It may come as a surprise to you, but the richest man by far is a man you never heard of because he has been completely under the radar, until now. He has his fortune in real estate and owns bigger houses and more of them than Perelman or Rennert or Bloomberg or Schwarzman put together, even accounting for the value of all the other businesses they participate in. It is time the truth be told.
This man is a direct descendant of a Lebanese man who came to America four generations ago. It was 1888, and at Ellis Island where he and all the other immigrants had to sign documents as they passed through, he gave his name to the official there: “Accountability.” It was a strange name. In Lebanese Arabic, it meant “honest man” in the banking business with high ambition and trustworthiness. At Ellis Island, however, the elder Mr. Accountability had a bad cold from his time on the boat. And so, the clerk on the island, hurrying everybody through, wrote Mr. Accountability’s name as “Liability,” something that neither Mr. Accountability nor his wife noticed until the ferry docked on the Lower East Side and ushered them ashore with but 10 Lebanese spigots in their pockets and the clothes on their backs.
In Lebanon, the Accountability family had been well known and beloved for a thousand years in the banking business. But in 1886, a well-known swindler had swindled the current Mr. Accountability out of his bank. And so, that year, he had nothing for the soldiers on horseback who came to collect the taxes. As a result, they fled to America. And here they were welcomed. “Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Downtrodden…” the Lady said.
Mr. Liability started a pushcart business on Mott Street. Soon he had 10 pushcarts. Then he bought a tenement building and then another and another. Pretty soon he had almost as many buildings as the big Rockefeller and Woolworth, Morgan, Vanderbilts and Astors of that age. They looked down at him, though. For example, everyone in his immediate family called him Leonard, which was his real first name. He had been Leonard Accountability. Now, in New York City, the other builders condescendingly took to calling him by a disparaging nickname: “Limited.” The name stuck.
Mr. Limited Liability went bust during the Great Depression. But his son, Limited Liability Jr., had by that time, been handed off the growing business at the last minute. And so, to get out of town, so to speak, Liability Jr. and his teenage son Limited Liability III came out to the Hamptons in 1936 to try to prosper here. Limited Liability III was expected to take over the family business, but he died at the hands of the Japanese at Corregidor in the Philippines in 1942. And so the family fortune fell to Liability IV and then to the present-day Limited Liability, so named after the founder of the fortune, that very loving and popular man who prospered here off the boat.
Today, the family fortune, all in the real estate business here, is staggering. There are an estimated 50,000 homes and other properties here in the Hamptons, many for just a few dollars. A careful study of the tax rolls in East Hampton and Southampton by Dan’s Papers shows that upward of 20,000 of these properties, 4 out of every 10 homes is owned by Limited Liability, his wife or one of his many children, all of whom use the name Limited Liability in one form or another. (They use LLC for example, or LTD or INC.) Or to put it another way, if you taped all 50,000 real estate tax bills to a wall and, blindfolded, threw a dart at it, the chances are nearly half you’d hit one of Limited Liabilities’ home tax bills. Or still another way, if the average property here were valued $2 million each, the total value of the Limited Liability holdings would exceed $40 billion, an extraordinary sum.
The Liabilities, who take their religion very seriously, pray five times a day, are good neighbors to everybody and live modestly and humbly in a small three-bedroom house on a residential street in East Quogue. Mrs. Liability, who answered the door when we knocked at 2784 Big Pines Drive, told us that yes, that was them, but that both she and her husband would prefer not to be interviewed for this story.
We wish them all the best, which has indeed been a stunning rise to wealth and fortune over the years, and will respect their wishes to never write about them. They deserve their privacy. Well earned.
By the way, they drive a 2008 grey Prius. You can see it parked in their driveway as you pass by.