NEW YORK – Eccentric multimillionaire Abe Hirschfeld (search), an immigrant who lived the American dream until his increasingly bizarre behavior led him into politics, publishing and prison, died Tuesday. He was 85.
The irascible Hirschfeld, who made his fortune building parking lots and health clubs after coming to the United States from Israel, died at Mount Sinai Hospital of cardiac arrest after suffering from cancer, his family said.
The self-made magnate who spent 22 months in prison for plotting to kill a business partner, also amassed a real estate empire, earning a reputation among his colleagues as a bit off-center. Time magazine cited Hirschfeld among the 20th century's top builders and business titans, beneath the headline "Crazy and in Charge."
But late in life, Hirschfeld crossed the line from laughable to loony. Inexplicably bitten by the publicity bug, he ran unsuccessfully for New York lieutenant governor, Manhattan borough president, state comptroller and U.S. Senate- the latter against Hillary Rodham Clinton (search) in 2000 and Charles Schumer (search) in 2004.
He purchased the New York Post in 1993, a move that lasted 16 days, led to a full-scale staff revolt, and produced an unforgettable front-page headline that wondered, "WHO IS THIS NUT?"
Hirschfeld twice spit on a Miami Herald reporter to protest her paper's news coverage. And he offered Paula Jones $1 million to drop her sexual harassment suit against President Clinton. She later sued him for the money, but a judge dismissed the case.
Comedian Jackie Mason, one of Hirschfeld's many detractors, once derided the millionaire as "a common, deranged maniac." Hirschfeld, in his thick Yiddish accent, didn't disagree; in a February 2001 jailhouse interview, he acknowledged, "I'm crazy, maybe."
Hirschfeld was born in Turnow, Poland. With the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, his family moved to what is now Israel in 1935. In 1943, he married his wife, Zipora; seven years later, with two children, they came to the United States.
The immigrant made his fortune catering to America's fascination with automobiles by building parking lots - "open air garages," as Hirschfeld called them. Later, when health clubs boomed, he opened the Vertical Fitness and Racket Club (search).
"Who could have foretold that an obscure Jewish boy in a remote town in southern Poland would eventually become a wealthy and influential New York real estate tycoon?" Hirschfeld asked in his self-published 1986 autobiography, "An Accidental Wedding." (search)
For decades, Hirschfeld remained a wealthy cipher to most New Yorkers - quietly earning his millions, making donations to politicians like Robert F. Kennedy, but staying out of the headlines.
His unsuccessful, self-financed campaign for lieutenant governor in 1986 marked a change in his low profile. Three years later, he was chosen as a city commissioner in Miami Beach - where he'd moved to run a hotel - but blew a shot at re-election with his twin spitting incidents.
In 1993, Hirschfeld made his biggest splash when he attempted to buy the financially failing New York Post and ran it for 16 tumultuous days. The staff so despised Hirschfeld that it produced an entire issue trashing him, including a Page 1 picture of Post founder Alexander Hamilton shedding a tear.
Typically, Hirschfeld saw this as a triumph. That edition of the paper, he later crowed, was "a collector's item."
The businessman sold the Post and founded his own paper, a daily called Open Air, (search) but it folded after five months. His trademark, while in the newspaper business, was to hand out ties with a crossword puzzle pattern.
After the turn of the century, Hirschfeld found himself mired in legal woes. In June 2000, Hirschfeld was convicted of looking for a hit man to murder his business partner; two months later, he got hit with a $1 million tax evasion fine.
On Oct. 2, 2000, he started a 22-month jail term, getting out of jail in July 2002, just months before his 83rd birthday. He was among the oldest, and the richest, inmates in all of New York state.
"I'm a man whose mold the Good Lord wisely decided to set aside after he created me," Hirschfeld wrote in his book.
In a statement Tuesday, his son, Elie Hirschfeld, said of his father: "His vision and generous spirit were inspirational to all who knew him well, and I will miss his vibrant presence and his unbridled passion for life."
In addition to his son, Hirschfeld is survived by his wife Zipora, and a daughter Rachel.
A memorial service was scheduled for Wednesday at Riverside Memorial Chapel.