Monday, March 25, 2013. Sometimes sunny, fairly cold, dry first Spring weekend in New York. Rain and/or snow headed this way at the time of this writing (midnight Sunday/Monday). School’s out and the city was noticeably quieter on Palm Sunday.
Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief.
Perp as Jester. Today we are featuring another one of those great obits from the The Daily Telegraph of London. This one about a jewel thief. It’s impossible to read it and not think of the famous Alfred Hitchcock film “To Catch A Thief” starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in which Grant plays a retired cat-burglar. That film was based on a real character named John Robie. The Telegraph obit is about an Englishman operating about the same time as the film, all over Europe.
I was reading a lot of financial and economic news and commentary about chicanery that’s been going on internationally (I also saw Sheila Bair, former head of the FDIC on Bill Moyers, talking about it -- “not one person has gone to jail,” she remarked) -- as well as the potentially mysterious death of another Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky over in the UK. So the following story of a professional thief, came with a “lightness,” the humorousness of this particular man’s life of crime. And it was crime; and he had not only a record but served several stints in prison for his crimes. Yet he took the high road in “confessing” (he wrote a memoir) chosen profession and his victims, portraying himself as a kind of 20th century Robin Hood, milling about among the elites in the guise of a confrere.
The result of his work was quite a haul when you add it all up. And save the sundry prison sentences, he showed no remorse that he took from the rich and famous, and even felt they deserved it! Even though he wasn’t Cary Grant, I found myself going along with his faux alibi, charmed by his daring – instead, thinking to myself “who could play him” in the picture? He’d have to be charming and you’d have to be amused by his derring-do.
As you read, notice he was on his own at a very young age, apparently abandoned by his mother. I wonder if that’s what led to this life of burglarizing the private life of others. It’s just the shrink in me thinking ...
From the Daily Telegraph of London:
Peter Scott, who has died aged 82, was a highly accomplished cat burglar, and as Britain’s most prolific plunderer of the great and good took particular pains to select his victims from the ranks of aristocrats, film stars and even royalty.
According to a list of 100 names he supplied to The Daily Telegraph, he targeted figures such as Soraya Khashoggi, Shirley MacLaine, the Shah of Iran, Judy Garland and even Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother — although he added apologetically that, in her case, the authorities had covered up by issuing a “D-notice”.
In 1994 Scott wrote to the newspaper to say that he would consider it “a massive disappointment if I were not to get a mention in [its] illustrious obituary column”. He explained that he derived much pleasure from reading accounts of the exploits of war heroes, adding: “I would like to think I would have fronted the Hun with the same enthusiasm as I did the fleshpots in Mayfair.” He added that he had been a Telegraph reader since 1957, when newspapers were first allowed in prisons, “on account of its broad coverage on crime”.
Some of Scott's victims included Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother ...
John Aspinall ...
Soroya Khashoggi ...
In the course of thieving jewellery and artworks from Mayfair mansions, Bond Street shops and stately homes, Scott also served Fleet Street as handy headline fodder, being variously hailed the “King of the Cat Burglars”, “Burglar to the Stars” or the “Human Fly”. He identified a Robin Hood streak in himself, too, asserting in his memoirs that he had been “sent by God to take back some of the wealth that the outrageously rich had taken from the rest of us”.
“I felt like a missionary seeing his flock for the first time,” he explained when he recalled casing Dropmore House, the country house of the press baron Viscount Kemsley, on a rainy night in 1956 and squinting through the window at the well-heeled guests sitting down to dinner. “I decided these people were my life’s work.”
Always a meticulous planner, Scott bought a new suit before each job, so that he would not look out of place in the premises he was burgling. Fear, the possibility of capture, excited him.
During one break-in “a titled lady appeared at the top of the stairs. 'Everything’s all right, madam,’ I shouted up, and she went off to bed thinking I was the butler.” On other occasions, if disturbed by the occupier, he would shout reassuringly: “It’s only me!”
In all, by his own reckoning, Scott stole jewels, furs and artworks worth more than £30 million. He held none of his victims in great esteem (“upper-class prats chattering in monosyllables”). The roll-call of “marks” from whom he claimed to have stolen valuables included Zsa Zsa Gabor, Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren, Maria Callas and the gambling club and zoo owner John Aspinall. “Robbing that bastard Aspinall was one of my favourites,” he recollected. “Sophia Loren got what she deserved too.”
