From prophylactics and toilet cleaners to white yachts and a white-tablecloth restaurant … the amazing journey of a high-school dropout who realized dollars were just tokens in a larger game
Photograph by Frank Di Piazza
At 11, he started selling newspapers—The News and The Mirror—outside Broadway theaters. “They sold for 2 cents apiece. People would give you a nickel and chase you for the penny change, and you’d try to disappear.”
At 14, he went to work in the catering business, and a $100 tip changed his life. One night a cop pulled alongside the small figure trudging through Brooklyn at 2 a.m. and asked just what he was doing. “Whaddya think?” he retorted. “I’m going home from work.”
Lester Miller was born in 1932 and raised in Brooklyn. His father was from Poland, his mother from Russia. She nicknamed her son Lepke (for Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, the Murder, Inc., mob boss sentenced to the electric chair), and when Lester was 9, she patted his head and said, “Lepke, either you’re going to be a rich man or a gangster.”
His older sister, Bea Pine, can still quote the line. “He always did things without telling us,” she says, explaining the nickname. “He was always honorable, but he’d make money without telling us.” She had early warning: When she was pushing his buggy home from the park one afternoon, she arrived home to find it empty. “Where’s the baby?” their mother shrieked.
He’d jumped out.
Miller bored easily. “I never had a toy in my life,” he complains. “My parents were old European people; they gave us clothespins to play with.” Was it ennobling? “Oh no. I wanted toys.”
He’d go on to get them—but not the conventional way.
Miller loved life, hated school. He started working full time at 13; dragged back because education was compulsory, he chose a food-trades vocational high school and kept working full time in catering. He had his own apartment at 16; a year later, he lied about his age to land a sales job with Zep Manufacturing Co.
Zep’s president, Erwin Zaban, took a liking to Miller and loaned him a black ’47 Ford so he could travel about selling the company’s maintenance and sanitation products. Today Zaban, an Atlanta philanthropist, calls Miller “probably the greatest man at numbers I have ever met.” Miller brags that he never returned the Ford.
Though Zaban brushes off any suggestion that he mentored Miller, the younger man was watching closely. Zaban didn’t normally provide employees with a company car, so later, when Miller had his own company, he didn’t either.
“He was the first real businessman I ever met,” Miller says, “and I adored him. “I went on to make a lot of money,” he adds. “Nobody makes a lot of money without somebody helping them.”
It was Zaban who sent Miller to St. Louis. “I remember driving in on a Sunday morning,” he says. “The sun was shining, and I got off of what is now Highway 70 and rode down Kingshighway and saw the Chase Park Plaza and thought, ‘Wow.’”
He was weary of traveling and taken by St. Louis, a gently spoken, old-money town as unlike Brooklyn as any place he’d seen. Soon he was introduced to Rosalie Appt, whom he married at 23. He set out to make himself a St. Louisan.
“When you come, they try to gauge you right away,” he says. “I didn’t go to high school!”
Rosalie’s nickname was Charlie, as in “good-time Charlie.” Outgoing and lighthearted, she never had a bad word to say about anybody. “We had seven kids in a hurry—‘Hello, goodbye, I’m pregnant,’” says Miller. “She’s a saint.”
Their firstborn was a boy, Bill, followed by Barbara, Bobbie, Betsy, Beth, Bridget and Brandi. Miller worked long hours, but when he was home, he was fun. “He’d wake all the kids up in the middle of the night and say, ‘C’mon, we’re going to New York,’” recalls his middle daughter, Betsy Gleijeses. Having six girls wasn’t easy for him, she adds: “He didn’t know how to deal with all the sensitivity. He was great at being a savior—he thrives in crisis situations. He would say, ‘You want to cry? I’m not in the crying game. You want help, I’ll help you.’”
He and Charlie divorced in 1979. She got the ’78 Jaguar, the ’78 Camaro, the ’78 Monza, $52,500 in cash and 200,000 shares of National Bagelville Corp., which Lester had started on the side to make New York–style bagels. He got all outstanding loans and the debt from National Bagelville. He continued to invite Charlie on family vacations and holidays—even after he remarried, and remarried again. “We only divorced sexually,” he says now. “I always loved her.”
