Rising on one of the last big fields in the Hamptons is a 100,000-square-foot limestone villa complex that may be the largest new home in America. Just who is the man building it—Ira Rennert—and why does he want a compound that’s more than twice the size of Bill Gates’s?
Rising on one of the last large open fields in Sagaponack, Long Island, is a strange colossus, almost twice as big as the White House. For its owner it must be a dream come true. For the neighbors it’s a nightmare worse than anything they could have imagined.
Development in this wide, flat oasis of former farms between the villages of East Hampton and Southampton is nothing new: so many fields have sprouted houses that the tractors plying the last few cultivated acres seem mere props to keep the landscape quaint. But even the largest homes here—in a community that includes Ed and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, painters David Salle and Bob Dash, writer Peter Matthiessen, and actor Roy Scheider—tend to be no more than 5,000 square feet. The new house on Fair Field, as generations of farmers have called the 63-acre oceanfront property framed by Daniels and Peter Pond Lanes, will be 66,000 square feet. Six outbuildings will bring the compound’s total construction space to nearly 100,000 square feet. By contrast, Bill Gates’s much-publicized new compound in Washington State is 40,000 square feet, producer Aaron Spelling’s famous Los Angeles mansion, 56,000. Not only will Fair Field be the biggest house ever built in the Hamptons, it may be the biggest contemporary residence in America.
Every year for the last quarter-century, this once-quiet community of artists, fishermen, and potato farmers has grown more crowded with summer weekenders, the gridlock of BMW convertibles and Range Rovers out on Route 27 more unbearable, the Atlantic beach parking lots full earlier in the day, the gourmet foods more rarefied (lobster salad at Sagaponack’s Loaves and Fishes this summer: $42 a pound). The most striking sign of the area’s ruin is the new building boom. In the 1960s, when the first boxy white houses designed by Charles Gwathmey went up on the wide-open land, they looked like spaceships. Now they seem as mundane and humble as country cottages. In a time line of wretched excess, the castle built circa 1984 around the bones of the old DuPont mansion on Southampton’s Dune Road for computer retailer Barry Trupin and his wife, Renee, with its absurd turrets and indoor lagoon, occupies a prominent place: a harbinger of abuses to come. But then so do the simple signs that routinely appear at the roadside edge of field after field, revealing, on closer inspection, 10 or 20 new lots of yet another cluster subdivision.
Perhaps due to the splashy movie-premiere parties staged in the early 1990s in East Hampton by HBO’s then chairman, Michael Fuchs, Hollywood also discovered the area. The stars and executives who flew in from Los Angeles liked what they saw, so they bought it, creating a “Malibu East.” Now DreamWorks’ co-founder Steven Spielberg has a home here. So do director Barry Sonnenfeld (his place contains a full editing studio) and actors Alec Baldwin and his wife, Kim Basinger. A few summers back, Sting broke the $100,000-a-month rental barrier to take up residence in a mansion on Further Lane.
This summer, the new houses are grander, if possible, the owners more grandiose. In North Haven, Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola recently bought a barn overlooking Sag Harbor, then ordered scores of workmen to expand it into a château. The week before Memorial Day, crews worked deep into the night while seamstresses frantically monogrammed the towels and linens; one morning dozens of flowering trees appeared on a brand-new front lawn, as if by magic. It’s not enough: Mottola wants a 233-foot pier, complete with jet-ski floats. Meanwhile, over by Bridge Lane in Sagaponack, a new 12,000-square-foot house is being hurried to completion for Robert J. Hurst, a vice-chairman of Goldman, Sachs; while on East Hampton’s West End Road an even larger exercise in narcissism is going up for Ohio banker Max Lerner. Yet these are sharecroppers’ hovels when set against the awesome leviathan rising, as if from the depths of the sea, on Fair Field.
