HAPPY FRIDAY P.O.U.!!
We conclude our series on African-American Real Estate Moguls with….
ALICE F. MASON
“The Doyenne of the Carriage-Trade Brokers”
Alice F. Mason is LEGENDARY in the NYC real estate game. Considered the “doyenne of Upper East Side Private Residential Real Estate“, Ms. Mason’s claim to fame was helping those who weren’t to the manor born gain entry into the most exclusive co-ops in New York City:
It was a stunning discovery for Mason to learn that inclusion in the Social Register could hold absolute sway over who was able to live where in New York. “All of these buildings had managing agents,” she said, “and all the managing agents were in the Social Register themselves, and they only hired brokers who were also in the Social Register, and they weren’t allowed to sell to anyone who wasn’t in the Social Register. Mason eventually got Alfred Vanderbilt into 31 East Seventy-ninth Street, “and he had to give all his relatives as references,” she said.
The Social Register turned out to be only one of Mason’s many frustrations. She discovered that New York co-operative housing was a morass of prejudices and shibboleths. A 1959 survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith reported that of 175 luxury co-ops in New York, one-third had no Jewish residents, achieved by a “gentleman’s agreement” that owners sell only to their own kind. “It wasn’t just Jews that certain buildings didn’t want,” Mason said, the frustration of those days creeping back into her voice. “They wouldn’t take anybody. They didn’t want big-time WASPs from California, or the Midwest, or Texas. They didn’t want people with vowels in their names, like Italians or Greeks — no matter how rich they were — or people who came from countries whose names had too many vowels, like Scandinavians. The “Our Crowd” Jews had their own building anyway. The Straus family — one s,” she pointed out, “who owned Macy’s department stores built Seven-twenty Park Avenue for themselves, and they lived there until they died and kept everybody out. Eight ninety-five Park and Seven-thirty Park were also for “Our Crowd” Jews. Six-fifty Park was built for the rich Irish.”
Mason shrugged. “I thought, ‘What is this all about, this separation of everybody? It’s so amazing. I’d really like to learn something about this.’”
But while Ms. Mason (nee Christmas) was breaking down barriers for folks like Marilyn Monroe and Tommy Hilfiger, she built a barrier between herself and her own people. That’s right, folks. Alice F. Mason was “passing” — until Lawrence Otis Graham “outed” her in his book, Our Kind Of People:
ALICE MASON’S PHILADELPHIA STORY
The surprising background of one of New York’s most celebrated party-givers is revealed in Lawrence Otis Graham’s new book, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class. Graham reports that Alice Mason, the exclusive real-estate broker whose fund-raising helped put Jimmy Carter in the White House, was born into a prominent black family in Philadelphia. “Her father, Dr. Lawrence Christmas, was a successful dentist and one of the founders of the Philadelphia chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest and most prestigious black college fraternity in the country,” writes Graham. Mason has been at least as successful in the world of high-end Manhattan real estate, tossing famous black-tie dinner parties with the likes of Barbara Walters, Dominick Dunne, Mike Wallace, and Woody Allen. Although she’s always been in touch with her sister, who lives on Manhattan’s West Side, she hasn’t kept up with her sister’s daughter, Elektra Records president Sylvia Rhone. “I just met her about three weeks ago,” says Mason. “I had actually seen her when she was 4 or 5 years old, and I haven’t seen her since. But she’s a great success, and I’m proud of her.” The real-estate doyenne explains, “There are many people with family members who live on both sides. I’ve led this life for over 45 years, and it’s all a state of mind.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Ms. Mason ruled the NYC socialite world with her infamous dinner parties:
By the time she moved into her current apartment, word had spread, and by the mid ‘70s, Mason’s parties took on another dimension when she entered the political arena. Ted Sorenson’s wife, Gillian, worked for Mason, and in 1975 asked if they could hold an intimate fundraising party for the governor of Georgia. Jimmy Carter was seated next to Mason, and it was a symbiotic match made in heaven: she brought her considerable influence to his campaign, and he leant additional gravitas to her sphere. “He asked me to help him, and I didn’t really know what that meant,” she smiles. She figured it out quickly. Her tactics involved using the reverse directory and sending letters to residents of every building she had sold in—a helpful demographic to be sure. “Even a lot of them who called back and said they were Republicans sent a check; I was a well known persona,” she explains. She wound up raising more money for the future president than any other single citizen, a feat that she considers one of her biggest triumphs. The next year, she threw a $500-per-head fundraising dinner for Jay Rockefeller. “His parents were friends but when I asked his mother if they would like to come and pay, she said ‘I have to speak to Mr. Rockefeller.’ They wound up getting their friend Louis Marx to spend $5,000, which covered them and some of my media pals like Tom Brokaw.” Later, a single dinner she held for Bill Clinton raised $1.5 million. Carter and the Clintons became guests at her personal dinners, along with the likes of Alexander Haig, Peter Jennings, Mike Wallace, Diane Sawyer, and clients such as Steve Ross and Alfred Taubman—all fodder for society columns.
“An invitation to one of Alice’s dinners was one of the hottest tickets in town,” recalls Renée Morrison, a socialite of that time. “I was young and it was an honor to be invited. I remember the art on her walls was as colorful as her guests. There was quite a potpourri of diplomats, CEOs and socialites. It was like a think tank. The conversation was incredible to say the least. One night I spoke with Ken Auletta, another evening I sat next to Carl Bernstein.”
Ms. Mason no longer hosts dinner parties, and in 2008, closed her boutique brokerage, Alice F. Mason Ltd. Nowadays, she spends her time relaxing:
What made you decide last year to stop hosting them?
Oh, because I’m tired and I’m old. I stopped giving them every month around 2000. And then I gave them only twice a year.
Are you going to take up a new hobby?
No, not really, I’m just going to relax the rest of my life. When I turned 40 I made a list of everything that I didn’t like, and decided I would never do it again. Exercise was on the top of the list.
For more info on Alice F. Mason, check out The Sky’s The Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan by Steven S. Gaines and this 1984 New York Magazine article “Alice Mason’s Big-Deal Dinners”.