biography of a building

Inside Olympic Tower, Where Foreign Billionaires Have Long Flocked

The midtown high-rise is ideal for those who’d rather not do anything themselves.

Photo: Frankie Alduino
Photo: Frankie Alduino
Photo: Frankie Alduino

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For almost half a century, there were no apartment numbers in the 51-story bronze-colored aluminum-and-glass skyscraper on Fifth Avenue across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Some residents believe they were left off to appease Adnan Khashoggi, an early buyer in the building — and a billionaire arms dealer rumored to be paranoid about assassination attempts. Come 2017, the fire department mandated that many apartments have some visible identification. The building complied with minuscule plaques at the very bottom of each door.

This is a building obsessed with anonymity. Residents — who, over the years, have included Lebanese politicians, members of the Gucci family, a Bolivian tin magnate, and various nobles — describe an unspoken buildingwide arrangement in which people know it’s best not to say so much as hello in the elevator. (And most know not even to get into the elevator if one resident, said to be a Saudi Arabian prince, is in there already — he strongly prefers to ride alone.) A number have gone decades without even seeing their next-door neighbors. “We lived in 29A for 12 years, and we never met or saw 29B. And that was pretty much the way with the whole building,” says Franklin Getchell, who lived in the building with his partner, design entrepreneur Murray Moss, before moving to Connecticut.

In the late ’60s, the real-estate developer Arthur G. Cohen bought the land beneath the soon-to-be shuttered department store Best & Co. He didn’t have any specific ideas for the place until 1970, when he partnered with shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The two decided to create a multiuse building — they would rent the bottom half to retailers and offices and build out the top with super-luxury apartments. They recruited Morris Lapidus, the architect behind the Fontainebleau and Americana hotels in the Miami area, and his son Alan to build this out. According to Alan’s autobiography, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis promptly nixed their involvement — her husband, she said, “could not have his name associated with such vulgarity.” So they turned to a comparatively staid firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, known for its International Style steel-and-glass office towers. Onassis and Cohen apparently agreed on the modernist aesthetic (a darkened-glass monolith like the Seagram Building). The apartments would be spacious and the prices relatively steep, at least for a city on the verge of bankruptcy — running from $122,000 for a 23rd-floor one-bedroom to $650,000 for a penthouse duplex with a fireplace, sauna, and in-unit elevator. They were modern and exceedingly ’70s in style: There would be nine-foot-high floor-to-ceiling windows, mirrored walls, and plenty of carpeting. “Just about every apartment I looked at had Ultrasuede on the walls,” says Jana Jaffe, whose family bought four apartments after a hard-hat tour. And they had bidets, then rare in the U.S.

The developers were set on attracting a very specific type of buyer: incredibly rich foreigners. So they hired the global public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller — whose clients had included General Motors and the Nigerian government in the wake of genocide allegations — to roll out a million-dollar campaign to sell the building. B-M blitzed newspapers in the U.S. and across Europe and South America, feeding coverage that described the building as a “pleasure dome” and comparing it to “the hanging gardens of Babylon.” An ad in Le Monde called Olympic Tower “the first New York residential address for citizens of the world,” assuring access to “the services and amenities of a grand international hotel.”

Those included a climate-controlled wine cellar, top-of-the-line security systems in every apartment, and multilingual concierges reportedly trained to secure helicopters and yachts at a moment’s notice. The fact that renowned Park Avenue hostess Nan Kempner was the director of condominium services might have helped lure the international fashion contingency (early on, she talked up the building in Vogue, calling it “ideal if you’re European or Latin American and used to a staff and being spoiled”), as did the fact that Olympic Tower was very deliberately a condominium, not a co-op. This meant buyers from Mexico City and Caracas didn’t have to win over potentially xenophobic co-op board members, who had the power to reject applications for almost any reason. It also meant they could purchase units through anonymized companies. (And it was rare at the time to find a high-end condo; many high-end buildings were co-ops.) Apartments sold so fast — especially the biggest ones — that the building plans had to be adjusted to incorporate additional large units.

“It was a pretty heavy crew that lived in there,” says former resident Cornelia Guest. “And when they had a party, it was a party.” There was Halston, who moved his atelier and offices into the building’s commercial 21st floor in 1978 and promptly began hosting runway shows and parties (Lee Radziwill, Jackie’s sister, was a regular, as was Bianca Jagger). Meanwhile, Khashoggi was throwing parties for hundreds at his duplex, which was reported to be 30,000 square feet. According to some longtime residents, Khashoggi would give out Rolex watches to the “honored guests,” and everyone would drink until heading over to Studio 54.