When the land changed hands quietly in early 1997, one of the few locals to notice was Cliff Foster, a third-generation Sagaponack farmer who had worked Fair Field in a lease arrangement for nearly 25 years. Initially, he was unconcerned. The new owner might keep the land as it was. If he was a developer, he could build 21 houses on the property—one for each three acres. But he would be obligated, by local zoning rules, to cluster the houses on 35 percent of the property and set aside the remaining 65 percent as open land. You could still grow a lot of potatoes on 40 acres, especially on Fair Field. “This is some of the finest soil in the world for potatoes,” Foster explained one late-spring day as we looked out over the earthmovers starting to displace it. Then Foster heard that the property’s new owner—identified only as the Blue Turtles corporation—was terminating his lease agreement.
Among locals, there’s a wry phrase, “Beware the ides of January.” If you want to build a house in the Hamptons that might stir up controversy or require variances, submit your plans in the dead of winter, when most of the neighbors who might object are 100 miles away in Manhattan. Right on schedule last January 20, a team including an architect, a lawyer, and a planning consultant appeared at the bimonthly meeting of Southampton’s five-member Architectural Review Board (A.R.B.).
Opening six-foot-tall portfolios, architect Mark Ferguson and planning adviser Richard Warren revealed drawings of a classical-looking building with columns, arched windows, and pediments. The villa would be as wide and long as a football field—unlike anything the board members had ever seen. Yet it required no variances, because it rose no higher than 32 feet and occupied no more than 10 percent of the property. All it needed was the approval of the A.R.B., which can allow or forbid a new house on purely aesthetic considerations.
A month later, the A.R.B. gave its blessing to most of the project: the villa, with its 25 bedrooms and as many full bathrooms, 11 sitting rooms, three dining rooms, and two libraries; a servants’ wing with 4 more bedrooms; a power plant big enough to run a large municipal high school or shopping mall; a 10,000-square-foot “playhouse” with two bowling alleys and tennis, squash, and basketball courts; and a multi-story, 17,000-square-foot garage capable of accommodating perhaps 100 cars. The A.R.B. questioned only whether the 16-foot-high hedge meant to enclose the entire property and the two imposing gatehouses might be set back a bit for the neighbors’ sakes—since Fair Field is to be a single residence, no land needed to be set aside as open, and none was.
“We could find no fault with the architecture,” says William Wilson, the only A.R.B. member who is actually a trained architect. “It reminds me a little of the Frick. It’s that kind of restrained classic design.”
Fair Field’s architectural drawings do evoke Manhattan’s Frick Collection, the mansion Carrère & Hastings designed in 1913–14 for mining magnate Henry Clay Frick and his family on Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Streets—though the Frick residence was then a mere 45,000 square feet. And that, to neighbors who began to hear belatedly of the A.R.B.’s decision from friends at the wood-shingled Sagg Main Street Country Store or the Candy Kitchen Luncheonette in Bridgehampton, was just the point. “There’s nothing wrong with the Frick,” declares Joseph Dilworth, a stockbroker and full-time Sagaponack resident who is a member of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee, which has raised objections to the house. “But on a potato field in Sagaponack? It is as if the Sagg Main Street Store was dragged to Fifth Avenue. It would look out of place.” Joe Louchheim, the publisher of the Southampton Press, cannot conceal his indignation. “The fact that any human being could conceive of dropping an ocean-liner-size house in a farming community and then have the nerve to keep the name Fair Field for it is staggering.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, a large group of residents met to consider forming a legal-action fund. Privately, the lawyers among them advised that their chances were slim. The new owner of Fair Field had seen his loophole and charged through it, taking brazen advantage of ordinances written for one- and two-acre properties, and with enough money—$11 million for the land alone, as much as $100 million for construction—pushed his plans through.
But who was the new owner? What strutting, nouveau-riche captain of industry had taken it upon himself to make the nearby spreads of Revlon chairman Ronald Perelman, investor Ronald Lauder, Calvin Klein, and others look modest by comparison? At the first A.R.B. meeting, his lawyer identified him, in absentia, as Ira Rennert, a New York businessman who runs a company called the Renco Group from 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Rennert had no history of residence in the area, and no one seemed to know him. Why had he chosen to build such a Brobdingnagian house here? Was it just bad judgment? His wife’s ambitions?
