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Master of the Game

How Steve Ross Rode the Light Fantastic from Undertaker to Creator of the Largest Media Conglomerate in the World

About The Book

From the bestselling author of The Predators’ Ball comes the story of the most flamboyant businessman and dealmaker of his generation, Steve Ross.

When Steven Spielberg first heard Steve Ross tell his life story, it was such a dramatic rags-to-riches narrative that he thought it was a movie. In a career that started in Brooklyn and spanned Wall Street, Hollywood, and the Mafia, Steve Ross took his father-in-law’s funeral business and a parking lot company and grew them into the largest media and entertainment company in the world, Time Warner.

In the upper strata of American business that Ross reached before his death, he was an anomaly. Outrageous, glamorous, charismatic, he presided over an enterprise that was more medieval fiefdom than corporate bureaucracy. He negotiated his enormous and complicated deals, from movies and records to cable and publishing, with shrewdness and brilliance. He rewarded his favorite aides and sidekicks extravagantly; he courted Hollywood stars like Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg with luxurious gifts; he charmed and out-smarted his rivals. Ross used whatever—or whomever—it took to romance someone into making a deal. He saved himself and let his best friend, Jay Emmett, take the fall in the government’s Westchester Premier Theatre investigation. White Atari was hemorrhaging money in the early ‘80s, Ross announced a stock buy-in to boost the price, and then sold off his own stock for a gross of more than $20 million before announcing the company’s failure.

The principles upon which Ross built his domain would not be taught in any business school, and many of his peers were convinced that Ross’s ways would lead to his, and his company’s, undoing. But it was those very attributes—combined with mathematical wizardry and vision (or what one friend called “the ability to see around corners”)—that enabled Ross to best most adversaries, outnegotiate every dealmaker, confound his critics, and ultimately create the Time Warner empire.


Master of the Game 1
From the start, Ross prided himself on his shareholders’ meetings. Over the years, he would become more polished, but even in the early days of Kinney Service he came to these events like a natural: showcasing his depth of knowledge about the company, his numerical nimbleness, his salesmanship so consummate that it seemed more about the art of romance than about selling. As he did with other business tasks, Ross made his preparation for these meetings into a game; he challenged his associates to find a question that would stump him, as though he were about to appear on one of his favorite television quiz shows. He had a strategy for these meetings (“You never play a shareholders’ meeting to win, you play to tie”) as, it often seemed, he did for everything in life. And once he was on the podium, taking questions from the audience like so many lobbed balls, he seemed to want them to go on forever. “To make him stop answering questions,” recalled the company’s long-time secretary, Allan Ecker, “you’d have to turn out the lights.”

Despite his prowess, however, in later years Ross liked to recount how he had gotten into trouble in one of those early meetings. “We were in the parking business then, and a woman asked why we didn’t have a garage at a particular location in Brooklyn,” Ross told me. “I gave some response, and she said, ‘You’re making fun of me because I’m from Brooklyn.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m not doing that at all. I wouldn’t do that. I’m from Brooklyn, too.’

“Well, after the meeting, my mother came up to me. ‘Steven.’ (She only calls me that when she’s angry.) ‘Do you know how many years we’ve been trying to live down that we came from Brooklyn, and now you’ve come right out and said it, in front of all these people!’ ”

Ross’s mother, Sadie, was a diminutive woman with an invincible penchant for elegance, apparently imprinted in her early childhood. Her father, Benjamin Smith, had owned a construction company, and according to family lore had participated in the building of such famed sites as Ebbetts Field and the Flatiron Building. He would ultimately lose everything in the 1929 stock market crash; but Sadie, who was born in 1899, enjoyed the height of his fortunes, with an upbringing notable for its ease and style, in a four-story Brooklyn brownstone fully staffed with servants. After high school, she had attended the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan; and then, at nineteen, she had eloped (her father considered her too young to marry) with a young man named Max Rechnitz.

Rechnitz’s father had also worked in the construction business, though his family was not as affluent as Sadie’s. He began working as a builder, too, and became quite successful; by the time their daughter Connie was born in 1922, they were living a solidly middle-class existence; and when Steven was born, five years later, it was appreciably better. They had moved to a three-story house on Brooklyn’s East 21st Street, in a well-to-do neighborhood; they had maids, and a chauffeur, and gala parties. Five-year-old Connie would creep in her nightgown to watch from her hiding spot at the top of the circular staircase, entranced at the sight of the women, especially, resplendent in costumes with feathers and tiaras, dancing the Charleston.

With the crash, however, Rechnitz’s building business came to a halt overnight. He prevailed upon his wife, Sadie, to surrender all his gifts of jewelry so that he could sell them and thus pay his workers two weeks’ wages, as severance—something she did, but would always say later that she regretted. They then moved to a small house in the Clinton Road area that Rechnitz’s father had built, where they could live rent-free—and stayed there for a couple of very hard, threadbare years. Rechnitz was unable to find work for about a year. It was around this time that he changed his name to Ross, telling his children that it would make life easier for them in school, since people were always misspelling and mispronouncing “Rechnitz”; he also thought, more importantly, that the removal of his German-Jewish surname might make it easier for him to find work. Eventually, he got a job as an oil-burner salesman and they moved to a rather dreary apartment building on Newkirk Avenue, in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section, where they would remain for roughly ten years. Steve was then about four years old; virtually all his memories of childhood would center there.

It was a tough neighborhood—a mix of blacks and Irish and Jews—and as he got older, Steve learned, as he would later say, “the importance of picking your fights, in order to be able to walk the streets.” He would later recall it, too, as an existence so sparse that there was sometimes not enough to eat. His mother, however, clung to the niceties. She drilled her children in fine manners. When company came, she still did her best to set the kind of table for which in their circle of friends she had been renowned: each place was set with a fingerbowl, and she would measure the distance from the edge of the table to the bottom of the flatware. She was so fastidious that in drinking from a cup, she always held it in her left hand so that, in case it had not been perfectly washed, her lips would be less likely to touch the place where another’s had been. “My mother,” Ross would say years later, “was a class act.”

In school, at P.S. 152, he was most conspicuous as a mischiefmaker; his other grades sometimes varied, though they were generally good, but “Conduct” was virtually always a C. His mother was called to school so often that, as she would often complain, she spent as much time with Steve’s teachers as he did. While school seemed to bore him, making money did not. It was not that he was working to help support a desperately impoverished family; both he and his sister were given modest allowances, and Connie got along on hers without working. But, from the time he was eight years old, he loved the idea of it—sometimes, it seemed, even more the idea than the thing itself, since he would often return home having lost half his earnings through the holes in his pockets.

When the nightly weather report on the radio predicted snow, he would set his alarm for 4:00 A.M., SO that he had several hours before school to shovel the driveways of the large houses that lined Glenwood Boulevard a few blocks away. He constructed a cart with roller skates and a plank of wood, so that he could carry groceries home from the supermarket for older women. He delivered dry cleaning. He hawked magazines. Once, his mother and sister emerged from the Newkirk Avenue subway station to see ten-year-old Steve, ink from the magazine covers smudged all over his face, his cap askew, knickers that were up far above one knee, calling: “Get your Cosmopolitan, get your Saturday Evening Post!” His mother was mortified—what if the neighbors saw him, looking such a mess? But his father, hearing about it, revelled in the image of his young son, the go-getter.

“My father trained me,” Ross recalled. “He was a heavy smoker. So I used to take money I’d made shining shoes and buy a carton of cigarettes for fifty cents a pack, then sell them to my father on a per-pack basis. I’d make a nickel profit—and movies were a nickel!” Movies at the neighborhood Loews, he added, were his “escape.”

