Using their silver spoons wisely

Siblings Larry and Toby Milstein, real estate heirs, stand out for their dedication to their family’s legacy of giving

Siblings Toby and Larry Milstein with actor James Franco at the annual Summer Party on the High Line in June.

Anyone who has an Instagram account is probably aware that the rich kids of Manhattan are in a league of their own. Children of America’s most powerful families shamelessly pop bottles of Dom on the rooftop of the Dream Hotel, snap selfies aboard St. Barts-bound private jets and vogue in the latest $700 sweatpants. But two millennial Manhattanites are hoping to steer their peers toward somewhat more substantive pursuits. 

Inseparable brother-sister duo Larry Milstein (Yale class of 2017) and Toby Milstein (Barnard class of 2014) are heirs to the Milstein real estate empire, which controls a portfolio of about 50,000 apartments, 8,000 hotel rooms and 20 million square feet of office space in NYC. And even if you don’t know the family’s name, you’ve probably seen it on visits to such places as the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History (aka the whale room), Milstein Hall at Cornell University’s School of Architecture, the Vivian and Seymour Milstein Family Heart Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy at the New York Public Library and the Paul Milstein Pool and Terrace at Lincoln Center.

While Larry and Toby aren’t immune to the call of couture and flashy fetes, they argue with seriousness (unusual among today’s reign of adolescent-like adults) that a family legacy of philanthropy matters.

“My dad loves repeating this Winston Churchill quote: ‘We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give,” Toby tells LLNYC in the parlor of their family home in the Dakota (an apartment once owned by Leonard Bernstein).

“We are really lucky to have parents
that believe in civic responsibility
and not just living a blessed life.”
– Toby Milstein

“That mantra has clearly trickled down to us. We are really lucky to have parents that believe in civic responsibility and not just living a blessed life. For us, philanthropy is second nature. Giving our time, money and activism is something we believe in.”

“Our grandfather Seymour Milstein and his wife, Vivian, set this example of really giving back to the city,” Larry adds. He says the first experience in philanthropy that he recalls was the ribbon cutting for the Vivian and Seymour Milstein Family Heart Center at New York-Presbyterian.

“I was like six years old at the time, and I remember nuzzling my way into the photo and grabbing the ground-breaking shovel. I really wanted to be involved, even though I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. That has evolved into a meaningful engagement with giving back.”

Today, Larry and Toby spend their evenings co-chairing charity events like the Friends of the High Line’s annual Summer Party, fighting for gun control, supplying necessities for women in shelters and attending garden parties at the Frick. Both siblings were active in assembling their family’s recent $5 million gift to the new infant cardiac unit at New York-Presbyterian’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.

But they insist that unlike those who donate simply in order to down bottomless flutes of champagne with society friends in Manhattan’s most iconic venues, they aren’t interested in parties qua parties.

“It’s not just about going to an event or serving on a leadership board,” Larry says. “It’s about being on the ground and doing work. That is something that is really important to Toby and me.”

“Parties are fun, but it’s not enough just to buy a ticket,” Toby adds.

The Milstein siblings demonstrated that dedication to substance at “Across the Park and Into the Past: An Evening at the Dakota,” a recent party for the Frick Collection they hosted at their home. The event gathered young fellows, Frick director Ian Wardropper, Frick trustees and Leonard Bernstein’s children Alexander Bernstein and Jamie Bernstein for a talk about the architectural history of both the Frick and the Dakota. Toby and Larry spoke of their childhood home before the small audience with the genetically inherited confidence of the “urban haute bourgeoisie” portrayed in Whit Stillman’s 1990 cult-classic film “Metropolitan.”

No one seemed drunk, and we didn’t notice anyone making repeat “nose-powdering” trips to the lavatory (both sights common at most galas LLNYC attends). And no one seemed overly afflicted with ennui either. In fact, it was refreshing to meet so many young people eager to have a conversation about early Islamic art or argue about whether the large 19th-century oil painting in the parlor is a work of mourning portraiture (i.e., if the painting’s infant subject is meant to be alive or dead).

Both Milstein siblings tell LLNYC this is precisely the point of their work as young philanthropists.

“So many people graduate from college and arrive in New York looking for ways to involve themselves in meaningful things, but they don’t really have direction,” Larry says, adding that he and his sister are driven by a desire to “lead the charge” and encourage more young people to get involved.

“It’s about sitting at a phone bank, organizing a charity walk or soliciting friends to make small donations. There are myriad ways to support organizations. There is no reason philanthropy should be prohibitive for millennials in any sense.”