Bernard Spitzer, a prominent New York City real estate developer and philanthropist who supported his son Eliot’s political career and at times became entangled in it, died on Saturday November 1, 2014 at his home in Manhattan. He was 90.
Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York, confirmed the death. He said his father had Parkinson’s disease.
Mr. Spitzer built a real estate empire over more than five decades and developed major residential buildings, including several along Central Park. Through his family foundation, he donated millions of dollars to the architecture school at the City College of New York and funded a hall about human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History, both of which are named after him and his wife, Anne.
His wealth, estimated in the hundreds of millions, helped his son run for New York State attorney general in 1994. Eliot Spitzer, a corporate lawyer, lost that race but won four years later, though his father’s financial help became an issue during the campaign.
Eliot Spitzer had denied the extent to which he was using his father’s money, but conceded shortly before the election that his father had lent him millions of dollars to repay a $4.3 million loan from J. P. Morgan during the first campaign.
At the time, Bernard Spitzer called the episode “very painful.” “In my naïveté,” he told The New York Times, “I couldn’t believe that there was any objection, could be any objection, to a father lending money to a son who wants to enter the political world.”
His son later became governor but resigned in 2008, after just over a year in office, over a prostitution scandal. He ran unsuccessfully for New York City comptroller last year. In recent years Eliot Spitzer has had a leadership role at the family-run company Spitzer Engineering.
Eliot Spitzer often shared his father’s rags-to-riches story as the son of Austrian immigrants who lived in a tenement building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Long before his son made headlines, Bernard Spitzer made a name for himself as a creative, ambitious developer.
Bernard Emmanuel Spitzer was born on the Lower East Side on April 26, 1924, to Morris and Molly Spitzer. After graduating from City College with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, he joined the Navy and served in Germany during World War II.
With the help of the G.I. Bill, he earned a master’s degree in engineering from Columbia University and worked as a field supervisor for the real estate developer Sam Minskoff. A few years later, he started his own company.
His first residential projects were in the Bronx, where he and his wife lived when Eliot was born in 1959. In 1985, with several partners, he bought the former East Side Airlines terminal in Manhattan and built the Corinthian, the largest residential building in the city at the time, with more than 800 apartments. In 1963, he also developed an apartment building at Central Park South and Seventh Avenue with a curved design to allow for better park views and, in 1991, purchased the Crown Building, a historic commercial building on Fifth Avenue, with two partners for $93.6 million.
After his son became governor in 2007, Mr. Spitzer found himself at the center of a political controversy when a top political consultant was forced to resign over allegations that he left a threatening telephone message at Bernard Spitzer’s office. The message, laced with expletives, said that he would have to testify about “shady campaign loans” he made to his son in 1994 and would be “arrested and brought to Albany” if he resisted.
Bernard Spitzer hired a private investigative firm, Kroll Associates, which found that Roger J. Stone Jr., a consultant for State Senate Republicans, had made the call. Mr. Stone denied it and resigned.
The next year, after his son left office, Mr. Spitzer was accused of firing a black doorman and three black porters who worked at a luxury apartment building he owned on East 57th Street in a racial discrimination lawsuit. He testified during the trial that he did not pay attention to the race of the staff and was not involved in hiring or firing. A Bronx jury awarded the four men more than $1.3 million. Jeffrey Moerdler, a lawyer for Mr. Spitzer, said the decision was later reversed.
In addition to his wife and his son Eliot, Mr. Spitzer is survived by another son, Daniel, a neurosurgeon; a daughter, Emily Spitzer, a lawyer; and seven grandchildren.
Friends said the Spitzer family would often gather around the dinner table for intellectually rigorous conversations, in which Bernard would ask his children about things like the thickness of the Earth’s crust.
“There is a little bit of what I guess would traditionally be called a Germanic nature to him,” Eliot Spitzer said of his father in an interview in 2006, “but also a really good sense of humor. But there isn’t a lot of tolerance just for wasted time and such, so we didn’t sit around the dinner table talking about the weather and gossip.”
Published in the New York Times, November 2, 2014.