Wednesday, April 3, 2024

George F. Pelham Jr.'s 1941 530 Park Avenue


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On January 18, 1940, The New York Times reported that George Fred Pelham Jr. had filed plans "for a nineteen-story apartment house at 530 Park Avenue, southwest corner of Sixty-first Street, to cost $1,100,000."  (That figure would translate to $22.9 million in 2024.)

Pelham's Art Moderne design included a two-story rusticated base.  As he had done a year earlier at 1150 Park Avenue, he sat the entrance within a full-height recessed bay.  But here, rather than chamfer the corners as he did in his previous design, he gently rounded them, giving 530 Park Avenue the streamlined look so crucial to the Art Moderne style.

Completed in 1941, the building filled with well-heeled residents.  Among the first to sign a lease was Josefita Arias, the Consul General of Panama.  On June 18, 1941, The New York Times mentioned she was " said to be the only woman to hold such rank in the United States."  Other initial residents were George A. Horton, vice president of Pagel, Horton & Co., Inc., dealers in crude rubber and wood pulp; and Charles P. Burr of the National Distillers Products Corporation.

None of the early renters were more colorful than Dušan "Duško" Popov.  Born into a wealthy Serbian family, the well-educated attorney was practicing law in Dubrovnik when World War II broke out.  An ardent anti-Nazi, he joined Britain's MI6 (Military Intelligence, Section 6), then became a double-agent with the German Abwehr.  He handed over British-approved information to the Germans, while providing Britain with valuable intelligence.

(During a mission to Portugal in 1941, he met British Royal Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming.  It is generally agreed that Popov was the model for Fleming's later spy character James Bond.)

Dušan "Duško" Popov, from the National Archives and Record Administration.

Following the Portugal mission, Popov was sent by the Germans to New York, where he took an apartment at 530 Park Avenue.  FBI head J. Edgar Hoover was never comfortable with the double-spy and kept him under constant surveillance.  In his memoir Spy/Counterspy, Popov asserts that while living here, "If I bend over to smell a bowl of flowers, I scratch my nose on a microphone."

It may have been Hoover's distrust of Popov that resulted in disaster.  On August 12, 1941, Popov informed the FBI of plans to attack Pearl Harbor.  According to Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones in his 2007 FBI: A History, either Hoover did not report the intelligence, or his superiors took no action.

Living here in the 1960s was Broadway producer Monty Shaff.  Among his productions were the 1955 The Boy Friend; Silk Stockings, which opened the same year; and the 1960 Cut of the Axe.  But in 1964, his name appeared in newspapers for less praiseworthy reasons.

On May 19, The New York Times reported that he had been indicted for accepting kickbacks.  "Mr. Shaff was accused of steering a $57,500 contract for scenery construction of the 1963 show, 'Tovarich,' to one stage builder for a $7,500 fee."  The 55-year-old pleaded guilty on October 19 and was given the choice of a $250 fine or 20 days in jail.  The New York Times reported, "Shaff paid the fine."

Attorney Harold H. Corbin and his wife, the former Helen Hazen Van Deuzen, lived here at the time.  The couple were married in 1913.  Corbin founded the firm of Corbin & Bennett in 1939, and was a founding fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.  

The New York Times said the defense lawyer "represented many figures of the underworld and public life."  And, indeed, his clients ranged from notorious bookmaker Frank Erickson to Joseph M. Schenck, chairman of the 20th Century-Fox Corporation.  In 1955, after socialite Ann Eden Crowell Woodward fatally shot her husband, millionaire William Woodward Jr.-- allegedly mistaking him for a prowler--Corbin was named special guardian for her children.

Helen Van Deuzen Corbin died in 1968.  Harold Corbin remained at 530 Park Avenue until his death two years later at the age of 80.

