The extraordinarily captivating memoir of the remarkable jewel thief who robbed the rich and the famous while maintaining an outwardly conventional life—an astonishing and completely true story, the like of which has never before been told . . . or lived.
Bill Mason is arguably the greatest jewel thief who ever lived. During a thirty-year career he charmed his way into the inner circles of high society and stole more than $35 million worth of fabulous jewels from such celebrities as Robert Goulet, Armand Hammer, Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Truman Capote, Margaux Hemingway and Johnny Weissmuller—he even hit the Mafia. Along the way he seduced a high-profile Midwest socialite into leaving her prominent industrialist husband, nearly died after being shot during a robbery, tricked both Christie’s and Sotheby’s into fencing stolen goods for him and was a fugitive for five years and the object of a nationwide manhunt. Yet despite the best efforts of law enforcement authorities from several states as well as the federal government, he spent less than three years total in prison.
Shadowy, elusive and intensely private, Mason has been the subject of many magazine and newspaper features, but no journalist has ever come close to knowing the facts. Now, in his own words and with no holds barred, he reveals everything, and the real story is far more incredible than any of the reporters, detectives or FBI agents who pursued Mason ever imagined. Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, expertly co-written by bestselling author Lee Gruenfeld, is a unique true-crime confessional.
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BILL MASON was perhaps the most successful jewel thief this country has ever known. While working as a real estate manager and investor and raising a family, he excelled in his secret after-hours career. He lives in New York City.
LEE GRUENFELD is the bestselling author of such celebrated novels as The Halls of Justice and All Falls Down. He has also written several novels under the pseudonym Troon McAllister, including the golf classic The Green. He lives in Southern California.
From the Prologue
The challenge of planning a caper is to anticipate as much as possible and prepare accordingly. In addition to things like escape routes and contingencies in case you trip an alarm, you have to decide what kinds of tools you’re likely to need and what backup items make the most sense to drag along as well. I had a pretty good feel for what I was likely to be up against in the Hammer apartment, but I was also starting to come to grips with the fact that there was no choice but to navigate that sliver of a ledge and go in through a window. The door was just too risky. But with my back literally to the wall and the tips of my shoes sticking out over the edge, there wouldn’t be any way to carry a whole load of tools with me. And if I ended up tripping an alarm before I even reached the unit, it would be tough enough moving quickly along that ledge without being further encumbered by a lot of weighty gear strapped to my body and not easily undone and dropped.
The answer, when it came to me, was so simple I kicked myself for not having thought of it sooner: I could carry all the tools I wanted up to the guest apartment and stash them there before I went out on the ledge. Once I was inside the Hammer place, all I had to do was go out their door and across the hall to the guest unit, pick up all my stuff and carry it right back.
All I really needed to have with me out on the ledge were some glass-cutting tools. If the Hammer patio door was locked and I suspected it was armed, I could cut a hole in it big enough to crawl through and then disable the alarm system from inside. This was in the days before ultrasonic motion detectors, so once I was in, there’d be nothing further to trip.
Best of all, I wouldn’t have to get back out on that hairy ledge to leave once I was done. I could just go down the stairs, same way I got up.
This was looking better and better. It further occurred to me that if I found I was missing a tool, I could simply leave the building altogether–using the stairs and the grappling hook–go get what I needed and come back. Again, no second outing on the ledge.
My escape route in case I somehow tripped a silent alarm in the guest apartment was looking good, too. I’d have such a good view from that ledge I’d be able to see flashing lights from miles away, with plenty of time to get inside and hide in almost any unoccupied unit with a cheap lock. By the time I was ready to do the job, I’d identified three such apartments and knew how to open the doors on all of them. As long as I didn’t have to cut through the glass in the patio door, there would be no trace of my having been in the building at all, and it would be treated as a false alarm. I could then come back after things had settled down and try a different tack.
The ideal time for a job like this would normally have been when the Hammers were planning to go to some fancy do, which I’d be able to know in advance from the society pages. But that would probably be on a Friday or Saturday evening, and the beach area those afternoons would be teeming with people who could spot me easily. If I hit the place when they weren’t in the process of getting ready for some event, though, there might not be anything worth stealing. It was certainly possible that they kept the baubles in a safety-deposit box and took out what Mrs. Hammer needed only when she needed it. So one time when I knew they were scheduled to attend a particularly fancy gala, I followed the Mrs. around for two days to see if she went to the bank, and she didn’t. That told me they had a safe up there, and I included on my list of tools the stuff I’d need to get into that.
More important, though, all that surveillance and analysis led me to a truly unpleasant conclusion: As if that ledge wouldn’t be dangerous enough, I decided that this job needed to get done on a stormy night, when the beach would be deserted and there’d be the sound of thunder and rain to drown out any noise I might make. It also had to be on a night when the Hammers weren’t going to be at a posh soirée, because I didn’t want to go into that apartment on a night when Mrs. Hammer’s best stuff was around her neck instead of in her safe.
