Take a rare look inside native Atlantan Sam Massell’s Buckhead townhouse with a treasure-trove of history, art and nostalgia.
Approaching his 89th birthday in August, Massell has endured through the decades as a hero to our city and religion. After careers in real estate, tourism and elected office, he is the president of the nonprofit Buckhead Coalition.
Circa 1973 as a young country girl ingénue in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution elevator, I found myself alone with this cheerful mayor, whom I equated with something akin to the Beatles. Forty-three years later, I am still a “Sam Fan.”
Jaffe: What are some of your early recollections of Atlanta in the 1930s — specifically Jewish Atlanta?
Massell: I lived in Druid Hills on the last block of Oakdale with prominent neighbors like Larry Gellerstedt, Bert Parks and Herman Talmadge. The Jewish population was very small, but we were homogeneous Reform members of The Temple and the Standard Club (then on Ponce de Leon). We weren’t invited into membership into high school social clubs, so we had our own Top Hat for boys and Lucky 13 for girls. It was a fun time, but you will have to wait until my book is published to learn of the mischief.
Jaffe: You were mayor from 1970 to ’74 and credited with establishing MARTA, building the Omni and Woodruff Park. What do you think was the high point of your term, and what was the lowest point?
Massell: The fact that the MARTA referendum, promulgated by my predecessor, Ivan Allen, had failed, and I was able to successfully restructure the funding (sales tax and subsidized fare), we became the envy of urban America. Although that certainly touched many lives, appointing the first woman (Panke Bradley) to the City Council in Atlanta’s 125-year history was a real breakthrough for minorities. Overall, that which will have the most everlasting effect was my responsibility to steer Atlanta through the peaceful transformation from an all-white power structure to a black city government.
My low point was probably appointing a police chief who did not get along with the African-American community.
Jaffe: You were once in the travel business. What are the most exotic locations you enjoyed?
Massell: I found most pleasure in places my clients were not interested in visiting. … Nicaragua, after a volcanic eruption, where I could sense the political philosophy, land development and travel business impacts. I visited over 80 countries and enjoyed them all.
Jaffe: What advice would you give to young people today? Are you concerned with the way our world is turning?
Massell: I have faith in the world where we live and people of all ages. The youngest and the oldest are the most candid. I’ve found that with very little effort I can see some good in everyone. I particularly love the Buckhead community, which is what I now market as president of the Buckhead Coalition. Hard work is the elixir I recommend, and let the chips fall where they may.
Jaffe: Tell us about your late wife Doris’ artwork?
Massell: I was always amazed at the ease with which she appeared to put thoughts on canvas. I tried painting one time to satisfy a request of art curator Fay Gold for a benefit auction, and I was embarrassed at how poorly it came out. My wife was a prolific painter in most every media and would usually give away her work rather than price it. I think her motivation was the magic of simply producing beauty with a brush.
Jaffe: What did you think of Tom Wolfe’s book “Man in Full”? Did you see yourself in it?
Massell: I know Wolfe is a good writer, but I was disappointed in the book as I thought it was going to be a favorable report on Buckhead’s real estate success stories. As such, in fact, I invited him to be the keynoter at the coalition’s annual meeting (where I would have distributed copies of this book to those in attendance). When I discovered it was a negative treatise, I withdrew the invitation. I didn’t see me in the book, but there were several coalition members who had personalities similar to characters in this work.
Jaffe: As head of the Buckhead Coalition, you were quoted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as welcoming the new generation of renters in Buckhead. What about that change do you embrace?
Massell: We predict that the vast majority of the new tenants in rental apartments are expected to be millennials (under 35) who will use fewer automobiles. Their interests generate fresh thinking with high-tech startup businesses. This is exciting and, we predict, will evolve into the profile of power as tomorrow’s leaders.
Jaffe: Who are some of the famous people you’ve met along the way?
Massell: King Juan Carlos of Spain, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert and Teddy Kennedy, Shirley Chisholm, Her Royal Highness Princess Anne are all here with me on the wall photos. More recently on the coalition, by managing an organization of 100 chief executive officers of major firms with prominent exposure in Buckhead — some heads of Forbes 500 firms, others on Fortune’s billionaire list, one the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange — it’s obvious I’ve had the opportunity to meet and be inspired by many amazing famous people along the way.
Jaffe: I have known you for decades and never seen you lose your cool. What’s your secret?
Massell: I thank my parents for instilling in me such a persona, which I hope I maintain for life. I think, too, the residents and visitors here exercise a similar attitude, which motivates similar responses. Smiles beget smiles, and you’re an example of this in operation, making me smile with your question.
Jaffe: You did pretty well for an introverted kid who ran a lemonade stand, delivered a newspaper route, and got appointed student body treasurer and never looked back.