Fashion designer Liz Lange was at her Manhattan apartment, in 2001, when things began to unravel.
“There was loud knocking, an unfriendly knocking, maybe the way it sounds when the police come to your door,” Lange told The Post. “There was a man who said he was there to take my car.”
Repo men were not typically part of her rarified world. The founder of Liz Lange Maternity and now the CEO and head designer of the fashion brand Figue, she was the niece of Saul Steinberg. Six years earlier, the billionaire ranked among the city’s wealthiest.
Her father, Bobby, was Saul’s brother. Together, the siblings engineered corporate takeovers and controlled well-known brands such as Day’s Inn and Reliance Insurance.
“I told this person that there had to be a mistake,” Lange said of the repo man. “I sent bills to my father’s office and they got paid. I was shocked that there could be an outstanding bill. But there was.”
A new podcast, “The Just Enough Family,” chronicles the Steinbergs’ titanic rise and fall.
Host and co-creator Ariel Levy told The Post: “I said they were like the Jewish Kennedys and Liz agreed. There was that feeling of being a famous family and eyes were on you. People revered and resented you.”
While the brothers’ business practices did not make them beloved by New York’s moneyed establishment, they didn’t care.
“There was such a sense of superiority in my family,” Liz says in the podcast. “Whenever we met a family that was all snobby and WASPy , my family would always be, ‘Lots of lineage and no dough.’”
Saul once told a journalist: “I’ll own the world. I could even be the first Jewish president.” Instead, his Icarus story came crashing down in a flaming mess of hubris and flash — ending with a Sotheby’s liquidation auction.
Saul and Bobby, along with two other siblings, were raised on Long Island. Their father, Julius, owned a rubber factory that produced such humble items as dish racks. Still, it made him a millionaire — and inspired Saul. He attempted his first takeover, of another rubber company, when he was a college senior. It failed, but a hostile 1968 run at Reliance Insurance, succeeded.
Saul and Bobby made their bones as corporate raiders: They’d buy large stakes in an undervalued company and then announce intentions, as Bobby puts it, “work very closely” with the organization. In some cases, board members found the men distasteful and purchased back the stock at inflated prices — like the $60 million return the brothers snagged in exchange for leaving the Walt Disney Company unmolested. This practice became known as greenmail, which derives from blackmail. It brought unimaginable riches to the Steinbergs.
According to Vanity Fair, Saul used Reliance to bankroll his extended family, putting “relatives in executive positions and [paying] them, and himself, huge salaries. Over the years, Reliance paid out millions and millions of dollars in personal loans, perks and fat dividends to Steinberg family members.”
The family enjoyed carte blanche in the city — and a collective feeling that “nothing could touch us,” Lange says in the podcast.
Guests at Steinberg dinners included the likes of corporate raiders Carl Icahn and Ron Perelman. Lange marvels that college friends thought the guest list of her engagement party was like “the predator’s ball”: a notorious annual gathering — hosted by Mike (“Uncle Mikey” to Lange) Milken’s investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert — of private equity investors and junk-bond raiders including T. Boone Pickens and Henry Kravis.
Saul was notorious for flaunting his wealth: lording over a 36-room triplex at 740 Park Avenue, that had previously belonged to Nelson Rockefeller. Old Master paintings covered the walls. Itzhak Perlman played violin in the apartment; Robin Williams did standup comedy there; George Bush showed up for his reelection party. There were two dining rooms and a full-blown gymnastics facility for Saul’s daughter Laura — who once had a birthday bash at the Temple of Dendur in the Met.
Saul’s own 50th birthday party, put together in 1989 by third wife Gayfryd, featured a human tableaux of models portraying his favorite paintings. Liz Smith deemed it “the party of the decade.” Kids dressed as cherubs presented the cake.
The family traveled on their own Boeing 727 (outfitted with $9,000 cashmere blankets) and had VIP access at sporting events.
“The first hockey game I went to, we were taken down to the locker room and the goalie gave me his stick,” Saul’s stepson Rayne recalls in the podcast. “Everything was like that. It was ridiculous.”
A call to Saul’s secretary provided speedy entry to Studio 54 for Liz and other Steinberg kids.
“I used to go to Studio 54 or Xenon and run into my father and his friends,” Laura says in the podcast. “[Saul] felt like he was invincible and willing to try anything.”
As for his indulgences, Liz said, “There were a lot: Women, drugs, drinking, business.”
