By Amy Phillips Penn

“Living a life is like constructing a building: if you start wrong, you’ll end wrong,” Maya Angelou prophesied poetically.

Some say LeFrak (as in LeFrak City) others say “Le Fraque,” but however you pronounce it, Sam LeFrak built an empire in LeFrak City, Battery Park and Jersey City, legos not included.

The LeFrak Organization climbed into a number 45 spot on the Forbes 500 private companies super power list.

Not bad for a boy from Brooklyn.

“Sam was indeed a man to be remembered, red sash and all,” wrote a friend in his memorial guest book.

He was part red sash, and called a “yacht a yacht,” (some prefer to say boat) but knew his roots and touted them along with his entree into “everything and anything goes.”

My parents returned from a New York party, years ago.

“I love Sam LeFrak,” said my mother.

You love who?

“Sam LeFrak. Your father was walking around hunched over, and this man we never saw before yelled: “Straighten up. You’re too young to hunch over like that.”

“I love Sam LeFrak,” she echoed.

The first LeFrak I met was their daughter, Francine.

She and I were both working at Sotheby Parke Bernet at the time. A pretty blonde, she was dating Geraldo Rivera, and rumor had it that they were engaged.

The marriage never took place.

Francine was introduced to society at a party orchestrated by Marianne Strong, of society and engraved stationary fame. Guests were baffled to be invited to a party for a woman they had never met and many had never heard of, but everyone went.

The “buzz” was on.

New York loves a party and someone new to talk about.

Later on, I met Francine’s sister Denise.

We integrated into each other’s lives: she went to Palm Beach Polo with me for a weekend and confided that her daughter wanted to go to my New York alma mater. I introduced her to a trustee. Wish granted.

I met her parents, Sam and Ethel.

“You want to come on my yacht with Denise?” Sam LeFrak invited me, like it was a ride on the Staten Island Ferry and “remember to bring your own mustard, the kind you squirt,” was implicit.

It was no ferry ride, but an overnight outing with a white gloved crew, cooks and waiters, a smorgasbord of “Sirs, and Madams,” and a soupcon of why success is so seductive… if only attainable.

Later on, Denise extended a more poignant invitation.

“We’re driving out to our old house today. Would you like to join us?”

Gone were the white gloves, as we drove out to the old neighborhood near one of Sam’s many developments.

This couldn’t be it.

We arrived at a small, simple home with a pool, which was surrounded by what looked to be astroturf.

Denise and her parents were as proud as they were of their yacht, if not a tad or tad-plus more comfortable.

It is their strength, simplicity, and soulful love of what makes real estate a love story for them: their New York roots, and building them to the max.

I was slipping into my job as a New York Post society columnist. I zig-zagged into my mentor Eugenia Sheppard’s arguably impossible path.

Not everyone took me seriously, myself included.

I was covering a party, brimming with unfamiliar faces.

What to do?

Ethel put a maternal arm around me and steered me through the room.

She introduced me to everyone we passed: an unexpected and welcome ally.

Ethel, the quiet but acutely focused wife of Sam the boisterous, “I did good, didn’t I?” attitude, took on Manhattan.

Building and mastering a New York empire is the New York dream. Newcomers to this stratosphere often bury their past as quickly as they can remodel it.

Those who wear their past with as much pride as they embrace the “I can have it all life,” are why we love New York, and those who love her. That’s what makes all of us run.

Image courtesy of 57th Ave

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