La Belle Simone
By Rich Cohen
Nov 10, 2013
She was once married to Bill Levitt, one of the richest men in America. Now she lives in a rented one-bedroom, alone with her memories. But oh, what memories.
I was intrigued—Simone Levitt was a living link to a world that I’d thought was gone. I went to see her in July, then kept going back. When she was 40 years old, Simone lived in a 30-room mansion in Mill Neck, Long Island, surrounded by an extensive staff, and spent holidays on one of the largest yachts in the world, which was named for her: La Belle Simone. Now 84, she lives alone in a rented one-bedroom apartment on the East Side. On the days I visited, she had a maid to serve lunch, keeping up appearances.
One reason Simone had reached out to me was that she was, perhaps, a little lonely. But she also had a hunger to tell her husband’s story, which was glorious and tragic in equal measure, and which was her story too—she had unfinished business with the man, which I could help her with. She seemed to need a witness to this reckoning. “My husband always said he wanted to be the poorest man in the cemetery,” she told me, laughing. “Guess what? He was!”
The walls were covered with pictures of the Levitts with the most famous people in the world, movie stars, presidents. If she had not once been half of a storied power couple, you’d figure Simone had once owned a great deli.
An elegantly petite woman, Simone speaks with a lyrical French accent. She told the story of her husband in a roundabout way, each episode set off by a whisper or a sigh. She’s as old as my grandmother ever got, yet you can still see what a beautiful girl she must’ve been in the forties. “My father liked the horses,” she said. “My mother played poker. She was one of the only women in Paris allowed to play with men. But she saved our lives during the war. That’s how we ate. She played poker. Or baccarat. I would know when she won by her face. Are we gonna eat today? She died at 48. She never made it to America after the war. I came from a middle-class Jewish-Greek family. Then the war. I was in jail. I was with the orphans. I almost went to Auschwitz. I was a survivor. At 11, I was raped by a French policeman. That’s why I was afraid of men. To me, a man represented a gun.”
She lived with relatives in Brooklyn after the war and married a man she met on a ship headed back to France. He had money and took Simone to Rome, where she opened an art gallery. It became a salon for wealthy Americans abroad.
It was through her gallery that she met Levitt.
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