Aside from a five-line note to the Southampton Press avowing that Fair Field would be a family residence, Rennert has remained out of sight, responding neither to inquiries from his prospective neighbors and their lawyers nor to those from reporters. A cursory search revealed almost nothing about the man—no interviews, virtually no pictures, only the faintest of paper trails. (Rennert did not respond to repeated requests for an interview by V.F.) It’s as if, at 63, he has spent his whole life studiously avoiding publicity.
For good reason, it turns out.
When you call the Renco Group in New York City and ask for information, a secretary pauses. “We don’t give out information,” she says. No brochures, no fact sheets, no clippings—and certainly no annual report, since the Renco Group is a private holding company, 95 percent of which, according to the latest available figures, is owned by its president and C.E.O., Ira Leon Rennert, with the remaining 5 percent held by Rennert’s top officers. Last year, Forbes ranked it No. 51 of the country’s 500 top private companies, up from No. 75 the previous year. Though only a dozen or so executives work with Rennert on the 42nd floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Forbes estimated that Renco’s various companies employ, all told, about 10,500 people, and that its 1997 revenues were about $2.5 billion. The largest of those companies is AM General, which manufactures the Jeep-like HumVee for the military, and its consumer counterpart, the Hummer. Since AM General lost $22 million in 1995 and 1996 alone—a result of the military’s downsizing and a reluctance even on the part of new Wall Street plutocrats to pay $75,000 or more for an ungainly motor toy—one’s attention naturally shifts to Renco’s other holdings. The experience is rather like lifting a rock to see squirmy creatures underneath. What one finds is a slew of Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) penalties, suits by the Department of Justice (D.O.J.), and outrage from ordinary citizens. Fair Field’s owner is, in short, the biggest private polluter in America.
Rennert’s origins in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, are fairly humble. According to a friend, his father was an accountant. The family lived in a modest two-family brick house in a solidly middle-class Jewish neighborhood. For Rennert, as for so many young men and women in New York’s largest borough, the beacon of hope and opportunity was tuition-free Brooklyn College. Rennert’s picture in the 1955 yearbook shows an intense young man with clean-cut good looks and a full head of dark hair. He’s listed as chairman of the Finance Committee, with a major in political science.
Rennert received an M.B.A. from New York University, then embarked on a series of mundane jobs: as a credit analyst (for the M. Lowenstein Corp.), as a salesman (for Underwood), then as a securities dealer (for Francis I. DuPont & Co.). For a man who might later wish to keep a low profile, these were prescient choices: all three companies are defunct. When New York construction boomed in the mid-60s, Rennert began doing his own deals. He was prudent, but also quickly developed an appetite for living well: one colleague heard that Rennert bought a Rolls-Royce with his first $50,000. By 1975 he’d acquired enough capital to buy the Consolidated Sewing Machine Corporation of Maspeth, Long Island, which made industrial sewing machines, motors, and parts.
Rennert’s big break came in 1988, when he took the bold step of buying a steel mill in Warren, Ohio, from L.T.V., a bankrupt midwestern conglomerate. The mill became part of Warren Consolidated Industries (W.C.I.), joining Rennert’s other 15 companies—a grab bag of dreary profit-makers, whose products ranged from office furniture in Newark, New Jersey, to lumber in Kansas City, Kansas—under the Renco Group umbrella, which he’d established in 1980. Acquired through a leveraged buyout, the steel mill, with its $500 million in sales, nearly tripled the collective revenues of those holdings and swelled Renco’s cash flow considerably. And it was bought on the cheap: the whole works for $112 million in cash, plus a $30 million loan from L.T.V. and $5 million in assumed liabilities.
For several years Renco proved a model owner. Then, in the summer of 1995, came a standoff with Local 1375 of the United Steel Workers of America over a new contract. Pension benefits were the chief issue. When the workers struck on September 1, management brought in scabs and “goon guards,” as local union president Dennis Brubaker puts it, and violence flared on both sides. The strike ended after 54 days; essentially, the union won. “All of us were very angry,” says Bernard Kleiman, the chief negotiator for the United Steel Workers union in the strike. “But my sense is that that has all largely dissipated.”
