William Jaird Levitt (February 11, 1907 – January 28, 1994) was an American real-estate developer. In his position as president of Levitt & Sons, he is widely credited as the father of modern American suburbia. He was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.
Levitt was born in 1907 to a Jewish family. His generation was the second since immigrating from Russia and Austria; the grandfather who immigrated to the United States had been a rabbi from eastern Europe. Levitt grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His father was Abraham Levitt, a real estate attorney and part-time investor; his mother was Pauline Biederman. A younger brother, Alfred, was born when William was 5 years old. William received a public school education at Public School 44 and Boys High School. He then attended New York University for three years.
Levitt married Rhoda Kirshner in November 1929. Their son William Junior was born in 1933. His second son, James was born in 1944. The couple divorced in 1959, and Levitt married his secretary and long-time lover, Alice Kenny. Ten years later in 1969, Levitt divorced her and married a French art dealer, Simone Korchin.
Levitt & Sons
In 1929, William's father, Abraham, founded a real-estate development company called Levitt & Sons. Levitt & Sons built mostly upscale housing on and around Long Island, New York in the 1930s. William Levitt served as company president, overseeing all aspects of the company except for the designs of the homes they built, which fell to William's brother Alfred.
After World War II
During World War II, Levitt served in the Navy as a lieutenant in the Seabees. After returning from the war, he saw a need for affordable housing for returning veterans. America's post-war prosperity and baby boom had created a crisis of affordable housing.
Levitt & Sons built their first huge housing development near Hempstead, Long Island and named it Levittown. The assembly line construction method allowed Levittown to be constructed more efficiently than any other development at the time, with teams of specialized workers following each other from house to house to complete incremental steps in the construction. Levitt was the cover story in TIME Magazine for July 3, 1950, with the tag line "For Sale: a new way of life."
As Levitt & Sons' president, Levitt proposed and constructed other East Coast developments throughout the 1960s. In 1952, people started buying over 17,000 Levitt-built homes in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In addition, the company built Willingboro, New Jersey, which still has street names such as Levitt Parkway. During the late 1950s, Levitt and Sons constructed "Belair at Bowie" in Bowie, Maryland. In the early 1960s, the company built a 5,000-house community in north central New Jersey called Strathmore-at-Matawan.
William took control of Levitt & Sons in 1954, after splitting with Alfred. The company went public in 1960. During the 1960s, when Levitt was leading the company, Levitt & Sons developed properties beyond the American mainland, such as Levittown, Puerto Rico; Lésigny in Seine-et-Marne; and Mennecy in Essonne.
Levitt was awarded the Frank P. Brown Medal in 1965.
By the late 1960s, William had become one of the richest men in America, with a fortune estimated in excess of $100 million. He lived in a lavish 30-room mansion on his "La Coline" estate in Mill Neck, New York, and spent much of his time on La Belle Simone, his 237 feet (72 m) yacht that was named after his third wife. After he had built over 140,000 houses around the world, then 60-year-old Levitt sold the company to ITT for $92 million ($650 million today) in July 1967, of which $62 million was in the form of ITT stock. ITT made Levitt president of the renamed Levitt Corp., with a condition that Levitt could not move to another United States home building company for ten years. He entered the agreement thinking he would play an active role in ITT affairs, but executives felt Levitt was too old to take on more responsibility.
Levitt remained president under ITT until 1972. During that time he led the subsidiary's development of housing projects in Palm Coast, Florida; Richmond, Virginia; and Fairfax, Virginia.
Later years and death
After the condition against Levitt moving to a new home building company in the United States expired, he was unable to repeat his successes with Levitt & Sons. He established a series of companies and joint ventures through the 1970s and 1980s which failed. He was also accused of misappropriation of funds.
William Levitt came to symbolize the new suburban growth with his use of mass-production techniques to construct large developments of houses, eponymously named Levittowns, selling for under $10,000. Many other relatively inexpensive suburban developments soon appeared throughout the country. While he did not invent the building of communities of affordable single-family homes within driving distance of major areas of employment, his innovations in providing affordable housing popularized this type of planned community in the years following World War II.
His nicknames included "The King Of Suburbia"  and "Inventor of the Suburb." At his height, when he was building one suburban house every 16 minutes, Levitt compared his successes to those of Henry Ford's automobile assembly line. Time Magazine recognized Levitt as one of the "100 Most Important People of the 20th Century" in 1998.
Levitt refused to integrate his developments. The Jewish Levitt barred Jews from Strathmore, his first pre-Levittown development on Long Island in New York, and refused to sell his homes to blacks. His sales contracts also forbade the resale of properties to blacks, though in 1957 a white couple resold their house to the first black family to live in a Levitt home. Levitt's all-white policies also led to civil rights protests in Bowie, Maryland in 1963. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union opposed Levitt’s racist policies, and the Federal Housing Administration prepared to refuse mortgages on his next Levittown. Nevertheless, Levitt would not back down and continued planning another whites-only Levittown in Willingboro Township, NJ. He fought legal challenges in New Jersey courts until the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case.
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New European housing often looks elegant from the outside, but much of it is backward in kitchen equipment, bathroom layout, floor plans, heating, plumbing and lighting—the innards that make the shell truly livable. The gap yawns nowhere wider than in France, where 51 years of rent control have helped create a gargantuan housing shortage. Thus it is not surprising that the French have enthusiastically greeted an invasion by Long Island's William J. Levitt, the U.S.'s biggest homebuilder (fiscal 1965 sales: $60 million). More than 60,000 Frenchmen have poured out of Paris to gape at Levitt's recently opened American-style subdivision in suburban Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis (pop. 2,000).
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- David Halberstam, The Fifties: "The Fear and the Dream" (1997 documentary)
- Jew vs Jew in Levittown The Forward, 13 April 2009