BULL STREET - The art of the Con

The Short Story of a Con

Whitney was a social butterfly that could not get enough of the accolades that a position of power and prestige offered. Ultimately he began to believe that he was infallible and went down the drain when placed in a position obviously too intellectually demanding for him to handle. However, Whitney stole money to maintain his position rather than to earn it, furthermore he believed that he was entitled to what he illegally garnered and to a degree was shameless. However, there are other ways to steal money. Take the case of my friend, Bruce Berrien.

I don’t have the slightest idea of how my path crossed with that of Bruce but one day he seemed to have suddenly sprung into my life as a long forgotten friend that I never knew. The timeframe was probably in the middle 80s and I was running a major Wall Street Securities firm. However Bruce came into being, it turns out that Bruce, an extremely precious young man, charmed me. He was probably about 26 years old at the time that he weaved the most incredible story: he was born into the family that were the major shareholders of American Cyanamid, a major American chemical conglomerate. He had been given a trust by his family that amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars, but sadly it could only be invaded under certain very strict conditions. He had recently been divorced by Betsy Bloomingdale, the heir to the Bloomingdale Department Store fortune and was feeling a tad blue.

However, much more important was the fact that he was now living with a man that was asserted to be one of the heir’s to the Du Pont Chemical Company’s fortune. I believe that this man’s name was “Red” Shandor. It seems that Red, being a charitable man had taken Bruce in when he learned that the lad had somehow become infected with incurable cancer and would now only have several more months to live. Bruce had no living relatives and in exchange for Red’s courtesies, purportedly Bruce had left his entire estate to Shandor as his only remaining friend. We did some minor checking on Shandor and he seemed to be more or less what he had claimed and he in turn that to some degree seemed to vouch for what Bruce was saying and it was indeed a mouthful.


More importantly, Bruce threw some of the greatest parties in history on Red’s American Express Cards. I mean we are talking about some truly prodigious events. For example, I well remember the time that we were invited for cocktails at the home a famous French Sculptress who lived in a fabled apartment on Park Avenue. When we had finished ogling her place and done with our cocktails and appetizers, Limo’s were awaiting in the circular driveway downstairs, believe it or not, truly one for each couple to take us literally down the block to the Edwardian Room at the Plaza Hotel. Our small group it seems, maybe twenty of us would be taking over the entire room for an intimate dinner where we could “talk”. Although it may have happened before, I was kind of a regular at the Plaza and had never seen it closed for a private party. This seemed a first.

My recollection of the dinner guests went something like this, a Countess from some exotic country in Europe, the head of a major American University, naturally the world class French Sculptress, a very prominent politician and several well known industrialists. However, there were several very unusual things about the dinner, not one of the invitees had ever met any of the others previous to that night and none of them seemed to know either Bruce or Red all that well; there was literally no business agenda and none was one intended, the house wine that was being served was Chateau Lafitte Rothschild, 1959 as I remember. At the time that stuff was bringing about $600 bucks a bottle and they were pouring it like it was water. The people although charming seemed very confused about what was going on, however, it seemed as though a good time was had by all.

This kind of dinner became de rigueur with Bruce and his friends, most of whom did not become regulars, however this may have been the best part of it all. You never really knew who would turn up at his affairs and for the most part the crowd was always extremely entertaining. Bruce never asked anything in return, although I did introduce him to one of my lawyers when he asked about his possible breaking some of the codicils in his will. My attorney become somewhat upset after having numerous meetings with Bruce and found that he could never deliver the required documents that were needed. He said it almost seemed like Bruce needed someone to talk to.

However, no matter who came and went, he still had the ever loyal “Red” Shandor who was now taking care of him like a baby. Moreover, Red’s American Express Card was being used by Bruce at an ever increasing clip. We were starting to see a tad of stress in Red’s eyes, but after all, he was going to be coming into millions soon and it didn’t look like Bruce would be getting his hands on any of it before that time based on what my lawyer had said. However, other strange things began to occur. Bruce indicated that he had a fleet of private jets available, thanks to his relationship with American Cyanamid and on numerous occasions offered to give my friends rides in these planes to wherever they may be traveling. This seemed a stretch, but if he wanted to let them use the planes it was better than having them sit on a runway doing nothing. However, on several occasions they took him up on these offers but for some unknown reason, the planes never seemed to arrive. However, Bruce was right there with an excuse for whatever happened and more often then not, it was always fairly credible. People became made, but Bruce was a charmer and was soon forgiven.

