The Dream Builder
By Charije Zehren
UNABLE TO PAY for treatment at the hospital he gave millions of dollars to build, a dying
Bill Levitt was still hoping for another roh of the dice.
Forty-two years after he completed his last house in Levittown and 26 years after he sold his
company for $92 million, Levitt teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, amid allegations that he
looted family charities and cheated homebuyers. Still, the man who once claimed to be
America's biggest homebuilder was sure he could save his business and his family's good
"I have a regular organization ready to punch in full time," Levitt rasped during his last
interview late in 1993. "I need another six months."
But at 86, he'd outlived success, a victim of changing economics, questionable business
practices, worse luck and a lifestyle that far exceeded his means. Three months later, Levitt
"Bill was having dreams of this supposed comeback that simply wasn't there," said Charles
Biederman, nephew and trusted business partner, who visited him at North Shore University
Hospital. "But he believed so intensely, you found yourself believing, too, even though you
knew it wasn't true."
Dreams are what Bill Levill sold. And his biggest came to pass starting in 1947 on 7.3 square
miles of land near what was then called Island Trees in Nassau County. Today, Levittown's
17,447 mass-produced Cape Cod and ranch houses form the core of a still vibrant community
that critics once dismissed as an incipient slum.
This original $50 million development -- along with dozens of other mass projects he
produced throughout the world over the course of a 64-year-career offers testament to Levitt's
prowess as a pitchman and financier who grasped the seductive appeal of homeownership for
William J. Leviff did not invent the suburb. However, with his father, Abraham, and younger
brother, Alfred Bill Levitt combined the entrepreneurial spirit of Henry Ford with the self-
promotional bluster of P.T Barnum to change the American landscape. Levitt revolutionized
the home construction industry by unsnarling arcane building codes and union rules and
employing new technologies to get quality building jobs done fast and cheap. And he did it all
with flair in the New York media spotlight.
Until the magic wore off late in life, Levitt displayed a genius for calculating the risk, seizing
opportunity, exploiting the forces swirling around him, extemporizing, and amassing fortunes
for himself and others. Going through three wives, a couple of yachts and a massive fortune,
Levitt lived life with zest.
There was always time for a party. Tapped out after cavorting at the Havana Yacht Club
shortly before the Cuban Revolution, Levitt quickly moved to raise capital for yet another
gamble. Weaving down the aisle of his corporate plane as it arced northward across the
Caribbean, Levitt scraped together about $80 from his lieutenants. Checking his coordinates,
Levitt ordered the pilot to divert course and land in Nassau, the Bahamas.
Once on the ground, Levitt rnoved on to a local casino and boldy parlayed the meager stake
into about $2,500 in 10 straight passes at the craps table. Wrangling a ban from the house,
Levitt kept rolling until he bankrolled a weeklong vacation for the entire entourage. "That's
Bill," said Nelson Kamu, who was there. "A good gambler who knew how to play the odds."
And Levitt knew how to play both sides against the middle.
In public, Levitt derided "the people of Park Avenue" and reveled in the adulation heaped on
him by middleclass homeowners. And when Hofstra University professor Stuart Bird asked
him to state his legacy shortly before he died, Levitt looked into the camera and said he would
like to be remembered as "a guy that, I suppose, gave value for low-cost housing. Not
somebody that gave value for half-million-dollar houses. Anybody can do that."But in private,
close relatives say, Levitt fancied himself part of the jet set and exhibited contempt for the
"masses" he dismissed as "asses."
In business, Levitt could be just as disingenuous. Despite testifying before Congress that it
was impossible for him to discriminate because he was Jewish, Leviff wouldn't sell to Jews in
his upscale developments and excluded blacks right up through the rnid-1960s, well after the
adoption of landmark federal civil rights legislation. In politics, Levitt aligned his views with
whoever could help him. When anti-Communist Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) took
control of crucial housing legislation, Levitt railed against the Red Menace. Later, in order to
build low-cost housing outside of Paris, Levitt allied himself with the socialist govermnent.
