Commercial Observer

Reeling in the Years With the Real Estate Board of New York: In their own words, brokers and owners tell the tale of REBNY’s past half century

Since it started with a roll call of 27 members in 1896 with the goal of “facilitating transactions in real estate,” the Real Estate Board of New York has indisputably been the city’s most influential real estate organization, with its annual gala being to brokers what the Vanity Fair Oscar party is for Hollywood: If you’re there, it means you’re somebody.

Sure, some may lovingly write it off as a veritable men’s club (men are thought to outnumber women five to one), chide it as “The Liar’s Ball” (each year is a broker’s best year, no matter how wretched the marketplace) and speak ill of the food (nearly everyone avoids the chicken and filet mignon).

But the REBNY gala is as essential to a real estate person’s reputation and status as the buildings and bricks he works with. A dozen of the city’s most legendary players spoke to The Commercial Observer about the blurry nights and boom years that helped make the event what it is today.

january 4 2012 49 Reeling in the Years With the Real Estate Board of New York: In their own words, brokers and owners tell the tale of REBNY’s past half century

Bernard Resnick, Sheldon Silver and Steven Spinola, 1996.

The 1950s and 1960s: “The Liar’s Ball” is coined

When the 1950s arrived, the board had expanded enough to stock a banquet hall with men in tuxedos and cigars. Some of today’s most venerable REBNY members attended those balls when they were still wet behind their ears.

Burton Resnick (chairman and chief executive officer, Jack Resnick & Sons, chairman emeritus of REBNY): I remember I was with my father and at that time you [could] cut the air because everybody was smoking cigars and everybody was doing deals. I’d like to have a dollar for every deal that wasn’t done.
Fifty years ago, 75 years ago, it was primarily brokers … but the owners were already there. The brokers were the leadership. I think the owners started being leaders in the last 40 years. They were always there, and I think it was only a matter of who smoked the longest cigar.

Larry Silverstein (president and chief executive officer, Silverstein Properties, former REBNY chairman): I think I started going to these REBNY balls I would say in the late ’50s. I remember missing one. There was one hell of a huge snowstorm—I think it was 1961 or 1962—massive snowstorm, and there was such a terrible night.

Stephen Siegel (chairman global brokerage, CBRE): It was fascinating to be surrounded by people like Leona and Harry Helmsley and Aaron Gural, and some of the legends of our business. Years later I also coined the phrase “The Liar’s Ball,” because no matter how terrible the market was, everybody had their best year ever: “Oh, my god, what a year I had! I would never have imagined in this economy!” So I used to get a kick out of that.

Jerry Speyer (chairman and co-chief executive officer, Tishman Speyer): The people who spoke were then the chairpersons and the people who were engaged in the city, like the mayor and the luminaries who represented the city infrastructure.

The one thing that was consistent was that it was extremely hard for anybody to get the attention of the people attending. It wasn’t until Bernie Mendik became chairman when he got up and made a noise to quiet down, like “Shhhh!”—you know, the kind of sound when you’re trying to calm a child down—and it worked like a charm. He was the first person to really get control of the room.

What was it like in the 1960s? It was probably more formal. People were behaved a little better. They were rowdy in their own ways—Harry Helmsley used to have a party after the Real Estate Board dinner, to which a relatively small group of people were invited. It was a lot of fun. He was a wonderful host.