Its a Great Life – Once in a lifetime

ONCE IN A LIFETIME…

It was a gorgeous spring day, ideal for showing a property, perfect for the open house my son Craig and I were attending.

We were far from the only ones who felt this way. The gate to the property was crowded with a cluster of brokers waiting impatiently to be herded onto the bus that would carry them to the top of the hill where the house being shown stood.

Craig, thinking as I did that a bus ride was no way to approach any property, much less a legendary one, eased his Mercedes through the gate and drove slowly up the long, shaded drive that led to High Winds.

I had never been inside High Winds, but I knew the house—it was the estate had been the home of DeWitt and Lila Wallace, founders of Reader’s Digest, for decades the most successful magazine in America.

By 1986, much of that success had faded and the Wallace’s publishing empire had fallen on hard times. With Lila’s death in 1984—her husband had died three years earlier—High Winds, its contents, and the 105 acres that surrounded the home were put up for sale by Reader’s Digest.

The initial listing was handled for 11 months by a real estate large firm with multiple offices in Westchester County and the surrounding areas, but I knew the asking price of $8 million hadn’t been met. There had been inquiries, some of them serious—Penthousepublisher Bob Guccione was said to have offered $5.5 million—but none had come close to being accepted.

I also knew that the firm didn’t have an exclusive right to the property.

High Winds is known in Bedford as a “hill-topper,” because it is actually built at the very top of a hill. The story goes that Lila Wallace herself tramped up the hill and, upon reaching the top, decided that it was a perfect site for a house.

And it is.

Even before Craig and I reached the top of the hill we knew that the house’s views and vistas would be astonishing, as would the house itself. The Wallaces had spared no expense in building, landscaping and furnishing High Winds. In fact, their collection of furniture and other decorative arts was among the finest in the world.

Unfortunately, their personal furniture and art had already been auctioned off by Sotheby’s. I always prefer to show a house with its furnishings in place—more often than not, the purchaser would make an offer that included the house’s contents.

But the auction had been held, and the furniture and art were gone. There was nothing to be done about that, and I had long since learned not to waste time or energy thinking about things I couldn’t change. The house would be empty—except for all the brokers who had come to see it, soon to be joined by the others we’d left below us, waiting for the bus.

Their presence didn’t bother me either. I was used to it. Real estate is a competitive, often aggressively competitive business, so ignoring other brokers was nothing new to me. That spring morning, I only had eyes for High Winds—and for what I could do with the listing.

When our Mercedes emerged from the tree-shaded drive and I the house appeared like magic, I knew immediately that this was exactly what I always looked for: an exceptional property in need of an exceptional buyer.

The 22-room stone house was stunning, its blue-tile Ludowici roof sparkling in the sunlight. Chimneys for the ten fireplaces climbed above the roof. There was a swimming pool with waterfall. The grounds were beautifully landscaped and manicured, rich lawns providing home to formal and informal gardens, a teahouse, caretaker’s quarters and other outbuildings including, I noted, a metal airplane hangar.

The views from the top of the hill were everything I’d expected—and more.

The house looked out over Byram Lake whose lovely waters sparkled in the sunlight. No matter what direction you looked, the vista was breathtaking: Bedford, the countryside beyond, and, in the distance to the south, the silhouettes of Manhattan’s towers.

You could never get tired of these views, and I knew that they would be equally breathtaking on days when you could watch a summer storm’s heavy clouds build and darken as they approached. Or a winter snowstorm blanketing the beauty of the views and the forests until only High Winds remained, its own warm island—home.

Craig parked and we got out. I walked into the house, briefly acknowledging the other brokers—many from the original real estate business’s offices—but not engaging in conversation with them. I had nothing to say to them, and they certainly had nothing I wanted to hear. My mind was already composing the ad I would run, crafting language to attract that exceptional buyer that High Winds need—and deserved.

We didn’t stay long at the open house, and I left by the back door. There was work to do.

The first step was to contact the estate and acquire their approval for our own non-exclusive listing. We would not be co-brokering Highwinds: if we sold it, the commission would be ours alone.

Once that was agreed-to, the next step was to get the word out about this fabulous property.

And I knew exactly how I wanted to do that.

I placed an ad in the New York Times Magazine, where it would appear on Sunday morning. I gave the ad this caption:

ONCE IN A LIFETIME

And I meant that, every word of it.

I meant it because it was true.

With the ad placed, I waited for prospective buyers to call.

I didn’t have to wait long.

Nelson Peltz called me early Sunday morning, the very first call I received. I knew his name of course: even in his early 40s he was a world-famous investor.

“Is this a nice house?” he said. “Is it good?”

“Yes,” I said. “But you should look at and decide if it’s good for you.”

Nelson didn’t hesitate. He and his wife Claudia were vacationing in Massachusetts and wanted to drive down that day.

I agreed to meet them, and gave him directions to Schultz’s Cider Mill, a roadside market in Armonk. Schultz’s apple orchard farm and stand were Armonk institutions since the early 1950s, as renowned for its freshly made doughnuts as for its apple cider. I knew that Schultz’s would be a good place to meet Nelson and Claudia, giving us a chance to get to know each other in person over coffee and doughnuts before we drove to the estate. And it would give Nelson and Claudia a relaxed first glimpse of our area and a small bit of its history.