But for the most part, Olympic Tower was an extremely well-manicured ghost town, its apartments only intermittently populated by people like Hélène Rochas, who used her 45th-floor François Catroux–designed corner unit as a layover spot on February trips to Barbados. Says former Simon & Schuster publisher and president Joni Evans, who rented in the building in the ’80s, “I would come in from the country house on Sunday nights and feel like I was the only person living full time in the building. Everyone else was in Dubai.”

In the ’80s, more condos began popping up around the city as part of a residential-building boom. A few blocks up from Olympic, Trump Tower and Museum Tower, completed in 1983 and 1984, respectively, began luring foreign buyers, with Donald Trump telling Cosmopolitan, “We did a much better building in a much better location, and we’ve taken their thunder totally.” This apparently wasn’t untrue. “Olympic was the building to be in at the time and then Trump Tower came up and then everybody goes, ‘Ooh, ahh, and oh!’ ” says Jaffe. In the early ’90s, a recession slowed construction of new buildings and made any available Olympic Tower apartments more desirable. “All the new product built in the late 1980s is now effectively sold, and there are very few new things on the drawing boards,” Alan Rogers, the managing director of Douglas Elliman, said at the time. “We can only rely on resales, and if they’re prime buildings like Olympic Tower and Museum Tower, they will command very high prices.”

After 9/11, there was less interest from foreign investors in Manhattan real estate. The building’s composition shifted a bit — a few more New Yorkers who wanted to actually live in these apartments and who liked its proximity to their offices in midtown. “All these GE board of directors across the street got Olympic Tower apartments,” says Jacobs. The Aokis — Rocky is the founder of Benihana — picked up some units. Several designers bought in the building around this time too, appreciative of its history (the site of Halston’s offices), its stubbornly ’70s aesthetic, and its closeness to Saks and Bergdorf Goodman. Bond No. 9 CEO Laurice Rahmé moved in in 2001; Giuseppe Zanotti purchased there in 2007 and Lorraine Schwartz in 2009. “Fashion people are obsessed with the ’70s,” says Sciascia Gambaccini, a fashion consultant and former fashion director at Vanity Fair Italia who bought an apartment in the building in 2014. “I mean, we heard about Olympic Tower from a fashion stylist; he was friends with Halston.” (Some celebrities moved in too. In the mid-aughts, Anne Hathaway rented a $37,000-a-month duplex with her then-boyfriend, Italian businessman Raffaello Follieri, before he was sent to prison for fraud. Roger Waters bought apartments on the 23rd and 49th floors. In 2004 and 2005, Nicolas Cage bought a pair.)

Many of the apartments in Olympic Tower feel a bit dated compared with their neighbors a few blocks north on Billionaires’ Row. When Jacobs moved in, he found a steel dishwasher made by General Motors and an electric Westinghouse oven. Some of the places for sale still have wall-to-wall carpeting or brown-marble bathrooms. Others have been made over in highly specific personal taste — unlike in, say, a prewar co-op on the Upper East Side, where renovations might be closely supervised, residents are allowed to do more of what they’d like to their places at Olympic Tower. (“One neighbor of ours did his place totally Versailles, Louis XV with gold and marble,” says Gambaccini. “And then the apartment above us was completely decked out in stainless steel. Like it was a morgue.” Khashoggi had an indoor swimming pool in his place.) Still, plenty of apartments have moved quickly. The appetite for LLC-friendly condos has only multiplied in recent years, and Olympic Tower has continued to accommodate money from anywhere anonymously. But what has really kept people buying in the building is the small army of a staff dedicated to maintaining the highest, most rigorous standard of service. It is possible at Olympic Tower to have an emergency leak fixed in the middle of the night or to ask a front-desk attendant to pop over to the Palace for extra linens should a guest drop in unexpectedly. The trash room, per Gambaccini, “always smells like Santa Maria Novella.” Dogs can be baby-sat, lovers can be discreetly escorted out back doors (more on that on here), and every resident’s specific preferences are put on file and memorized. “On Tuesday mornings, my shoes were picked up after I went to work, polished, then put back in my foyer before I returned from work,” says financier John Thompson, who moved into the building in 2016. “Now that — that’s just wonderful.”


Building Basics

Address: 641 Fifth Avenue, between East 51st and East 52nd Streets
Units: 200 (originally 230)
Average price: $4,870,414

Photo: © Bruce Cotler/Globe Photos/ Stock Photo

Imelda Marcos’s Old Place
The 43rd-floor seven-bedroom was sold in 1989. But the rumors about her shoe closets were, apparently, true. “They were the size of people’s family homes,” says former neighbor Joni Evans. “All motorized.”

