For Comedian, Role on Condo Board Is a Serious MatterBy ELIZABETH A. HARRIS
To sit on the board of a condominium or cooperative in New York City is to exert exquisite control over your apartment building, to decide who gets to buy apartment 12C and to pick the color of the lobby wallpaper. But it is also a position that comes with neither compensation nor thanks, and it requires that you sit through hours of bickering over questions like whether the doormen ought to wear little caps. The ranks are often dominated by retirees, real estate brokers and lawyers.
There is, however, a condo on East 62nd Street, just a few steps from Fifth Avenue, where the board takes a sharp detour from the usual composition, veering off into the Las Vegas sunset and coming back with a microphone in one hand and a joke about nose jobs in the other.
“I am the president,” said the leader of that condo board, with a firm nod of her perfect blond coif.
That condo board president is Joan Rivers or, as she called herself, the “scary lady upstairs.”
If most members of the city’s co-op and condo boards were asked to make a short list of their least favorite things, their fellow members might easily make the cut. But Ms. Rivers has just published an entire book about what she hates, called “I Hate Everyone… Starting With Me,” which covers everything from people who talk with their mouths full to Winnipeg, the French and babies with trendy names who grow up to be “adults with ridiculous names.” Yet her neighbors and fussy board rules don’t garner a single mention.
So perhaps the only thing more surprising than Ms. Rivers’s role in her condominium is that this spicy doyenne of raunch and laughter, who will gladly make fun of race, terrorism, your backside or your mother, is deadly serious about her condo building, lobby furniture and all.
“There’s no humor when I’m there,” Ms. Rivers said of her board meetings. “It’s the only area where you truly can’t joke around.”
Even in a city as star-studded as New York, real estate professionals say it is rare to have a celebrity on a building’s board, much less driving the bus. Their busy schedules and constant travel make it difficult, but perhaps more to the point:
“It’s probably one of the most thankless roles ever,” said Leonard Steinberg, a managing director at Prudential Douglas Elliman, and the president of the board in his own condominium.
But Ms. Rivers is not one to hand over the reins and take a snooze in the back seat.
“I’m very much an A personality,” she said, delivering that unsurprising bit of news while perched on a tuffet in her library last week. “I got involved just because I wanted things done right.”
Known around the building as Mrs. Rosenberg, the name she took when she married Edgar Rosenberg, who died in 1987, Ms. Rivers moved in nearly 25 years ago and joined the board shortly after.
Ms. Rivers counts among her proudest board achievements sprucing up the lobby. When she moved in, she explained, its furniture consisted of a card table and an old desk chair. As a neighbor, she said, her most substantial contribution to the building came about 20 years ago, when she brought in a voodoo priestess named Sally Glassman to clear out a ghost. “God bless her,” Ms. Rivers said. “A Jewish voodoo priestess.”
Ms. Rivers, who turned 79 last week, has been president of the board for about nine years and has not faced a challenger in some time.
“I care about the building,” Ms. Rivers said. “And I think that’s why they just keep letting me be president of the board.” Besides, she said in a subsequent telephone interview, “no one wants the job!”
Also, who would dare?
The condo was originally built as one giant mansion (Ms. Rivers’s apartment, the penthouse, was a later addition) and today, it has only eight apartments. Because of the size of the building, the four board members run it very much like a co-op, Ms. Rivers said, keeping a tight leash on who comes and goes.
Mrs. Rosenberg has maintained support among her neighbors despite what might be considered a disqualifier on other boards: her apartment is on the market. In fact, it has been for sale, on and off, for about three years. Today, it is listed for $29.5 million.
When you enter Ms. Rivers’s triplex, the first thing you notice is that she has a giant ballroom, with 23-foot ceilings and gilded columns. Nearby is her office, lined with embroidered pillows (“Don’t expect praise without envy until you’re dead,” “It’s just as lonely at the top, only you eat better”) and books, tattered in a way that suggests they have actually been read. One bookshelf, however, is a fake. It folds back to reveal a giant television surrounded by a dozen bottles of liquor.
Upstairs is Ms. Rivers’s bedroom, which has a knockout view of Central Park South, but is actually rather small. There is also a marble bathroom with thick pink drapes layered over the bathtub, and a little easel set up by the window.
“I paint in my bathroom,” she explained.
The apartment also houses a large filing cabinet filled with thousands of jokes, typed onto notecards and alphabetized by topic. (“Our doorman is an idiot; he makes obscene phone calls on the intercom and can’t figure out why he keeps getting caught” is filed under “Apartment.”)
Ms. Rivers, who was born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn, proudly describes her home as “Louis XIV meets Fred and Ginger.” But Mark D. Friedman, a senior vice president at Halstead Property, who sold Sting’s apartment two years ago, says the décor is unlikely to work to her advantage.
“If she really wanted to sell it, she’d get a decorator in there and make it sort of bland,” Mr. Friedman said. “People have no imagination, and to get past Joan Rivers’s stuff, you’ve got to have a lot of imagination.”
Though the apartment was listed with Sotheby’s International Realty for $25 million in 2009, the current broker, Dolly Lenz, vice chairman of Prudential Douglas Elliman, said she was optimistic the apartment would sell soon.
“If you have this apartment, then no one has an apartment like yours,” she said. “That is a big-ticket item for very wealthy buyers.”
Ms. Rivers, however, does not seem terribly concerned either way. Even though the apartment has been on the market for years, she refuses to budge an inch on her price.
“This is to placate my business manager,” she said of the decision to put her home on the market. Buyers, she said, “have to come in with a bag full of money, otherwise we’re not going to do it.”
As she stood in her private elevator bank last week waiting for the elevator to arrive, she pointed out a fake mail slot painted on her front door, made to look as if envelopes addressed to Mrs. Rosenberg were sticking out.
“Now this, theoretically, is community property,” she said, waving her arms around that small foyer, which was slathered in murals of French chateaus.
She paused and gave a throaty little chuckle. “But they wouldn’t dare,” she said. “I just painted it up the way I wanted it.”
Monday, June 11, 2012