It helped that the Steinbergs had a fixer, a real-life Ray Donovan named Don McGuire. On rare occasions when the family flew commercial, McGuire waited at the airport and scurried them through security. McGuire also came in handy for less savory tasks.
“Somebody was stalking [my sister] and it started to feel menacing,” said Lange. “We told Don McGuire. He had a talk with the person and he stopped stalking my sister.”
As Liz’s sister, Jane, remembers it: “Don scared the shit out of him and it was like, ‘Next time I won’t be so nice.’”
But while the Steinbergs were living it up, other New Yorkers were unamused.
Podcast host Levy recalled a situation from the ’90s: “They were at the US Open and Liz went to get a Coke. When she got back to the box … [she] had to wait for a serve before returning to [her] seat. Liz rolled her eyes or something and a stranger said, ‘Even a Steinberg has to wait.’ She was shocked [that] this person knew who she was and hated her and hated her family. It was a rude awakening.”
Outside the boardroom, the brothers were not exactly nice guys. Bobby, the podcast reveals, had a second family in Pennsylvania. It came to light when he divorced Liz’s mom in the 1990s and wed his mistress.
As for Saul’s first wife, Barbara, now deceased: “He cheated on her, left and right,” socialite Lauren Lawrence, a friend of hers told The Post. “He came back from an African safari with syphilis and kicked her over a mistake with the dry cleaner. He threw her down on the marble floor and dragged her by her hair as if she was a freshly bagged lion.”
Their 17-year-long marriage dissolved in 1977. He wed the fiery Italian Laura Sconocchia Fisher year later; the union was short-lived but resulted in a child named Julian. Reached for comment, Fisher told The Post, “We had a lot of fun until we didn’t.”
She was more candid in her divorce proceedings. “My husband is a cocaine addict and he’s been on the drug off and on for two and a half years, and at times he gets very violent and very dangerous,” The Post quoted her saying in court papers. “My husband beat me up several times … ”
Saul told Fortune, “Everything she has said so far is a god damned lie.” Once the divorce was settled, Fisher recanted the allegations.
In the early 1980s, after busting up with Fisher, Saul met Gayfryd — a girl from small-town Nanaimo in British Columbia, Canada, who had ascended the social ladder through an earlier marriage — at a dinner party and married her in ‘83. A lover of high fashion and socially ambitious, she was dubbed by New York magazine as “the ultimate trophy wife.”
According to the podcast, Gayfryd and her son Rayne converted to Judaism at Saul’s request. The boy’s bar mitzvah celebration was held at the Palladium where an oversized version of his bedroom was created. As noted in the podcast, “The night ended with a pillow fight on a massive replica of Rayne’s bed with gigantic custom-made sheets.”
By 1995, Saul, 55 and worth around $700 million, suffered a debilitating stroke and Bobby stepped up to run the company. In the podcast, he acknowledges that he lacked his brother’s flair and that, as a result, business stalled. Four years later, at the wedding of Saul’s son Jonathan to financial journalist Maria Bartiromo, Bobby revealed to relatives that Reliance was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. Over the next two years, its stock value plummeted from $19 per share to less than $2.25. By 2001, the company was bankrupt.
The family took their reversal of fortune hard. Saul and Bobby’s mother even sued her sons for non-payment on a $6.2 million loan she had given them. “It was all so ugly,” Jane says in the podcast. “I can’t imagine suing my kids … [But] I don’t know where the truth of all this lies.” (According to the podcast, the brothers were made to pay the money back.)
Though Liz, who has two kids, sold her company in 2007 for — as she broadly ballparks it in the podcast, between $10 million and $100 million — the finance world of the early 2000s largely zipped past the family.
Cash-strapped Saul was forced to borrow against his art collection; he eventually sold 56 of his Old Masters. In 2000 he and Gayfryd auctioned off collections of Regency silver, alabaster lamps, George II gilt-wood armchairs and more, a Sotheby’s deal said to be worth $14 million.
The Post reported in 2000 that Saul’s fortune had shrunk from nearly $2 billion to $390 million. He died in 2012. Gayfryd is now married to the author Michael Shnayerson. Bobby is separated from the wife with whom he once lived a double life. Liz, who lives in the old Grey Gardens mansion in the Hamptons, said that she “is fine” financially.
Looking back, she is still grateful to be a Steinberg: “We’re all happy … We put things behind us. Life is short and you never know.”
By Michael Kaplan