Max Ross seemed to have become resigned to the fact that he would never regain the standard of living that had briefly been his in the late twenties, and he enjoyed simple pleasures—taking his children on a weekend to the Automat; or to Coney Island, where they would change into bathing suits in the car; or to Prospect Park to watch a baseball game, then stopping at Dubin’s for a loaf of rye bread so pungent that it would always be half-eaten by the time they brought it home to Sadie. She, however, never became resigned to what she saw as their fall from grace. As Connie would say later, “My father saw things as they were. Mother saw things as she wanted them to be.”

Sadie Ross’s hope of regaining the life lost to her was pinned on her son; he was, said Connie, her parents’ “pride and joy.” Connie adored her younger brother but probably could not help feeling overshadowed by him—her mother, especially, was fixated on him and on what he might become. The whole family agreed that there was something special about him that went beyond his handsome face and winsome charm. When Steve was in his teens, Sadie’s brother, Al Smith, used to declare, “Mark my words: this young man’s name is going to be in Fortune magazine one day.” And Steve himself believed that his destiny lay somewhere far beyond Newkirk Avenue. His bedroom was always messy and once, when he was about ten, his mother scolded him, saying, “How in the world are you going to manage things when you’re an adult if you live in such disorder? You will have to learn to handle details even if they are distasteful to you.”

“Don’t worry, Mom,” her son replied, with a grin. “I’ll have other people to handle the details.”

In 1942, Connie, nineteen, married, and her father went to work in the plumbing supply business for her in-laws. Sadie and Max Ross were finally able to move to Manhattan, as Sadie had been longing to do, and Steve obtained a scholarship to a private school, Columbia Grammar. Most of his classmates were from wealthy families; his best friend, Judson Richheimer, for example, whose father was in the jewelry business and who was thought by some in the class to be its wealthiest member, lived in a palatial apartment on Park Avenue. (The Richheimers, too, however, had Brooklyn roots; they had been part of the Rechnitzes’ social circle in the gilded period in the late twenties.)

Because he was a scholarship student, Ross was given the job of taking the younger children to Central Park each day; and the school’s coach, noting his way with the children, asked him to be a counselor-in-training at a summer camp in Maine, Camp Kohut. Ross was given a bunk of five-year-olds. For Ross’s young charges, he made all of life a game: they didn’t walk to the mess hall, they got there by playing. In order to come out of their bunk, they had to guess in which hand Ross was holding a coin (he was already practiced at sleight-of-hand); whoever guessed right was allowed to descend one step, and whoever got to the bottom of the steps first won.

One of Ross’s campers, a difficult little boy who cried a great deal, was named Henry Jaglom. His parents seemed always to be travelling and missed the visiting days. That summer and the next (Ross again was Henry’s counselor), when visiting days arrived, Henry would always guess the right hand and make it first to the bottom—and then, while his bunkmates were with their parents, he would set out for extended nature walks with Ross.

About thirty years later, introduced to Ross in a restaurant, Jaglom thought they were meeting for the first time. But Ross, upon hearing Jaglom’s name, declared with a broad grin, “You were the one who gave me this gray hair”—and then recounted to Jaglom how his lucky streak had been arranged. Jaglom later said that he “felt something welling up in me as he told me what he had done. It was so extraordinarily kind. I remembered the feeling of soaring down those steps. I’m sure that that was the first taste of winning I ever had.”

In Ross’s senior year at Columbia, a new student named John Heckler entered the class. He felt ostracized by his classmates; they all had their friends, and no one even bothered to talk to him for days—except for Ross. Heckler thought Ross seemed like a really “good guy”—tall, good-looking, with an easy charm.

At Columbia Grammar, Ross distinguished himself most on the playing field; he played varsity in football, basketball, and baseball. Nothing really sparked him in his academic subjects; even math, in which he excelled, did not inspire him to further study. As Ross would say, he always did well in math “without ever having to crack a book.”

After graduating from Columbia in 1945, Ross—with his friend Judd Richheimer—enlisted in the Navy; they were bunkmates for part of their stint. When they were discharged in 1947, they both enrolled at a junior college in upstate New York named Paul Smith, which was just opening that year. (Ross would claim, later, that he had received football scholarships to both Duke University and the University of Wisconsin but fell in love, instead, with Paul Smith.) Here, too, Ross performed extraordinarily in math; in order to achieve a score of 100 in an advanced math course titled “Combinations and Permutations,” one had to score 100 in every test and answer the two bonus questions on the final exam. He did.

But at Paul Smith, the two friends mainly enjoyed themselves. They shared a ‘41 Chevy. They skied. Ross played football, broke his arm, and had to have a metal plate put in it—which came in handy in fights, Richheimer would later say. They played pranks on each other. (Knowing Richheimer was likely to come in drunk one night, Ross replaced all the lightbulbs in the room with camera flashbulbs, so that when Richheimer flicked the switch, they would all pop. Richheimer, in turn—knowing that Ross always threw himself down on his cot after classes—put dynamite caps underneath his mattress.) The school was small—there were only two hundred in their class—and, by Richheimer’s recollection, they ran it. Richheimer began to think that Ross was compulsive about winning—whether it was a game of cards for a penny a point or a school election—and that Ross could, essentially, have whatever he wanted, at least in this tiny universe. Their class consisted of 187 men (all veterans) and 13 women; at the end of the first winter, 12 of the women were engaged or married, and the other one was dating Ross.

When the two graduated after two years, Richheimer went to Lehigh to finish his college education and Ross went to work at a sports slacks company, H. Lissner Trousers. It was located in a loft building in Manhattan’s garment district; the office, showroom, cutting room, and shipping office were all on one floor, and Ross worked in all of them. Sent to a convention in place of a more senior salesman who was ill, he sold so well that he was given New Jersey as his territory; he then travelled every day, selling slacks to stores throughout the state.

Ross renewed his friendship with John Heckler, who was also working in the garment district. The two played gin rummy on Friday nights, and with their winnings, usually $40 or $50 each (Ross was an outstanding player), they would double-date on Saturday nights. Their favorite movie—they saw it as many as twenty times—was Gunga Din. Ardent Giants fans, they went to games every Sunday: Heckler’s parents had seats, first at the Polo Grounds and then at Shea Stadium. Heckler and Ross would gaze at the Giants owners striding up and down along the sidelines, and they would swear to each other that someday they would own the Giants and they would walk up and down, just like that, wearing cleats and vicuna coats.

By 1950, Ross’s father was gravely ill with lung cancer (he had first been stricken in 1945 and had spent six months in the hospital then), and Heckler would often join Ross in the evenings at Lenox Hill Hospital. Heckler was particularly fond of the tall, silver-haired Max Ross, whom he found gentle and easygoing. Steve’s drive, Heckler had long thought, came much more from his mother, who seemed to chafe at the bounds of her life and to have been disappointed in her mild husband’s failure to overcome them. Whatever slight security they had achieved had been eaten up now by Max Ross’s years of illness. Connie Ross would say later that the economic reversals in her mother’s life—mainly that first, traumatic one—“made my mother money-crazy. She never felt there would be enough, no matter how much there was.”

Ross’s father died on May 14, 1950. About one year later, Sadie Ross married Sam Kellner, a widower who had lived across from them on East 21st Street in Brooklyn, and who owned a plumbing business in Manhattan. He, too, would experience economic hardship, deepening Sadie’s fixation on such failure—and, perhaps, her son’s as well.

In the summer of 1953, Ross, twenty-six, met eighteen-year-old Carol Rosenthal, whose father, Edward Rosenthal, ran a funeral business, largely family-owned, of which the most prominent chapel at that time was the Riverside, in Manhattan. Doris Rosenthal, Carol’s stepmother (she had married Carol’s father when Carol and her sister Ellen were babies, after their mother had died), met Ross when he brought Carol home after their first date. “Now, that is my idea of a man!” she told Carol.

“When he walked into the apartment, my parents flipped,” Carol Rosenthal said. “They thought he was so handsome, so charming. He knew exactly what to say. He was proper. He was dressed just right, with perfect manners.”

