Robby Browne, Real Estate Player and Philanthropist, Dies at 72


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic.

In a city filled with real estate V.I.P.’s, Robby Browne was a cut above.

Hillary Clinton came to his Bridgehampton home for lunch. Martina Navratilova swam in his pool. Uma Thurman went to his Halloween party, where he would dress up as Amal Clooney and Kellyanne Conway.

But on Saturday night, after a three-and-a-half year struggle with multiple myeloma and a two-week bout with the new coronavirus, Mr. Browne died at his Central Park West apartment, according to Jason Moore, a close friend and movie director. He was 72.

One of Mr. Browne’s biggest real estate deals took place in 2003, when he orchestrated the $43 million sale of a penthouse apartment at the Time Warner Center. The buyer was David Martinez, the founder of Fintech, a financial advisory firm, and the price was among the highest ever for a Manhattan residence.

Mr. Browne wasn’t arrogant about his success. He entered the real estate business in 1986 after numerous vocational false starts, and his greatest skill as a salesman was managing not to come off like one.

The youngest of four children, Robert Mallory Browne was born on March 11, 1948, in Louisville, Ky. His father, William Kennedy Browne, graduated from Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and Yale University and was said to work in business. His mother, Elizabeth Willett Browne, went from waltzing with society swans to selling mansions to them. Mr. Browne left no immediate survivors.

At 13, he, too, was shipped off to Phillips Academy. After graduation, he went to Princeton University, where he distinguished himself as a partyer. “Robby used to say he was the worst student on campus,” his longtime friend Colleen Keegan said. “He was supposed to graduate in ’69, but it took him until ’71.”

With a bachelor’s in art history, Mr. Browne moved to Washington, where he sold travel packages to prep school students and Ivy Leaguers for an agency called Cowan Ladd Tours. He sold so many tour packages that the firm changed its name to Browne Ladd. Washington was where he went to his first gay bar, Lost & Found, as he inched his way out of the closet.

Next he went to Harvard Business School and, despite poor attendance, got his M.B.A. in 1978. He moved to New York City and found a kind of home at Studio 54 while he figured what he wanted to do with his life. He considered investment banking but flunked the interview with a bank representative.

“He said, ‘Well if you don’t know what we do at the bank, you’re not the kind of person we want,’” Mr. Browne said in a 27-minute documentary made about him in 2019 by Jeff Dupre, a close friend and Emmy-winning filmmaker. “I said, ‘Well, if you can’t tell me what you do at the bank, then that’s not a place I want to work.’”

After that, he got it into his head that he might want to become a doctor, so he enrolled at St. George’s University School of Medicine, a so-called second chance med school on the island of Grenada. His roommates, Mr. Moore said, were a nun and an ex-convict. They got their degrees. He did not.

Mr. Browne began in real-estate at Halstead, focusing on Central Park West. Among his first deals was selling an apartment to Ian Schrager, one of Studio 54’s owners, who had recently been released from prison for tax evasion.

In subsequent years, the apartments that Mr. Browne sold got bigger and his clients glitzier — among them, Ms. Thurman, Alec Baldwin, Denzel Washington and Mariska Hargitay.

In 2002, Mr. Browne went to the Corcoran Group, where he won numerous awards. In an interview on Fox 5 New York around that time, Mr. Browne said he had gotten “hooked” into real estate “because I had such a passion for architecture.” But colleagues said his real love was being around people.

He lived according to Gore Vidal’s principle that no one should ever turn down the opportunity to go on television or have sex. He knew the interiors of many Central Park West co-op buildings because he had visited them (often after going to gay clubs like the Roxy, the Saint and the Sound Factory).

“I always saw Robbie as sort of a unicorn,” said Corey Johnson, the speaker of the New York City Council. “He was like a Technicolor dream coat, this omnipresent person who everyone loved and got along with. I met him when I was 20 years old. I wasn’t in politics. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t know anyone, and he was sweet and kind and invited me to things. I was enamored of his whole aura.”

Mr. Browne learned he had multiple myeloma in 2016. Chemotherapy, radiation and a stem cell transplant failed to work. Last fall, he underwent experimental immunology treatment. When that, too, failed he returned to radiation.

Friends grew concerned as the coronavirus epidemic worsened. His hospital visits put him at risk. Two weeks ago, Mr. Browne began experiencing flulike symptoms. The first test for Covid-19 came back negative; the second one was positive.

With his health deteriorating, friends suggested that he go to the hospital, but he thought he would be wasting a ventilator. He was unable to hire a hospice worker, so a doctor he had mentored, Deacon Farrell, arrived to care for him.

Mr. Dupre, who served as his health care proxy, worked to get Mr. Browne’s affairs in order while fighting off his own coronavirus infection. He had put together the documentary film about him, titled simply “Robby,” last year, when he realized that Mr. Browne, ill with cancer, might not make it.

At the end of the film, Mr. Browne is driving his azure-colored vintage Chrysler on an empty road in the Hamptons. It’s the end of a glorious fall day, the top is down, his Labrador dog at his side. The camera pans up to the sky as Mr. Browne shares his philosophy of life.

“It’s so hard to find one’s way,” he said. “So hard. And I’m a free spirit. For me, it’s been light and love and peace. I want people to live and be proud of who they are because there’s not much time. We’re all here. So let’s have fun.”



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