She died last year while visiting one of their daughters in Nairobi. As Miller frantically tried to get the body back home, friends say, he was almost literally beside himself—pulled out of his normal self for perhaps the first time ever.
Miller’s entrepreneurial career began with condom-vending machines in gas stations—but when I remind him, he grabs my notebook out of my hand. “You don’t wanna say that!” I do. Finally, he draws himself up. “At least don’t say condoms,” he tells me, drawing a heavy black line through my notes. “They are prophylactics. Condoms are for horses.”
It’s said that he understocked the machines in the women’s restrooms, knowing that women would be too embarrassed to ask for their money back. He grins like a Cheshire cat. “It’s a good story” is all he’ll say before continuing, “And then we started manufacturing prophylactics. There was a cartel in the United States, and we broke it.”
He didn’t make millions at the prophylactics, though; he was still buying his groceries with quarters at Flotken’s and running a toilet-cleaning company. The first real break came when his friend Mickey Kranzberg, of Northwestern Bottling, introduced him to someone from Plax Co., which was working on a thin-walled plastic bottle. Miller realized that the new bottle could hold toilet-bowl cleaner without shattering and splashing muriatic acid everywhere. Plax let him lead the way, and Kranzberg partnered with him—for a while. “I owed Mickey so much money from these bottles, he got scared,” Miller recalls. “If something happened to me, it’d take down the family business [now Kranson Industries].”
Miller went into business for himself and decided to manufacture in Japan, “which at that time was like China is today,” he says. “It took two days to get there, no jets, and Japan had a reputation for manufacturing junk—but you could make a mold there for $300 that over here would cost $10,000. I came back and put an ad in The Wall Street Journal: ‘Young executive with thorough knowledge of Japan will expedite your assignment.’”
That was the beginning of Contico, which incorporated as Continental Manufacturing Co. in 1964. Erwin Zaban gave Miller start-up money, and Sam Goldstein—the founder of Apex Oil, also from Brooklyn—bought the last bonds. The company would go on to make a fortune developing the trigger sprayer for cleaning-solution bottles.
In 1967, The Graduate came out, with its now-famous scene in which a businessman stage-whispers “just one word” of career advice: “Plastics.”
“I saw the film,” Miller says solemnly, “and I think it was right. At the time, plastic was like the Internet is today.” He picks up a ceramic plate, holds it aloft. “We’d see this and say, ‘Can we make it out of plastic?’”
He imported from Japan, then Hong Kong, then Taiwan, then Korea, changing cities every time costs rose. Then he learned that Union Carbide was selling its plastics division: “I offered to buy it for $800,000 I didn’t have. I didn’t think they’d take the offer.”
He talked his way into a $1 million loan, then borrowed more. “I was undercapitalized for most of Contico’s early years,” he says. “When you don’t have anything, you don’t worry about anything. They’d say, ‘You have to sign this personally,’ and I’d say, ‘Where do I sign?’” He chuckles. “Toward the end, though, we had all the money we wanted.”
Success didn’t change him—it just added a few paradoxes. The rough-talking kid from Brooklyn wound up in a Ladue mansion filled with fragile Lalique crystal. The high-school dropout had his 55th birthday party at the Harvard Club, clad in full academic regalia.
Lester Miller loves to talk money; he rarely mentions a purchase without prefacing it with the number of millions he paid for it. He loves superlatives: He paid the highest price per square foot in Ladue’s history for Busch’s Grove and renovated the restaurant without a budget. Soon after he bought a yacht, he built a yacht company. When he commissioned a statue of his old pal Stan Musial for Lester’s Sports Bar & Grill, he made it 6-foot-6.
Miller’s is not a restful presence: His energy’s almost manic, his attention span’s that of a bumblebee, his brusque impatience can seem condescending and his candor can seem cruel. He’s been known to scream profanities at anyone in his line of fire—then call them “baby” or “sweetheart” in the next breath. “He’s meshugeneh,” a good friend says with a shrug.
Yet even when Miller rubs people the wrong way, they’re crazy about him again in no time. He loves life too much to brook indifference.
One day he asked for a Post-Dispatch at Schneithorst’s, and the manager, Dan Fox, said, “I’ll get you one, Mr. Miller.” Fox went across Clayton Road to Schnucks for the paper. Miller finished his coffee, then went across Lindbergh to Sam Cavato and bought Fox a $300 cashmere sweater as a thank-you.