The Tiny Gym
It’s on the 22nd floor, and it’s only about 30 feet long by 15 feet deep, according to one resident’s estimate (it is described by others as “very small”), with a Peloton, rowing machines, and some treadmills.

The Contentious Art
Alicia Heiniger, daughter of former Rolex CEO Patrick Heiniger, accused his girlfriend, Nina Stevens, of stealing several artworks from his 40th-floor unit days after he died in 2013. In the process of attempting to recover the various Harings and Warhols, Alicia learned from an appraiser that some of the pieces he owned might have been forgeries. (Stevens denied all accusations.)

St. Patrick’s Cathedral
It’s across the street and can be spotted from many of the apartments’ floor-to-ceiling windows. “You can look down and see the spires and the crosses on top of them,” says former resident Paul Purcell. “My broker once said to me, ‘This is the only apartment in Manhattan where you look down on God.’ ”

Photo: Courtesy of Olympic Tower

The Lobby
People who live in the building will often lend pieces they’re moving from their homes in the Hamptons or are unable to fit into their apartments. (Financier Karim Dajani once lent a too-large-for-the-elevator Katharina Grosse he had bought on his iPhone.)

All-Electric Appliances
According to resident Jeff Jacobs, the building was designed to run on electricity when it was built so the residents, many of whom used the building sporadically, didn’t have to worry about possible explosions from gas leaks.

The Tale of 26B
The U.S. government seized the apartment and put it up for sale after the owner was convicted of running a quaaludes factory. Joanie Reznik, who bought it in 2015, says that when she first moved in, “there were deadbolts everywhere.”

The Basement Committee
A handful of residents used to meet regularly in the building basement as part of an invite-only lobby-renovations committee. “It was really the ‘brainchild,’ but more the bugaboo, of one owner with lots of money and a bee in his bonnet about redoing the lobby,” says Purcell.

One of the longest-residing tenants of Olympic Tower is the National Basketball Association, which moved its offices into the building in 1977. Its current lease, occupying more than a half-dozen floors, runs through 2035.

The People Who Live There

Inside seven apartments.

Photo: Frankie Alduino


Suna Vidinli

Former journalist and World Economic Forum moderator

I felt so lucky when I moved in because the Harvard Club is in walking distance, and it’s one of these rare real white-glove buildings. And I feel at home because it’s international. I love giving dinners at my place. My Harvard friends come over, and I’m a young patron in the Foreign Policy Association, so I dine prominent names here. I’m Turkish and think it’s a good way to show your culture. I’m sure it’s the same for the Greeks here. People with that kind of imperial legacy want to show it. That is why I display these Turco-Ottoman decorations — custom-made in the Grand Bazaar.

Photo: Frankie Alduino


John Thompson

Financial consultant

I found Olympic Tower through my hairstylist friend Garren. He was close friends with Farrah Fawcett, who was close friends with one of Adnan Khashoggi’s wives. Garren had been talking about Olympic Tower: “Oh, John, the views are wonderful, the style of the building is great.” He was right, I love it. Inside, the temperature is right, and the hallways smell appropriate and clean, and everything is easy. The first year I moved in, I mentioned to the doorman that I was having a holiday party. “No problem. We’ll send an attendant out, buy ice.” Then they paused, and said, “Actually, maybe it would be better if every hour we just brought two bags up.” The second the sweeping hand hit 10 p.m. that night, two bags of ice showed up. The same at eleven. And at twelve. Everything in there just works.

Photo: Frankie Alduino


Jeff Jacobs and Felicia Wong Jacobs

Real-estate investor and television producer

JJ: We purchased an apartment from a Colombian business family. They’d used it as their pied-à-terre. My friend was the builder of the building, Arthur Cohen. His apartment was amazing. He had six or seven Rodin sculptures in there. We were both art collectors. His wife sat on the board of the Met, and they came over one time, and I showed them our stuff — our Chuck Closes, our Lichtensteins, our Warhols. He was a very nice man, very close with us. I always liked to tell him that I disagreed with the brown marble he used in the bathrooms.

Photo: Frankie Alduino


Alessandra “Sciascia” Gambaccini and Wayne Maser

Former Vanity Fair Italia fashion director and photographer

Maser: Before we lived here, I once lived at the Carlyle. This is as close to living in a hotel as you can possibly get.