Ross began to court Carol quite avidly—and, it sometimes seemed, the entire Rosenthal household as well. Upon arriving at their apartment at 101 Central Park West, he would promptly make a beeline for the kitchen to greet Naomi, their long-time housekeeper; she soon became utterly devoted to him. By this time, he had left H. Lissner Trousers and was working for his uncle, Al Smith, in a company called Farragut, which made girls’ high-style bathing suits. He gave Carol’s younger brother, Peter, and all his classmates a tour of the Farragut plant. Ross also introduced Peter to the world of cards—bridge, blackjack, card tricks—and showed him shortcuts in his trigonometry homework. He would bring the latest bathing-suit styles so that Carol’s youngest sister, Patricia, then eight years old, could “model” them; she would don them and pose in the family’s living room, and Ross would take pictures of her which he claimed he would show to buyers.

“He was just so charming to everyone that people were whispering, ‘Watch out, he’s after her money,’ ” Carol’s older sister, Ellen, recalled. When Carol and Steve announced that they wanted to marry, about six months after they had met (Richheimer’s father provided her diamond engagement ring), the Rosenthals did have reservations, though not because they were suspicious of Steve’s motivations. Carol was just a freshman at Connecticut College—where they had hoped she would remain for four years—and had gone out with very few men. Doris Rosenthal tried to persuade Ross to wait, arguing that because of the difference in Carol’s and his ages and experiences, Carol had everything to lose by an early marriage, and he, everything to gain. But Ross was all ardor.

His mother, Sadie Kellner, was well pleased with the match. “Sadie was a very pretty, vain, rather shallow woman,” Doris Rosenthal told me. “It was very important to her that you come from the right side of the tracks. I guess Steve had gone out with a lot of girls, and she was relieved that he had ended up with someone like Carol.”

They were married in June 1954, in an outdoor ceremony at the Rosenthals’ country home in Greenburgh, New York. There were about one hundred guests (according to one family friend, Rosenthal would later attempt to deduct it as a business expense—when challenged by the IRS, he would argue that all the guests were potential customers). As a wedding present, the Rosenthals gave the newlyweds a four-week honeymoon in Europe.

When they returned, they moved into an apartment at 241 Central Park West, about twelve blocks north of Carol’s parents. Ross continued to work at Farragut and Carol took classes at Finch. They lived on a tight budget, eating hot dogs so that they could see an extra movie. Despite his constraints, however, Ross set a certain tone. When he visited the Rosenthals, he was always handing out large tips to the doormen and elevatormen. At Christmastime, he borrowed $100 from the bank in order to buy his new in-laws Christmas presents.

After he and Carol had been married for nearly two years, he told her parents that he was unhappy in his job. Carol’s brother, Peter, would later say that he thought the reason was that Ross had been promised by his uncle, Al Smith, that he would make him a partner, and he had not. But what Ross said to his wife and to the Rosenthals—and what he would always say years later, when describing this period of his life—was that he was made miserable by the sight of the poorly paid seamstresses.

Now, Rosenthal told Ross that he was sorry he was unhappy in his job, but that all he could offer him was the funeral business. As Ross would later tell me, Rosenthal did “a little selling job. I said, ‘I’m getting out of the business I’m in because it depresses me, and now I go into the funeral business?’ But Eddie said that now I would be helping people, and that while they make money at it they don’t gouge—they’re making the money because they’re making sure everything is going well at a difficult time.”

Doris Rosenthal said later they were surprised that Ross agreed. “We didn’t think he would be interested in the funeral business. I mean, who would? He said he didn’t want to go to embalming school, but that was fine with us. He was so great with people. We wanted him on the floor.”

Ross threw himself into his new vocation. He was tutored in his role as funeral director by Marc Iglesias, who had been at the Riverside chapel for a number of years, and who now became Ross’s close friend; they both lived at 241 Central Park West, and would walk to Riverside together each morning. Their wives became best friends, as well, and the couples made a perpetual foursome. Ross’s Friday-night gin rummy games, with Heckler and other cronies, were now held at Riverside, occasionally in a room with occupied caskets. Often, Ross worked round the clock, taking the middle-of-the-night calls that had been Rosenthal’s burden before.

It was difficult for him because, as Carol later pointed out, he always had trouble dealing with others’ pain; but here (perhaps because he was so clearly not its cause) he became the master of solicitude. Certainly, his keen sensitivity to others (not to mention his ability to move them, chess-like, according to his own design) had taken root much earlier. But in later years, Ross would always maintain that he “learned about people in the funeral business. It’s a service business. You service people in an emotional time—you learn about their needs, their feelings.

“You have to watch every word you say,” Ross would add. “If you say to people who are grieving, ‘Can I help you?’ they will say, ‘No one can help me.’ So I would say, ‘Can I be of service to you?’ ”

Edward Rosenthal’s grandfather had started the business in 1897 with the establishment of Riverside Memorial Chapel; it had then been expanded by his son, Charles, and subsequently, by Charles’s two sons, Edward and Morton. Carl Grossberg and Mac Passerman, relatives of the Rosenthals, were their partners. It was, moreover, a family business in style as well as substance. Edward Rosenthal had a file of 3x5 cards on which he kept the names of the family members of every employee. He frequently studied them, using them as drill cards—and was always asking after workers’ wives and children by name. Every year, on May 6—Charles Rosenthal’s birthday—there was a dance, held at a hotel; all employees, from funeral directors to hearse drivers, and their families were invited. The band would always play “Down by the Riverside.” “We all dreaded that evening,” Doris Rosenthal said later, “but Steve loved it. He was such a great dancer. He was always the life of the party.

“And he was a wonderful funeral director. The families loved him. Everyone loved him. My father-in-law, who was in his eighties by then, adored him.”

From the outset in his new business life, Ross remembered his friends. One member of his Friday-night gin rummy group, Joe Lehman, had a small printing business. Upon joining the funeral chapels, Ross promised Lehman that he would have the funeral account within six months; six months later—to the day—he did. And several years later, Ross would hire Judd Richheimer, and his brother Michael as well.

Ross’s game plan for himself was less clear. As the son-in-law who had married into an affluent family and then joined the family business, he had to be circumspect. Moreover, Edward Rosenthal had instituted a strict rule, that family members had to start at the very bottom of the company and earn their way up. Ross had proven himself quickly; not only was he performing his prescribed duties superbly but he had, upon his entry, contributed what proved to be a lucrative idea: the limousines used for funerals during the day could be rented out at night. Nonetheless, after about two years in the business Ross had only limited say in its management. And he was chafing at what seemed to him the constricted, smalltime mentality of the people in charge, who, as he would say later, “used to walk back at night to turn out the lights and save money.”

In the spring of 1958, Joseph Albritton, an entrepreneur from Cut ‘n Shoot, Texas, who would later own the Washington Star, contacted Ross. He had just bought the Pierce Company, a funeral and insurance business located in California, and he wanted to sell the funeral portion. Ross flew to California; they negotiated and reached what Albritton called “an understanding,” in which Albritton would finance Ross’s purchase of the funeral company. “But then the Rosenthals said, ‘You can’t take our daughter and move out to California—we’ll turn the business over to you, and you can expand it here,’ ” Albritton recalled. “I said to him, ‘Steve, you can’t beat a deal like that—it’s a family business, you’ve got a stake in it, and they’re turning it over to you.’

“I was willing to back him, because I saw him as a comer and a winner, par excellence,” Albritton continued. “He would never put a foot wrong. He may appear to be charming, which he is, and he may appear to be relaxed, which he is—but if you think the brain is not working, you’re wrong. He has what I would call a relaxed intensity.”

