The ‘Bingo' Heiress's Fantastical Duplex
New York magazine|September 13 - 26, 2021
With its Fragonard staircase, koi-pond bathroom, and rodeo-themed kitchen, Gail Ann Lowe Maidman’s apartment is like nothing else on the Upper East Side. Or anywhere else, really.
WENDY GOODMAN

THE WALK-THROUGH MIRROR A section of the wall swivels open between the library and the living room.

THE GOTHIC LIBRARY Gail Maidman was careful to work with artisans and companies she felt were in keeping with her values. After turning down an Austrian company because of that country’s cooperation with Nazis, she chose an Irish firm to make the stained-glass windows in the library. “They were on her own approved list of countries who were good to the Jews,” her daughter, Starr Kempin, explains.

THE LIVING ROOM Gail called the pair of goddess-head seats her “fertility chairs,” Starr says. “If someone was having a fertility issue, she would make them sit in them.”THE KITCHEN The western-themed kitchen was inspired in part by the set of Agnes de Mille’s ballet Rodeo. Jim Digregorio, who installed much of the kitchen, says Gail came to him and announced, “I want this kitchen to look like a small town in Texas.” He recalls that some of the wood he used came from the Ralph Lauren store on 72nd and Madison. “It was part of a window display. She was passing by as they were disposing of it, and she said she would take it.”

ON A WELL-MANNERED block of the Upper East Side, lined with the sort of nondescriptly elegant limestone buildings that seem to value discretion above all else, there was, invisible to passersby, a fabulous secret. Nothing untoward, just unexpected. It was Gail Ann Lowe Maidman’s wonderland, a 14-room, exuberantly theatrical duplex that she obsessively worked and reworked over the years into something astonishing—unlike any other apartment I’ve ever visited—so personal, and peculiar, that I couldn’t get it out of my head once I’d seen it. I wanted to know who Gail was and what drove her to do this.

“My mother always wanted to be an actress,” her daughter, Starr Kempin, told me, sitting in the gothic library of the apartment, which she inherited after her mother’s death in 2016 but only recently took possession of. “She went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but my grandfather didn’t approve, so he made her work in his office.” Later in life, though, in this apartment, Gail was the star.

Gail was born to a prosperous and striving New York family. Her father, Edwin S. Lowe, had immigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1928. The eldest son of a Hasidic rabbi, he was a traveling salesman during the Depression. It was on one of his stops, at a small-town carnival in Georgia, that the seed of his fortune was planted when he noticed a crowd gathered around a game of Beano, in which the caller shouted out numbers and players filled in their cards. Intrigued by the players’ fervor, Lowe tried out the game at home; in the thrill of winning, a woman in the group yelled “Bingo!” instead of “Beano.” He got the idea to market the game commercially and asked a mathematician from Columbia University to come up with 6,000 new Bingo cards, all with nonrepeating number combinations. (According to the book A Toy Is Born, by Marvin Kaye, the mathematician then lost his mind.)

But Bingo wasn’t Lowe’s only jackpot. As family lore has it, he was invited on a yacht by a couple who entertained their guests with what they called the Yacht Game, which used handmade score cards. The wife came to Lowe’s office and asked him to make 1,000 game cards to give to friends; in return, she agreed to Lowe’s request for the rights to market the game commercially. He changed the name to Yahtzee and—bingo!—the rest is history. Lowe sold his company to Milton Bradley in 1973 for $26 million (about $160 million today) and went into real estate. And although he also dabbled in the theater, producing A Talent for Murder with Claudette Colbert on Broadway in 1981, he was not very supportive of his daughter’s stage dreams.

According to her daughter, Gail used to make prank calls in a Yiddish accent to her father’s office manager, pretending to be a disgruntled customer who had purchased a faulty Mahjongg set. “My mom just tortured this man,” says Starr. Eventually, her fake customer was passed on to her father to placate, and, according to her daughter, she would pry into his romantic life. But her father and the fake-voice character became friends. Finally, after seven years, she revealed that she was the annoying lady.

As we talk, Starr points out the portrait of her paternal great-grandfather over the fireplace. He is dressed like an Edwardian gentleman, complete with top hat, but as in so many family histories, liberties had been taken. “He was actually a Hasidic rabbi,” Starr explains. “I always say my grandfather secularized him. He wore a shtreimel and had a white beard, but my grandfather, who became a very secular Jew, had his portrait painted like that.”

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