Making His Life the Party
The Paramount Hotel in Times Square may not have hosted a spectacle like this since the ’40s, when Billy Rose, the hallowed New York showman, trotted out 6-foot-tall showgirls for Broadway divas and Hollywood stars.
On a recent Thursday night, go-go girls in silky white capes swung from on high, as art heavyweights like Larry Gagosian and Simon de Pury mixed with fashion celebrities like Vera Wang and Tory Burch, and waiters in crisp white shirts and skinny black ties passed through the room with trays of Dom Pérignon.
Socialites from the old order (Gigi Mortimer and Ghislaine Maxwell) blended seamlessly with those of the new (Nicky Hilton and Hannah Bronfman). Bono talked Knicks with Vito Schnabel. Tony Shafrazi, another art dealer, showed up late with Owen Wilson.
Yet none of the luminaries commanded more attention than Aby Rosen, the developer and bon vivant, who was celebrating his 53rd birthday. Pointedly underdressed in a black T-shirt, Mr. Rosen was gyrating on the dance floor to Kool and the Gang, silver hair flowing, fist in the air. At midnight, a shower of gold confetti rained from overheard. An attempt to raise a celebratory glass devolved into a shirt-drenching Champagne fight, with Mr. Rosen, happily the loser, dripping in the middle of it.
“If you give a party,” Mr. Rosen said in his Kissingerian growl, “you better give it right.”
Consider that a mantra.
Propelled by a bearish charm and a provocateur’s sensibility, Mr. Rosen, the son of a small-scale developer from Frankfurt, has thrust himself into roles typically reserved for scions of New York’s leading families. He is a real estate titan whose company controls the crown jewels of modernism, the Seagram Building and Lever House, and an art collector with 800 postwar gems, including 100-plus Warhols. He is a regular on the charity circuit, particularly since being named chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts, a post formerly held by Kitty Carlisle Hart.
He is married to a pillar of New York society, Samantha Boardman. Dinner invitations to the couple’s 14-room home on Fifth Avenue — opulently furnished with Warhols, Basquiats and Calders — are highly coveted, with the guest list ranging from Barbara Walters to Alex Rodriguez to the Harvard professor Steven Pinker. Attendees say that the star wattage radiates equally from the guests and hosts. “They’re the ones with active minds,” said the artist Rachel Feinstein, who, with her husband, the painter John Currin, is a frequent guest. “They seek him out, he seeks them out.”
But what Aby Rosen really wants to be is a party boy, to judge by his latest endeavor. He already owns a celebrity-packed clubhouse restaurant in Midtown, a fashionable hotel in Gramercy Park and a glassy resort in South Beach that rages during Art Basel Miami Beach. Unknown to most of his birthday guests, his most ambitious foray into night life was under their feet — the $20 million revival of the Diamond Horseshoe, a legendary nightclub in the basement of the Paramount Hotel that was immortalized in the 1945 musical film of the same name starring Betty Grable as the headlining showgirl.
Set to open this fall, the Diamond Horseshoe, as envisioned by Mr. Rosen, will be a new night-life concept: a Dalí-like mix of high art and camp, theater and circus, audacity and calculation. In other words, Aby Rosen at his essence.
“I wake up every morning and I think, ‘You know what, I’m a lucky bastard,’ ” Mr. Rosen said, creeping through traffic in the back seat of a black Mercedes S-class on a recent afternoon.
Dressed in a charcoal gray Hermès suit, slumped in the back seat, his prominent stomach unapologetically thrusting forward, Mr. Rosen had just finished giving a tour of his extensive art collection at Lever House and was headed over to the Paramount to show off the work being done on the Diamond Horseshoe. He seemed equally proud of both.
He talked offhandedly about his social schedule (he and Ms. Boardman are often out two or three nights a week) and made the point that it reflected the full range of what New York had to offer. “I enjoy the burger joint the same way I enjoy fancy meals,” he said. “I spend time with people who are movers and shakers, and others who are just friends I really care for. Some of them are rich, some of them are poor. I couldn’t care less. I’m not a snob.”
Born in Frankfurt to Holocaust survivors, Mr. Rosen grew up an outsider, a Jew in postwar Germany. His father, Isak, survived Auschwitz and went on to develop small office buildings, allowing Aby to grow up in relative affluence in a home filled with art and classical music.
Friends say he did not find his true place until he moved to New York in 1987, with plans to carry on in his father’s business. “There is a saying, ‘When you come to New York, you become a New Yorker within two weeks,’ ” said Michael Fuchs, a childhood friend and his longtime business partner. “Aby immediately embraced New York as home.”
By day, Mr. Rosen learned the ropes of New York real estate, brokering properties to German investors as an apprentice for an investment firm. At night, he hit the clubs. Even then, night life was in his blood; he and Mr. Fuchs bought a stake in M. K., the late-’80s club run by Eric Goode and Serge Becker that was frequented by artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel. “They didn’t have any real social connections whatsoever,” Mr. Goode recalled. “For them, it was an adventure.”
By 1991, Mr. Rosen had established enough of a foothold to start a real estate business, RFR Holding, with Mr. Fuchs. It was the depths of a recession, but the duo, backed by German investors, snapped up nondescript office towers in good locations, spruced them up with works by hungry young artists, and rented them at a premium. It was a profitable model. They graduated into the big leagues in 1998, when they bought and restored Lever House, Gordon Bunshaft’s midcentury modern masterpiece on Park Avenue.
Their portfolio swelled to more than nine million square feet of commercial space, including a majority interest in another Park Avenue trophy: the Seagram Building, the Mies landmark across the street.