"The end always justified the means -- within the four corners of reason, of course," Levitt
said in 1948.
Those who knew him say Levitt was generous and never claimed perfection. He was a
complex man leading a complex life and like any great salesman, skillfully told people what
they wanted to hear.
"I loved my father very much and idolized him," summed up his son, James, in a recent
interview. "So did a lot of people. He was good at that."
BILL LEVITT'S father, Abraham, was born into poverty on July 1, 1880, in the Williamsburg
section of Brooklyn, the youngest of five sons of Louis Levitt, a rabbi who emigrated from
Russia, and Nellie Levitt, who was born in Austria. Leaving school at 10 to do odd jobs in the
Abraham Levitt educated himself reading avidly dand attending meetings at literary clubs. A
romantic in a classic sense, he found city life harsh and sought beauty in flowers and gardens.
Passing a state Regents exam at 20, Abraham won entrance to New York University Law
School, earning his degree in 1902 with a specialty in real estate law.
Admitted to the bar, Levitt started practicing in New York City. He married Pauline A
Biederman on Jan. 9, 1906. The couple had two Sons, first William Jaird on Feb.11, 1907,
and then Alfred Stuart five years later. Life in the four-story brownstone on Macon Street was
comfortable --and argumentative.
Abraham, physically compact and quietly philosophical, was a devotee of the German
philosopher Ernst Haeckel, who believed there was no such thing as free will, only fate.
Abraham grew close to the shy and intense Alfred, who, even at a young age, showed artistic
talent. "Alfred is a genius, and 1 use that term advisedly," Abraham would later say. Bill,
boisterous and brimming with self-confidence, held a special spot in his strong-willed
Relatives say that in adulthood Alfred reminisced that his mother would beckon, pull her
young son to her breast, and whisper in his ear: "Where's your brother Bill?"
Even before he was a teenager, Bill would don a suit, bound into the parlor and announce
plans to go into Manhattan, make money and live the high life.
Bill attended PS 44 and Boys High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, playing lacrosse and
joining the swim team. At NYU, he majored in mathematics and English. But Bill was later
quoted saying that in his third year, at age 19, he quit because, "1 got itchy, I wanted to make
a lot of money. I wanted a big car and a lot of clothes." Levitt later contradicted himself,
saying he graduated in 1927, a claim records can't back up.
During these years, Abraham represented real estate clients, and occasionally dabbled in
buying and selling properties. Family lore has it that Abraham used money Pauline made
taking in sewing to buy some of his first vacant lots in Brooklyn. Then, around 1925,
Abraham accepted 100 plots in Rockville Centre from a bankrupt client. Abraham bankrolled
builders who bought the land and began building houses.
But Abraham was forced to take control of some 40 partially finished homes in the late 1920s,
when a real estate slump forced their builders out of business. Facing steep losses, Abraham
took a chance and encouraged Bill and Alfred to team up and finish the job.
Bill never intended to be a builder, and as Abraham once recalled, "Alfred loved to draw, but
he didn't know what a two-by-four was." Yet feeding off each other's enthusiasm, the brothers
managed to work with existing crews to quickly complete and then sell the 40 homes.
Emboldened by success, Abraham formed Levitt & Sons to develop the rest of the property,
adopting the project's existing name, Strathmore.
Abraham established the corporate hierarchy that would later yield Levittown. Bill, 22, served
as president, handling advertising, sales and financing, while Alfred -- who was still in his
teens and would also drop out of NYU became vice president of design. Without benefit of
license or formal architectural training, Alfred then drafted plans for the first entirely Levitt
house. The half-timbered, six-room, two-bathroom Tudor sold for $14,500 on Aug. 2, 1929,
just two months before the onset of the Great Depression.
