Marilyn Monroe was no doubt a key inspiration as one of Mason’s first real estate clients, for whom she found two apartments. She befriended the actress after landing her first job in real estate with a small firm called Gotham Realty. Her memory for numbers is uncanny as she rattles off figures and addresses from half a century ago. “We did a lot of short term sublets for movie stars; I also got a $120 per month place for Paul Newman at 405 E. 54th Street, and later a $90 4th floor walk-up for Ben Gazzara,” she recalls. “Marilyn was here making The Prince and the Showgirl; she was very sweet and vulnerable. It took her a year to find something. I got her an apartment at 2 Sutton Place, then another at 444 E. 57th Street. She was very lonely because she was seeing Arthur Miller and he was married. She would call me for no real reason. One night she called me at 11 p.m. to tell me the water was running in her bathroom. She just wanted to talk to someone.”
Mason also became friendly with Lorenzo Lamas and Ricardo and Georgiana Montalban, but the Hollywood connection was not the key to her meteoric rise. “It wasn’t easy getting actors into buildings; they were considered unreliable,” she notes. She believed her real break had come when Alfred Vanderbilt, whom she had met through an actress friend, Dody Heath, was searching for a new place to live after his divorce. “I was excited that I would have my first co-op client. I thought, ‘nobody would turn down a Vanderbilt!’” She was wrong. Mason attempted to get him into 19 E. 72nd Street, but he was flatly rejected. “They said ‘our residents are from the 1600s; the Vanderbilts were the robber barons of the 1900s. We won’t take him.’ That’s the way they were in the 1950s. The top buildings were all social register.”
In 1958 she opened her own firm and set about methodically learning every detail about the city’s best buildings. “You have to know who is who and what’s what; who doesn’t like who,” she maintains. “Most brokers don’t know anything, but I made it my business to analyze the nuances of every building.” And she succeeded in that business. “Because she knew how to work it, she really changed the rules,” observes David Patrick Columbia, author of the website New York Social Diary. “She knew the history of each apartment, and who would be or could be on the board of every building. She would find the most sympathetic person on the board and work them first, and she would tutor her clients, telling them how to answer specific board questions. If they would object, she would say, ‘Do you want to be in the building or not?’ She is very astute about people and she really changed things with co-op boards, including breaking down racial and ethnic barriers.’”
Mason instinctively knew if a client would get into a building or not. “Alice had a client she took to 740 Park Avenue, and on the way out of the showing, the woman rudely said to the doorman, ‘Get me a cab.’ Alice turned to her and said, ‘Now, you will never get into the building because of the way you just spoke to the doorman. He will tell them.’” Vanderbilt was accepted at 31 E. 79th Street with Mason’s guidance, and he soon introduced her to William S. and Babe Paley, who became clients and huge stepping-stones in her career.
“I met Bill and Babe through the Vanderbilts, and then I met the world!” she says.
As her connections grew, Mason parlayed them into social strength by hosting dinner parties that soon became among the most coveted invitations. Her first one was in 1956. It’s a testimony to her personal charm that though it was held in her small one bedroom, Vanderbilt and Monroe both showed up. “I didn’t have enough chairs, but I had a queen-size bed, so I put three settings on each side and three at the foot of the bed, which took care of nine guests. People just sat on the floor. We served paella and salad. I wasn’t trying to compete with rich people in beautiful homes, but I had the right people and that’s what counts.”