Shortly before 4 o’clock on the morning of August 16, 1970, a sleepless guest at New York’s Regency Hotel on Park Avenue phoned the front desk to request a 7:30 am wake-up call. “Yes sir,” replied a reassuring voice. “I’ll be on the desk personally.” The tuxedo-clad man in the lobby replaced the house phone on its cradle and, gun in hand, entered the small office behind him. Here he relayed the message to the desk clerk, who—along with the rest of the hotel’s night staff—lay on the floor in handcuffs, his mouth and eyes taped shut. “We’ll be out of here soon,” the armed man added.
The next day, newspapers re-counted details of the Regency heist, in which three dapper thieves relieved the hotel’s safe-deposit boxes of $1 million in valuables. Though Elizabeth Taylor occupied a suite that night, “none of Liz’s fabulous collection of gems . . . had been deposited,” the New York Daily News reported. Two months later, after a similar incident at Hampshire House, the tabloid proclaimed its sympathy for “screen star Sophia Loren in her Sunday loss of $600,000 worth of jewelry.”
One reader of the Daily News took umbrage at this estimate: Robert Anthony Comfort, the architect of these capers, had been offered nearly $1 million for the stones and knew their retail value. While pleased that the paper remarked on the “professionalism” of the crimes, he remained dissatisfied. He regarded himself very much as a virtuoso practitioner of his chosen art, and the crowning achievement of his career—the job that would ensure him leisure for life—still beckoned at the corner of 61st Street and Fifth Avenue: the Pierre Hotel.
Despite his punctilious manner, Comfort was raised in a working-class neighborhood of Rochester, N.Y., where, during the Depression, his father ran a gambling operation in the backroom of a cigar shop. But Comfort had loftier (or lower) aspirations for himself. A tough but intelligent adolescent, he embarked on a spree of holdups and break-ins that earned him several stiff prison terms and a solid criminal education by the time he was finally paroled at age 30.
While incarcerated, Comfort read extensively, schooling himself in what he called the social amenities. He believed hotel robberies to be impersonal, because the actual owners of the valuables were never present; thus, with a safecracker named Sorecho “Sammy” Nalo as his accomplice, he meticulously planned his nocturnal assaults on the most luxurious lodgings in New York. These targets he identified in the pages of the Daily News, where Suzy Knickerbocker’s social column routinely inventoried the ornaments owned by high-profile guests. When he lighted on an item listing the luminaries in residence at the Pierre, he was convinced that this opulent address would yield greater riches than the previous hauls combined.
Comfort chose to strike in the early-morning hours of January 2, 1972, when the vault would be full and the lobby (pictured) all but empty. Abetted by three henchmen, Comfort and Nalo followed the program that had previously served them so well, cuffing and gagging employees and, with the assistance of the hotel’s records, emptying the safe-deposit boxes belonging to its wealthiest clients.
This foolproof felony grossed a record-setting $10 million; but if the crime went smoothly, its aftermath did not. Entrusting the bulk of the spoils to one of their henchmen, Comfort and Nalo attempted to fence a small cache of stones. This exchange, however, proved to be a sting operation, and both men were arrested. In custody, Comfort learned that Nalo had betrayed him by hiding $750,000 worth of merchandise with an ally in Detroit. “I had done to me,” he later reflected, “what I had been doing to others.” On the advice of his attorney, Comfort pleaded guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence. Though he claimed until his death in 1986 that he did not expect at that point to reap the rewards of his most audacious exploit (much of the contents of the Pierre’s vault never resurfaced), he believed he would soon regain his freedom. Yet this prize also eluded him—the judge, disregarding the plea bargain, meted out a lengthy prison term. “You in particular are not an honorable man,” the indignant stickup artist coolly declared in a letter to the magistrate. “I have been honorable at all times in my line of work.” Cool comfort indeed.
Correction: The April issue’s 2013 Ultimate Home feature (see “An Italian Affair“) should have stated that Mystic Water Gardens (818.424.6836, www.mysticwatergardens.com) created the estate’s ponds and waterfalls.