cohen who’d represented the rapper-mogul Puff Daddy when he bought at 817 Park. Cohen was supposed to anchor a “celebrity division.” But Cohen left last week, by mutual agreement. “When all was said and done, the only person he knew was Puff Daddy,” sneers a source at the firm.

“You should be in this business,” Corcoran is telling me at the Corcoran Group’s First World Conference of Real Estate Leaders. “You’d make more money. And you’d dress better.”

Then she turns heel and throws her arm around a graying, middle-aged real-estate broker on his way into Donald Trump’s keynote address. Thirty-nine brokers from fifteen countries and fifteen states are milling around the Madison Suite of the Mark Hotel, waiting to hear Barbara Corcoran hold forth on the state of New York real estate. A tour of the “homes of the rich and famous” that will take place the following day includes three active Upper East Side Corcoran Group listings and Donald Trump’s own marble-and-gold-plated apartment in Trump Tower. “No other New York agency could have arranged that visit for their guests,” Corcoran boasts in one of the ten press releases issued sharp on the heels of the event. The same release noted that the international brokers who attended the event had voted to become part of an “exclusive network” of leading brokers around the world.

Corcoran’s ultimate goal? “Well, I reached my first goal, to be the queen of New York real estate,” she says. “Now I want to be the queen of international real estate.” And if it takes a few lashings of hype, so be it. After all, this is a woman who admits she once told a group of Italian developers she was an ex-nun to clinch a deal.

But when you’re no. 2, you try harder. “I’m in a limousine getting a ride back to the office, and out the window – on a side street – I see a bald woman with the smoothest skin,” Corcoran is saying. “She was like a spirit, wearing a white gown with big feathered wings.” Corcoran leaped out of the car and ran after the woman, who’d disappeared into the bistro Le Taxi. The angel was handing out Christian literature and rose petals to distracted Euro-shoppers downing steak-frites when Corcoran caught up with her. “We almost killed a couple people having lunch there, but we got her!” she says gleefully. The holy spirit said she never did her thing commercially, but Corcoran took her phone number anyway. “I might walk her around the office sometime,” she says. “She’d had cancer, and that kind of success out of failure can be the crux of great salesmanship.”

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.”

The Corcoran Group set up shop with twelve brokers and an 1,800-square-foot office on Third Avenue and 58th Street that was only 25 feet wide. Corcoran painted the foyer kelly green. Esther Kaplan became president and is Corcoran’s only equity partner: “I got Esther Kaplan in the coin toss,” Corcoran remembers.

In 1981, Corcoran decided to issue her first “Corcoran Report” on the state of the condominium market. The firm had made just eleven sales that year, but “no one asked me how many sales it was based on,” she says, grinning. “The Times just ran with it.” She sent it to Donald Trump with a handwritten note before it went out to the press. “Trump Tower was not ranked 1, 2, or 3 on the list,” Corcoran remembers, “so he asked me to come in.” By the time Corcoran met with him, she says, she had already decided to refigure the numbers on a price-per-square-foot basis. Trump was happy, because Trump Tower and Trump Parc were now Nos. 1 and 2 in the rankings. “He became my friend,” laughs Corcoran, “and he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times with THE CORCORAN REPORT written across the top.”

“Barbara’s a little, um, overexuberant in some ways, but she’s a natural promoter and I don’t say that in a derogatory sense,” says Trump. “She can’t help herself.”

Corcoran and Trump haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. In 1994, Corcoran accused Trump of not paying millions of dollars of commissions to two of her brokers who’d brought him key Hong Kong investors for his Riverside South project. Trump eventually agreed to pay a lower fee, and Corcoran signed a confidentiality agreement, but after Corcoran talked to New York Magazine about the deal, he decided to withhold her fee.

“The ink wasn’t even dry when I got the call from New York,” Trump remembers. But in a ruling later upheld by an appeals court, Trump was obliged to pay up.

It wasn’t the first time Corcoran’s zeal to get her name out there got her into trouble. Four years ago, a Corcoran ad that appeared in the New York Observer implied that the Corcoran Group was the only agency in town willing to co-broker deals. Every broker in town went ballistic, and Corcoran was actually called before the Real Estate Board’s ethics committee. Corcoran pulled the ad, and the charges were dismissed, but her competitors have been slow to forget – especially after mailings containing the same copy and deceptive visuals were sent out by one Corcoran broker after the fracas. “She does not make those kinds of mistakes,” says a top broker at another firm. “Everything she does is extremely calculated.”

When the stock market swooned last year, Corcoran went on ABC, CBS, NBC, and MSNBC to say that deals were unraveling left and right. Corcoran insists that was the truth. But some of her still-furious peers insist she actually contributed to making the market jittery.