Another day Miller took a cab to the airport, and the driver came running after him, yelling, “Mr. Miller! You left your wallet!” “It had about $3,000 in it,” Miller says, “but what’s important is, it had all my ID.” He peeled off a $20 in gratitude, rushed to his flight and then thought, ‘That wasn’t enough.’ When he returned, he tried to find the cabbie, but the company couldn’t help. A month later, he climbed into another cab and saw the driver he’d been looking for.
“What do you make?” Miller asked; on hearing the sum, he said, “Quit. You’re going to drive for me.” When he found out that the man, Dawit Ayalew, was a political refugee from Ethiopia with three children, he told him, “When I’m out of town, park outside the Ritz-Carlton; you’ll get fares, and you can keep the money.” Ayalew became so successful that Miller once returned home from a trip to learn that his driver was busy with another fare—in Illinois. Miller took a cab home, telling himself wryly, “Something’s wrong with this picture.” So he helped Ayalew get a loan and start his own company. Then, when it looked like the Ritz-Carlton was going to shut him out, Miller accompanied Ayalew to the interview and told the hotel manager, “Here’s a guy, he was in the sand four years ago, he came to the United States, he became a U.S. citizen, the customers love him, he should get the exclusive contract.”
The manager murmured something about Ayalew’s needing at least six cars.
“I’ll get him six cars,” Miller replied.
Ayalew, who now owns America Transportation and has paid back every cent Miller loaned him, still talks in bemused tones about his year as a personal driver: “He usually sat in the front seat, and he didn’t want me to open and close the door for him. I asked him, ‘Why don’t you buy a car with tinted glass?’ and he said, ‘No, I want to stay low-class; the tinted glass gets attention.’ Sometimes he’d go for lunch with his friends and come out with food for me. I said, ‘No, no!’ He said, ‘Once upon a time, I was like you. I was a little guy.’”
Miller’s famous generosity has its flash point: “He’ll give you anything, but if you try to take it or take a little bit more, he doesn’t like that at all,” says his best friend, Robert Lococo, an interior designer, art dealer and publisher. “I’ve seen him cut people off again and again. They misunderstand his generosity as stupidity.”
He was furious with his son for asking to be bought out of the family business. He fired his brother-in-law from his bagel-making company, National Bagelville, and doesn’t want to talk about it.
“I wouldn’t do something he wanted,” says the brother-in-law, Alan Appt. “In 1973, he fired me—and he is vindictive to this day. I opened my own bagel business, the Bagel Factory. One day I get a call from Lester Miller: ‘I’m going to open up a place across the street from you and put you out of business.’ He did—he opened the New York Bagelry in the Dierbergs shopping center right across the street. And when I sold the Bagel Factory, in 1987, he sold his New York Bagelry 30 days later.”
Yet even Appt says, “Some of the temper tantrums are fabricated. It’s a matter of getting what you want, and if being loud and slapping your hand on the tabletop or the bar will do it, that’s what he’ll do.” Appt pauses. “I’ve seen Lester give his last $100 away when he didn’t have any money. He’s amazingly generous if he likes you. If he doesn’t like you, it’s the antithesis.” And what determines whom he likes? “You need to be agreeable. If Lester Miller says the sky’s pink and you don’t say anything at all, forget about it. It’s over. You’re finished.”
Miller brought Todd Weisz to St. Louis to be executive chef and co-owner of Busch’s Grove, but they, too, disagreed. “I would say our egos clashed,” Weisz says equably, adding that Miller was entirely fair and honorable. (Weisz is now opening his own restaurant, on Washington Avenue.)
The other surefire provocation is waste: Lococo remembers sitting on the deck of Miller’s yacht, gazing at the dark-blue waves and seeing cantaloupe and some other overripe fruit float past. “It had been tossed overboard,” says Lococo. “Lester got so furious, he practically choked the chef.”
In return for all the yacht trips, Lococo designed Miller’s condo at The Plaza in Clayton. “He didn’t care about a kitchen; he wanted a big hot tub, and that was it,” says Lococo, who created a Manhattan penthouse, sexy and elegant, with an ivory leather chaise, ivory-piped chocolate-brown velvet couch, dark-wood trim and glass sculpture and heavy silver candelabra. “I wanted to give him a real gentleman’s place, very tailored, understated,” Lococo explains. “Here’s a guy with a big personality. I didn’t want schmaltzy interiors, overdone, that would be on that level. This way, his persona is what you’re seeing, not the décor.”
