Jerry Finkelstein, a businessman who wielded power in the worlds of real estate, politics, and newspapers, died on Nov. 28 at his home in Manhattan. He was 96.
Finkelstein was born in New York on Jan. 26, 1916. He attended George Washington High School and New York University, and graduated from New York Law School in 1938, but did not take the bar exam. He became a reporter for The New York Daily Mirror, and with a colleague, Seward Brisbane, son of the Hearst editor Arthur Brisbane, founded The Civil Service Leader, a newspaper for public employees, in 1939.
Finkelstein built his fortune in a series of notable ventures. In the 1950s, he borrowed $85,000 and, with the help of friends on Wall Street, bought the Fifth Avenue Coach Company for $5 million. He later sold his stock in it for $990,000. He then went into public relations with Tex McCrary, the columnist and radio and television personality, and together they helped a client, Louis A. Chesler, a stock speculator, with some difficulties he had with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The commission later reported that Finkelstein had earned $2.3 million in Chesler stock speculations.
Finkelstein had a keen interest in Democratic politics, having managed the 1949 re-election campaign of New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer, who, before resigning in a scandal in 1950, named Finkelstein chairman of the City Planning Commission. For President John F. Kennedy, the businessman helped raise money for what became the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and for President Lyndon Johnson, he helped pick a patronage dispenser. Finkelstein also supported the mayoral campaigns of Robert F. Wagner and John Lindsay, raised money for Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, and served as a conduit to the Democrats for Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican. In 1972, Rockefeller named Finkelstein a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a position he held for three years.
Finkelstein gave his biggest support to his son, Andrew Stein, who shortened his last name. Stein ran in 1968 for the Assembly from the East Side of Manhattan. Finkelstein put up $250,000 – then the largest amount ever spent on a local campaign – and inundated the district with posters, mailings, and campaign workers. At only 23 years old, Stein won handily and was re-elected four times. In 1974 and 1975, his investigation into nursing home abuses made headlines statewide, and there was talk of a run for mayor, governor or even president. In 1977, he was elected Manhattan Borough President, and then in 1985, he was elected City Council President. He was re-elected in 1989, but the post was later abolished. In 1993, Stein ran for the Democratic nomination for mayor but quit before the primary, retiring for good from public office.
In 1963, Finkelstein bought The Law Journal, the official paper of the city’s legal profession, for $1 million. Its circulation was small, and it was an array of tiny print such as legal notices, case calendars, and texts of decisions. But Finkelstein turned it into a leading journal, and he wielded enormous power by deciding which cases to publish, in effect determining what the bar read — a leverage not lost on judges, lawyers, and politicians.
Finkelstein’s wife of 41 years, Shirley Marks, died in 2003. Besides Stein, he is survived by another son, James Finkelstein, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.