Lead image via the 'New York Post'
The Pierre is a 5-star hotel in Manhattan that faces Central Park, offering up an unrelenting view of the New York City skyline. Opened to much fanfare in 1930, it’s hosted such luminaries as Elizabeth Taylor, Aristotle Onassis, and Yves Saint Laurent, and became a standard in high society living, where only the wealthiest of the wealthy could reside. It’s also been featured in several Hollywood movies including Arthur, Meet Joe Black, and Joe Versus the Volcano. But back in 1972, when President Nixon was holding court, the posh hotel was the scene of a heist organized by the Lucchese crime family, a robbery that became infamous in American history.
Bobby Comfort and Sammy “the Arab” Nalo, two professional jewel thieves and so-called gentlemen robbers, cased the Pierre and put together a team for the robbery. Arriving in a limousine at 4 AM on the second of January wearing tuxedos and wigs, the robbers walked into the Pierre and handcuffed 21 employees and guests as they emptied out the hotel’s safety deposit boxes, even taking the time to call 9/11 for a guest that was having a heart attack. With a take of $28 million in loot — consisting of cash, diamonds, brooches, bracelets, and sapphires — the thieves were seemingly set for life. It looked like a retirement score for all involved, but a series of double and triple crosses ensued, and some of the perpetrators were lucky to get away with their lives.
In The Pierre Hotel Affair: How Eight Gentlemen Thieves Plundered $28 Million in the Largest Jewel Heist in History, out May 9 on Pegasus Books, true crime author Daniel Simone collaborates with one of the thieves, Nick “The Cat” Sacco, to weave a tale reminiscent of Ocean's Eleven. Told in a narrative non-fiction style that reads like a novel, the book unpacks the real story of what happened during the legendary heist. “I followed the stories in the papers when the robberies took place in 1972, and it was sensationally spun by the media,” Simone told MERRY JANE, explaining that the reputation of the Pierre Hotel led to the facts getting blurred.
With the insight of Sacco, who not only participated in the heist but also helped craft the game plan, Simone was granted unfettered access to the behind-the-scenes details of a historic crime story that’s never been told in full. MERRY JANE talked to the author by phone to find out what it was like working with the former jewelry thief, what went wrong after the robbery, and why the convicted robbers only got a slap on the wrist for their nefarious scheme.
MERRY JANE: When did you decide to write this story and what was it like collaborating with Nick “The Cat” Sacco?
Daniel Simone: Two years ago, the sole surviving robber who was involved in the heist, Nick “The Cat” Sacco, contacted my agent in search of a writer to collaborate on a book about the Pierre robbery. Nick is currently in the federal witness protection program for an unrelated matter that has nothing to do with the Pierre robbery. He introduced me to the retired FBI agent who handled him and the agent said the Pierre robbery was child’s play compared to some of the other felonies that this man perpetrated. I found that mesmerizing, because in itself the Pierre robbery was of epic proportions.
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Nick Sacco would seldom carry a gun or any type of weapon when he pulled off a robbery. According to the FBI agent, when Sacco went into the federal witness protection program, he had approximately $11 million in jewels and cash. The FBI allowed him to keep it as part of the deal they struck. But in the witness protection program he couldn’t participate in robberies. Nick’s cash flow became restricted, but his gambling habits weren’t. He wound up literally squandering and gambling away that $11 million fortune.
Robbing a whole hotel seems like a monumental endeavor. How much planning goes into a heist like this?
They rehearsed and planned it so meticulously. Just to give you an example, the elevators in the Pierre Hotel are man-operated. Sacco trained and learned to operate that type of specific elevator, just in case one of the guests called for the elevator while they had the hotel under siege. This is how meticulously planned the entire robbery was, and, most importantly, they ensured that none of the hostages were harmed or injured in any way. In fact, after they completed the robbery, Bobby Comfort gave each of the hostages a twenty dollar bill as a token of appreciation for their inconvenience.
Why did the jewel thieves have to get the blessing of the the mafia to commit the robbery?
In New York City and the five surrounding boroughs, any profitable crime was controlled by the five New York mafia crime families. If a perpetrator was to pull off a robbery of this magnitude, he was expected to pay tribute to one of the families, and in exchange the family would offer protection from any other rival factions who would try to muscle in and demand a slice of the robbery. The family would also have political and judicial contacts to quash a possible investigation or indictment, too. If you didn’t get the sanctioning and approval of one of the mafia families, they would knock on your door and ask you why did you do this without their blessing.
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A lot of people were involved in this heist including high ranking members of the mafia, but the masterminds behind it were Bobby Comfort and Sammy Nalo. What were they like?
They both were very keen, astute, and sophisticated thieves. Until the Pierre robbery, Sammy Nalo had no prior arrests, even though it was estimated that throughout his criminal career he must have stolen a hundred million dollars in goods. The difference between the two of them was that Sammy Nalo was brash and shot from the hip without deliberating before making a decision or responding to a problem. In contrast, Bobby Comfort was very well-spoken. He could have played part of a professor, an attorney, or a doctor. He was well-polished and not as flamboyant, and was absolutely against violence. Plus, he had no particular vices, whereas Sammy was full of vices.
The entrance of the Pierre Hotel, photo via Wikimedia Commons
If these guys were so smart how did they end up getting caught?
A year prior to Pierre robbery, Nalo and Comfort had robbed the Italian actress Sophia Loren at gunpoint in her Manhattan suite. They stripped her of approximately a million and a half in jewels, necklaces, and all sorts of expensive stones, and they got away with it. When they organized the Pierre robbery, again, they were able to get away without leaving any clues or any possible ways for the authorities to apprehend them. But what happened was the FBI agent who’d been onto them for the Loren robbery decided to arrest them and get them to confess to both robberies, but Comfort and Nalo didn’t confess. They didn’t admit to any wrongdoing, nor did they name or identify their cohorts.
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What happened in the ensuing years to sour the success of the robbery? It seems that everyone got burned on the deal. Who walked away with all that money?
In this type of robbery, where there were several perpetrators, disagreements and arguments arise. Before you know it, they start killing one another, and that’s exactly what happened here. The individual who ended up with most of the money was Nick Sacco. Of course, Christie Furnari got his share right off the top. Comfort and Nalo wound up with pretty sizable portion. Comfort squirreled away his money, whereas Nalo was broke six months later. And then he was killed due to his mounting gambling debt.
You’ve faced some criticism for the dialogue between characters. How did you get into the characters’ heads to recreate their conversations?
The book is written in the narrative non-fiction style, which is a true story written in the style of a novel. Of course, where there are unknown gaps and the author takes the literary license to recreate a plausible scenario. Also, I had the immeasurable collaboration of Nick Sacco who was present in most of the scenes that take place in the story.
Comfort was snitched out by an informant, and Nalo ended up going to jail for the robbery, too. But both ended up only doing a couple of years in prison… how did the perpetrators get such sweetheart deals?
Christie Furnari [of the Lucchese crime family] backed and sanctioned the Pierre robbery. Furnari bribed the presiding judge who’d been assigned to their case and the presiding judge strong-armed the district attorney to allow Comfort and Nalo to plead guilty to minor offenses. They actually walked with two-year prison sentences. Nothing was recovered except for one .87 carat diamond necklace that belonged to a socialite (who incidentally still lives at the Pierre Hotel), but the rest of the cash and jewels — which totaled approximately $26 million — was never recovered. It’s important to note that $26 million in 1972 would equate to approximately a quarter of a billion dollars at present value. It was a robbery of epic proportion.
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"The Pierre Hotel Affair" is out now — order it online.
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