Growing up in Rochester, New York, Bobby Comfort wanted to be a good something. It just so happened that he was great at being a criminal.
In January 1972, men in tuxedos robbed the Pierre, the luxurious Manhattan hotel, and got away with eleven million dollars’ worth of cash and jewelry. The police were baffled by how such a large-scale operation could go off so smoothly. The answer lay in the leader of the thieves, a man by the name of Bobby Comfort. He had taken to crime from a young age with card sharping and petty theft. Eventually, taking money from the rich was where he excelled. Sort of like Robin Hood—except for the part where he kept the loot himself—Comfort masterminded what was, at the time, the most lucrative heist in history, while appearing to his neighbors like an ordinary suburban family man.
In this blend of insightful biography and true crime, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ira Berkow chronicles the story, using first-hand accounts to weave together a fascinating portrait of a criminal and “a corking good cops-and-robbers tale” (Library Journal).
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Robert Anthony Comfort was born to Joe and Peggy Comfort on October 26, 1932, the second of six children. The family lived on the southeast side of Rochester, in a predominantly Italian section which included smaller groups of Irish, Bohemians, and Germans among their neighbors.
"Comperchio" had been the family name, but Bobby's grandfather, Paolo Comperchio, changed it. He and a brother had come to America from Naples, Italy, hoping to fill their pockets with the gold they had been told lined the streets of America. Naples, in contrast, was dirty, the people poor, and life in the crowded streets seemed hopeless. Paolo's father, a cobbler, had expected that his sons, in true European tradition, would join their father's trade, but neither Paolo nor Giuseppe relished the thought of spending their lives hammering nails into boots in a grimy shop overflowing with leather scraps.
Through relatives living in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the Comperchio brothers arranged passage to America. Landing on the shores of their newly adopted country, their joy was tremendous. Not until they arrived in Wilkes-Barre was their ardor dampened, for their relatives had secured jobs for them in the coal mines. They quickly discovered that the life of a poor Naples cobbler was almost glorious compared to that of chipping out a livelihood in a dark, foul-aired, wet tunnel thousands of feet below the surface of the earth.
Eventually, Paolo learned that the railroads needed "gandy dancers," and he happily climbed out of the deep black coal mine to pound rail spikes in the great outdoors. But even laying tracks in a section gang was back-breaking work, and the hours endless. Paolo Comperchio was perceptive and ambitious. He observed that the heavy sledgehammer roadwork was always performed by the immigrant Italians and Poles, while the Irish invariably were the foremen and bosses. If he were to prosper in America, he reasoned, he would have to learn to speak English well. He and his Italian-born wife were soon studiously reading the local newspaper aloud to each other in order to better grasp this new language.
When Paolo Comperchio heard that better railroad jobs were available in Rochester, New York, he moved there with his wife and young brood and made yet another important change. Paolo changed his surname to "Comfort," which sounded more American. He also insisted on being called "Paul." By this time, his English had improved considerably; and when a foreman's job opened on the New York Central Railroad, Paul Comfort got it. The year was 1904.
By the turn of the century, many Italians had moved to Rochester. Jobs were plentiful; the city was flourishing with shoe and clothing factories, the famous Kodak company, flour mills, and the railroad. In the ten years from 1900 to 1910, the Italians increased to over one-fourth of the city's population. And almost all of the immigrants lived along the Genesee River, in crowded tenements infested by rats and overflowing with garbage. It was known as "Poison Row."
The firmly established Irish ran the city. They dominated the police force, held all the political offices, and were the landlords of the tenement slums.
The Italians, virtually powerless in the social order, took their frustrations out with violence.
Smoldering beneath the surface was the Black Hand, or Mafia, a legacy of the old padrone system of Sicily. Many Italians denied that it existed at all in Rochester, but the authorities were convinced otherwise. There was little doubt that this terrorist organization developed in those early years as a means of gaining community power and economic strength in the city.
As the Italians began to make inroads in the city power structure, they were predictably opposed by the Irish, who were tenacious in maintaining their power base.
Earning a foreman's pay now, Paul Comfort moved his family to a substantially better neighborhood, near the Irish. Two of his sons, convinced that work on the railroad was a reliable source of income, and that smart young men could advance, followed him into jobs with the New York Central. The third son, Joe, took a different route entirely.
Young Joe, like Paul Comfort before him, wanted to do better than his father. It was apparent from his observations in the little world around him that bigger and easier money was available in the gambling parlors around town. Joe took a job in one of the larger bookmaking establishments that operated openly in Rochester by virtue of "the wink" and the cops' greased palms.
Gambling paid off well enough for him to afford the flashiest clothes and the prettiest girls in town. Joe was a dark-haired bon vivant who enjoyed his reputation as a ladies' man, and earned the nickname "Joe Gash."
When Peggy O'Horgan, an Irish girl, met him for the first time in a speakeasy, she was struck by his stylish dress and good looks. She was particularly impressed by his manicured fingernails, very unusual in a workingman's town.
