Photo: Scott Wiseman
Iconic Florida developer H. Irwin Levy
[Attorney, Century Village developer, West Palm Beach; age 88]
I’m from Scranton, Pa. I was going to Cornell law school, just finished my second year, got married and came to Florida on my honeymoon in June of 1950. I took a look at Miami Beach and couldn’t believe it. What a world it was! I called my father and told him I’m not leaving.
Century Village is the first of its type. From a lifestyle standpoint, we were different. When I was a kid, I remember people going to the Catskill Mountains in New York. Jewish people all went to the Catskills. They went for the lifestyle. There was all kinds of entertainment and fun and this and that and I thought to myself, ‘Why shouldn’t they want to retire and buy a home in Florida that has all the amenities of the Catskills?’ That’s the idea behind Century Village.
I’m very involved with Israel, and I’m concerned about its ability to survive. I know a lot of people there. Bibi (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and I have been friendly for 35 years.
My family was in the wholesale shoe business. When I was in high school, my father wouldn’t let me play football or anything like that. I had to work in the store.
I started off wanting to be an accountant. I really thought that was my world. I got out of Penn State and my father got me a job with an accountant in Scranton. In those days, accounting was very different than it is today. An accountant was really a bookkeeper and wasn’t involved in business transactions like accountants are now. So for two weeks I sat there doing books, just adding and subtracting, and one day after work I told my mother that I couldn’t see myself doing this every day of my life. So she suggested I go to law school, and I said, ‘That’s a good idea!’
I travel a little bit, but I like staying home. I love Florida.
We targeted retired school teachers, retired policemen, bus drivers — normal working people who made a living, saved a few bucks, had a little pension, had Social Security and wanted to retire to Florida. Many thousands of people moved here. We had great timing.
There’s always a charity that has a problem that’s calling me. I get that daily practically. I’ve been in Palm Beach County so long that almost every Jewish organization here, I was involved in starting it.
I got Red Buttons to do my marketing. He came out of the Catskills. I remembered him from the movie Sayonara. He got an Academy Award for that. He was terrific. Everybody knew him. Everybody liked him. He had the greatest sense of humor. He could not be not funny. He was on all the time No matter what you said, he had a funny remark about it. You couldn’t sit with him for five minutes without becoming hysterical.
My daughter is funny. She’s a geophysicist. I kid her that she’s the only geophysicist in the world who doesn’t know a thing about oil. She’s an expert on earthquakes and tsunamis. Try to make a living on that!
I’m not as smart as you think I am. I didn’t know a damn thing about building, but I was smart enough to ask for help.
Every time I negotiated a deal, I always considered the other side of the fence. What could I do and what couldn’t I do if I was in the other guy’s shoes? What would I need and what would I not need?
We bring voting machines into our clubhouses — and that’s part of the activities. The residents love it. They get in the bus. They go to the clubhouse and they vote. Everybody votes. You remember the famous Bush-Gore re-count? Those ballots were from Century Village.
I knew Bernie Madoff very well. I used to play golf with him and his wife. After about four holes, he’d say — ‘You know, I’ve got a problem and I got to leave, but you continue on’ — and I would finish the round with his wife. Looking back, I think he knew the day had to come. He was very smart. He knew he was at the end of his rope. His liabilities were getting bigger. His problems were growing all the time because he had commitment after commitment after commitment and he kept using people’s capital. The day that money started slowing down, that was the day he was dead, and he knew it. I lost money, and I’m still waiting to get all of it back. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see it, but, look, I’ve been screwed before. It’s not the first time. It’s part of life.
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