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Another colorful attorney was Joseph E. Brill, who lived here with his wife, the former Doris Foster-Wright Sutton.  Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1903, Brill's parents brought him to New York the following year.  Called by The New York Times, "one of the city's eminent criminal lawyers," he was known for his in-court wit and style.  The New York Times journalist Albin Krebs wrote on May 20, 1975,

An artful and tenacious lawyer, Mr. Brill was in great demand for a wide variety of cases.  In 1957 he won $3,000 for a woman who had broken a tooth on a luncheon roll in Peacock Alley at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  He won an out-of-court divorce settlement of $2.5-million for the former Marjorie Steele, Huntington Hartford's second wife, in 1961, the same year he unsuccessfully defended Dr. Robert Soblen against charges of spying for the Soviet Union over a 20-year period.

In 1960 Mr. Brill so ably defended Norman Mailer, the writer, who was convicted of stabbing his wife, that the judge suspended Mr. Mailer's 3-year sentence.
Brill's convincing technique was such that after he described his racketeer client John "Johnny Dio" Dioguardi to the jury as being "pure as the driven snow," his prosecuting counterpart said, "He made an overcoat out of cobwebs."  

Among his clients was attorney Roy M. Cohn, later Donald J. Trump's lawyer, who was acquitted on charges of bribing a city appraiser and extorting stock in 1969.  Joseph E. Brill died  at the age of 71 on May 19, 1975.

Living here at the time were Morris J. Kasper and his wife, the former Eva Mayer.  Kasper was born in Poland and came to America at the age of 15, settling with his family on the Lower East Side.  He worked in the garment industry before founding his own firm, the Central Knitwear Company.

Kasper's passion was not women's sweaters and sportswear--it was chess.  Although considered "a good player," according to The New York Times, he did not participate in tournaments.  He, nevertheless, became a force in American chess.  A founder of the American Chess Foundation, he was a patron of the game for decades.  The New York Times said he "helped establish tournaments and other contests where aspiring youngsters could test their mettle.  Among those who came to him for help and confidence was Bobby Fischer."  The two, according to mutual friends, kept in constant touch with one another.

Judge Murray I. Gurfein and his wife, the former Eva Hadas also lived here in the 1970s.  Gurfein was described by The New York Times as "a tenacious Federal and state rackets fighter, a war crimes prosecutor at Nuremberg, a distinguished civil and criminal trial lawyer and...a Federal jurist on district and appeals court benches in Manhattan." 

In 1971, Gurfein was appointed to the United States District Court by President Richard M. Nixon.  The President may have rued his choice.  Only a few weeks later, Gurfein was called upon to made a decisive ruling.

In June that year, The New York Times had published three installments of a massive study about the American involvement in Vietnam called The Pentagon Papers.  The Nixon Administration sued to block further publication, saying it would endanger national security.  Judge Gurfein rejected its argument saying in part, 

A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press, must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.  These are troubled times.  There is no greater safety valve for discontent and cynicism about the affairs of government than freedom of expression in any form.

The most celebrated resident of 530 Park Avenue was Bianca Jagger, former actress, human rights advocate and divorced wife of Mick Jagger.  A high-profile battle broke out when she was evicted in 2007.  The landlord, Katz Park Avenue Corporation, contended that she was not legally entitled to her rent-stabilized apartment, saying, "she could not maintain a primary residence in the United States because she is a British citizen."

Jagger sued and won her case, but in October 2007 that  decision was overruled on appeal.  Undeterred, in August 2008, she sued again.  But, again she lost.  On October 23, The New York Times reported that the State Court of Appeals ruled that Jagger "who paid $4,614 a month for her 18th-floor apartment--was not, legally speaking, a New Yorker."

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In 2011, a renovation was undertaken by Handel Architects as the building prepared to convert its 119 apartments to condominiums.  George F. Pelham, Jr.'s overall design was preserved.  Aby Rosen, a spokesperson for RFR Holding said, "Prewar has its own charm, so you don't have to overdo it."

many thanks to reader Lowell Cochrane for suggesting this post
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