New York City, September 2001
My father always claimed to hold the key to one of the most publicized missing persons case of the twentieth century. He knew what had happened to Jade Mandrake Klein, the ill-fated wife of the heir apparent to New York City’s wealthiest real estate dynasty—an understated clan that makes the Trumps look like bit players in the realty and development game. Jade’s tragic disappearance, he claimed, was inextricably linked to the grand Victorian four-bedroom overlooking Central Park where, having just vacated my own tiny studio in Paris and moved back to the Big Apple, I found him entertaining a tense chestnut-haired stranger with features hinting at various surgical modifications. She had a diminutive, perfectly-proportioned Roman nose, unyielding alabaster lips, and sedimentary cheekbones. Her face was smooth and taut, and only her fagged gaze belied the world-weariness behind the flawless facade. With a fractional smile, she introduced herself. “Jillian Wyckoff, researching a book about Jade and Hugh Klein.” A book that was going to shed light on Jade’s death. For, almost twenty years after she vanished without a trace, there could hardly be any doubt that Hugh Klein’s dazzling young spouse had, in one way or another, been recycled into the natural world.
Jillian Wyckoff sat facing my father, whom I had always called Basil, not “dad” or any other term of filial endearment, on the banquette beneath the living room window. As Basil spoke, the writer took notes on a green leather-bound notepad. Framing the alcove, there had once been a lush array of exotic potted plants, which, decades earlier, my mother had carefully nurtured. There was limited plant-life these days. But my old bedroom hadn’t changed at all. Same beige paint with maroon trim, same oreangeade-colored curtains, same vintage bicycle poster (Les Cycles Clément), same steel-framed twin beds that had once been my grandfather’s, same old clattering General Electric AC, which could never quite blow enough cold air.
It had been less than a week since 9/11. It was a splendid late summer day, and I forced up the unwieldy living room window as far as it would go and inhaled the smell of nature—of pollen and trees and glorious bog. I could see a plume of black smoke arching grimly over the East River a hundred blocks to the south—a dybbuk worming its way to Brooklyn, toxic and light-footed. On the Lake, which stretched out below me, the rowboats meandered back and forth, like an unruly fleet led by drunken midshipmen. A wobbly jaunt past the gazebo, then a snaking tack toward the waterfowl. Collisions were frequent, and the aluminum hulls were heavily dented. When I was a kid, the dinghies had wooden hulls, and the Lake was strewn with splintered wrecks covered in green slime. Basil and I would go to the boathouse upon occasion, to circumnavigate our aquatic annex and slurp a strawberry milkshake. On another Sunday a long time ago, a man standing on Bow Bridge heaved a cinderblock over the guardrail. The concrete block landed in the middle of our craft with a thunderous clap. The hull sprouted a leak. As our assailant jogged nonchalantly into the Bramble, clearly unconcerned about the possibility of legal ramifications, Basil bellowed a few choice expletives. Before that, I had never heard him swear, or yell, at anyone—not even my mother. I made it back to the Boathouse unscathed, with soggy sneakers and a creeping sense of lost innocence.
Due to the flying moratorium, tourists were stranded in Manhattan by the thousands. To kill the time during my father’s interview, I counted the rowboats. Forty at least, with more pouring in beneath Bow Bridge every minute. Boatjams sprouted up at strategic sites, but the tourists took it in stride. I spotted the trumpeter swans, lying low behind the clump of cattails, guarding their nest. From behind their grassy redoubt, the pair waited patiently for the boaters to retire their crafts to reclaim their world. Something flew by me, no more than fifty feet away. It was Pale Male, New York City’s first resident red-tail hawk. He made a slow arch over the Ramble before landing gently on his Fifth-avenue perch, directly across the Lake. At dusk, the Carlyle, previously so elegant, would light up in garish red, white, and blue bands. Rah-rah. When I had left Ground Zero, less than an hour earlier, riding up the West Side Highway with my bedraggled crew, the crowd standing on the sidewalk began to cheer wildly. What the fuck are you cheering for? I wanted to scream back at them. Please stop.
Basil was telling Jillian Wyckoff the story of how we came to inhabit the Langham. I listened in, silently adding and subtracting various ingredients to the mix. As told by himself, the way my father landed the greatest apartment in New York City was like this: In 1977, my mother, swayed by my father and myself (I was eight, but very determined), decided to go another round, following a two-year separation. My mother had never quite learned to appreciate Hartford’s charms, so we moved to the City. They looked at a number of proper rentals, but she was particular. So we finally settled on a sublet in the Langham. Apartment 12n was on the top floor, not counting the diminutive penthouse units that had been built to house the staff. It had unparalleled views.