What hasn’t dissipated, though, is the toxic waste. All steel mills generate their share of it. But not all generate the sort of civil suit begun by the D.O.J. last May. The action alleges that from September 1988 (when Renco bought the mill) to the present, W.C.I. operated hazardous-waste management units at the Warren facility without the proper permits pursuant to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. On behalf of the E.P.A., the Justice Department is also suing W.C.I. for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Among the charges are several that W.C.I. dumped illegal amounts of waste, including copper, lead, and hydrochloric acid, into the Mahoning River. If found liable, W.C.I. could face penalties of as much as $25,000 for each day the company violated the regulations. W.C.I. is contesting the government’s allegations, and all three suits are pending.
As one longtime colleague sees it, Rennert’s purchase of W.C.I. was part of an emerging strategy. “Ira has basically stepped up for assets that tend to have superficial layers of unattractiveness to them—investor-repellent, either because of bankruptcy or environmental issues attached to them—and tend to be priced efficiently if one’s willing to tolerate a certain amount of risk,” the colleague suggests. “It’s less competitive.”
Fattened by W.C.I.’s cash flow, Rennert in 1989 made an acquisition that elevated this strategy to an art form: he bought the single worst polluting facility in the entire United States of America.
For years, the Amax corporation had operated a plant in Salt Lake Valley, Utah, that extracted magnesium from the brine of the Great Salt Lake. A by-product of the process was chlorine gas, which emerged from the plant’s smokestacks, forming a whitish cloud that blanketed crops and livestock in the surrounding area. Since the process and plant were unique—no other lake in the U.S. yields enough magnesium to make extraction worthwhile—chlorine pollution was not included in the Clean Air Act. Renco renamed the plant the Magnesium Corporation of America, and the profits rolled in.
Still, the Magnesium Corporation of America has been a subject of growing interest among environmentalists. As the E.P.A.’s latest Toxics Release Inventory Report shows, the Magnesium Corporation in 1995 emitted 65 million pounds of chlorine gas into the surrounding air. By comparison, Utah’s second-largest polluter, Kennecott Utah Copper, emitted six million pounds of various other toxins. Utah is the most polluted state per capita in the union. According to a report by the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington research group, it has 35.3 pounds of toxic air pollution per person; the national average is 5.9 pounds. And 95 percent of Utah’s overall air pollution is produced by the Magnesium Corporation of America. “That doesn’t mean that that pollution is in violation of the law,” cautions Dianne Nielson, the executive director of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. “Mag Corp does have an air-quality approval order, which is a permit.”
That’s because, according to a report by the Utah Department of Health, chlorine hasn’t been shown to be dangerous when released in low concentrations. “Through our Department of Health we’ve evaluated chlorine levels from the facility,” Nielson says. “The Department of Health issued a report: chlorine emissions are not likely to be creating a health concern.” At the same time, Nielson speaks optimistically of a new technology the Magnesium Corporation plans to install to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, Lee Brown, the company’s president, did not return telephone calls to discuss it.
Many citizens of Grantsville (population: 5,000), the town nearest the Magnesium Corporation’s plant, would disagree with the Department of Health’s assessment that its chlorine emissions are safe. A decade ago—about the time Rennert bought the plant—the whitish chlorine gas began blocking out the sun for weeks at a stretch. “There were a couple years we didn’t see the sun, because we’re so heavily polluted,” says resident Janet Cook, a former city councilperson. Under its new owner the Magnesium Corporation stepped up production. For 1989 it reported record emissions of 119 million pounds, followed by 95 million pounds in 1990. By then it had topped the E.P.A.’s national list of polluting facilities.
Soon after, according to Cook, her health, and that of many of her neighbors, began to decline. “The bees are out,” they’d say when the chlorine blew in their direction; that meant their skin stung as if from many bee stings. Most obviously affected, Cook claims, were those who worked at the plant. The local barber thought she could tell immediately which of her customers worked at the Magnesium Corporation: their hair was so brittle and lifeless. The company might deny that the chlorine affected its employees, but it sent a bus to pick them up daily in Grantsville because, as everyone knew, cars parked in the plant lot soon had their paint eaten away by the corrosive air.