That November, as financial panic swept the nation, -Bill married Rhoda Kirshner, his
teenage sweetheart, who blossomed into a patron of the arts. Bill Levitt was 26 when his first
son, William Jr., was born in 1933.
Abraham's risky bet selling upper-middle-class housing into the teeth of the Depression paid
off. He sold another 18 upscale Strathmore houses before pressing ahead for a total of 600 in
"Bill wouldn't be a success without Alfred, and Alfred wouldn't be a success without Bill,"
Abraham liked to say in his later years. Together they are terrific."
Bill Levitt won a reputation as the young man to see for high-end housing along Long Island's
North Shore -- the Gold Coast. Indeed, by the fall of 1933, the Levitts were growing rich
building the 200-house North Strathmore development in Manhasset -- priced between $9,100
and $18,500. Through 1941, the Levitts built another 1,200 homes in Manhasset, Great Neck
and Westchester County.
Network radio stars, big-tirne newspapermen, surgeons, Madison Avenue types, $10,000-a-
year lawyers and a brace of Manhattan celebrities flocked to Levitt homes. But before laws
and mores changed, Bill Levitt -- grandson of a rabbi -- also restricted Jews from his North
Shore "pride of the company" developments, said Yale University historian John Thomas
In recent interviews, relatives said Levill opposed what he called "institutionalized religion."
But his relatives and contemporaries say it is ludicrous to brand Levitt an anti-Semite. They
point out how Levitt made large contributions to Israel starting in 1947, when he handed a $1
million check to future Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, as a loan for weapons. Throughout
his life, Levitt gave millions of dollars more to Jewish charities.
Nevertheless, Leviff rationalized the policy as an unfortunate cost of doing business, said Paul
Townsend, Levitt's former public relations man, who now publishes the Long Island Business
"Sure, he went along with the local practice of realestate agents not selling to Jews,"
Townsend said. "History should show that Levitt was part of the ugly gentlemen's
The Navy Years
AS THE NEW Deal expanded and the nation lurched into World War II, the Levitts took their
first tentative steps away from custom, upscale homes toward cheaper housing backed by
federal credit. Wilile far from successful, Bill and Alfred later said they learned valuable
lessons mass producing Navy housing near Norfolk, Va., in 1942. In fact, Bill Levitt would
say that experience proved far more valuable than his days as a lieutenant in the Navy Seabees
in wartime Hawaii.
Lewitt was 36 with a wife, a 10-year-old son and a baby boy, James when he shipped out to
Oahu in 1944 with the famed Navy construciton unit, serving as a personnel manager for 260
men. If anything, Levitt later recalled, the Seabees didn't give him experience, he helped the
Seabees. "What experience?" Levitt once said. "It was the other way around."
The only thing Levitt built in Hawaii was a reputation as an officer who cared for his men and
knew how to have a good time, said Kamu, an engineer who roomed with Levitt in the
officers' barracks and later became president of the Levitt organization.
In bearing, Lt. Levitt more resembled Ensign Pulver than John Wayne, Kamuf said, recalling
that his future boss spent much of the war shooting craps, playing jazz piano and drinking.
"Johnny Walker Red," Kamuf said. "And martinis -- dry, straight up."
Even though he was in the Paciflc, Levitt's thoughts were back on the Atlantic Coast, where
Abraham and Alfred were drawing up a detailed building plan of grandiose proportions.
Naval buddies recalled Levitt saying, "Beg, borrow or steal the money and then build and
build," because whoever developed immense tracts of low-cost housing after the war was
going to become extremely wealthy.
"The dice were loaded," Levitt, the inveterate gambier, later recalled thinking. "The market
was there, and the government was ready with backing. How could we lose?"
As World War II drew to a close, Abraham and Alfred Levitt were convinced they had the
right idea for the right place at the perfect time -- a Levitt town on the farm fields of the
In Bill's absence, Abraham took over as company president and by 1944 exercised options to
buy land and began lining up materials to build a community of 6,000 low-priced homes --
dwarfing the nation's largest development.