Scott stole a £200,000 necklace from the Italian star when she was in Britain filming The Millionairess in 1960. Billed in the newspapers as Britain’s biggest jewellery theft, it yielded Scott £30,000 from a “fence”. After Miss Loren had pointed at him on television saying: “I come from a long line of gipsies. You will have no luck,” Scott lost every penny in the Palm Beach Casino at Cannes.
Sophia Loren ...
Zsa Zsa ...
The Shah of Iran.
In the 1950s and 1960s he pinpointed his targets by perusing the society columns in the Daily Mail and Daily Express. Nor did he ease up with the approach of middle-age; in the 1980s he was still scaling walls and drainpipes. In one Bond Street caper alone he stole jewellery worth £1.5 million, and in 1985 he was jailed for four years. On his release he expanded his social horizons by becoming a celebrity “tennis bum”, a racquet for hire at a smart London club where — as he put it in his autobiography — he coached still more potential “rich prats”.
By the mid-1990s, Scott had served 12 years in prison in the course of half a dozen separate stretches, and claimed to have laid down his “cane” [jemmy] and retired from a life of crime.
But in 1998 he was jailed for another three and a half years for handling, following the theft of Picasso’sTête de Femme from the Lefevre Gallery in Mayfair the year before. To the impassive detectives who arrested him, Scott quoted a line from WE Henley: “Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody but unbowed.” He often drew on literary allusions, quoting Confucius, Oscar Wilde and Proust.
Scott was also a past-master in self-justification of his crimes and misdemeanors: “The people I burgled got rich by greed and skullduggery. They indulged in the mechanics of ostentation — they deserved me and I deserved them. If I rob Ivana Trump, it is just a meeting of two different kinds of degeneracy on a dark rooftop.”
In his memoirs, “Gentleman Thief “(1995), Scott admitted to an even stronger motivation than fear as he contemplated another “job”: “Even now, after 30 years, it was a sexual thrill.” There was the additional satisfaction in his assumption that the millions reading about his exploits in the papers were silently cheering him on.
He was born Peter Craig Gulston on February 18 1931 into a middle-class military family in Belfast. His father died when he was young, and his mother, sensing that Peter was destined to be trouble, emigrated to the United States. By the time he left the Belfast Royal Academy, where he was one of the brightest boys but inept at exams, he had squandered his father’s inheritance.
While still in his teens he was wandering the Malone Road in his school scarf burgling houses of the well-off and stashing the spoils in a rugby bag slung over his shoulder. He estimated that he had committed 150 such “screwers” before the police finally nailed him in 1952. “They never suspected me,” he explained, “because I looked like a resident. When the police eventually caught on, I had done so many jobs that they were embarrassed and only charged me with 12.” They were enough, however, to earn him six months in Crumlin Road jail.
Having changed his name to Scott, he then moved to London, where he realized that the houses of Mayfair and Belgravia, with their balconies, porticos and parapets, might have been designed to be burgled. Working as a pub bouncer in the West End, he moonlighted as a housebreaker.
Maria Callas with Aristotle Onassis.
In 1957, during one of his jail stretches, Scott met George “Taters” Chatham, renowned as London’s most celebrated cat burglar, with whom he formed a partnership that would eventually secure the pair a haul of art and jewellery worth millions of pounds. In between their incursions into Bond Street furriers and jewellery stores and the Mayfair drawing-rooms of art collectors, they served increasingly lengthy prison terms; having been sent down for a modest couple of years in the late 1950s, in 1961 Scott was jailed for three years and, in 1964, a further five.
In his memoirs he confessed to “an obscene passion for larceny”, but made no excuses, recognizing that he could have made a comfortable living by honest means. Barring one incident in which he broke a policeman’s nose as he struggled to get away, Scott had no convictions for violence, which he considered “an anathema”. He characterized himself as “a man who has made all the mistakes that vanity, envy and greed create”.
Tom Bell in He Who Rides a Tiger.
Like Raffles, the gentleman thief of Edwardian fiction, Scott in his heyday lived high on the hog, frittering away his fortune on flashy cars, luxury homes and fast women.
He escorted a string of glamorous girlfriends, including the model Jackie Bowyer (“a great sport”), whom he met in 1963 and who became the second of his four wives. His criminal career was the basis of the film He Who Rides a Tiger (1965), in which Tom Bell played the Scott character and Judi Dench his long-suffering girlfriend. Scott himself was serving a prison sentence in Dartmoor at the time and profited little from the film.
He ended up broke, reflecting ruefully that “I gave all my money to head waiters and tarts”. Declared bankrupt, owing creditors £440,000, he lived on benefits of £60 a week in a council flat in Islington.
A son survives him.
Peter Scott, born February 18 1931, died March 17 2013