Saul Steinberg in the 1970s

‘The Jewish Kennedys’: Inside the wild world of the Steinberg family

'Helicopters for breakfast, jewellery for lunch, and cocaine for dinner...' Harry Shukman meets one of the 20th Century's most outrageous clans

There’s this lovely little bit in Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s novel about the brash tycoons who swaggered around 1980s New York, where a character describes $100 million as a “unit”. Why a unit? “A unit, of course, is a starting point.” Nine figures in your bank account is just the beginning. That sort of shtick sums up the attitude of the Steinbergs, a real family that lived on such an outrageous and grand scale that they could have walked out the pages of Wolfe’s book.

The Steinbergs – brothers Saul and Bobby – made their name as swashbuckling corporate raiders who, in the words of one writer, “terrified companies with attacks on their stock”. They were the Jewish Kennedys – that’s how they saw themselves – and their late 20th century glory days involved an expensive schedule of helicopters for breakfast, jewellery for lunch, and cocaine for dinner. A gripping new podcast, The Just Enough Family, charts the clan’s incredible history. With an eye for lavish detail, the podcast host Ariel Levy gets the surviving family members to recount just how much cash they burned on luxury living. It’s a wild ride.

The Steinberg brothers made their mark in the 1960s with an office furniture leasing business, and with some nifty financing, managed to take over a giant insurance company called Reliance. Saul had suddenly joined the ranks of America’s richest men, and promptly adopted the lifestyle of a central Asian dictator.

The Steinbergs in the 1980s, Park Avenue pomp

He purchased the old home of John D. Rockefeller, a penthouse triplex at 740 Park Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, for a wild sum north of $30 million. It had 17,000 square feet and 34 rooms – each child had their own bedroom, bathroom, sitting room, and dressing room. There was so much space that one daughter had a gymnasium installed – not a gym, but a gymnastics room with ropes and hoops and bars. Saul furnished it with paintings by grand masters and great battalions of staff.

Then there was the family Boeing 727, an airliner that normally crammed in 100 passengers, which they had converted so it sparkled with silver and crystal and was cloaked in cashmere blankets that cost $9,000 each. They had helicopters, personal chauffeur driven cars, a pile out in East Hampton, a pad upstate, oh, and a ski house in Aspen. 

The New York press love-hated the Steinbergs for their opulence. Their antics were frequent fodder for gossip columns – although some of the vitriol flung their way is now startling to read. Fortune magazine called Saul a “fat little mercenary”, the stand-out figure in a generation of “disgusting, vicious, selfish, vulgarian robber barons”.

 

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