Gambaccini: It’s like the U.N. here. Only a small percentage of apartments are lived in full time. You have, you know, art dealers from Italy. You have a lot of Argentinians, a lot of South Americans. You have Greeks, you know, some Italians, Indians. The Ferragamos had what they call a foresteria at Olympic Tower, which is basically like a guest apartment or for employees when they come. It’s really like a place of passage. And also a place where your secrets are well, well kept.

Photo: Frankie Alduino


Valeria McCulloch


The apartment was actually my parents’. It’s funny, my dad has vertigo, but he always chooses places that are like really high up. They hired Juan Montoya, who was a very prominent interior designer, to design it. It’s beige and light brown, beautiful. I am a designer and have used the apartment for a few presentations. There are actually a lot of powerful women in the building. Lorraine Schwartz and the founder of Bond No. 9; I’ve seen her like three or four times. She’s a total entrepreneur. Keiko Aoki of Benihana. I think it’s because you’ve got the Diamond District really close by, all the shoe showrooms, Bergdorf’s at 57th, Saks at 49th.

Photo: Frankie Alduino


Natasha Das


My family moved into Olympic Tower in 2012. My father was the CEO of CitiMortgage, and my parents had a residence in Trump Park Avenue before, but they just felt Olympic Tower was more of a power building. But also we just saw that there were some really wonderful apartments there that were undervalued for Fifth Avenue. One of the apartments we bought was roughly $8 million. It was formerly owned by Nicolas Cage and then it was purchased by another gentleman. Nothing against that person’s style, but that place needed a serious change. I think the most obnoxious thing was the ceiling. It was painted blue with actual clouds. And then there was this walk-up green onyx bathtub, which looked like something Caliglula would have bathed in. Quite shocking. We took about a year to remodel. Then during COVID, we saw another opportunity and bought the apartment upstairs, which is now mine. It was owned by German doctors and looked like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But it was a great deal — it was on the market for $4 million, and we got it for $2.5.

Photo: Frankie Alduino


Lorenzo Bartoloni

Sales manager

It’s not like Italy here. You do not know the people that live in front of you. I do not have even an idea of  who they are. Once, I was at a restaurant and started talking to a woman. I asked her where she lived, and it turned out she lived here on the 22nd floor. I never saw her again. But I believe this is the right way to live in the United States. When my FreshDirect is delivered, they take it upstairs for me and put it in the fridge. It puts you in a good mood when you wake up in the morning.


The Often-Contentious Owners’ Meeting

Many residents have long treated this meeting as something of a spectator sport. Held for years in various event spaces — including several times at the InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel and at least once at the Women’s National Republican Club — the gathering is typically catered with cheese plates and an open bar. Which means “it always ends up with somebody fighting,” says Sciascia Gambaccini. Franklin Getchell and Murray Moss attended two meetings during their decade-plus in the building, both of which, Getchell says, “were very contentious with lots of shouting and finger-pointing. That was so weird since there was no interaction among the residents in the building.” Among the more memorable scraps was one between 46th- and 47th-floor neighbors over alleged privacy violations. “There was a big fight,” says Getchell. “One of the residents accused her neighbor of spying on her husband in his pajamas.” (Said resident denies making this accusation.)

The Staff of 36

Photo: Frankie Alduino

There is almost nothing this group of concierges, engineers, package-room workers, managers, and doormen won’t do for the residents. Many can recall a litany of routine services (dropping off cold medicine from CVS without being asked) but also a handful of more extreme ones (driving out to Long Island to drop off a resident’s medication, also without being asked). Head concierge Caryl Hock, who has worked at Olympic Tower since 1983, says, “They trust you with all kinds of things. I’ve been asked to open somebody’s safe and get their jewelry out.” In her decades at the building, Hock has spent entire nights lugging truckloads of Khashoggi’s luggage up to his apartment, taken Cornelia Guest’s photo with Andy Warhol on their way to Studio 54, and even babysat one resident’s beloved King Charles spaniel, which liked to sit on a person’s head as they slept. Another time, says Hock, a businessman resident “took up with a woman, and after he left the apartment, he called me from Europe and said, ‘I need to get this woman out of my apartment.’ This was not an easy thing because she had her suitcases up there; he left the woman in his apartment, carte blanche. He told me all the paintings that were in there. He said, ‘I want you to count them, and I want you to check around and see if she’s trying to take anything.’ Sure enough, I did look in her sneakers, and she had a ring in there. He was so happy. He took care of me.”

And a Few House Rules:


No Unapproved Service Workers

John Thompson says the staff essentially forced him to let his dog walker go because she had the gall to sit on a sofa in the lobby with dog hair on her: “The concierge called and said, ‘Unless you are in love with this dog walker, we never want to see her again. But in all situations, she’s not allowed to sit. And we will track it.’ ” Another time, he says, “I had an interior decorator come, and he was dressed casually. The concierge marched him out the front door and took him to the service entrance. He was furious.”