Our final cohabitation as a nuclear family lasted about a year. The following fall, my mother filed for divorce. That part Basil didn’t tell Jillian Wyckoff. He also omitted the fact that my mother was the one who had actually found the place, after meeting the original tenants at a Jasper Johns opening. Her name was still on the lease. But he had no difficulty recalling the names of the couple who had rented it to us: Alistair McQueen and his spouse, Sissy (the daughter of the disgraced parking magnate Hermann Moses). They had fallen in love with Paris, and wanted to live there for a while, but they didn’t want to relinquish their splendid rent-controlled apartment on Central Park. Ironically, the McQueens chose us over a slew of other candidates because my mother, a French artist with an aristocratic name, didn’t seem like the sort to make a play for their permanent digs in their absence. On the way to Brittany that summer, we even visited the McQueens in Paris, where they had rented a lavish apartment on Avenue George IV with towering frescoed ceilings. Their daughter, Whitney, was a sprightly, mischievous waif with blue ribbons in her hair who danced around the immense front hall in a crepe dress, making me dizzy. Compared to my ruddy little classmates from Sainte Anne’s on Belle-Isle, the remote Breton island where my mother and I had been hiding out before that final connubial polka, it felt like Whitney McQueen had sprung straight out of the pages of Eloise at the Ritz. But the honeymoon between the McQueens and the Berkmans didn’t last.
Basil Berkman fancied himself a filmmaker in those days. A Child Is a Wild Young Thing, the movie that caused my parent’s relationship to dissolve, had opened in a couple of arthouse theatres in Manhattan in 1975. It was a tawdry exploitation flick, and my mother, a second-wave feminist with an M.F.A. from Yale, loathed every aspect of it. Following the release, she used a number of geographical ruses to put some distance between Basil and us. The movie had cost 1.3 million dollars to produce. My father directed the film, under the alias Basil Skinner, in honor of the evolutionary biologist he venerated, B.F. Skinner. “Basil Skinner’s A Child Is a Wild Young Thing is often quite beautiful to look at,” The New York Times acknowledged. “Considering it is his first movie—he wrote, directed, produced and photographed it—it is made with some skill. But it is a dreadful and wrongheaded vision of its subject, a wrenched picture of childhood.”
The film flopped, which Basil cared less about than the fact that his efforts to validate B.F. Skinner’s theories on nature vs. nurture, as laid out in The Territorial Imperative, were judged unpersuasive by the scientific community.. Despite the financial setback, he remained flush. Prior to moving to New York, he had sold our Tudor mansion on Prospect Avenue in Hartford, which sat a few blocks away from the Governor’s Mansion, and cashed in his stock options from the family business (the Allied Steel Ball Company). The stock had done very well thanks to the Vietnam War and the ratcheting up of the Cold War. Ball bearings were used to pack missile silos, for helicopter rotors and jet engines, and for a multitude of other military-industrial applications. Forgoing cinematography, he invested his money in real estate, and began to convert industrial buildings in Tribeca and the Garment District into residential lofts and mixed-use spaces.
In the course of his business dealings, Basil befriended another, much bigger developer named Ezekiel Kasperian, who had begun snapping up choice properties in the postwar years. E, as everyone called him, was a distinguished gentleman a few decades older who spoke with a thick Persian accent and imported his suits from Saville Row. His trademark was a silk handkerchief in a lapis hue, which poked out of his breast pocket in an ornate configuration. It was both delicate and vaguely menacing, like a pagan charm. E taught my father the finer points of growing a successful real estate operation. And they seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. I would often come home after school and find my father at the kitchen table with E, playing chess as they sipped some Taster’s Choice and talked shop. The two became partners on a condo project on West Broadway. When E eventually died, Basil hung a portrait of him in the kitchen, next to a framed copy of The Hartford Courant’s interminable tribute to my grandfather, a paper delivery boy who eventually became the daily’s editor. E also happened to be the sole proprietor of the Langham. He was the McQueen’s landlord.