Janet Cook says that as she saw worse health effects—a high incidence of children with asthma, parents with respiratory problems, suspiciously high cancer rates—she took it upon herself to organize a citizens’ health survey, and mustered 40 volunteers to speak with nearly 2,500 Grantsville residents. “We found a lot of respiratory problems, a lot of cancers,” she says. In fact, they found 201 cancer cases, 181 cases of serious respiratory problems, 29 babies born with birth defects, and 12 cases of multiple sclerosis, among other problems—almost 500 cases of significant illness in all, afflicting one in five residents.
“There were people with emphysema who had never smoked a cigarette in their lives,” says Cook. “I personally have had 38 polyps removed from my sinuses. That’s unheard of. I’ve never smoked. And many other citizens have polyps, too.”
Recently Scott Endicott, a biochemist who volunteers for the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter, has analyzed the Magnesium Corporation’s emissions and reached an even more disturbing conclusion. He thinks they include dioxins, some of the most toxic chemicals known to man. Dioxins are suspected carcinogens in even minute quantities and have been found to be immunosuppressant. Until a few months ago, the Magnesium Corporation reacted to Endicott’s concern as it had to Cook’s survey: by denying that any problems existed. More recently, Nielson’s Department of Environmental Quality was persuaded to look into the matter. “Now Mag Corp admits they may be producing dioxins,” Endicott says. “They’ve offered to do a test. But there’s a lot of ways to measure it and get it wrong.”
With the new concern about dioxins, Chip Ward, an environmentalist in Grantsville, helped persuade the Deseret News of Salt Lake City to write an editorial urging the Magnesium Corporation to come to the table for frank talk on how to improve the plant’s emissions. “No response,” says Ward dryly. “I wrote to Mr. Rennert myself: I said we’d like to sit down with him. That was a month ago. Still no response.” Informed of Rennert’s similar refusal to meet with concerned residents of Sagaponack about his house plans, or even to reply to their letters, Ward says, “I think folks in the Hamptons are fortunate. We’ll trade them that pretentious elephant of a house for thousands of tons of toxic pollution any day.”
Rennert’s next big purchase wasn’t toxic, just bankrupt. In 1992 he won a fierce bidding war in bankruptcy court for AM General, whose HumVee had just dazzled the world in the Persian Gulf War. Soon after buying it for $133 million—less than half of it in cash—Rennert produced a consumer version of the HumVee: the Hummer, which overnight became known as the recreational vehicle that Arnold Schwarzenegger loved.
As Fortune observed last year, however, “even the phrase ‘niche vehicle’ overstates the Hummer’s success.” Only 1,400 of the seven-foot-wide, 6,840-pound vehicles were sold in 1996; challenged from all sides by cheaper four-by-fours, the Hummer has dim prospects.
Recently Renco has quietly steered AM General to a new product: an armored vehicle for the military that carries six or more soldiers and is fitted with a 7.62-mm. machine gun. As of last year, 269 Akreps, as they’re called, had been sold for about $200,000 each—to the Turkish army, which, according to Amnesty International, uses armored personnel carriers for crushing civil demonstrations and massacring Kurds.
One other holding in Renco’s portfolio deserves mention. The Magnesium Corporation had given Rennert the nation’s most polluting plant; it hadn’t made him the biggest private polluter overall. That distinction came in 1994 with the purchase of Doe Run, the largest lead producer in the U.S., which has a network of mines, mills, and smelters in southeastern Missouri.
Lead mining is historically a dirty business in the best of circumstances, but when Doe Run was owned by the Fluor Corporation, it earned a slew of E.P.A. fines and had the dubious distinction of being one of Missouri’s two biggest polluters. Faced with rising E.P.A. standards that would force it to remove gray mountains of solid mine wastes known as tailings—not to mention a growing number of health-related lawsuits from miners—Fluor was happy to sell for the value of Doe Run’s assets, about $175 million. But how would Renco deal with those same problems?
One answer, it turned out, was just to pay the fines. “There’s very seldom a day when Doe Run is in compliance [with environmental regulations],” says Ken Midkiff, director of the Sierra Club’s Ozark Chapter. Last year, Midkiff and two others compiled a special report on Doe Run and Asarco, Missouri’s other big lead operation. According to the report, Doe Run’s record of water and air pollution looks no better after the Renco purchase than it did before: page upon page of single-spaced violations cited by state and federal inspectors. Doe Run’s president, Jeffrey Zelms, apparently a blunt and folksy character, declined to be interviewed by Vanity Fair.