Windy, wet and dark . . .
Over the next few days I started looking at the wisp of a ledge in a whole new light.
About two weeks later a perfectly timed storm roared in from the south. It began in the late afternoon of a weekday, and by the time I’d grappled my way up to the stairs, stashed the hook and rope in a fire-extinguisher case and walked up to the fifteenth floor, it was coming down like a monsoon. I got into the guest unit without incident and did a quick look around to make sure I was really alone. I stayed busy and fast and wasted no movement, because I didn’t want to dwell on what it would be like out on that ledge. I had planned this down to the tiniest detail, had even thought of carrying a washcloth to wipe the bottoms of my shoes so nobody could tell afterward how I’d gotten in, and so now all that was left was to execute the plan, not give it any more thought. Front door closed but unlocked, bag of tools just inside of it, nothing sticking out of my jacket or pants to impede travel. That was the extent of my mental checklist, so I opened a window and put one leg through it, setting my foot down onto the ledge and sliding it around to test the traction.
It wasn’t good. I’d assumed the surface was of rough concrete and would have decent grip, but it was smoother than I’d anticipated and the water from the rainstorm only made it worse. I’d have to make sure to set each foot straight down with every step so as to rely as little as possible on friction to stop my forward motion, which is not the normal way of walking. I got my other leg through and then I was standing up on the outside of the building, still holding on to the bottom of the open window. I leaned back to slide it shut, in order to keep the rain out of the room, leaving a small gap to make sure I could get my fingers in to open it again. Not that it would have locked, but with no real purchase on that tiny ledge, I didn’t want to be shoving upward on the glass itself trying to get it open. Finally, I let go completely and stood up again, then started moving.
I’d envisioned the whole trip with my back to the wall, but after about ten feet of futilely wiping rain from my eyes and imagining my feet sliding out from under me in a heel-to-toe direction, I turned around and hugged the wall instead. I wiggled my feet slightly with each step, feeling for any changes in traction, and the way my shoes were sliding on that slick surface started up a sickening feeling in my belly. I wondered what the police would make of a body squashed on the concrete far below if I slipped. A suicide, perhaps?
It was a truly horrific goddamned trip. I’d already done some high-wire heists, like at the ultra-ritzy Fountainhead, but that was a cakewalk compared to this. That had been a vertical climb, and I’d had a nice comfortable rope to hang on to with both hands, could even wrap my legs around it if I needed a rest, and at worst would have had a forty-foot drop to some sand and a broken leg or two if it all went to shit.
But this . . . this was insane. One sneeze and I could be over the edge. I hadn’t fully appreciated before this how reassuring it was to have something–anything–to grab on to. All I had here were my hands flat along the wall, and every gust of wind that whipped at my back was like a malevolent force trying to tear me off the building and fling me into the void.
Maybe you were expecting some bullshit about how I stared imminent death in the face and forced it to keep its distance. Well, forget it. I was scared shitless. I was always afraid on scores. Not to be would have been lunacy, and this was the most lunatic situation I’d ever launched myself into. On top of all the inherent physical danger was the fact that I was engaged in a criminal activity, so at the same time that I was trying not to die, I was also trying not to be seen. The trick was not to be afraid of being afraid, because fear was a healthy thing in this game, and what you were really after was balance: Be afraid enough to keep you on your toes but not so much that it compromises the execution of the plan. If you’re going to let fear get in the way, this is the wrong business to be in.
Stepping onto the Hammer balcony was such a relief, I just sat there and gulped air for a minute, gripping the railing so hard I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to uncurl my fingers from it. When I finally did, I found that the patio door was unlocked and there were no sensors anywhere to be seen. That bit of good fortune should have had a calming effect on me, but my mind was racing nevertheless. This was going almost too smoothly, notwithstanding the nightmare trip along the ledge. I started to wonder if I’d really thought of everything, but I drove that out of my head immediately. It wasn’t too likely I was going to think of anything useful while in the thick of things that I hadn’t already considered during weeks of careful planning.
I stepped into the apartment and just listened for a while, then did a thorough search to make sure I was absolutely alone. It was dark, but I didn’t want to turn on any lights, so I used my penlight. Last stop was the bedroom, and what do you know: There was a large jewelry box right on top of the dresser. The lid was flipped open and the top section was nearly overflowing with fabulous stuff. Santa Claus never had it this good, and he was only after cookies.
This moment, right here, was why I was a jewel thief. It was like a narcotic, being someplace that everyone assumed no one could possibly get into. People spent fortunes, even altered their lifestyles, trying to protect valuables like these fro...
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