It was only later, after Albritton decided to keep the funeral business, that he realized what a favorable deal Ross had struck for himself in their negotiations. He called Ross and jokingly chided him, “My tax man tells me it’s a great cash-flow business. Why didn’t you tell me what a gold mine it is?”

In early 1958, when Ross’s main duties were still in the chapel, a young man named Abraham Silverstein approached Edward Rosenthal about starting a small car rental operation, and Rosenthal agreed. By early 1959, however, Rosenthal decided that the business, Abbey Rent-A-Car, which was making no money, should be shut down; he offered to make Silverstein a funeral director. Silverstein asked for a little time. He would find a way, he told Rosenthal, to expand the business. He decided to call someone whom he knew from a prior deal—Caesar Kimmel, of the Kinney System—and propose that Kinney lend its name and some space at its parking lots to a car rental operation. Kimmel agreed to a meeting at the Kinney office in Newark, New Jersey. Rosenthal told Silverstein that Ross should attend, too.

Ross walked into Kimmel’s office and immediately spotted a framed photograph on the wall of one of Kimmel’s racehorses, taken just after it had won a big race. As anyone who knew Kimmel was well aware, he was extremely proud of his horses. Ross laughed, and said, “Morty Rosenthal owned the number-two horse in that race!” What would later become vintage Ross was already in place: always coming to a meeting well prepared, which for him meant researching not only all angles of the business deal but also the personality of the principal, and trying at the outset to strike a personal chord—surprisingly personal, if possible, one that might set the other person slightly offbalance, albeit in a pleasant way. (“You’re going to see Joe Albritton? Walk in, and say, ‘How’s Cut ‘n Shoot?’ ” Ross would urge me. “That’ll really get him!”)

The meeting went well. Ross pointed out that for a rental car business to succeed against established companies like Hertz and Avis, it needed something that would give it an edge. Why didn’t they offer free parking (in Kinney’s lots) with a rented car? Ross argued that since they were only renting cars in Manhattan (not at the airports), the vast majority of their customers would be renting cars in order to leave the city—and thus would never avail themselves of the parking. Still, there would be the psychological edge. Within two weeks, the deal was done. Kinney received 25 percent of the stock of a rental car company, in return for which it made available its sixty-odd locations (where cars could be rented and, theoretically, parked) and lent its name.

The first ad for Kinney Rent-A-Car read: “3 ways to park for free in New York,” under enlarged photos of three license plates: “MD 16712,” “DPL 1371,” and “KINNEY.” The plan was so successful that the rental car business bought new cars, which in turn took up more spaces in Kinney lots. The parking business began to suffer, and Kinney’s principals were unhappy inasmuch as they owned 100 percent of Kinney Parking but only 25 percent of the rental car business. The solution, Ross proposed, was to combine the businesses—and he knew the best way to do that.

Ross had been dreaming of taking the company public for some time. It was a notion that found favor with the Rosenthals and their partners, also, since some of them were older and beginning to think about estate problems; this would enable them to cash out some of their shares. Ross had approached investment bankers at Bear, Stearns & Co. with the idea in early 1960. As Silverstein later recalled, “They said, forget it—you can’t sell death to the public. And in any event, you really don’t want to show the profits you’re making on funerals—all that money off people’s misery.”

Now, however, a combination of these two companies would be especially happy—inasmuch as it would enable each of them to do together what they could not have done apart. Thanks to Kinney, the company going public would be not just a funeral business but also a parking and rental car business, and since the earnings would not have to be broken out for the separate companies, the funeral business’s profits—which were monumentally greater than Kinney’s—would not be discernible. And thanks to Riverside, which would dominate the corporate entity on the board and in management, Kinney would be able to escape the kind of scrutiny that it never could have withstood had it attempted to go public alone.

It had from Kinney’s inception been unclear to the public who the owners of the company were. The company had been incorporated in 1945. In 1948, after Kinney had been awarded leases on the two biggest parking lots in Newark and the question of Kinney’s ownership arose, Sigmund (“Jigger”) Dornbusch first denied that he had any interest in Kinney. Several days later, Dornbusch claimed that he was Kinney’s sole owner. “There is nothing peculiar or shady about this whole transaction,” Dornbusch told the Newark Evening News. “ . . . It’s true I used dummies as incorporators of Kinney Corp. but that was for the reasons I have given [believing that the current lessees would demand higher prices for their equipment if they knew his identity]. I think they are good reasons. I have nothing to hide.”

Dornbusch had had a varied career. In the twenties, he had been a bootlegger, a bail bondsman, and a stockbroker. In the thirties, he had gone into the fuel-oil business, starting a number of companies (Dornoil Products, Liberty Fuel, Climate Control Products, Inc.). By 1948, when Cities Service acquired Dornoil Products, it owned a fleet of trucks and controlled a chain of more than one hundred gasoline stations in northern New Jersey.

The person who had started Kinney, however, and who was a hidden partner of Dornbusch’s, was Emanuel (“Alabam”) Kimmel. Kimmel is said to have been a bootlegger; he also had been one of the first operators in the numbers rackets in Newark during the twenties and thirties, in company with New Jersey’s most powerful racketeer, Abner (“Longie”) Zwillman—who would be named in 1935, at the height of the Thomas Dewey prosecutions, as one of the “Big Six,” the other five being Charles (“Lucky”) Luciano, Benjamin (“Bugsy”) Siegel, Louis (“Lepke”) Buchalter, Jake (“Gurrah”) Shapiro, and Meyer Lansky. Kimmel had owned several garages in Newark; Zwillman leased the garages as storage places for his bootlegged liquor, and with that income Kimmel is said to have begun to buy the lots that would eventually form the basis of Kinney. (Indeed, according to someone who knew both Kimmel and Zwillman well, Kimmel decided to buy the lots because they were ideal for the numbers business: cars could come and go without attracting suspicion.) One much-told story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Kimmel won the lot on Kinney Street in Newark—from which the company would take its name—in a crap game, after some hapless fellow who had run out of cash put it up as collateral.

Jack Bendet, who in the twenties had worked in a delicatessen on Prince Street in Newark, had known Zwillman, Kimmel, Herman (“Red”) Cohen, Joseph (“Doc”) Stacher, and others whose names would come up during the Kefauver Committee hearings in the early fifties, as active in one area or another of organized crime (Kimmel as a bookie). “The Third Ward [of Newark] was where everything was going on,” Bendet recalled. “And, over the years, nothing went on that Zwillman didn’t have to okay. All these guys had a little piece of everything they were involved in—it was all intermingled.”

The numbers racket, Bendet explained, worked as a kind of small-scale lottery. “There were stores where you went if you wanted to play a number—any number, say, from 1 to 1,000. Runners picked up the numbers and brought them to the office, and then the office sent the money for the winning number to the store. They paid 600 to 1. And Manny Kimmel had the office. He was the banker.”

Unlike Dornbusch and certain other bootleggers—even one as notorious as Zwillman—who subsequently, in an attempt to gain respectability, went into some legitimate businesses and allowed themselves to be visible there, Kimmel continued over the course of his life to appear to be what in fact he was: a major bookmaker and gambler, in whom the FBI maintained an active interest at least into the sixties. As an FBI document noted in 1965, “Kimmel is known to be a lifetime associate of several internationally known hoodlums. He is an admitted gambler and consorts with many well known gamblers throughout the United States.” Another document described him as having “taken over the operations of the sports books at the El Rancho Vegas Hotel in Las Vegas as well as the horse race book covering all Eastern tracks.” He also reportedly testified in 1954 before a federal grand jury that was investigating the income taxes of Zwillman.