The mass-production techniques, the niftily designed homes, the layout of the development
grew from all the tricks of the trade that Alfred had saved up for years, according to relatives
and business associates.
"Alfred was the creator," said Ralph DeIla Ratta, 75, who worked closely with Bill for four
decades after the war. "lt was his product that sold."
Everyone involved in the creation of Levittown agrees, though, that Alfred and Abraham
would not have been able to build the project without Bill's strengths as a financier and
lt was Bill who persuaded politicians from the Hempstead Town Board to the U.S. Senate to
rewrite the laws that would make Levittown possible.
Abraham, by this time in his late 60s, had ceded control to his sons, dedicating himself to
directing the planting of trees, shrubs and flowering plants at the new development. Alfred, a
drawing-board idealist, and Bill, a bottom-line realist, clashed.
Biederman and others said Alfred's principles continued to frustrate Bill, who even lost an
argument with Alfred over whether a garage should be included with the first Levittown
model. (Alfred compromised and later versions included a carport.) "Until people are decently
housed," Alfred said, "I believe we have no moral right to house autos."
For his part, Bill said he barely had to advertise Levittown because the response to the first
offering in 1947 was overwhelming. "Any damn fool can build homes. What counts is how
many can you sell for how little," Levitt said. But for years he wouldn't sell or rent to blacks,
even after courts struck down racial covenants. Levitt -- whose family, fearing a decline in
property value, moved to Long Island from Brooklyn after a black attorney moved next door
to them -- said he wouldn't have been able to compete if he didn't follow the discriminatory
practices of the time.
In all, Levitt & Sons built 15 other projects throughout the Island.
In 1952, they moved the mass production Operation to Bucks County, Pa., near Philadelphia,
for another 17,000-home Levittown. Completing that in 1958, Levitt crossed the Delaware
and built a 12,000-home Willingboro, N.J., project.
MONOGRAMED, pinstriped, bow-tied, and arrogant, Bill Levitt looked and acted every inch
the mogul as he worked the two telephone lines and interoffice buzzers atop his massive desk
within the oak-paneled offices of Levitt & Sons in Manhasset. By the late 1940s, Levitt was
growing richer and garning national attention as the cheeky guy stamping out houses at a rate
of one every 16 minutes.
Newsreel interviewers and congressmen lauded Levitt, who was introduced to America on the
July 3, 1950, cover of Time magazine -- the most influential publication of its day -- as the
"cocky rambunctious hustler" prone to hyberbole and smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.
Rougish with wavy hair and heavy-lidded eyes, Levitt, then 43, lived in a big Manhattan
apartment, and warmed to celebrity status as he lectured America on what it needed to stoke
the postwar economy.
Yet behind the scenes, tension continued to mount between Bill and the reserved Abraham
and Alfred, who were increasingly uncomfortable with Bill's high-profile and voluble style.
Bill favored Cadillac convertibles and believed Alfred had grown too impractical. Alfred
favored Fords and thought Bill believed too much in his own press.
Relations among the Levitts deteriorated in 1951 after Alfred divorced his wife, Silvia, to
marry a 19-year-old fashion model he fell in love with on a shopping trip to Paris. "lt was
me," Monique, Alfred's widow, who remarried and now lives in Hawaii, said in a recent
interview. "I clashed with Bill."
Later, she said, Bill offered her $25,000 to not submit a profile she wrote of Alfred to Reader's
Digest. "I was insulted and told him to keep the money." She said she decided to withhold the
article to avoid further family tension.
"It was Bill who craved all Ihe publicity," Monique said.
Finally, the brothers, who had so much success as a team, split their business affairs in 1954
and grew estranged, bumping into each other occasionally at their parents' home in Kings
Point. Alfred went on to develop Queens apartment complexes and Suffolk housing
developments before he died at 54 in 1966.