Since Renco took it over, Doe Run has tried to expand its mining by secretly persuading the state’s conservation department to let it do exploratory drilling for lead on state forestlands. In a notably poor region where mining companies are the largest and highest-paying employers, the plan nevertheless stirred public outcry, because the proposed drilling areas were in the watershed of the first two rivers designated as U.S. Scenic and National Rivers, the Jacks Fork and the Current. The plan seemed to make no sense, since actual mining in the watershed would violate federal law. Moreover, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Tom Uhlenbrock explains, the watershed is a karst topography—porous limestone, riddled with sinkholes. As a result, the tailings of the mining process—95 percent of the ore dredged up, including traces of toxic heavy metals—would leach from the valleys where they were dumped into nearby rivers and springs.
The conservation department subsequently reversed its decision. “But I always thought it was kind of a ploy,” says Uhlenbrock, to make Doe Run’s subsequent request to drill in adjacent national forestlands seem modest by comparison. Just last month, environmentalists learned that Doe Run will be allowed by the U.S. Department of the Interior to sink 200 exploratory drilling holes into the Mark Twain National Forest. This land is also a karst topography; it too includes watershed area for the Jacks Fork and the Current. As a concession, Doe Run has been asked to waive its “right” to mine those lands, allowing Interior to decide who will mine any valuable lead ore that is found. The decision may be a clever way for the government to avoid the lawsuit it might incur from Doe Run were it to deny the drilling request outright. But to Midkiff it also endangers “the crown jewels of Missouri.”
Miners talk of getting “leaded”—absorbing toxic levels of lead, which turns their skin gray and addles their brains. Rennert has gotten leaded in a different way: the business is in his blood. Last year, Doe Run bought, for a reported $250 million, Centromin, a heavily polluting mining company in a Peruvian mountain town called La Oroya. Corinne Schmidt, a stringer forNewsweek, visited the town to write an April 18, 1994, story about it. She recalls it as “a barren moonscape.” The Mantaro River, which runs by it, is a dead river, she says. “People told me they used to put booties on their dogs, because the acid deposition on the ground was such that the dogs would die from walking around barefoot.” Environmentalist Richard Kamp, an expert on U.S.-Mexico border pollution, branded the area “a vision from hell.” As Centromin’s new owner, Doe Run is obligated to meet cleanup schedules imposed by the World Bank on all of Peru’s mines. “Whether or not these are going to be applied will be the next question,” observes Sally Bowen, a stringer in Lima for the Financial Times. “In countries like this you may have well-meaning laws which are not applied.”
At least in Missouri, Doe Run used to be able to point to its competition, Asarco, as being equally guilty of polluting. No more: last April, Doe Run bought Asarco for $55 million. Now Renco basically dominates the state’s lead industry.
‘Usually companies that are diverse like his, people take them public,” says Mort Schrader, a New York real-estate broker who has known and liked Rennert for years. “You’d think he’d take that route; he could increase his wealth tenfold easily. Yet he’s decided to keep his conglomeration of companies as a private entity. You don’t see too much of that.” Schrader says this admiringly, the idea being that Rennert’s reluctance to go public is a sign of modesty or moral restraint.
A more obvious explanation is that operating such companies publicly would open up Rennert to journalists, who might comb through his financial reports, and to environmentalists, who could buy stock to stage protests at shareholders’ meetings. On only one occasion has the veil of privacy been pulled away from Rennert’s corporate offices.
According to newspaper reports, on March 24, 1995, a 20-year-old woman living in an Upper West Side single-room-occupancy hotel answered a hall phone. The call was from a stranger who asked for someone else. When the woman said that no one by that name lived at the hotel, the caller identified himself as a businessman seeking to fill a clerical position. The woman agreed to go in for an interview. The man asked her to meet him in front of sculptor Lee Lawrie’s statue of Atlas on Fifth Avenue at 51st Street in Rockefeller Center. First he took her to dinner. Then he led her through a maze of corridors in the lower level of Rockefeller Center and up an elevator to his 42nd-floor offices. Everyone at the company where he worked was apparently gone for the day. He took the young woman into a conference room to see a “training tape,” then slipped an X-rated film into the VCR. When the woman protested, the man drew a knife and raped her on the conference table.