But not everyone has appreciated Mr. Rosen’s taste for bold statements. In 2006, for example, his plan to build a 30-story glass tower designed by Norman Foster at 980 Madison Avenue across from the Carlyle hotel enraged some members of the silk stocking set. Tom Wolfe lampooned him as a megalomaniacal vulgarian in a New York Times Op-Ed column. “It would be hard to dream up anything short of a Mobil station more out of place there than a Mondo Condo glass box by Aby Rosen,” Mr. Wolfe wrote.
It became nastier. Mr. Rosen hurled allegations of anti-Semitism, which brought protests from Mr. Wolfe, whose wife, Sheila, is Jewish. The project stalled, and Mr. Rosen, never one for what-ifs, moved on.
“He will go on wearing more white suits,” Mr. Rosen said, when reminded about the tiff with Mr. Wolfe. “I will go on having a good time.”
As Mr. Rosen’s real estate and art portfolio grew, so did his party-boy proclivities. He had the vast network of friends to prove it.
As the artist Damien Hirst put it: “You have lots of people who buy art because they don’t have a personality, but they want to be able to hang out and be part of a scene and have friends. Aby’s not like that, because he’s already got all that.”
But by some measures, Mr. Rosen didn’t fully arrive on the social scene until 2005, when he married Ms. Boardman. He divorced his previous wife, Elizabeth Wechsler, a former banker, in 2003.
A practicing clinical psychiatrist, Ms. Boardman, now 41, was a starlet of the ’90s social scene, the daughter of Pauline Baker Boardman Pitt, sometimes called the “Queen of Palm Beach” and a descendant of George F. Baker, a founder of what is now Citibank.
“They’re sort of like the Bill and Babe Paley of this rather different kind of social age,” said the Vanity Fair writer Bob Colacello, a friend. “You’ve got the dynamic, self-made tycoon and the high-society princess.”
It was a contrast in styles, to be sure, but Ms. Boardman was swept up by Mr. Rosen’s joie de vivre. “He’s more alive than anyone I’ve ever met,” she said, adding, “The love of life was palpable within the first few minutes.”
He is also not someone who seems to take himself too seriously. Twelve years ago, when Anh Duong was painting his portrait, they both thought he was coming off as a little stiff. So Mr. Rosen suggested he strip down to his striped boxer shorts, and that’s how she painted him. (The painting, which has hung in both his town house and at the Paramount before the renovation, is now in storage.)
In 2007, Mr. Rosen, if he hadn’t done so before, placed his stamp on the New York social scene when he hosted a lavish party for Mr. Hirst’s vast installation of animal carcasses in the lobby of Lever House, including 30 sheep suspended in tanks of formaldehyde. That night, Mr. Rosen seemed to own Park Avenue, patrolling the scene in a velvet Nehru jacket among the likes of Heather Graham, Ron Perelman and Salman Rushdie, while a band cranked out Sex Pistols covers.
The party received reams of news coverage and helped make Mr. Rosen into a Page Six staple. He shrugs off the suggestion that such spectacles are a Trumpian display of self-promotion. “You invite people not to be the center of attention,” he said. “You invite them because you want them to share in a great night.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Rosen won’t deny that high-wattage parties can be good for business. Boldfaced parties lend cachet to his real estate holdings, he acknowledges, just as the Lichtensteins do in his office buildings. It is a formula he has adopted for other night-life ventures.
In 2003, Mr. Rosen shook up the Midtown power-lunch scene by backing the Lever House restaurant (now called Casa Lever), which lured models and moguls. That year, he joined with the hotelier Ian Schrager in reinventing the dowager Gramercy Park Hotel; its Rose Bar lounge, with its giant Schnabels and Warhols, became a frenzied velvet-rope scene among leggy fashion types and scruffy young actors.
His hotel portfolio extends to Miami Beach, where RFR owns, with the developer David Edelstein, the W South Beach. For the last four years, he has hosted one of the hottest parties during Art Basel Miami Beach, a private dinner at the hotel where celebrities like Kanye West and Michael Douglas mix with the art world elite like Eli Broad and Peter Brant.
On a recent Wednesday, Mr. Rosen stood at the top of the grand staircase of the Diamond Horseshoe, the same steps that the cream of the Times Square theater world and movie stars like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Jeanette MacDonald used to pad down in the 1940s.
The club was shuttered in 1951, and for a half-century, the two-story jewel box had nearly been forgotten — with some exceptions. (Andy Warhol’s memorial luncheon took place there in 1987, as did Tina Brown’s fifth-anniversary party for Vanity Fair in 1988.)
Now in the midst of a gut renovation, the subterranean space was a maze of plumbing pipes and scaffolding. But as Mr. Rosen descended the staircase with a heavy, portentous gait, he saw only opportunity, not dust and debris.
“If a club was shut for two years and you come up with something new, people say, ‘Great, good nightclub,’ ” Mr. Rosen said. “But 60 years later, you have to come up with something better. That’s the challenge.”
Various impresarios tried to revive the space over the years, as a disco, concert site or supper club, but costs and headaches proved too great, Mr. Rosen said, pausing at the center of the room, where a giant sunburst-like light fixture will descend from the ceiling. “When you see that people who are doers haven’t done it,” he said, “that gives me an added excitement.”
That led him to hire Randy Weiner, a producer who helped bring to New York the cult hit “Sleep No More,” the avant-garde blend of Shakespeare, Hitchcock and, seemingly, Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
Tracing the room with a sweep of his hand, Mr. Rosen described the show — or whatever you might call it. Guests will be met by a butler and led through a haze of fog and drumbeats into a mysterious chamber. Servers will pass with hunks of meat on spears, and acrobats from the Montreal circus troupe, 7 Fingers, will gyrate throughout the room.
But ultimately, he said, the point is to encourage mingling.
“I understand entertaining,” Mr. Rosen said, adding, “You want people to walk out saying, ‘I spent a night with interesting people.’ ”
By Alex Williams
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