"Alfred and Bill were brothers, but there was clearly a rivalry," said Les Dembitzer, Bill
Levitt's longtime personal accountant and investment banker. "I think it's fair to say that
Alfred resented Bill running the show. That Bill would make all the major decisions. They
simply came to a parting of the ways."
Without bis brother, Bill Levitt continued thinking big. Levitt's company, which he had taken
public in 1960, lost $1.4 million a year later as housing demand fell and huge tracts of land
near metropolitan areas grew scarce. Yet Levitt adapted quickly and changed tactics,
branching out geographically -- Chicago, Washington, D.C., France -- reducing the scale of
projects, dabbling in townhouse projects, delegating authority and decentralizing
Hooking up with young homebuilder Dick Bernhard in the bar of the Caribe Hilton in Puerto
Rico, Levitt then launched a highly successful 12,000-home development west of San Juan.
Completing the transition from heading a family business to running a thoroughly modern
corporation, Levitt was back on track, posting a 20 percent average annual increase in sales
into the late 1960s.
Bill Levitt was on a roll. Favoring royal-blue sport coats, light slacks and fawn-colored
oxfords, he would fly to San Juan during the winter months, hit the hotels and casinos, not
bothering to check in at the local office, before departing days later. Levitt bosses in Puerto
Rico often found themselves dispatching employees to pick up foreign merchandise and
personal gifts Bill routed from points throughout the world through the local airport to save on
Financially, Levitt grew even more successful. On the strength of Puerto Rico and his other
projects, Lewitt cut a deal to sell the company to the International Telephone & Telegraph
Corp. for $92 million in July, 1967. At age 60, Levitt went from being veiv rich to incredibly
wealthy, personally netting $62 million in the form of ITT stock.
"If it was for a penny less than $92 million, I'd walk out right now," the fanatically punctual
Levitt roared when ITT chief executive Harold Geneen, a legendary dealmaker, kept him
waiting at the closing.
As part of the deal, ITT changed the name of its new subsiary to Levitt Corp. Levitt agreed
not to build in the United States for 10 years. In effect, the man who renamed Island Trees to
honor his family sold his right to use his good name, and that never stopped bothering him,"
said Dembitzer, Levitt's accountant.
Business associates now say Levitt went into the deal thinking he would play a greater role in
ITT affairs. But Geneen -- who later called the merger one of his biggest mistakes -- froze
Levitt out. ITT executives felt Levitt was already getting too old to take on more
responsibility. In the office, Levitt stewed on the sidelines. But at home and on the road,
Levitt lived it up, collecting expensive art and building a chateau.
Friends, family members and business associates said that while he was married, Levitt did
little to hide his ongoing love affair with his secretary, Alice Kenny. He married her in 1959,
divorcing Rhoda after 29 years of marriage, but not before taking his then-14-year-old son,
Jim, to a Manhattan restaurant to break the news. "Until then," Jim recently recalled, "I had no
idea that my parents were not going to be going on together."
In 1969, Levitt divorced his second wife, Alice, and married Simone Korchin, an art dealer
from France more than 20 years his junior, two weeks after she divorced her husband in
LIFE WAS GRAND at La Colline, Levitt's $3 million, 26-room, French-provincial mansion
on 68 acres in Mill Neck, said Nicole Bernstein, Levitt's eldest stepdaughter by Simone. A
parade of Broadway stars, famous politicians and media luminaries made their way up the
winding drive, through the ornate courtyard, past outsized birdcages, into Bill Levitt's salon.
Despite an affentive household staff, Bill liked to personally tend bar and care for his seven
dogs. The family vacationed in Europe and went on African safari.
Several of bis two children, three stepchildren and others he helped raise said Levitt proved as
distant as he was demanding. But they also expressed their respect, admiration and love for
the man who lavished gifts along with admonitions.
"Bill was driven and determined to educate us. To help us become the people he believed we
could be," Bernstein said. "I loved Bill. I appreciated him even more in later years.