That same year, Kimmel also testified in the trial of mobster Joe Adonis. In the late twenties, as Mark Stuart recounts in Gangster #2, some reform district attorneys were causing trouble for the New York gambling spots run by Lansky, Luciano, Frank Costello, and Adonis; so they got together with Zwillman, the don of New Jersey, and agreed that they would open up a string of roadhouses in Jersey. By the mid-forties, Ben Marden’s Riviera in Fort Lee, just over the George Washington Bridge, was among the most popular. And, as reported in the Newark Evening News, Kimmel testified that from 1948 to 1950, he had agreed to allow limousines operated by one of Adonis’s partners to park in one of the Kinney lots, on Broadway between 51st and 52nd Streets, which then transported dice players to crap games at the Riviera and other clubs in Bergen County. As one of Kimmel’s associates told me, “It was a service Manny was providing for his customers.”

In light of these activities and associations, it was critical that Kimmel’s interest in Kinney be disguised.

When Dornbusch in 1948 had been pressed to come forward publicly so as to secure the city’s award of the leases to Kinney, the company’s previous incorporators (three current and former employees of his) were replaced by Dornbusch, Manuel Rosenstein, and Rosenstein’s cousin, Seymour Wortzel. Manuel Rosenstein was a partner with Kimmel in a couple of lots, and borrowed money from Kimmel for his stake in Kinney; and Wortzel, a bookkeeper, was essentially standing in for Kimmel.

Manny Kimmel’s eldest son, Caesar (he had changed his name from Seymour), was active in the operating of the lots. What Caesar Kimmel would say in later years was that his father had had a couple of lots which he had given him, and that he (Caesar), Dornbusch, and Rosenstein had been partners. But, as one associate of those men explained to me, “Manny always had a lot of cash—thousands and thousands of dollars. Half the time he carried it around in a shoebox. But he couldn’t be out front in the company. He was ‘connected.’ So Caesar was his front—Manny laundered it through Caesar.”

In the fall of 1961—as Ross and Caesar Kimmel were preparing to take the merged companies public—Manny Kimmel was setting out on a new foray. An MIT mathematics professor, Edward Thorp, had just gone public with his claim that he had used a computer to devise a card-counting technique that enabled him so to circumvent the odds in playing blackjack that he could be guaranteed of winning more often than losing. Kimmel promptly got in touch with the professor, and soon he was arriving at Thorp’s home, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to test his claim. In a Life magazine article published in March 1964, Thorp told the reporter of his first meeting with the man whom in his book, Beat the Dealer (published in 1962), he described only as “Mr. X.”

“I was looking out the window at about 4 o’clock,” Thorp recounted,

and I saw a huge, midnight-blue Cadillac coming up our street. A ravishing blonde in a mink coat was driving it. Another ravishing blonde was sitting on the other side of the front seat. It stopped and both girls got out before I actually saw Mr. X. He was a tiny, white-haired, gnomish man in a long, dark overcoat and he’d been hidden between them. He actually introduced the girls as his nieces when they came in. Then he told me he hoped I’d been practicing. He sat down and began dealing me blackjack hands. We played for two hours. I seemed to satisfy him, and, when he left, he reached into one pocket of his coat, pulled out a tangled handful of jewelry and held a pearl necklace out to my wife.

Thorp grinned at the memory. “We had it appraised the first thing in the morning. It was worth $16. Mr. X believed in the incentive system. He also used to present me with a salami from time to time.”

Kimmel and his close friend, Edward Hand (“Mr. Y”), then accompanied Thorp, whom they viewed as their secret weapon, on a trip to Nevada, covering Reno and Lake Tahoe (they didn’t go to Las Vegas because Kimmel was so well known there that he would quickly attract attention). They won about $100,000 in two days. During this trip in the winter of 1961, just a couple of months before Kinney Service would go public, Kimmel told Thorp that he owned a great deal of stock in Kinney Parking, and sixty-four parking lots.

Indeed, Kinney’s initial prospectus, filed in February 1962, stated that Kinney “owns seven locations and leases or manages 64 other locations.” There was no mention, however, of Manny Kimmel (while the origins of Riverside were described in detail with mention of Charles Rosenthal as one of the founders, the parking section had an artful lead: “The Company began use of the ‘Kinney System’ name in the parking business in 1945 with a lease to operate one station”).

Ed Hand would later say that he believed Kimmel was boasting to a degree, inasmuch as he strongly doubted that Kimmel owned or even had interests in all sixty-four lots; he said he had in fact been told by Kimmel that he had partners (certain of the lots, for example, were leased from corporations in which Dornbusch had an interest). But Hand was certain that Kimmel had an enormous ownership stake in the lots (one which would prove very lucrative to him over the following decades) and, Hand added with a smile, he was anything but a passive proprietor.

“Manny even booked the lots—he’d mortgage them for thirty or sixty or ninety days, when he had to get cash to pay off bets,” Hand recalled, noting Kimmel’s voracity as a bookie. “What was he a bookie for? For everything! Vegas, football, baseball, the horses. At Saratoga, in the old days, he used to straighten out the jockeys [meaning, Hand explained, that he fixed the races], Manny was great at talking people into betting. He could always find a sucker.” In the sixties and seventies, Hand added, Kimmel was a bookie for H. L. Hunt, who “thought nothing of betting a million on a football game.” According to a sports gambler who frequently used Kimmel as his bookie, Kimmel was for a time “one of the biggest—if not the biggest—in New York.”

Another hidden partner in Kinney may well have been Longie Zwillman. When Kinney, represented by Dornbusch, had made a bid in 1950 to build parking lots under the West Side Highway in New York, it ultimately withdrew its bid after allegations were made that Zwillman had an interest in Kinney. By the time Kinney went public, Zwillman was dead. Found hanging in the basement of his mansion in West Orange, New Jersey, in February 1959—in what was officially deemed a suicide—Zwillman had died without leaving a will. Ralph Salerno, the former supervisor of detectives for the New York Police Department, said that Zwillman’s hidden interests were believed to be handled after his death by Gerardo Catena, who had been his close associate and his partner in the New Jersey gambling ventures, and who was a top-ranking member in the Vito Genovese crime family. According to Hand, Kimmel—who “didn’t trust his own mother” and had few friends—did consider Catena his friend.

Moreover, a young man named Howard Stone was dating Zwillman’s daughter in 1960. At the time, Stone told a friend, Larry Dietz (who recounted this anecdote to me), that the girl’s mother, Zwillman’s widow, had told him that her daughter wanted to marry him, and that if they were to marry, the following assets, in which the Zwillman family owned major stakes, would eventually be his. “She listed a bunch of things, including some Las Vegas hotels, and also Kinney Parking,” Dietz recalled. (Stone declined her proposal.) Through the sixties, in any event, talk of Zwillman’s stake in Kinney would persist among its employees.

Outlandish as it was to imagine that a company such as Kinney could go public, it was also—once presented by Ross—an irresistible notion to the Kinney principals. Sigmund Dornbusch had died in 1956, and Kinney was being managed, day to day, by his son Howard, Caesar Kimmel, and Manny Rosenstein. While its properties and leases had value, Kinney was in a very shaky financial state; often, Howard Dornbusch, who was also managing Liberty Fuel out of the offices shared with Kinney in downtown Newark, would lend Kinney money from Liberty to meet its payrolls.

Caesar Kimmel set about preparing for the transaction. He would later say that he bought out Rosenstein’s stake, in order to control two thirds of the company’s stock. In fact, one associate said later that Manny Kimmel had lent Rosenstein the money for his stake. Caesar now demanded that that loan be repaid, or Rosenstein forfeit his share; and Rosenstein had to forfeit it. As for the rest of Kinney’s relationships—with Manny Kimmel, and any other hidden partners, and the sixty-four lots—those would remain obscured, as ever, behind a shield of over forty dummy corporations.