To Joe Comfort, Peggy was something different. She was strong-willed and opinionated, and he found her entertaining. Even more intriguing were her large blue eyes and long lustrous hair. She was a tall, pretty girl. And Irish: he found that sinfully delicious. The Irish and the Italians had no love for each other. The Irish viewed the Italians as smelly "greaseballs"; the Italians, who loved their opera and honored the memory of Dante and Michelangelo, snubbed the Irish as uncultured louts with only pretensions of gentility.
The O'Horgans indeed saw themselves as cosmopolites. Frank O'Horgan, Peggy's father, had been the owner of a large sawmill in the city of Cork. "County Cork," he would distinguish, "was where the peasants lived and where they spoke with a brogue. We lived in the city of Cork and had a big house and servants and we spoke a fine English."
Frank O'Horgan had spent some time in America visiting relatives who had fled Ireland during the potato famine in the 1840s. Those relatives had settled in Rochester. O'Horgan quickly saw the opportunities America offered, and on his return to Cork he consolidated his holdings, sold part of his property, and booked passage to the new country for himself and his family.
The O'Horgans, with Peggy, age eleven, and Jimmy, age nine, and all their possessions, sailed across the Atlantic in the spring of 1913. They arrived in Rochester and began the process of assimilating to their new surroundings.
Impetuously, without seeking professional advice, Frank O'Horgan invested and eventually lost most of the family fortune in the stock market. The sudden comedown stunned and humiliated him, and it became necessary for O'Horgan to accept a job as a clerk with the railroad.
He rose rapidly with the Central, and was able to retain his bungalow-style house in the better part of the city. Once again O'Horgan was the proud Irishman. A tall, thin, high-cheekboned man, he wore the traditional starched white collar and suit with vest, the status symbol of the executive. His home was kept immaculately clean, with the proverbial lace curtains on all the windows. In the living room sat his proudest possession, the family organ.
Peggy O'Horgan was raised and taught in a strict Catholic manner, but also had to face the reality of coping with life in the tough street she was forced early on to grow up in. Her father, upon learning that his daughter was dating a "wop," was stunned; when she became engaged, he was horrified. He tried to reason with his stubborn daughter about Italians, but to no avail.
The Comforts were equally upset with Joe's choice of the Irish colleen.
The attitudes of both families notwithstanding, the banns were published, the wedding date set, and there was no choice but to accept the decision of the headstrong young couple.
After the church ceremony, a huge reception was held in a banquet hall of a prominent Rochester club. The tension between the families remained submerged by the gaiety of the affair, the drinking, the eating, the laughter. The high point was reached when, with the appropriate fanfare from the orchestra, tuxedoed waiters rolled in a cart piled high with hundreds of bananas. Attached to each banana, resembling a leaf, was a hundred-dollar bill. No one was quite sure what this "banana delight" symbolized until the bridegroom opened the accompanying envelope to read it aloud to the assembled guests. "To my new brother-in-law, in recognition of all your people who came over here from the old country in banana boats." It was signed Jimmy O'Horgan. The message was greeted first by silence, the Irish waiting for the reaction of the Italians, the Italians letting the message sink in. Then, slowly, the Italians began to laugh, and then the Irish began to laugh. Soon the room was in an uproar. In fact, peace between the families prevailed until the end of the evening when the effects of the heavy drinking became apparent. Words and curses flew from the Irish side of the room to the Italian, and back again. Punches were thrown and a free-for-all erupted. The chandeliered hall was in the process of being demolished when the newlyweds, gifts under arms, fled out the door, pushing the banana cart ahead of them.
From the beginning of their marriage, Joe and Peggy Comfort picked up where the wedding reception left off. Bobby grew up to the sound of voices raised in argument, particularly his mother's. She complained that Joe never spent enough time at home. Competing with smoke-filled gambling rooms was not her idea of conjugal bliss. Just the sight of Joe Comfort waking at noon and descending the staircase in pajamas with a steamy cigar in his mouth would set off her Irish temper.
Although Joe's earnings bought a sixteen-room wood-framed, twofamily house in a clean working-class East Side neighborhood, Peggy Comfort pleaded with her husband to get a conventional nine-to-five job. She begged him to quit the gambling parlor. It was a bad influence on the children, she argued; Joe was nine and Bobby seven, impressionable ages, and there was a younger son and two younger daughters (and another son would soon be on the way). His job also upset her sense of security-he could be put out of work by the cops in a minute.
With great reluctance he eventually agreed, and secured a job in a factory. This proved to be a short-lived experiment. Joe was summarily fired for organizing crap games instead of tending to his work.CHAPTER 2
Spring 1939, Rochester
Bobby longed to skip school this morning and go swimming. But as he stood looking out the picture window in the living room of his parents' house, hands in his pockets, he realized it would be school and not the river. He thought with pleasure of the Genesee River with its exciting, swift currents cascading down the waterfall near the big smoky brewery. Even at age seven, Bobby Comfort had a strong-enough breaststroke to challenge the river that cut and dipped through the length of Rochester. Once or twice a year a youth who couldn't handle the fast waters drowned, the body washing up on the river bank. Bobby was not frightened off by that.