During these heady days, Simone and Bill gave each other expensive gifts, celebrating their
wedding anniversaiy each month for years. Financial records later showed the presents
included some $3 million in jeweliy. Levitt's art collection also grew to include paintings by
Renoir, Monet, Degas and Chagall. Much later, Levitt actually flaunted his wealth, showing
how far he had come from Williamsburg by assembling the New York media corps to view
his sumptuous 237-foot yacht, La Belle Simone, moored in front of the Brooklyn Bridge. The
license plate on his Rolls Royce parked on the pier read "WL- 1"
It was troubling, Kamuf said, that Levitt never seemed to invest his money to maintain a
stream of income. "Bill always looked for projects to generate money, but didn't really
invest," Kamuf said.
For Levitt, that made the sting of Wall Street's early - 1970s bear market even more painful.
To avoid taxes, Levitt had not converted ITT to cash. Instead, he borrowed against it. When
ITT shares crashed, Levitt's holdings were worth about 10 percent of their original value.
Chase Manhattan Bank seized Levitt's stock as collateral. Bill Levitt's luck started to run out.
Levitt scrambled for a comeback by forming a new real-estate company when his non-
compete clause with ITT expired in 1978. But Dembitzer said, "Bill was never really able to
Levitt tried and failed to build mass developments in Florida, Iran, Venezuela and Nigeria.
Trapped in a financial nightmare, Levitt began siphoning millions of dollars out of what he
was able to build to support his lifestyle and prop up new ventures.
Regulators who later barred Levitt from doing business in New York said he diverted
homeowners' deposits for the Florida homes and money that should have been used for repairs
and maintenance. Investigators said Levitt also took at least $17 million from his family's
charities to cover personal expenses. Levitt sold La Colline to make payments.
"Bill did more good for more people than any other businessman in the world," said Fred
VanderKloot, Levitt's stepson-in-law and Florida business partner, during a recent interview.
"But at the end he was running out of capital and not reinvesting the profits."
James Levitt said his father did not adjust to changing consumer tastes and increased
government controls: "He just didn't realize how tough things were going to be."
Desperately hunting for partners Levitt managed to wrangle a meeting with executives from a
major New York investment group, Biedermann said. They asked why they should risk the
money given that Levitt had not completed a serious .project in 15 years. "At that point, Bill
reached into his pocket and pulled out 10 to 15 yellowed artides. 'Look what I've done,' he
said. lt was very awkward," Biederman recalled. "Bill stayed at the party too long."
In 1985, Levitt then 78, made a last-ditch attempt to save the Florida development by entering
into negotiations with Long Island developer Ron Parr. Critical to the deal was Levitt's getting
more financing from the troubled Old Court Savings and Loan of Maryland.
"Bill said he was perfectly willing to give up financial control. He just wanted to make sure
that his name would be associated with the project. He was just looking for a way to recover
his reputation, his family name," Parr said.
Finally, a critical meeting was scheduled. Old Court officials were to fly by private plane to a
meeting with Levitt and Parr at Brookhaven Airport. When Parr arrived, Levitt was already
there, alone. "Someone gave Bill a ride and dropped him of," Parr recalled.
The appointed time came and passed and for 2 1/2 hours Levitt -- a compulsively punctual
executive poured his heart out to Parr, talking about Levittown, his family, how the business
had changed, sketching his hopes for the Florida development. When it became clear that Old
Court executives were not going to show, Levitt grew quiet, embarrassed. Parr gave Levitt a
lift back to Mill Neck.
"It was the first time I ever saw Lewitt
dejected," Parr said. "Bill Levitt was beat." Still, DelIa Ratta said, his boss had a great tide.
"No one should ever feel sorry for Bill," he said. "What difference does it make if you die
with $100 million in the bank or nothing in the bank if you had Bill Levitt's life? He had a
huge estate, a huge yacht, three gorgeous wives, and was generous to boot What the hell more
do you want? It was the American dream."