(Despite the considerable pains taken to hide Manny Kimmel’s interest, U.S. law enforcement was apparently not altogether deceived. One FBI document, written in early 1962, would note that “the Kinney System Parking Corporation was seeking Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) approval for a public stock offering and that SEC was considering rejecting this application. The [Justice] Department requested a check of our indices, noting that the founder and present owner of a large share of this parking corporation is Emanuel Kimmel, better known as Manny Kimmel, Maplewood, New Jersey, engaged for many years in gambling activities in New Jersey, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada. We are forwarding to the Department a detailed summary of information in our files concerning Kimmel.” The SEC, however, did not ultimately reject the application—presumably accepting the representations of the company’s lawyers that Manny Kimmel was not a “present owner.”)

It was agreed that Richard Seley, the trusted attorney who had been the agent for so many of Kinney’s dummy corporations, was to become an officer of the newly combined company. Solomon Weiss, an accountant who had first gone to work for an accountant named Seymour Wortzel, and who, along with Wortzel, had then come in-house at Kinney, would also join Kinney Service. Over the years, Weiss would handle not only the company’s but Ross’s personal financial matters, and would be his single most trusted aide. Kinney Service would be employing two mainstream firms as general counsel and auditor—Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and Arthur Young & Company. But with these two men, Seley and Weiss, a repository of all legal and financial information on Kinney’s dealings could be transferred, intact and insulated, to the new company.

Kimmel and Dornbusch were both to join the company as vice-presidents. Only Kimmel, however, was to go on the board. This was not surprising. Not only did Kimmel (with his father) control a much larger stake in the company, but he was a personable, studiedly comic individual, with no hint of menace in his public demeanor. Dornbusch, on the other hand, was a conspicuously rough, albeit intensely dapper, type. Ross, in his most smooth-talking manner, told Dornbusch that he thought he ought not to be a director because his father had been a bootlegger. Dornbusch, a man widely known for his hair-trigger temper, retorted that Kimmel’s father not only had been a bootlegger but was currently a bookie. He furthermore told Ross that if he were not made a director, he would make trouble. He left it purposely vague; experience had taught him by this time that there was no ultimatum better than that which invokes the unknown. Not long after this exchange, Dornbusch did, in fact, become a director (he was not listed as one in the initial prospectus, but by the next year he would be).

As one of the Kinney principals would say later of Ross, “He was an exuberant wheeler-dealer, a con artist—not to cheat you, but to get you to believe what he wanted you to believe. And he could talk a blind man into seeing.”

Machinations in the prelude to going public were not limited to the Kinney side. The funeral business had been structured so that it was comprised of over sixty separate companies—not only one for each funeral chapel, but one for the florist, one for the hearses, and so on. “Eddie Rosenthal did that for tax reasons,” Abe Silverstein later explained. “Tax laws allowed you to have a lower tax rate on your first $25,000 of earnings. So it was better to have ten corporations earning $25,000 than one earning $250,000—and paying 40 percent in taxes.” And each of these, with their varying ownership stakes among the Riverside partners—like the dozens of Kinney companies—had to be valued.

“Sitting down with members of his family and cutting the deal by which all these million companies got translated into Kinney Service had to be Steve Ross’s single most difficult negotiation—until he did Time Warner,” John Rosenwald, a Bear, Stearns & Co. investment banker who worked on the offering, told me later.

This was unmistakably Ross’s deal, as much as every deal the company would make over the next thirty-odd years would be. Nearly everyone involved was eager for the company to go public, but no one craved it quite as Ross did. And he alone had the capacity to drive it—arbitrating others’ arguments over their allotted numbers of shares, placating those who worried about going public in what was a bear market and thus getting robbed of value—not only because of his persuasive powers but because he appeared to be fighting for the transaction, and not (at least in the short term) for himself. Ross, who would become president of Kinney Service, was to receive a relatively small amount of shares: 66,348, compared to chairman of the board Edward Rosenthal’s 129,921, and Morton Rosenthal’s 157,662. And Ross demonstrated that he believed in this new company’s equity; of all the major shareholders, he sold by far the smallest percentage of his shares in the public offering: 2,000, out of his 66,348.

The largest single shareholder was Caesar Kimmel, who with 169,500 shares controlled 10.8 percent of the company’s stock. Kimmel also received the largest number of options of all the executives. According to Jack Schwartz, whose auto-leasing company would be acquired by Kinney in 1962, “the reason Caesar’s stake was so large was because Manny Kimmel’s stock was in there, too, which couldn’t be shown.” Even so, the size of Kimmel’s share is somewhat surprising, particularly given the financially stressed state of his company.

Under the general rubric of a diversified “service” company, an office-cleaning company (Kimmel would always like to refer to it as “the Tiffany of cleaning companies,” because it cleaned Radio City Music Hall and the Time-Life Building) was also added to the mix. There was a family connection, in that it was owned in part by Lewis Sarnoff (the brother of RCA’s David Sarnoff); and the Sarnoffs’ nephew, Albert Sarnoff, was married to Edward Rosenthal’s eldest daughter Ellen. Both Albert Sarnoff and his brother, William Sarnoff, who together had had a small razor blade company, also joined Kinney Service. Albert Sarnoff became its treasurer. He was a very careful, probative young man; he seemed rather staid to Edward Rosenthal, who in financial matters was always looking for an edge—and, in that sense, felt much more akin to his other son-in-law, Ross. “Al Sarnoff is very honorable,” Rosenthal would comment later, with a wry smile. “Too honorable, if there is such a thing.”

Doris Rosenthal had a favorite story that she thought perfectly captured Sarnoff. He had five suits, which he hung in a line in his closet, and after he wore one, he would replace it in the back of the line; it was a routine he never varied. When the family was preparing for his and Ellen’s engagement party, Sarnoff’s mother said, “Al, I hope you are planning on wearing your gray suit [his newest].” To which he replied, “If it comes up in the line, I’ll wear it.”

The offering—one of the few successful initial public offerings in a very bleak season on Wall Street—took place in March 1962. The stock, which was listed on the American Stock Exchange by its symbol, “KSR,” was offered at $9 a share, and almost immediately began to rise.

•  •  •

Kinney Service had gone public, but it was still, really, the family company it had always been. The Rosenthal family, including Ross and Sarnoff, controlled 51.6 percent of the company’s shares. Referring to the voting on the slate of directors that was about to take place at the first shareholders’ meeting, an officer of the company quipped to an associate, “If one more person comes in who doesn’t kiss Eddie Rosenthal, we’re in trouble.” And over the years, as the company grew larger than any of its principals except, perhaps, Ross, had imagined it would, the familial ethos would not dissipate but would grow only more marked—an anomaly, really, among companies of comparable size.

With Kinney Service’s move into its offices at 10 Rockefeller Plaza in November 1962, the first stage of metamorphosis began. Taking their places in the executive suite, Kimmel moved over from the Kinney office in downtown Newark, and Ross, Rosenthal, and Marc Iglesias from the Riverside funeral chapel, where they used to have to have bodies cleared out of the “conference room” for meetings. Ross, emancipated from his role as funeral director, dedicated himself to mastering the nuances of business life. Essentially unschooled, he would eventually hone his skills so well that, as Allan Ecker, the company’s secretary, would later say, he would be qualified to be a lawyer, a tax lawyer, and an accountant as well as a CEO. “He got his knowledge through interacting with people,” Ecker said. “He was a serious reader of legal documents, and when he didn’t understand something, he would ask. Now, he reads documents better than anybody I’ve ever known. That’s how he learned GAAP [Generally Accepted Accounting Principles], too, and how he learned to use it so much to his advantage. He picked it up through osmosis.”