The cost of living a life of luxury on avenue George IV would have been considerable. The McQueens may have been feeling squeezed, or shorted by their respective trust funds, because they decided to double our rent after a few months. Basil pretended to play ball for a while, and gave Alistair what he wanted—almost three times the official rental amount. It was a trap. By flagrantly overcharging us, the McQueens were violating their lease. Basil worked out an arrangement with E, who promptly began an eviction proceeding. E wrote my parents a new lease. A landlord can’t just swap tenants in a contested rent-controlled unit, but E knew the ropes better than anyone. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” he’d chime, during their afternoon get-togethers. Apartment 12n didn’t just fall into my father’s lap. It took years of litigation—and things that went well beyond the scope of litigation. By the time it was all settled, my father had survived a murder attempt on Canal Street, and my mother and I were, once more, safely across the pond. It was towards the end of this lengthy and bitter dispute over apartment 12n that my old man learned what really happened to Jade Klein. At this point, I’ll throw in a legal disclaimer: everything in this story is based on hearsay, and none of it would be admissible in a court of law. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t the truth. Or at least the truth, as I experienced it.
Alistair McQueen was proud to call Hugh Klein his best friend. According to a 2002 Rolling Stone article, the pair were in the habit of visiting Saint Tropez together every summer, with rotating girlfriends, to gamble and to gambol. After both men married, they went on sailing cruises together in the Caribbean, and so on. I never encountered Hugh Klein, but I remember Alistair well, because of the dramatic events that occurred over the course of the year we annexed apartment 12n. Alistair was a handsome fellow, with well-accented, poetic features reminiscent of Pushkin, and a shaggy mane of dark wavy hair that flowed down his smooth, sculpted jawline. Like E, he was a dresser, and I never saw him wearing anything other than bespoke suits. His were more ample, however, more brassy. He favored striped vests and Italian leathers. He was the type who might strut into Studio 54 after a Broadway show, and wouldn’t be caught dead in chinos. He spoke in a deep, rumbling baritone. Alistair was also extremely susceptible, like Pushkin (who was killed in a duel by a French officer). He was prone to seething fits of rage. He was a passionate man, and, by all accounts, he was passionately loyal to Hugh Klein.
The McQueens made a speedy return to Manhattan when they got the news that E was evicting them. They moved into a condominium on Park Avenue that belonged to Alistair’s father, another big residential landowner. The fact that the McQueens both came from important Manhattan real estate families and were never going to be homeless, or for that matter living anywhere with less than 3.5 bathrooms, was beside the point. The perks of having a rent-controlled lease in the Langham—the last rent-regulated building on Central Park, were hard to quantify. A rent-controlled lease can be passed on from generation to generation, like an asset—albeit one that never had to be purchased in the first place. And in the case of 12n, a 4,266 square-foot lakeside spread, it was an asset that was already worth a few million bucks in the late seventies. Landlords will often pay a fortune to recoup these apartments, and they can’t evict or remove rent-controlled tenants unless they violate the terms of their lease in some stupid, flagrant way—as the McQueens had done. Trust-fund babies tend to think they are naturally entitled to whatever privileges they have been gifted with, and as a result may lack good judgment. Predictably, the McQueens tried to recover their digs. Although it went well beyond that. For the McQueens, and especially for Alistair, winning back apartment 12n became a scorching obsession.
The first time the McQueens invited themselves back into the disputed rental, we found them upon coming home from the movies. My sisters were in boarding school by that point. It was just the three of us—Basil, my mother, and me. We had gone to see a double feature: Jaws followed by a Cousteau movie. It was playing in one of those shabby midtown theatres—probably belonging to the Kleins, who owned most of Times Square. I can only speculate why my folks took me to see a film about a diabolical shark with a taste for kids. Maybe they thought it was kitsch. The undersea documentary, despite the stunning images of the aquatic realm, was almost worse. To document the full array of life on a West Indian reef, Captain Cousteau detonates a few charges of TNT. The fish in their splendid diversity float to the surface, belly up, with an expression of wide-eyed surprise—as Cousteau with his silly red hat proceeds to pontificate about the critical scientific importance of the carnage. Following that scene, I almost hoped a snarling shark with blood-shot eyes would spring out from a bend in the reef and devour Cousteau and his entire crew.
We had dinner at a Basque restaurant in the Theatre District. The cinematic ordeal hadn’t dulled my appetite, and I indulged in my usual fare: a succulent tournedos two inches thick, accompanied by an extra serving of Béarnaise sauce and crispy frites, followed by tarte Tatin. Afterward, we paid a visit to a gypsy fortuneteller, who took my mother aside after a minute. She whispered something in her ear, which she later repeated to me: “Leave your husband now!” Whenever the wizened occultist looked up at Basil, she would cringe, comically, and take a backwards step. And yet she couldn’t seem to tear her eyes away, as if, despite her best efforts, she was being ensnared by an invisible, malefic force. Basil relished the little game; he grinned widely at her every time he caught her eye, like Bulgakov’s satanic cat.
