The life and times of Fannie Lowenstein, who lived in a rent-controlled suite in a luxurious hotel and once crossed paths with Donald Trump.
Illustration by Tyler Boss
In New York, there's no gossip juicier than the saga of a rent-controlled apartment. The only units with this rare, almost mythical status have been continuously occupied by the same tenant or their successors since 1971, so each one is a piece of old New York. These tenants (most of them elderly) are despised by landlords and the below-market-rate prices they pay are envied by just about everyone else. In 2012, when records showed that some seniors paid as little as $55 a month in SoHo, the New York Post trumpeted that "the best rent deal in New York City: a SoHo one-bedroom that goes for the price of a porterhouse steak."
Still, in all the annals of rent control, Fannie Lowenstein stands a cut about the rest: For 35 years, she paid around $500 a month for a three-room suite in the Plaza Hotel overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park—the sort of accommodation that could cost guests more than $1,000 a night.
Plaza employees remember her as a firebrand, a scourge who exploited every wrinkle in rent-control law with the subtlety and skill of a top-tier real estate attorney. She was an eccentric character in a city full of them, but what makes her especially noteworthy today is that in the last years of her life she lived in a building owned by Donald Trump, now the most famous landlord in the country.
Attorney Gary Lyman was general counsel for the Plaza from 1977 to 2004, a tenure that overlapped with several owners, including the angry, orange GOP candidate. Even with all that experience, Lowenstein left an impression on him. "She complained about everything. She screamed. I'm telling you fact because, you know, I lived through it. Everyone was terrified of her—this little woman, who was then about eighty, of small stature," Lyman recalls. "We referred to her as the Eloise from hell."
The story of Lowenstein and her apartment starts in the wake of World War II. Back then, a number of New York's grand hotels, the Plaza included, were on the skids and decided to take on long-term tenants to insure a monthly income. One such renter was Leo Lowenstein, who held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and could presumably afford to pay market rates but wound up with a rent-controlled unit anyway. This status then transferred to his new wife, Fannie, in 1958; she became his widow three short years later. (The couple had no children, according to an obituary the New York Times ran.)
After that, Lowenstein stayed put.
José Arbona tended bar at the Plaza from 1991–1997, first in Trader Vic's and later in other hotel watering holes, including the Palm Court, Lowenstein's favored haunt. Back then, a string quartet would play as tattered neighborhood eccentrics filtered in for high tea. As Arbona remembers it, the Knights of Malta constituted the core of this group, "including a prince who would wear a monocle... and those fringed epaulets, like Sergeant Pepper." Lowenstein's own uniform, according to Arbona, was "the same old purple dress."
Lyman concurs that she had "not too wide a selection of clothing," and usually had a long coat and a small pocketbook, even in the summer. Another feature Lyman recalls was "the voice. It was a sort of British—she wasn't British—sophisticated voice... She walked around as if she owned the Plaza."
Arbona elaborates, "It's the whole Brahmin accent, saying, 'It would be so nice if you weren't hee-ah,' instead of, 'Go away.'" According to him, "The wait staff had to treat her like a VIP although she wasn't necessarily nice or generous to them." Apparently, she treated the employees shabbily enough that for years after her death, whenever anything would go wrong at the Palm Court or something broke, it was customary to shout "FANNIE!!!" because they were sure she was haunting them.
She was a terror when dealing with hotel management, too. "Part of what the law required is that you were entitled to the same services that you got when the unit was first under rent control," Lyman explains. "In those days, they did a 'high dusting,' I think they called it, once a month. It was a whole scheduled cleaning. Painting was required every couple of years; she knew her rights extremely well. And she would push."
In the early 1980s, according to a Newsday article, she had dragged the Westin Corporation—then the Plaza's owner—to court over defective carpeting. After this suit was thrown out, Lyman says, she immediately began to claim that Westin was trying to kill her with toxic paint. The hotel hired experts to take spore samples. She called in the New York City Health Department, who found nothing amiss.
In 1987, Trump moved to buy the Plaza from the Bass family trust. As Trump recently explained to the New York Times, "To me the Plaza was like a great painting." When negotiations started, he inquired as to the property's liabilities. He was told, "The biggest issue... is Fannie Lowenstein," according to the Times. The same article claims Trump "ultimately offered her an apartment in the Plaza that was almost ten times as large as her studio apartment, with a view of Central Park. Rent-free. For life. Also, new furniture, new dishes, new everything. She grudgingly agreed. But she also wanted a piano. She got a Steinway."
Lyman disputes that Lowenstein ever lived at the Plaza rent-free or that she moved from her three-room suite (except when it was under renovation). Thomas Barrack, Jr., the negotiator who gave this anecdote to the New York Times, declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed about the matter until after the 2016 presidential election, and the Trump Organization would not return a request for comment.
In Lyman's telling, though, once Trump completed his purchase, she demanded a meeting with him, and she got it. "I think that her perspective was that, 'Donald Trump is going to have the pleasure of meeting me and seeing what he's up against,'" remembers Lyman. At the meeting, she made another demand: "You're going to have to have Mr. Lyman leave the room." So Trump did. Trump took the path of least resistance. Lyman insisted he was "a total gentleman" to Lowenstein.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon was not to last. As her health began to fail, Lowenstein convinced herself that her room was irredeemably contaminated by the "toxic" paint. She moved to the Park Lane—paying the full nightly price—and died there on April 28, 1992, the final rent-controlled holdout to live in the Plaza. She was 85 years old.
By then, the hotel had become a money pit for Trump; it declared bankruptcy that year and was sold off in 1995. In the ensuing 20 years, it completed its transition from a grand dame of the late Gilded Age to a combination of hotel rooms and condominiums anchored by a subterranean shopping mall. The string quartet in the Palm Court has vanished. The Oak Room is shuttered. Fannie Lowenstein is gone; so is her New York. You can't help but feel nostalgic for those days in Manhattan's grandest hotel—unless, of course, you had the misfortune of crossing the tenant in Suite 1001–1003.