The Magazine

Gimme Shelter

Jan 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 18 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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You live, they say (usually accompanied by a sigh), and you learn. They say it; I don't. You live, I say (with an even deeper sigh), and you yearn. And I generally make it a point to yearn for things that I am certain to be unable to obtain. What's the point of yearning for the merely possible? "I call a person rich," says the character Ralph Touchett in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, "when he can meet the demands of his imagination." I look at my bankbook, I consider my stock holdings, and realize that I am far from meeting those demands, and by now I am confident that I shall never meet them.

What I have found myself yearning for these days is real estate. Real estate may be the new porno. The newspapers are full of it. The back pages of the New York Times Magazine contain ads for estates in Connecticut and Virginia with stables and swimming pools and tennis courts and gently rolling lawns. Toward the front of the same magazine are ads for newly erected skyscrapers with condominium apartments starting at $2.6 million.

The Plaza Hotel, I note, is now being broken up into condominium apartments, the great grand Plaza, offering perhaps the most convenient location in Manhattan and lots of history. Everyone has read about that night in the 1920s when Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the original fun couple, nicely schnockered as always, jumped into the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza.

I was once put up for five days in a suite in the Plaza, in lieu of a fee, by a magazine to whose wealthier sponsors I spoke. I felt as if I were living at Versailles, in an apartment down the hall from the Duc de Saint-Simon. I remember heavy red drapes, thick rose-colored carpets, gold-plated faucets in the shape of dolphins in the large bathroom. Unlike the Fitzgeralds, I did not take a refreshing dip in the Pulitzer Fountain but instead walked down to Lexington Avenue, where I bought a hot-pot so that I could make my own tea in the morning. Keeping a pied-à-terre in the Plaza does not seem to me at all a bad idea.

The Weekend Journal section of the Wall Street Journal carries ads for four-story townhouses on near-northside Chicago streets named Goethe, Schiller, Astor; 14,000-square-foot palazzos, with eight bedrooms and nine baths (and two half-baths), all for a mere $12 million. Eleven bathrooms might take some getting used to, since I have never lived in more than seven rooms, but I'm sure I could work this out.

Meanwhile I also have my eye on the Hamptons estate of the late Howard Gittis, described in the Wall Street Journal as the "right-hand man of takeover artist Ronald Perelman." Along with 15 acres of property, it has a renovated 15,000-square-foot house, with seven bedrooms, a staff apartment, and "a living-room fashioned out of a former ballroom." My staff--not yet hired--would be pleased to have use of the apartment, and would cotton, too, to the tennis court and swimming pool on the property. The only problem I can see is the asking price, which is $59 million. Still, it's lower than the price of the Forbes family ranch in Colorado, which is going for $175 million. Cunning negotiator that I am, I feel sure I could get the Gittis place down to $57.6 million.

Big-time players seem to have apartments and houses all over the world. Apartments in Manhattan and London and Paris, houses in Palm Beach, Barbados, Tuscany. One assumes that, while their owners are elsewhere, there are servants and agents and security firms looking after all this valuable real estate.

I, on the other, much grubbier hand, seem destined to be a single-domicile man. Twenty or so years ago I had the chance to acquire, as a second residence, my late mother-in-law's lovely two-story house on an artificial lake in Michigan for the beggarly sum of $45,000, and chose not to do so. I feared calls in the night telling me that the sump-pump had gone on the fritz, the windows needed replacing, the small pier had sunk.

Which doesn't stop me from noting an ad in the current Town & Country for Rendezvous Bay, in Anguilla, in the Lesser Antilles, that has residences in the works--occupancy in 2010--for from $3 to $20 million. Sounds promising. When I wake in the morning I shouldn't at all mind looking out on a vast panorama of water and islands and ever changing tropical skies.

Not going to happen, of course. Simplify, simplify, always simplify, is my motto, with the proviso that, while simplifying, it doesn't hurt to fantasize.