It was almost midnight by the time we got back to “our” apartment. I ran into the front hall, and froze. Sissy McQueen was seated at my father’s desk, wearing a black turtleneck and a massive amber necklace—each spherical orb a tiny, tangled universe. Tall, wispy, flaxen-haired—she had fully appropriated the archetype of the waspy patrician blonde. Sissy had nailed the Halston look. She swiveled slightly and cast a look of distaste my way. No, it was worse than that. Her gaze was brimming with contempt, as if I were some wretched, louse-ridden street urchin who had happened to wander into her pantry, begging for scraps. My mother came up behind me, putting a protective arm around my shoulder. Sissy had nothing on her. It is avowedly Oedipal to brag about my mother’s looks, but I don’t really see any way around it. She had been introduced to Betty Ford at a benefit she attended during her Yale years. The high priestess of fashionistas handed her a calling card, with scrawled instructions to call as soon as convenient: “I’ll send you a contract, and if you need a place while you get settled in the city, you can stay with me.” My mother never called (but she kept the card).
A dozen years later, she was still a head turner. I wouldn’t call her pretty, but she was certainly striking—it was the kind of stark, austere beauty that made men freeze when she entered the room.
“What are you doing here?” my mother inquired. I could see she was quite taken aback at the sight of Sissy McQueen, but more than that she sounded dreary, as if playing her part in this tedious late-night vaudeville was more than she had signed up for. Or else she didn’t see the point, since she had never for a moment considered staking a claim to apartment 12n, and all she wanted anyway was to turn a new page.
Sissy looked as though she was about to launch into a tirade, but Alistair stepped out of the shadows. I hadn’t even noticed him. “That isn’t the right question, Marie-Antoinette. The real question is what are you doing here?”
“This is our place, you filthy French whore,” Sissy slurred. The love affair with all things French had ended badly, and she certainly wasn’t fawning over her “lovely Miette” anymore. Basil, who had left my mother and me in the company of the McQueens, finally entered the dining room, which doubled as his home office. The heavy sliding doors that led to the living room were open wide, and the double-hung window overlooking the park had been pushed up. A stiff breeze was blowing into the apartment. The indigo lights atop the Carlyle flickered like witch fire. The art deco landmark went totally dark after a moment, which happened precisely at midnight. Two glasses were perched precariously on the ledge above the window alcove, along with a bottle of cognac. I recognized the label. How long the McQueens had been indulging in my father’s spirits, waiting for us to get home, was anyone’s guess. They were both tipsy, but Sissy seemed the worse off.
“Who let you in?” Basil purred. He sounded almost like a concerned acquaintance. Not only did he not look upset in the least about seeing the McQueens, he seemed to be getting a rise out of the situation. My father wasn’t the type to get riled up over a home invasion.
“This is our place you sonofabitch!” Alistair roared. He had never been very fond of my father. “Who do you think let us in?”
“Is that supposed to be some kind of riddle?” my mother inquired. I was impressed.
“Jimmy let us in of course,” Sissy drawled. She was referring to one of the doormen, a gangly Puerto-Rican crooner who had been employed by E for as long as anybody could remember. A scratchy laugh followed her revelation. “We’ve lived here for years. You’ve been here five months. Whose side do you think the staff is on?” McQueen moved forward, churlish, shoulders swaying. They were both dressed to the nines. He was wearing a dark suit with flaring lapels and a flashy bowtie. They had probably strolled over after the Natural History Museum benefit, which drew those New Yorkers who graced the society columns. I had noticed the limos doubled-parked up and down CPW when we hailed a cab earlier that evening. Alistair’s overcoat was spread out across the mahogany dining room table, burying my father’s office files. I could see the emblazoned label, which announced that it was 100 percent pure cashmere. Sissy’s coat was splayed out next to her husband’s. It was made out of some kind of luxuriant mottled white fur, perhaps snow leopard. Before she started making headlines as a self-proclaimed animal rights lawyer and activist, Sissy Moses McQueen wore fur. Basil’s files were strewn all over the floor. Either the wind had generated some kind of climactic anomaly, a micro-cyclone, or the McQueens had decided to ransack the place. A gust lifted up a page of scrawled notes with the words “NO DEAL” spelled out in huge letters at the bottom. The page hovered briefly, before finding a permanent berth in a dusty corner. Sissy’s silky predator pelt billowed in the breeze, luffing slightly as if hoping to breathe life back into itself. Alistair took a step forward. He was holding a walking stick with a decent-sized sterling silver nob. Alistair McQueen was fit as a fiddle—he did not require a walking stick. He was also younger than my father, and quite a bit taller. Basil wasn’t a fighter, but he was perfectly, irrationally, fearless. Until he finally crash-landed it in a field a few years after my birth, he was known throughout New England for flying his small Beechcraft Musketeer in the most questionable weather systems. I had seen him gleefully take on tiger sharks while spearfishing in the Bahamas. And that spring, he had charged after two thieves who had snatched my mother’s purse during a stroll in Sheep Meadow. He kept after them until they abandoned their booty, throwing the purse into the azalea bushes near Eighty-first Street without taking the time to pocket the cash. The late seventies were a hazardous time to attempt that sort of thing. A few weeks later, a Parisian photojournalist, a friend of my mother’s, was promptly shot dead for refusing to hand over his Nikon.
