Getting the Low-Down with Denise LeFrak Calicchio

In her debut book, Denise LeFrak Calicchio gives a tantalizing tour of Manhattan’s most luxurious buildings and the people within

By Marla J. Wasserman

If you’ve ever wondered who lives in the most exclusive buildings in Manhattan, and what goes on behind their hallowed walls, Denise LeFrak Calicchio’s co-authored book, High Rise Low Down, is a must-read. Beginning with the 2004 “battle of billionaires” over who would win Laurence Rockefeller’s coveted three-story penthouse at 834 Fifth Avenue, to the jaw-dropping $54 million purchase in the Time Warner Center, this book is chock-full of salivating real estate history. Who knew that Richard Nixon had so much in common with Mike Wallace, Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor? High Rise Low Down gives us the answer: all suffered board rejections from prestigious co-ops.

Writing a book on real estate came naturally for LeFrak Calicchio. After all, she is a daughter of the late Samuel J. LeFrak, a man who oversaw one of the largest private building firms in the world. When other children were being read bedtime stories, LeFrak Calicchio happily recalls being in her crib getting blueprints and contracts. Even as a child, she said she knew behind every façade, an individual tale lurked. “My dad built these unbelievable buildings and I was always fascinated by it,” she says. “I’d think about the people who lived in the buildings and know there were stories on every [floor].” From 1990-2004, LeFrak Calicchio worked as a highly-regarded real estate broker for Sotheby’s International Realty where she witnessed first-hand the inner workings of Manhattan’s finest buildings.

While High Rise Low Down definitely contains information worth gossiping about, LeFrak Calicchio refrains from cattiness and sticks to the facts. “This is not a mean spirited book,” she ensures. Perhaps that is why she was able to gather so much insider information. The stories speak for themselves; for example, in the chapter about 960 Fifth Avenue-arguably the city’s most premier building-the reader learns that the residents made clear to Claus Von Bulow that he was no longer welcome even though his conviction was over-turned. The disgraced Cambridge-educated Dane sold his duplex without being officially asked to leave, despite having served as head of the co-op board for eleven years.

When asked why people have an insatiable hunger to read about these buildings and their inhabitants-after all Michael Gross’s 2005 book, 740 Park, had tongues wagging-LeFrak Calicchio says that real estate is innately intriguing. “People can be having a conversation about something, then someone will start talking about an apartment, and everyone drops what they were talking about,” she says. “Real estate is red hot, it’s sizzling.” And, LeFrak Calicchio does not see the trend slowing down any time soon. What she does see is that new construction, such as Richard Meier’s downtown-designed condos, is capturing the well-heeled people who once sought out elite co-ops. “I think [the condos] will continue to attract high-quality people because not everyone wants to get naked in front of a co-op board,” LeFrak Calicchio explains. “A lot of the people who sit on the boards today can’t even get into their own buildings.” Between the explosion of new buildings, and the many glamorous co-ops that didn’t make the cut for High Rise Low Down, LeFrak promises a second book is on the horizon. “There were so many buildings we had to leave out,” she sighs. “I can think of at least another 28 buildings to put into a second book. And each building and every person has a story.”