When the comment’s repeated, Miller is dismayed. “You talked to Lococo? Between that and the foo-foo dog, everybody’s gonna think I’m gay.”
Hardly. In between Charlie and his current wife was a second wife, Sharon Duey, and a long line of paramours. The dog, a fluffball named Chase, is a bit precious, but it was a present from a young, lush onetime fiancée who wanted to give him a dog just like her Maltese so they’d always have something in common.
“That’s all they had in common,” a friend groans.
In 1999, Miller sold Contico to Katy Industries for $165 million—but not before breaking off three other entities and selling them separately, because he knew the parts would be worth more than the whole. Altogether, he says, he made $350 million. Then he tried to retire.
He amused himself by playing at his pied-à-terre in Trump Tower, buying a helicopter, building yachts. He invested in Turnberry West, a high-rise that’s over the top even by Las Vegas standards. He moved to Florida and started building condos, because there was no state tax there.
His first big buy was a lot in Coconut Grove in Miami that came up for sale at a Coast Guard auction. He knew nothing about real estate, so he brought along the president of Florida-based Turnberry Associates, Bruce Weiner. “Lester, you can’t bid more than $11 million,” Weiner warned him, “’cause after $11 million it doesn’t work.”
Miller nodded and took a seat in the back of the room, sunglasses still on. “In about seven minutes, the bidding got up over $11 million,” he recalls. “I’d never even picked up my paddle. When we got to $12 million, I said to Bruce, ‘Who are the people here bidding?’ He said, ‘These are the largest builders in South Florida.’ I said, ‘I’ve got the amateur advantage: I don’t know what it’s worth, and I want it.’” He put his paddle up in the air and kept it there until, at $14.4 million, the last bidder threw his paddle down and said, “There’s no sense bidding against this idiot.”
Miller walked out triumphant, reporters running after him asking what he planned to do with the land.
“I don’t know,” he told them. “It’s not like a horse—you don’t have to feed it.”
“Quit talking to the press,” Weiner hissed.
“I gotta go,” Miller told the reporters, hurrying on.
“Where are you going?” someone called.
“I gotta go to the hospital and get my shock treatment,” he tossed back. “I get it every day at 11 o’clock.”
“Everybody laughed at me—they thought I’d overpaid,” Miller says now. “They quickly found out that when you buy from the government, there’s no zoning.” He proceeded to build the tallest building in Coconut Grove, 34 stories high, and by the time the cranes reached the 26th floor, every condo in the building had sold. “We never even had a display unit,” he chortles. “It was the last piece of ground on the coastline in Coconut Grove.”
In 2004, tired of the Florida fun, he learned that Busch’s Grove, Ladue’s landmark restaurant, was about to be torn down. He came back to St. Louis.
“I made my money there,” he told his Florida friends. “I’m going to spend it there.”
Ladue doesn’t quite know what to do with Lester Miller. He’s a little too flashy, a little too abrasive—but he does things no one else can or will do. He makes huge splashes with his projects—the Queen of England attended one of his factory openings, and Crown Prince Henri took Luxembourg into a joint venture with him—but he’s quiet about his philanthropy. His attitude toward money is wonderfully perverse: “In New York, he could have $5,000 in his pocket, and if we couldn’t get a cab in the rain and somebody wanted $40 to drive him in a town car, he’d say, ‘Screw you, I’d rather walk,’” says Weisz. “But he would give a bum $40 in a second.”
Miller’s attitude toward women is equally impulsive. In March 2006, Lococo threw a dinner party and seated his pal next to Alexa James, a gorgeous 38-year-old Mediterranean blonde of Greek and Spanish descent, utterly self-possessed.
“Lester can use a classy woman by his side,” Lococo murmured to himself.
At the end of the evening, Miller asked her out. “C’mon, we’ll go to dinner,” he said on their first date—then drove her to Spirit of St. Louis Airport and flew her to a restaurant in Chicago.