Little is off limits: A recent New York Post “Living Section” profile of Corcoran’s second husband, Bill Higgins – pitched by the Corcoran Group – called him “the most henpecked man in Manhattan.” Corcoran and Higgins live in a classic-six co-op on 72nd Street between Lexington and Third. They also share a seven-bedroom contemporary beach house on Fire Island in addition to the Pawling getaway. Higgins, a former FBI agent and New Jersey real-estate broker, is currently marketing “a computer chip – a little black box – that can pick up emotion,” says Corcoran. Higgins, who was a captain in the Navy, has also launched a program to sink old Navy barges to help build new barrier reefs. “Bill is interested in everything from quantum mechanics to UFOs,” says Corcoran, quickly adding that he’s never actually seen a UFO.

Higgins has four children from a previous marriage, but five years ago, at the age of 45 and following years of unsuccessful infertility treatments, Corcoran decided she would get pregnant using her youngest sister Florence’s eggs. “All my sisters volunteered,” says Corcoran, “but Florence has the best brains, the best personality, and the best body.” Her son Thomas was born shortly afterward. Corcoran herself is now looking for a bigger apartment – but was outbid on two she wanted in Carnegie Hill. “Now I guess I know what it’s like to join the masses,” she says.

Brokers at competing firms say Corcoran has been offering high-end brokers the moon to come join her. Recently, she scored big, wooing Robby Browne and Paul Wexler from Douglas Elliman and Suzanne Hebron from Stribling to be executives. Corcoran is said to also be courting William B. May’s Roger Erickson. Industry insiders speculate that in order to keep Carrie Chiang with the company, Corcoran has offered her more than 75 percent of her commissions (compared with an industry average of around 60 percent). Corcoran admits she gives away the store when negotiating with top brokers.

Corcoran’s aggressive recruiting tactics have also raised eyebrows. “When Barbara invited us to the opening party at her Madison Avenue headquarters, she told us to bring our brokers, then tried to hire them away,” says one competitor. “Barbara had assigned her brokers to tail us like sheepdogs,” says another. Not long after the party, seven Halstead brokers moved over to the Corcoran Group.

Corcoran will never forget that her brokers are her capital. In October 1987, Corcoran’s firm grew from 12 agents to 35 and she moved into 5,500 square feet at 645 Madison Avenue. Almost on cue, the market crashed. The phone stopped ringing, and the condo boom lost its helium. Broker Freda Green, who almost merged with Corcoran in the early nineties, says her accountants told her to stay far away. Corcoran was forced to mortgage her Pawling house, sell her one-bedroom co-op, and start teaching real-estate courses at New York University and Marymount Manhattan College for extra money.

Carrie Chiang was a fledgling broker with J.I. Sopher whose first big deal was a $2.9 million sale to the Taiwan Mission. In 1986, the Shanghai-born broker chased Corcoran into a nearby deli after hearing one of her NYU lectures, and Corcoran offered the four-foot-eleven dynamo a job. Many believe that Chiang’s connections and subsequent earnings proved enough to tide Corcoran over.

Then, in the winter of 1991, Corcoran got a call from developer Bernie Mendik: 263 apartments in seventeen postwar buildings around Manhattan just weren’t selling. They were “the dregs of the earth,” says Corcoran – small and overpriced. Mendik asked Corcoran if she would take them on. The Corcoran Group slashed prices on all the apartments and announced through their brokers that they would be sold on a first-come-first-served basis in a one-day sale. The doors at each unit opened at nine o’clock, and people were lined up outside. Corcoran sold 101 apartments that day. Within four months, all the units had sold, and the Corcoran Group had taken in $1 million in commissions.

Over the past nine years, Corcoran has opened three more offices, bringing the total number of brokers to 455. In 1998, she absorbed Brooklyn Landmark’s three Brooklyn offices. Two years ago, Corcoran took 24,000 square feet of space at 660 Madison, one of the avenue’s toniest office buildings. Colleagues wonder how she might weather a downturn, what with the rent she must be paying. After all, many of Corcoran’s competitors – Douglas Elliman (bought out by national commercial-real-estate brokerage Insignia this summer and No. 1 in the field), Brown Harris, Halstead, and Prudential ML Kay – have cash behind them that could be used to prop them up if the market sours; Corcoran says she’s trying not to worry about that.

“No, I’m sorry,” Corcoran tells the seventh reporter on the line asking about the JFK Jr. apartment. “We can’t get Inside Edition’s camera crew in for a tour. I can talk about it, but I’m not the listing agent. No, Sotheby’s has the listing. No, I can’t get you in. I wish I could. I’ll give you their number, but I’m delighted to help any way I can. And yes, if someone wants to buy the apartment, they can definitely do it through us.”

Barb Wired