He now breathed the fresh air that blew in the open window and stirred the lace curtains. Outside, the morning sun shone through the trees, and an intricate pattern of lights and shadows fell across the green lawn and the red cobblestones of Scio Street, and upon his father's big blue Packard parked at the curb.
"Bobby, come here, son." The sound of his mother's call interrupted his thoughts.
"Bobby ..." There it was again. His mother's voice sounded unusually low.
"Okay, Mom," he called back. With a sigh he picked up his schoolbooks from the couch. He walked past the large coffee table with lion's paw legs, and past the floor-model Philco radio.
Mrs. Comfort was standing at the foot of the stairs in the center hall. She wore a lavender housecoat, and her smoothly combed jet-black hair fell almost to her waist.
With a firm hand she cupped her son's chin and said in a conspiratorial tone, "Bobby, I know you can keep a secret, so I'm going to ask you to do a special favor for me."
Bobby, looking at his mother, nodded.
"I want you to go to Pa's room," she continued, "and get something for me."
"Do you know where Pa keeps his roll of money?"
"I've seen him tuck it under his pillow when he goes to sleep. He has a fat rubber band around it."
"Well, I want you to go upstairs very quietly so you don't wake him, and put your hand under the pillow and slip the money out and take two ten-dollar bills for me, then put the roll back under the pillow."
"I'll get it for you, Ma," Bobby whispered.
It was a very quiet time of day. His older brother was already at school. The other children were playing outside in the yard, and Joe Comfort was sound asleep, having retired only two hours before.
Mrs. Comfort took the schoolbooks from under her son's arm, and then he silently tiptoed up the stairs. By the time he reached the top, he could feel his heart pounding.
Through a crack in the bedroom door, Bobby watched his father's chest rhythmically rise and fall under the blanket. He could hear his heavy breathing.
Fearing the slightest sound might wake his father, Bobby slowly inched the door open and slipped into the room. The room was dark except for a little morning light seeping through the side of the drawn window shade. Bobby gradually adjusted his eyes to the darkness, and after a moment he could make out the framed picture of Jesus hanging on the wall above his parents' bed.
At the bedside Bobby paused and held his breath. He dropped to one knee, then reached cautiously under the pillow — and stopped suddenly as his father moved. When his father grew still again, Bobby edged his small hand farther under the pillow and felt the money roll, touched it, then deftly pulled it out.
He moved toward the thin beam of light filtering through the window, removed the rubber band, extracted the two tens, and put them in his pocket. He banded and returned the roll under the pillow, then padded gingerly across the room and out the door.
Down at the bottom of the stairs, his mother waited. He hand her the money. She smiled, pocketed the bills, and sent him off to school with a kiss.
This scene would be repeated weekly. Sometimes his mother would ask Bobby to snatch twenty-five, fifty, even a hundred dollars from his father's cache.
Feeling that some explanation was necessary, Mrs. Comfort told Bobby that she was worried his father might lose all his money at work, and she wanted enough to feed the family — just in case.
Bobby accepted this, although with difficulty. After all, his father always brought home little surprises — like jelly doughnuts and candies, and frequently left dimes and nickels on the table for the children.
Although Bobby felt that sneaking the money from his father was somehow wrong, on balance he was happy to please his mother, and he did thrill to the challenge.
Sometimes his mother gave Bobby a dollar or two as a reward. Bobby eventually realized that he could do better. Now when he made his periodic forays into his parents' bedroom, he peeled off several bills for himself, leaving his mother none the wiser.
When he was ten, Bobby began spending his time with some of the older "toughs" in the neighborhood, much to his mother's distress. By the time he was eleven, he was robbing something from someone every day or every night.
He found that Davey Nelson was willing to take chances with him. Davey, a hollow-cheeked blond friend who lived nearby in a basement apartment with his mother and third stepfather, was happy to follow Bobby's lead. Their favorite target was supermarkets. Hiding behind big cereal cartons, the boys would wait for closing time. In the dark store they'd load up on fruit cakes and Hershey bars, open a rear window, and sneak out. Occasionally, they were lucky and hit a cash register still filled with money.
On Saturdays he and his friends would bike eight miles to Sea Breeze Amusement Park, where Bobby would pay for a full day of rides and cotton candy.
He was pleased with himself and recognized the power of money, of how his friends deferred to him, of how important it made him feel.
One evening two watches disappeared from a black satchel Bobby's father kept hidden in a downstairs closet. The watches were owned by railroad workers who used them as collateral for their gambling debts until their next payday. Joe Comfort discovered the two watches missing at a time when his wife was in the hospital giving birth to their sixth child, Paul. While visiting her, Joe had angrily accused Mrs. Franklin, the woman Peggy had hired to care for the children, of stealing the watches.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Man who Robbed the Pierre"
Copyright © 1987 Ira Berkow.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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