By July they were planning an engagement party at the just-opening Busch’s Grove: 200 guests, artful trays of sushi and tenderloin, endless champagne. Halfway through the evening, waiters cleared the platters from a platform, and Miller’s grandson David Miller climbed up with Robert Lococo. They performed a little skit—penned by Lester—that ended with David pulling out a shotgun and saying, “Let’s have a shotgun wedding!” Rabbi Mark Shook climbed up to the platform and conducted a brief ceremony, with Lester’s surprised daughters holding a chuppah.
“Alexa changed my life,” he says. “I was kind of wild. She said, ‘You have a reputation for fooling around. I’m not that kind of girl.’ So what kind of choice did I have?” He says she softened his temper—“At Contico there used to be holes in the wall where I was throwing telephones”—and, by countering with a personality as strong as his, taught him patience. “I’m the juvenile delinquent in the relationship; she’s the mother, the older person,” Miller concedes. “Every morning, she says, ‘Slow it down. Where are you going?’ ‘I gotta get the paper.’ ‘Wait, have some orange juice.’”
After he found what some called—with admiration—a trophy wife, he began building a real-estate empire by buying trophy properties. The empire will outlast the marriage; as we went to press, Miller announced he was filing for divorce. “I’m 75,” he says. “I don’t know how many Saturday nights I got left. I just want to have fun—and we’re not laughing all the time.”
Meanwhile, Miller was angling to buy the dark, fusty, venerable Cheshire Inn. He had already bought the building that houses Bristol Bar & Grill for $4 million and the LaBarge complex next door to Lester’s Sports Bar & Grill, his latest restaurant, for $9.6 million—all cash—bringing his contiguous holdings on that premium stretch of Ladue to 11 acres.
“It’s only in the last two months I found out what ‘contiguous’ meant,” he confides. “I used to say, ‘It’s my piece of ground that touches the other piece of ground.’” A minute later, he’s talking about the first part of the Declaration of Independence and can’t remember what it’s called. “David!” he roars, looking for his adored two-master’s-degrees grandson. “Get me David!” Almost frantic, Miller punches in David’s cellphone number and summons the young man to sit beside him.
Does Miller’s lack of formal education bother him? “I went to the street college,” he says, waving his hand grandly. Then his voice flattens. “I do regret not going to school. I search for the proper word.”
A minute later, he’s buoyant again: “At 14, I was making more money than my father. Maybe that’s why I didn’t go to school.”
Miller believes in the Horatio Alger story: “Strong will and hunger will outdo education every day. You can buy great guys who are hungry. Education, you have to put time in.”
Still, he bursts with pride in his grandson’s master’s degrees. David, says Lester, is his business partner now.
David is the son of the son who refused to go into business with his father. Life is coming full circle.
You’d never know Miller is 75; the adrenaline of the deals, Gleijeses says, keeps him young. His energy burns through his skin, exhausting everyone around him. “Lester,” they say, “is larger than life.”
“The man knows how to live life,” Weisz says. “He’s a blast to be around. He goes 100 miles an hour, and nobody can keep up with him.”
His longtime insurance broker, Martin Tessler, says Miller recently dismissed him, saying, “I’m only dealing with young people.”
So is there anything this ageless, larger-than-life, risk-hungry millionaire fears?
Gleijeses thinks a minute.
The next shotgun party was Miller’s 75th-birthday excursion this April: He chartered an Airbus to fly 110 friends to the One & Only Palmilla Resort, haunt of Hemingway and Harlow, in Cabo San Lucas, the plushest playground in Mexico. The coveted Lester Fiesta invite came boxed with a clear-glass gun filled with tequila.
On the last night of the Lester Fiesta, Miller commandeered the resort’s Baja Ballroom, did half an hour of stand-up so blue the guests blanched, then had a coffin wheeled out. He climbed in—“It’s comfortable, all silky,” he insists—and lay there for 27 minutes while his old Contico partner Martin Levy gave his eulogy. “Lester would be laughing, and the whole coffin would shake,” Lococo reports, still tickled.
Other guests were less amused; a few even walked out. “The guys cracked up,” Miller says, “but the women didn’t take it so well. Those daughters who cried, I’m leaving them more money.”
Is he keeping the coffin as his own?
“Nah,” he says. “What am I gonna do with it?”