The young woman was too traumatized, after fleeing, to remember the name of the man’s company or exactly where the offices were in Rockefeller Center. She did know she’d been on the 42nd floor, however, and she was able to describe to police the offices and the conference room, as well as give a description of a ring the man had been wearing. After subpoenaing tapes from elevator surveillance cameras at Rockefeller Center, detectives were able to identify their suspect as Marvin Koenig, the executive vice president of the Renco Group.
Confronted with the evidence against him, Koenig, a Scarsdale resident and family man, pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct and received his sentence: three years’ probation. Why no jail time? The woman detective who arrested him offers a pithy response: “He’s white.” The young woman sued Koenig for $45 million; an out-of-court settlement was reached last year. Curiously, Marvin Koenig still works at Renco.
Who is Ira Rennert? Among his friends, he’s prized as a warm and gentle fellow, devoted to his family—and a staunch supporter of Jewish causes and the state of Israel.
“With everyone else I know who makes gigantic money, business comes first,” says Stephen Mann, a lawyer. “Then they squeeze in time to have vacations. With Ira, family comes first. He takes summers off; he goes to Israel with his family. He is also quietly a major contributor to Jewish causes; he is probably the greatest since the Reichmanns [the ultra-Orthodox Toronto real-estate family]. I don’t think Ira has ever said no. If you ask him for one, he’ll give you two.”
Sometime in the last decade, as his fortune grew, Rennert moved his family to 625 Park Avenue, where he lives below financier Henry Kravis. The apartment is said to be filled with 18th-century French furniture and old-master paintings. Rennert’s wife, Ingeborg, has done much of the collecting herself. A former airline ticket agent, she has three grown children with Rennert, two daughters and a son. Rennert also has his own Gulfstream V plane, in which he spends perhaps three days a week flying on business. Yet in some ways his tastes remain modest. He currently owns a 1985 Mercedes-Benz 500 SEC, for example, and has summered for more than 20 years in Atlantic Beach on Long Island.
Rennert is, by all accounts, a very religious man. A member of the prestigious Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, he apparently has a young rabbi come regularly to his office for religious study. Ingeborg is a convert, and an enthusiastic one. “She has become extremely Orthodox,” says one friend. “She keeps up with everything in the law. She studies the Bible every day; she has a rabbi for private services.”
The Jewish causes to which Rennert contributes vary widely. He endowed a Judaic-studies chair in his wife’s name at Barnard College, for example, and has given generously to Yeshiva University. Along with Ronald Perelman, he’s a major donor to New York’s Center for Jewish History; he contributed the money for a small synagogue that was designed at his suggestion for the Center, which is under construction on 16th Street off Fifth Avenue.
One of Rennert’s favorite charitable acts these days is to give Torahs. “He’s giving Torahs left, right, and center,” says one friend. A Torah—usually handwritten by a single scribe—can cost as much as $45,000. “He’s got more scribes on his payroll than The New York Times has reporters,” says the friend. Rennert is also a big funder of mikvahs, the ceremonial baths in which a convert, after much religious training, is purified and declared a Jew.
Like many of his fellow worshipers at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, Rennert is a hard-liner on Israel. Soon after Benjamin Netanyahu became premier, according to one friend, Rennert volunteered to fund a controversial plan to open a long-blocked tunnel near Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. The tunnel has tremendous historical significance to Jews. As it happens, the tunnel is near the al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest Muslim sites. When the tunnel was opened in September 1996, Jerusalem’s Arabs, suspecting a plan to dig under the al-Aqsa mosque, went berserk. What ensued were the worst riots since the start of the peace process. Armed Palestinian police sided for the first time with Arab protesters; the confrontations spread. Hundreds were wounded; more than 70 were killed. “You could draw a line from there to the current impasse,” says Nadim Rouhana, an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict who teaches at the University of Massachusetts.
