This is going to be the last interview I ever give,” states Alice Mason, “so please make it nice.” She is a woman used to orchestrating things, and at 85 years old (until now she has always fibbed about her age by 5 years), she arrives for lunch at Bella Blu, still quite fashionable in a black cashmere cardigan, black Armani slacks and a black patent leather Chanel bag, enlivened by a boldly colorful Hermès scarf. “I don’t deprive myself,” she smiles.
While cherry blossoms line the streets and the crowd at the restaurant’s café spills onto the sidewalk enjoying the April weather, Mason reveals her plans to be a shut in. “I have scheduled a lunch this Wednesday at La Grenouille; that will be my last time out,” she declares taking a juicy bite of grilled salmon. “I won’t be leaving my apartment after this week. It is being renovated over the next year and a half. There are workers and strangers roaming about and I can’t have my things unattended. I have to protect my art and my home; it’s more important than fresh air. If I really need air, I can open my windows.”
That home has served her well, and was central to Mason’s rise. In it she held monthly dinner parties for 60 people at a time that helped make her the first bold-faced woman in real estate, and a social force to be reckoned with in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Ultimately, her home became her office. Her right to remain in the eight-room rent-stabilized home at 150 E. 72nd Street after Harry Macklowe purchased the building is well documented.
It’s a bit ironic that a woman who made a spectacular career out of knowing the ins and outs of every exclusive co-op in New York lives in a rental and considers that to be one of her smartest decisions. “When I moved there in 1962, I paid $400 a month, and didn’t even have a lease until ’74. Then they asked me what I wanted to pay and I said $500. Now it is going condo, but I pay just $2,089 a month and my social security covers it. I will never have income again, but I will live there for the rest of my life, and it is probably my greatest asset. It even has a wood burning fireplace.”
When Mason came to New York in the early ‘50s, things in the real estate world were quite different than they are today. “It was cheap to live here until the ‘80s,” she insists. “In 1973 New York almost went bankrupt and inflation didn’t really happen until around 1982.”
To say that Mason was a woman with drive is an understatement, and though she has never admitted it publicly, she changed her name upon her arrival to New York when she wanted to reinvent herself. “My maiden name was Christmas, but I did what people in Hollywood did at the time, I came up with a name I thought would work. James Mason was my favorite actor, so I went with that.”