No Dogs

They’re not technically allowed but are permitted — with highly specific caveats. “I got a pretty strict letter from the board with five or six pages of pet-related detailed instructions,” Thompson says. “They had thought through every scenario. Like, your dog will only be allowed in the freight elevator. Which, by the way, is an attended elevator, so you need to wait for somebody to take you both ways.”


No Paparazzi

The staff is obsessive about maintaining residents’ privacy and “hates” when paparazzi show up. “One time during Fashion Week,” says Vidinli, “I heard Kendall Jenner was here, and they all flocked to the front. You should have seen the concierge and doormen; they were so angry.”

The 27-Year Saga of Khashoggi’s Apartment

Photo: Michael Brennan/Getty Images

Billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi pays an estimated $3 million for two floors in the building—reported at the time to be 30,000 square feet — which he plans to use as a pied-à-terre. He builds a swimming pool, indoor gardens, a ballroom, a sauna, and a kitchen that can serve up to 300 people.

Khashoggi doesn’t pay a $2.2 million debt to the London- based mining conglomerate Lonrho PLC not long after he fails to recoup millions he reportedly used to finance the sale of U.S. arms to Iran. His apartment, then valued at $30 million, is seized by court order.

Khashoggi has put the duplex on the market for $49 million. No one bites, so soon after he lowers the price to $33 million with monthly $30,000 maintenance fees.

January 1998
The apartment still hasn’t sold. The price is lowered again to $25 million (or $45,000 for rent), the Times reports. Director Brett Ratner soon rents the space to shoot a sex scene for The Family Man.

The sale price is lowered yet again, to $12 million. Corcoran broker Nicole Hatoun, who is handling the sale of the apartment, says the place “was a disaster. Not well kept, very old, nothing attractive about it at all.” (The pool was apparently a problem too — another broker tells the Observer, “You smell mildew when you walk in.”) Still, someone puts in a bid for just under the asking price. But the condo board dislikes the purchaser’s plan to “break up the apartment into approximately 15 smaller apartments” and refuses. (It’s rumored the man is a front for a foreign nation.) Soon after, Hatoun gets an offer from rumored prince Abbas Abdulaziz.

Abdulaziz’s offer of $12 million is accepted. According to former resident Chance Spiessbach, Abdulaziz puts remote-controlled boats and submarines in the pool. (He still owns the place today — though apparently it’s since been renovated).

How to Get an Apartment Here

Although it’s not as fusty as a co-op — there’s no interview — the building doesn’t exactly make things easy for prospective buyers. According to Suna Vidinli, who decided to buy after years of renting, the application packet was “like filling out Harvard’s application. So thick. And they don’t just care about money. They want a legacy or a respectable, prominent background. The thing that I’m positive helped me was my recommendations — I got them from my Harvard people and my former colleagues at the New York Times and sent in information about my family. Then they accepted me very quickly. Somebody — I think it was a hedge-funder — also gave a bid for my apartment, and he didn’t get it.” LLCs are welcome, per broker Ryan Zeiger, “as long as you have the money. No one would ever know who owns the place.”


Three on the Market

Clockwise from left: No. 36A: 2BR, 2.5 bath; $4,595,000. Photo: Tng Nassimi Realty CorpNo. 23A: 2BR, 2.5 bath; $3,500,000. Photo: Douglas Elliman Real EstateNo. 46-47C: 5BR, 6.5 bath; $20,500,000. Photo: Douglas Elliman
From top: No. 36A: 2BR, 2.5 bath; $4,595,000. Photo: Tng Nassimi Realty CorpNo. 46-47C: 5BR, 6.5 bath; $20,500,000. Photo: Douglas EllimanNo. 23A: 2BR... From top: No. 36A: 2BR, 2.5 bath; $4,595,000. Photo: Tng Nassimi Realty CorpNo. 46-47C: 5BR, 6.5 bath; $20,500,000. Photo: Douglas EllimanNo. 23A: 2BR, 2.5 bath; $3,500,000. Photo: Douglas Elliman Real Estate

Some Especially Nice Interiors

From over the years.

Murray Moss’s apartment, 2012. Photo: Francois Dischinger
Rocky and Keiko Aoki’s apartment, 2006. Photo: Kyoko Hamada
Halston’s office, 1980. Photo: Norman McGrath
“The Glass House,” by decorator Christopher Coleman and architect Wayne Turett, 2008. Photo: Floto + Warner

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