Rennert’s enthusiasm for Netanyahu seems undimmed. Last May, when the premier came to the U.S. for tense peace talks, he spoke one Saturday at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. He began his remarks by mentioning the lovely dinner he’d had the previous evening at Ira and Ingeborg Rennert’s apartment, where Elie Wiesel had been a guest as well. So attached does Rennert feel to Israel that, according to friends, he’s building yet another new home—in Jerusalem.
As for Fair Field, Rennert’s career and personal life offer a few clues, at least, as to why its scale is so huge. One of Rennert’s friends believes that the compound will contain a small synagogue; though not suggested in the architectural drawings, it will likely occupy a wing of unspecified space in the main house. (Considering that the voluminous drawings offer measurements for every column and cornice throughout the rest of the house, the fact that a whole wing is unspecified is certainly curious.) For a traditional Jewish service, at least 10 male worshipers gather, in order to make up a minyan. Since Orthodox Jews must walk, not drive, to Saturday services, it is theorized that the Rennerts’ fellow worshipers would arrive Friday afternoon and sleep over. Indeed, more than one minyan may be involved. Perhaps half a dozen minyanim have operated in private Hamptons homes in recent years, but have faced increasing pressure from towns about parking and congregating. Mark Schwarz, a Hamptons resident who has attended several minyanim, recalls talk among congregants a year and a half ago about the possibility of merging the minyanim at a large new house that Rennert would build. Sagaponack, Schwarz heard, seemed the best location because it has no town to speak of, and so resistance from neighbors would be minimal.
Another possibility is that the compound’s grandiosity was not Ira’s idea—but Ingeborg’s. “If you ask most people who know the Rennerts, you’ll find two camps,” says one friend. “No one I know has anything but benign feelings for Ira. My feeling is that people have less benign feelings toward his wife. She’s … brusque. And people see her as the proponent of some of the more attention-getting things.”
A more creative theory: nearly 40 years ago, Frank Sinatra grew so excited by his proximity to a new president that he expanded his compound for him in Palm Springs. As any student of Sinatra knows, John Kennedy enraged the great singer by shunning his invitation because Bobby, as attorney general, worried about Sinatra’s Mob connections. Benjamin Netanyahu hardly seems likely to be put off by a few million pounds of distant pollution. As for security, the proposed gatehouses seem a reasonable start.
More than four months after promising to show the A.R.B. revisions to diminish the scale of Fair Field, Rennert’s lawyers and architects have yet to make an appearance. Meanwhile, construction has begun. Some Sagaponack residents have tried to be philosophical. “You can’t really say Rennert is ruining Sagaponack—it’s gone,” says writer Linda Bird Francke, whose modest wood-shingled house was surrounded by open fields when it was built in 1982. “So I try to be fatalistic. Our house looks directly out over his property. I figure it will be like looking out on a castle. Maybe we can sell seats for glimpses of Lord Rennert!”
For neighbors viewing the construction more grimly, there’s probably only one hope of reprieve. Recently, Ingeborg confided to someone that she was having second thoughts about the size of the compound. Apparently, the aquifer under the property may not be sufficient to supply the sprinkler system needed to water the formal English garden, said to be 15 acres, and the dozens of acres of lawn.
Last February, when residents met with Ira Rennert’s lawyer to share their concerns about Fair Field, he asked what message he might convey from them to his client. One requested that the lawyer communicate just how much of an impact the Rennerts would be making by taking a 63-acre property out of the “viewscape.” The resident later added that as a goodwill gesture the Rennerts might consider buying another field in Sagaponack and donating it to the Nature Conservancy or Peconic Land Trust.
Just before Memorial Day, Rennert’s Blue Turtles corporation purchased an 11-acre field directly across Daniels Lane for nearly $3 million. It’s another of the fields Cliff Foster has farmed for years. Rennert’s lawyer has notified him of the purchase and said he can farm it this season. After that, the lawyer stressed, in legal-sounding language, all bets are off. “I said I hoped I could keep farming it,” Foster says. “But I haven’t heard back yet.”
Michael Shnayerson is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.