On one occasion I was involved in a real estate deal in South Florida regarding the Turnberry property. It was an elegant place and they had a magnificent yacht club on the premises. Hearing about my planned trip, Bruce informed me that his boat was in storage at the Port of Miami and he could easily ask the captain to pick me up for a tour of the Inland Waterway or whatever else I desired. He informed me that there was nothing further to do other than be on the Turnberry Dock at the designated hour, he would take care of the rest. Stupidly, I showed up at the appointed hour but the boat never came Unfortunately, I waited for some time to be picked up but finally gave up in disgust. However, as Bruce explained to me later, the boat had not been used for some time and air somehow got into the gas lines and clogged them so badly that the boat had become inoperable. Thus, the engine could not turn over and the ships communication system was in for overhaul and therefore they could not get to me with the news. This story was pretty lame and as nothing else had added up about Bruce, it was pretty easy to read the score card.


However, “Red” seemed to be a pretty sharp guy and that left some credibility, was he in it only for Bruce’s money? Moreover, for someone that was going to die any day now, Bruce looked awfully healthy. When I returned to New York I thought little about Bruce and his partner because they required nothing from me and I was having a fairly good time whenever they wanted to foot the bill. It was a Saturday night and I was having dinner at my favorite restaurant, the Giraffe on East 58th Street. This had been my hangout for some time and I knew the management quite well. The owner came over to my table and asked me about Mr. Berrien. How well did I know him and could be trusted? I asked my friend why he had wanted that information and he indicated that Mr. Berrien had unbeknownst to me, been able to open a house charge account and the bill was now into five figures. What should management do” they inquired?

My answer was rather simple, give him about a day to pay up and if he didn’t, call the police. They later let me know that they had done exactly what I had advised, the bill was put onto one of Mr. Berrien’s associate’s credit card and the matter was settled. Mr. Berrien was now holding court down the street at another one of my hangouts at the time, Bruno’s. However, they never mentioned his name and I had never brought him into the restaurant. I was beginning to feel rather bad for them.

One day when I was in my office I had a visit from two of New York’s finest that asked my secretary whether I could spare a minute for them. I was booked for the day and asked her to make another appointment for some day when I would not be as rushed. She came back into my office looking rather pale, clutching a picture of Bruce and myself at Belmont Park in a rather festive mode. This indeed put a different light on things and I visited with the officers for a time. As best as I could figure out, Bruce had been a career criminal, he was not the least bit sick. His modus operendi was to tell once affluent socialites the very same story that he had told Shandor hoping for sympathy along with a meal ticket. Apparently someone had finally wised up, possibly Shandor and had called the police. At this point Bruce had outlived his life expectancy by at least two months.

I later heard that Shandor’s credit had totally shot and that he had been taken in by Berrien to the max. Berrien was soon assigned a bunk in the nefarious Ryker’s Island Prison and spent a substantial amount of time being catered too by the State of New York. Eventually he was released into the custody of another party, this time it was a husband and wife team with whom he had been communicating from jail. They took him in, apparently buying the same silly story that Shandor had been sold. I was later told that Berrien had gathered together all of the silver and every valuable possession in the house and pawned the whole shooting match one day while they were out. He then left town but was soon caught by the police and never again was allowed to use pencils that had points on them.

I have not heard from Bruce in over a decade and many things may have happened to him in the meanwhile, but I will tell you this; Bruce was the best liar I had ever run across and working on Wall Street, that is saying a whole mouthful. He never dropped a stitch when making up a story and his yarns were imaginative to say the least. He was indeed an amazing confidence man, especially for his age. God help us all when he grows up. However, to the best of my knowledge, the only benefit that he received was to live well and to exist on the very edge. Any of his stories could have been checked in an instant if anyone had really wanted to but we were all having a good time on Red’s money and he was vouching for the lad. . He would give us names, dates and lineage if we only asked. Bruce stole, not for the money but for the game. It was his wits against ours and for the most part, once he had identified his quarry, he came out ahead. I would hate to meet Bruce the day he decides to go into the business of conning people for real money.

 

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