Two-and-a-half hours after I answered Nelson’s call he and Claudia arrived at Schultz’s, and I found myself immediately enjoying a conversation with this charming, good-looking couple.

I had made an appointment to take them up to the house, and I enjoyed the drive with them. I, after all, knew just how remarkable our destination was.

Just as it had been when Craig and I emerged on the top of the hill and saw the house and its views, High Winds’ magical appearance was like nothing else. As with any luxury property, there was only one High Winds.

And the one before us was more than enough.

Nelson took one look that Sunday morning and said:

“Yahoo!”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

I not only knew what Nelson meant—I knew what he was reallyseeing, the vision that had inspired his exuberant “Yahoo!”

He was seeing not only High Winds as it was, but also, and maybe even more clearly, Nelson and Claudia were already seeing High Winds as it would become—

They were seeing the fabulous property they would create as they made High Winds their own.

The $6 million purchase was, at the time, the largest residential real estate transaction in the history of Westchester County.

For the fabulously wealthy, though, the purchase is truly only the beginning.

For instance, as soon as the purchase of High Winds closed, news stories began reporting that among the many improvements Nelson and Claudia started immediately was a dramatic expansion and modernization of the kitchen. The new kitchen, it was said, would be able to feed up 300 people.

This didn’t surprise me. Nelson and Claudia were legendary hosts—their parties were always elegant, everything perfectly appointed, their large staff exquisitely dressed and alert to the guests’ every need.

Nelson and Claudia brought Bedford the first white-glove service that I had seen here in many, many years, although there probably did it when they first came here 100 years ago or more.  Some people are here 12 generations. 

But at High Winds it was always white-glove service. Whether you dined, or you drank, or you just sat informally and talked and had even a glass of water, you were served by someone who was so beautifully dressed and groomed that you felt that you were at the Palace Hotel. It was wonderful. 

And Nelson and Claudia set this standard from the moment they moved in. I still remember the party they gave when they first moved to Bedford, and I’m not the only one who remembers it.

They invited all of their friends, filling the house and the terrace with beautiful people—celebrities, financiers, investors including Leon Black and Carl Icahn, well-known and well-connected people from every aspect of Nelson and Claudia’s life, close friends and business colleagues alike, all come to High Winds in Bedford to celebrate the opening of High Winds with the inimitable Peltz touch—that white-glove touch.

These beautiful, famous people were captivated by the views, as is everyone. I don't believe there is really another house up here that has the views that High Winds offers.

You feel as if you're standing on top of the world—and the world is all around you, and it's such a beautiful world. It was a perfect setting—and a perfect party.

As magnificent as it had been when DeWitt and Lila Wallace built it, I believe High Winds really came into its own as Nelson and Claudia Peltz made the estate their own, reflecting their exquisite taste and wide interests. Nelson even had a full-size indoor hockey-rink built, as well as various outbuildings, new landscaping and gardening features, each of them enhancing the property’s beauty and the pleasure it gave Nelson and Claudia.

A helipad was added for Nelson to commute to from New York in his private helicopter, prompting a long series of confrontations between Nelson and the county over whether or not a helicopter was permitted on his property.

The point is that for Nelson and Claudia, like all of the wealthy clients I’ve worked with, their house was not a sterile, stuffy museum where you were afraid to take a breath—High Winds was where they and their children live, and they saw to it that the house and grounds and all of it came truly alive.

You never quite knew what you would see when you came to a party at High Winds—or at Nelson and Claudia’s fabulous Palm Beach mansion, where I also attended more than one memorable party.

Often Nelson’s mother was present at the parties, livening up the festivities with her seemingly endless reservoir of jokes. Or bringing out her accordion and playing as we all enjoyed singing together.

But of all the things I never expected to see at High Winds—or, frankly, anywhere else other than a zoo—the one that most surprised me (and everybody else) was the night a gorilla came to the party.

Nelson and Claudia were giving a birthday party for Bunny, who was Claudia's mother, and they invited a gorilla and a man to come—evidently Bunny loved gorillas.

I remember walking into the beautiful living room, filled with people, all of us staying quiet.   

All of a sudden, the man brings a big gorilla in, and Bunny is delighted—just delighted. 

And she rushes over to kiss the gorilla, or he comes over to kiss her, and all of a sudden, we all recognize that the huge ape is a little out of hand. Maybe more than a little: the gorilla started running around fast.  And Claudia had some beautiful vases on the floor—big vases, lovely and elegant and—fragile.

"Oh!" we said, "He's going to bump into this one.  He's going to bump into that one."

But Bunny held on to him and calmed him down—the gorilla evidently liked Bunny as much as Bunny liked gorillas—and we laughed and laughed. 

As I laughed, I couldn’t help thinking of that ad I’d run: like High Winds itself, a gorilla in Nelson and Claudia Peltz’s living room was definitely a One of a Kind experience!

It was just a great night.

High Winds has more than proved to be what I expected that first Sunday: the perfect home for Nelson and Claudia, who I’m proud to say have been dear friends of mine for several decades now. They know who they are and how they want to live—and that’s what the right house and property are all about for the right people. You can see it in every glorious aspect of High Winds.      

I remember Carl Icahn saying once, "Every time I come up here, I have to go home and fix my old house." 

I'm sure he didn't have to, but it was such a lovely thing to say.

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