Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Few Random Ramblings About 60 Fifth Avenue

The Forbes building, on Fifth Avenue and 12th street, was just sold to NYU for $60 million dollars (down from the reported 120 million the family wanted just a couple of years back). This makes me feel strange, because for five years I considered that building a second home, hopping from cubicle to cubicle in my first real job as an editorial assistant, working for American Heritage magazine.

American Heritage, the history magazine where I worked from 1993 through 1996, was rumored to have been purchased for Tim Forbes by his father Malcolm in order to lure him away from the film-making/ hippy lifestyle he'd had at Brown, and back into the family fold. We resided on the 8th floor, an ugly stepsister of sorts to the regular Forbes Magazine employees. We were one floor below the penthouse gym, where a perky personal trainer named Kip ran the facility and served as trainer to the family. Walking up the main stairwell of the building up to the gym, you were greeted by a giant painting that captured the personality of the patriarch Malcolm Forbes Sr., long after his death. In it, a Diet Coke is planted firmly next to a giant piece of chocolate cake. It was there, as if to tell say, “We are decadent, but still controlled.”

Tim Forbes, a rock climbing enthusiast, frequented this staircase. It wasn’t just that he preferred the stairs over the elevator, as my old boss Richard Snow did, but rather he would get in his rock climbing garb and climb up and down the eight flights an untold number of times, sweating bullets while carrying a large backpack full of heavy objects—cans?—to prepare for his next climb up Mount Everest.

On my first day at work, the first official task I had to do was to answer Tim’s phones. My official title was Advertising Assistant (six weeks later I begged off and moved onto the editorial side). I was to obtain RSVP’s for the family’s annual Forbes Motorcycle ride. This seemed to me a strange thing to collect RSVPs for, as opposed to say, a dinner party, but even stranger was my follow up question to the Yays. “Will you be bringing your own bike, or riding a Forbes bike?” Apparently there was a garage somewhere in Jersey that held a hundred or so Harleys, available for borrowing during the annual ride.

During my time at 60 Fifth Avenue, Steve Forbes ran for president of the United States, no doubt a costly endeavor. Money seemed to be swirling all around the company. I’d gotten a chance to take a ride on the Forbes’ Highlander yacht for an advertising event, though I never had cause to board their private jet, named by Malcolm Sr. "The Capitalist Tool". Even the mail guy, Steve, told me in an apathetic tone that he was going to retire a millionaire.

Birthdays were special at Forbes; every year, the company was given a day off in honor of Malcolm's. On our birthdays, we waited for a call that went like this.

Ring, ring.


“Hi, is this Rachel?”

“Um, yes, it is…”

“Hello Rachel, this is Steve Forbes, and I wanted to call and wish you a Happy Birthday.”

“Wow, thanks.”

“Are you planning on doing anything special for your birthday?”

By the time we received the annual birthday call from Steve Forbes (wasn’t he running for president, and didn’t he have anything better to do?), a trolley from the mailroom filled with birthday flowers had been wheeled by. There would magically appear on your desk a yellow birthday corsage, like something you’d get from a date for a Homecoming dance. I could never quite decide if I should wear it with ironic pride, or tuck it behind my Rolodex with some embarrassment.

On the second floor of the building lived the Forbes Library, where I had reason to visit often for fact checking. The staff there were kind and always helpful. Queenie, an elderly librarian who sat at the front desk, had propped next to her at all times a signed picture of Fabbio, the romance cover model. On the picture, he’d scrawled, “Queen Bee, please sting me!” Sadly, last I heard the library staff had been cut to smithereens, and I doubt Queenie still holds court to all of the young reporters who used to seek out her help.

The recession has obviously forced everyone, from all walks of life, to make some hard decisions. For the Forbes family, it’s meant selling off a castle and a plane, a famed collection of Faberge eggs, and now the flagship building of their changing publishing empire. They’ve also sold off American Heritage. When I remember those years on Fifth Avenue, the memory that is strongest takes place one sunny afternoon. A few of us Heritage girls ran down to the grand staircase of the galleries to catch a glimpse of a legend who was hanging around the main marble lobby. There, at the peak of his short-lived publishing career, stood John F. Kennedy Jr. , every bit as matinee idol handsome as we thought he would be. Tall, stalwart and iconic; gone too soon. Much like the Forbes building itself.