Ecker and Ross used to play a game, in which Ecker would plant two typographical errors in lengthy documents for Ross to find. “He always found them—even when I put them in the boilerplate,” added Ecker. Ross had never been a reader, and never would be (friends would remark on the fact that, even on vacations, they had never seen him reading a book). But once it became a game, as with the documents—find the typos, find the trick clause, outwit the other side, win—it fully engaged him. In later years Ross, seeming embarrassed by the fact that, as he allowed, he read little, would blame it on his having trained himself to read so slowly in the search for Ecker’s plants that he was consigned forever to being a painfully slow reader. He would point with admiration to his friend, former Governor of New York Hugh Carey, who “has a great mind. He reads a book in an hour. And then, you can ask him something about it, and he’ll say, ‘That’s on page eighty-three, in the third paragraph,’ ” Ross said.

In February 1962, just a month before the company went public, Riverside had contracted to purchase a location on Broadway which it intended to convert into a new funeral chapel, to take the place of its major chapel on Amsterdam Avenue. Shortly afterwards it was announced that Lincoln Center was to be constructed—just across the street from the projected Riverside chapel. As Ross would later tell the story, he instantly realized that this would be an opportunity to make money. Before long, he received a call from Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who asked if he were thinking of building a funeral chapel across from Lincoln Center. When Ross assented, Rockefeller asked if Ross had received approval from the zoning commission. Ross said he had.

“Then he said, ‘Have you checked that?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’

“And then he said”—here Ross paused, relishing this punch line that never seemed to lose its zest for him, despite his having delivered it hundreds of times—“ ‘No, I mean, have you checked that tomorrow?’ ” Rockefeller then directed Ross to enter into negotiations with Percy Uris (the land was owned by Columbia University, and Uris was in charge of its real estate).

If negotiation is in large measure the art of intuiting so well the makeup of one’s foil that one can induce that person not only to grant what one wants, but to think that he or she has gotten their desire, Ross was not exactly a novice. He had been practicing these skills in an informal way—complaining to Rosenthal about how unhappy the sight of the seamstresses at Farragut made him, but demurring briefly about entering the funeral business; negotiating a deal with Albritton and then consenting to stay at Riverside, with the newly given power to run and expand the business. And he had led the marathon, mainly intrafamily negotiations involved in bringing the company public. But his sessions with Uris would be the first of their formal kind, and Ross would in later years look back upon them as his debut.

As Ross would recall, Rosenthal and the other principals decided that they wanted about $100,000 over their investment—so, about $250,000. “I went to see Percy Uris. He had this big office, and he was very gruff. He said, ‘I understand you’re interested in selling.’

“I said, ‘No, no—we’re interested in building a funeral chapel.’ ”

“He said, ‘No. It will be an eyesore.’

“Eyesore, I thought. So he is really opposed, not just doing this to please Governor Rockefeller. So I figured I was in a good position. I said, ‘We really want the chapel.’

“He offered me $278,500—a weird figure. That made me think he’d already done a whole calculation on what he was willing to pay, and then taken maybe three fourths of it. With my heart in my throat, I said, ‘No, we can’t take that.’ ”

As Ross tells it, Uris kicked him out of his office. The next day, though, he called with an offer of $333,500—which, Ross noted, was another weird figure. Ross went back several times, and by the end they agreed on $1.6 million. In his retrospective critique, Ross would comment, “He let me walk out each time with the offer on the table. After the third visit, he should have said, ‘My first offer is on the table.’ But every time, after he’d upped his offer, he’d say, ‘Isn’t that enough money?’ And I would say, ‘I just want to build my funeral chapel.’ ”

Eddie Rosenthal was mightily impressed with his clever son-in-law. A graduate of Wharton, Rosenthal considered himself astute in business matters, and he had taken the lead in the family business; but he felt that Ross, despite his lack of schooling and of exposure to the business world, had natural talents that dwarfed his own. This did not threaten but, rather, delighted Rosenthal. A confident, lively individual, given to speaking his mind—even in situations where the more conventional would refrain—Rosenthal had a habit of firing off notes to people, famous and not so famous, about subjects that had sparked his interest, or something that had moved him, or a recommendation he had. Now, he sent a handwritten note to Frank Stanton, the president of CBS.

“He was saying that he had the perfect candidate for my job,” Stanton recalled. “There was a hint in it that [William] Paley ought to get out, I should move up, and Steve should succeed me. So I showed it to Paley, sort of as a joke, and he said, ‘It’s some crank.’ But then I had Rosenthal over and I saw that he was a perfectly sincere, warm person, interested in helping his son-in-law.” Ross, Stanton added, knew nothing about it; years later, he would show him the letter, to Ross’s great amusement.

Rosenthal was anything but profligate; he and his family lived well but quietly, without the telltale insignia of wealth—never travelling first class, never using limousines. He was therefore quick to notice that Ross, now beginning for the first time to have some financial wherewithal, had very extravagant tastes. When Rosenthal offered to build a pool for the Ross house (which was part of the family compound in Greenburgh, New York), he had in mind a rectangular, forty-foot pool. (Even having one’s own pool, in the Rosenthal milieu, was quite a luxury. As Preston [Bob] Tisch, a good friend of Ross’s in the sixties, would later remark of the Rosenthal-Ross compound, “They were the first people we knew who had their own pool and tennis courts.”) Ross, however, wanted the pool to be not forty but eighty feet, and not rectangular but kidney-shaped. And so it was.

The love affair between Ross and the Rosenthals continued unabated. Ellen, Carol’s sister, would later say that she had observed Ross for some time, expecting that once he and Carol were married his attentiveness to the family would diminish. But, if anything, it grew. It was Ross who always reminded Carol to send flowers to Naomi the housekeeper on Valentine’s Day. It was Ross who made sure to include everyone on the family vacations—indeed, he and Carol never went alone.

A typical entourage might include family members from both Carol’s and Steve’s sides: Ellen (now divorced from Albert Sarnoff); Steve’s mother Sadie; his sister Connie (also divorced); and all the various nieces and nephews. Often they went to the Tisches’ Americana Hotel in Miami Beach. Ross always commandeered the best rooms—on the top floor, with huge wrap-around terraces big enough for shuffleboard games. When they went to Puerto Rico, where there was gambling, Ross—who had taken some card-counting lessons from Manny Kimmel and read Beat the Dealer—before heading for the blackjack tables would ask every person what they wanted (money for a bathing suit for Ellen, a dress for Sadie) and then return, triumphant, distributing his winnings. On these trips Ellen found him a sympathetic confidant, too, always ready to listen to her stories of her romantic problems, even offering her advice on what to wear for a date. She gradually surrendered her early skepticism and became his greatest booster, something she would remain over the years (indeed, Ellen would later claim that her father sometimes remarked that perhaps she, not Carol, should have married Steve).

The only one of the Rosenthal family who, by the mid-sixties, was growing slightly less enraptured with Ross was his wife. It was not lost upon her that they never went away alone, that in private Ross’s public persona—all warmth and intensity of focus—seemed to dissipate. She told her sister, Ellen, that she had begun to wonder whether this person who appeared to connect in an emotional way with others better than anyone she’d ever known—he was the maestro of rapport—was in fact incapable of connection. Ellen would recall later that when she rhapsodized to her sister about Ross’s thoughtfulness and his patience with her monologues, Carol would sometimes say rather bitterly, “Of course he has time to listen to you. He has time for everybody—everybody except me and the children.”

Their daughter Toni had been born in 1957; their son Mark in 1962; and Carol found herself more and more isolated at home with the children. Ross was, mainly, either absent or abstracted. He was a fond father, and a consummate planner of family social life, organizing swimming races, for example, with the neighbors—mothers against the mothers, daughters against the daughters! But it took an event to engage him; everyday domestic life did not. Years later, Carol would recall that the best conversations they ever had were those in which he would explain, with great patience and in some detail, the financial transaction of the moment that he was undertaking at the company. Sometimes, she would ask him when he would stop working so hard, and he always gave the same answer: “When we have a million dollars in the bank.” Carol came to realize that this was his way of placating her; as he well knew, she did not understand enough about finances at the time to realize that Ross would never have a million dollars just sitting in a bank account.

