Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg refers to her maternal great-grandfather as Grampy Lee. "Grumpy" Lee would be more apt. A portly, gruff man who chomped a dozen cheap cigars a day, he didn't speak to his wife for years, disinherited several grandchildren, and died with no company but his Oriental manservant.
Today, James Thomas Aloysius Lee is best known, if at all, as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's grandfather. But he was also one of New York's most adventurous real estate developers. And he built the greatest apartment building in the world.
Lee's grandparents immigrated to Newark, New Jersey, from County Cork, Ireland, in 1852-refugees from the potato famine. Lee's father, also James, a teacher, a medical doctor, and a school superintendent, married in 1875 and produced his first child in 1877 in an Irish neighborhood on New York's Lower East Side, which, though near the city's social districts, was practically a million miles away. Young James would be joined by five sisters before he entered the City College of New York in 1892 as a fifteen-year-old engineering student. An overachiever like his father, Lee moonlighted as a $6-a-week law clerk and earned extra money running adult-education lectures for the Board of Education.
Lee earned a master's degree in political science and economics at Columbia in 1897 and a law degree there in 1899. After representing several developers at the dawn of the twentieth century, he began dabbling in real estate himself, buying land along the route of the Seventh Avenue subway, then selling it at triple the price. He invested his profit in stocks, building a fortune of $2 million before he turned thirty. But he lost it all in the 1907 stock market panic.
A die-hard Republican, Lee always wore a three-piece suit. Though he loved sailing and swimming as a young man, says his granddaughter LeeLee Brown, even at the beach "he usually had on white flannels, a vest, a jacket, a Panama hat, and a pair of white and brown wing-tipped Fred Astaire shoes. But he was formal and serious to others, not to his grandchildren."
Or perhaps not that grandchild. Another describes Lee as "crotchety, difficult to understand, difficult to get along with. He had a big superiority complex or else treated everyone-at least his grandchildren-as not very intelligent, which I guess was possible. But he was hard to relate to." So standoffish and mysterious was he that in East Hampton, where he began spending summers in the mid-1920s (second homes had become de rigueur in the 1880s), he was rumored to be Jewish and to have changed his name from Levy. "His name was changed," Brendan Gill, the New Yorker writer, once insisted to the Kennedy biographer Edward Klein. "There was never anybody named Lee."
Lee prided himself on being tough and determined. He'd married another child of Irish immigrants, Margaret Merritt, a teacher, and they'd had three daughters: Marion, born in 1905; Janet, in December 1907; and Winifred, in 1913. Lee wanted them to rise in society. So after losing his fortune, he went back into real estate, partnering with a wealthy Columbia classmate, Charles R. Fleischmann, of the yeast-making family. Charles's brother Raoul also worked with them and would soon become a key financial backer of The New Yorker. Charles and Lee built an apartment house named for Peter Stuyvesant at Ninety-eighth Street and Riverside Drive, not far from where Lee lived in a row house at West End Avenue and Ninety-third Street. Then, in 1910, their partnership, the Century Holding Company, knocked down a row of frame houses and spent $2.5 million to build McKim, Mead & White's 998 Fifth Avenue.
After he developed several office buildings between Grand Central Station and Times Square, Lee stopped practicing law and became a full-time developer, operating from his latest building at 25 West Forty-third. Lee was formal-always referred to as Mr. Lee or James T. Lee, never Jim-and full of energy; he'd stop work to spar with a boxing instructor in his office once a day. "He was a powerful, two-fisted man," says a real estate operator who knew him.
Lee also liked to shoot and kept a wall of gun cases in his paneled office. "He was looking out the window one day when he saw a pigeon hawk circling across the street," says his granddaughter LeeLee Brown. "He loaded a shotgun, shot the hawk, called the super, and had him get the bird and bring it to his office. He had it stuffed. Imagine doing that today in midtown!"
After World War I, Lee began developing apartment buildings again. In 1922, he opened 420 Park at Fifty-sixth Street and moved his family in. That year he negotiated to buy a block of Park between Sixty-third and Sixty-fourth streets and failed, but in 1923 he bought a plot at Sixty fifth and Park and hired J. E. R. Carpenter to build 620 Park, with twelve full-floor apartments. That year The New York Times said he was worth $23 million, and he was profiled as "The Master Builder of Uptown New York" in The New York World.
Lee wasn't only ambitious in business: he had strong social ambitions, and having moved to Park Avenue, he started to fulfill them. It wasn't easy. Lee may have been better off had he been Jewish. Jews were able to operate as equals to Protestants on Wall Street (Kuhn, Loeb & Co. was J. P. Morgan's only significant rival in investment banking), despite a deep, lingering anti-Semitism in the banking community. Most of the city's other clubs remained closed to them. But Irish Catholics like James T. Lee were even more excluded from the centers of financial and social power by the Anglocentric American elite, who were predominantly Episcopalian. In their book The Power of Their Glory, Kit and Frederica Konolige described this elite as America's ruling class and coined the term "Episcocrats" for them. Irish Catholics were cops, firemen, and bartenders, not gentlemen. "You couldn't get anyplace unless you were of pure Anglo-Saxon stock," says Raymond O'Keefe Jr., president of the James T. Lee Foundation, whose father worked for Lee. Old money still mattered.
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