Unlike his wife, Ross did not exactly think of what he did at Kinney Service as work; rather, it provided him the means to define himself, and he felt utterly impelled to do it. It was giving him entree to the wider world, a monied and powerful world that he had set his sights on as a boy, in his hardscrabble years on Newkirk Avenue. He was awed by the Tisches, for example, and very eager to make a friend of Bob Tisch; Ross had met him when he directed the funeral of Tisch’s father. In the early sixties, too, Ross was able to cultivate a friendship with the renowned coach of the Giants, Allie Sherman. From the time he was a teenager, football had been his fantasy (he would play pro ball, he would own the Giants); as Carol would later say, when she first met him it had been his “raison d’être.” Indeed, he had told her that he had played briefly for the Cleveland Browns before breaking his arm and being forced to quit; so he had pursued this corporate life, but not without pangs of regret.

Now, through his friendship with Allie Sherman, Ross enjoyed vicariously the life that, as he said, was nearly his. He revelled in the association. He employed Giants team members, off-season, as salesmen in the Kinney rental car division. Sherman coached the intramural football games between the Kinney executives (who always lost) and the parking lot attendants (in one game, Ross had his arm re-broken by Nick Gravianno, a beefy garage manager). And when Sherman offered Ross the chance to attend a Giants’ training camp one August, Ross nearly exploded with excitement. Sherman thought that Ross was acting like he’d just been given a million dollars.

In these early days of Kinney Service, Ross seemed to see opportunity beckoning like a friendly apparition, everywhere. He was never at rest. Friends would later recall that on the rare weekend afternoon that he was not at the office or at one of the car rental locations, he would don a sportjacket before going out for a walk on Manhattan’s East Side (he and his family had moved to the Imperial House). “You never know who you might meet,” he would say. A young lawyer at the company would later remember setting out with Ross for a bondholders’ meeting and walking down a street where there was a line of cars waiting to get into a parking lot—while a Kinney lot stood, uncrowded, further down the block. Ross bolted into the street and began waving the traffic ahead, gesturing to the Kinney lot. When his associate remonstrated that they would be late for the meeting, Ross protested that he had to get some more cars and remained transfixed for several minutes more, waving them in.

•  •  •

However splendid a marriage of convenience the union of the parking and funeral businesses was, it was not trouble-free. Eddie Rosenthal had spent roughly forty years inculcating the concept of “service” in his employees in the chapels, and he, for one, took seriously the pronouncement in the first annual report of Kinney Service Corporation: “Service Is Our Middle Name.” Now, he set about spreading the gospel to the parking lots. Kinney System distributed thousands of questionnaires to parking customers asking how its services could be improved; and as part of the new regime, the annual report also noted, “we now clean the windshield of each car parked in a Kinney garage and provide many customers with umbrellas during inclement weather.” (Indeed, in a 1966 BusinessWeek article about the company, Ross would be pictured in a lot, holding a large Kinney umbrella overhead.)

Just as Caesar Kimmel and Howard Dornbusch for years had hired shills, posing as customers, to go to the lots in an effort to catch attendants stealing, so Rosenthal now carried out his own checks—not for stealing but courtesy. He would park at a garage and, his identity undisclosed, observe: Were the attendants polite? Did they, in fact, clean the windshields? Or were they uncouth, and sloppy, and did they burn the rubber on the tires? After one such surveillance (where a surly attendant had threatened him with bodily harm when Rosenthal asked that his windshield be cleaned), Rosenthal summoned all the company managers to an early morning meeting and lambasted Kimmel, before the group.

At a board meeting not long after that session, Kimmel announced that he had taken Rosenthal’s criticism to heart and wanted to introduce to his fellow directors a “courtesy expert” whom he had hired to help bring some refinement to the parking lot crews. The expert began his presentation, and after a few minutes of a rather odd, increasingly garbled speech, Ross gave Kimmel a knowing look (the “expert” was comedian Al Kelly, famous in the sixties for his routines of double-talk).

Rosenthal may have been displeased at Kimmel’s lampooning what was to him a serious business matter, but Kimmel was nonplussed. Not only was he the largest single holder of the company’s stock, but he and Ross were close companions, congenial pranksters with a shared sense of humor. Sometimes they travelled together, and Kimmel took Ross to his favorite gambling hang-outs. Once, as Kimmel would later recall, the two were in Florida, gambling at an “after-hours club,” when a couple of men pulled out guns, lined all the patrons up against the wall, and ordered them to empty their wallets and remove their jewelry. “When these guys were just about four people down the line from us,” Kimmel recalled, “Steve reached into his pocket and said, ‘Caesar, you know that $700 I owe you? Well, here it is!’ ”

And Ross, if not Rosenthal, understood that courtesy was not going to become a watchword in the parking lots. “Polite? POLITE?” Kimmel said later, rolling his eyes. “C’mon, these guys were Teamsters!” Indeed, the lots, as Kimmel knew best, were a primitive world unto themselves. Ross’s best friend from schooldays, Judd Richheimer, had joined the company, along with his younger brother, Michael, in the early sixties. Michael became Kimmel’s closest aide, managing the parking division with him; Judd worked mainly in auto leasing but spent about a year in one of the parking garages, where he received his indoctrination from the garage foreman, whom Richheimer later referred to only as “Butchie.”

“One day, a black guy came in and tried to steal a car,” Richheimer recalled. “Butchie turned the air compressor on so there would be a lot of noise; then he took the guy downstairs and broke both his arms and both his legs and threw him out on the street. I had said, you know, that I could call the cops and have him arrested; but Butchie said, ‘No, he’ll be out in a day and he’ll be back. This way, the message goes out to his friends, too.’ ”

Butchie’s were underworld mores, and he had learned them first at home. “His father did fifteen years hard time in Sing Sing for a murder he didn’t commit. But he wouldn’t rat on the guy who did it. Butchie’s mother was given a house, and she got money every month. When his father got out, they gave him the West Side docks as his territory, as a reward,” said Richheimer.

Richheimer recalled, too, that sometimes he would accompany his brother and Kimmel, who would routinely negotiate with Teamsters officials at a midtown Italian restaurant, while other men, jackets bulging with their shoulder holsters, stood behind the Teamsters. Neither he nor his brother, he said, had felt uncomfortable in that milieu. Nor, for that matter, he claimed, had Kimmel. On the general subject of doing business with the Mafia, Richheimer said, “I’d rather make a deal with them than with regular businessmen. With regular ones, a deal just means, whose lawyer can be cuter? But with them, a deal is a deal. And if you break it, there’s simple justice. But, basically, they’re businessmen. That’s really what they are.”

Richheimer was equally matter-of-fact about the company “slush fund,” which he claimed in the sixties contained at least $1 million a year, accumulated by padding employees’ expense accounts (including his own) and skimming from the parking lots. “We needed that money to pay the union guys, policemen, firemen, sanitation men, inspectors, you name it.”

Nor were these needs restricted to the parking lots; the funeral business, too, relied on the city permits. The policy, according to Richheimer, was companywide. “I once saw $100,000 in a brown paper bag, left on someone’s desk to solve a problem,” Richheimer claimed.

In the late sixties, Richheimer had become a funeral director at Riverside. “When I was at Riverside, a cop would come to see me. I’d say, ‘I have to go to the bathroom.’ I’d leave an envelope with the money on the urinal. Then I’d go back and say, ‘That felt good. Why don’t you do it, too?’ That way, neither of us could wire the other.”

“It’s like that old saying,” Richheimer concluded. “Green grease makes New York run.”

About The Author

Connie Bruck has been a staff writer of business and politics at The New Yorker since 1989, where her pieces have won multiple reporting and journalism awards. Her stories have also appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlantic Monthly. She is the author of three books: Master of the Game, The Predators’ Ball, and When Hollywood Had a King.

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