“You’re a goddamn operator Basil. That’s what you are.”
“Ouch. That hurts.”
“I may do that,” he said somberly. “I WILL NOT let you steal our apartment.” He was standing close to Basil, who was, once again, channeling the feline known as Behemoth, a wicked grin lighting up his curiously, well, Cossack features. Rounded face, puggish nose, wide beefy cheekbones, combined with those impossibly deep-set eyes that could mesmerize a cryongenized muskrat. Alistair McQueen glanced my way, unsure what to do.
“This isn’t your place,” Basil said, as if explaining a difficult truth to a child who was on the slow side. “And it isn’t mine. It’s E’s place. He decides.”
“Not so,” whined Alistair. “There are laws. This is a rent-controlled apartment. He can’t just break our lease.”
“You broke your own lease when you tried to charge me three times the legal rent,” Basil retorted. “You know that as well as anybody.”
“You’ve got E in your goddamn pocket, we know that,” Sissy croaked. Her voice was hoarse from all the cognac. Alistair seemed hesitant to take things to the next level with a wide-eyed eight-year old standing next to him. My developing brain was working hard, trying to grasp the situation. Had we really taken this place from the McQueens—from the cute little dervish-creature with blue ribbons in her hair who twirled tirelessly through her swank, cloistered fairyland?
Sissy drained her glass of cognac, and raised herself with a kind of fatal determination. She was a little unsteady on her feet, and she walked straight into my diminutive blue plastic skateboard. She tripped, and Basil caught her as she hurtled into him. Without losing a beat, she began to pummel him.
Somehow, my father managed to shove a livid Alistair out the door, with Sissy still smashing her bony hands into his chest. As McQueen was getting thrust out of his old apartment, he yelled: “I’m giving you a month to vacate this place Berkman! One month.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean, you bastard!” Then, he turned, and bade my mother good night. With her, he remained remarkably courteous. My mother was a step behind the melee, slightly in retreat. She grabbed Alistair’s overcoat and Sissy’s leopard pelt, and tossed their finery into the marble hallway.
The one month deadline came and went. But the McQueens didn’t give up. For a few more years, while the legal case was being argued and the keys to apartment 12n still hung in the balance, my father continued to have dealings with them, which grew increasingly unsavory. While we were on vacation, Alistair paid a locksmith to change the locks. The next day, armed with their fresh set of keys, the McQueens tried to reclaim the space, but this time the doorman, under orders from E, didn’t let them into the lobby. A few weeks later, someone broke in and stole most of the art that was hanging on the walls. Alistair proceeded to ransom it. Eventually, my father paid ten grand to retrieve the paintings and assemblages, which was all my mother’s work from her Art School days (which he then refused to relinquish after the divorce, arguing that he had “bought” it).
Another time, as Basil was downtown to check out a property he was hoping to get under contract, Alistair tried to murder him. He was walking on Canal Street. Alistair rode around town in a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, a driver at the wheel. The Rolls pulled up alongside my father, and Alistair tried to brain him with a tire iron. He called out “Hey Basil, how are you old boy?” as he started swinging the heavy steel rod, which gave my father enough time to catch the iron. A fleeting tug o’ war ensued. My father held on fast as the Rolls kept rolling. Alistair, whose elbow was being pressed up against the side of the window opening at an unnatural angle, had to let go.
Finally, there was the exchange that eventually brought that enterprising crime writer, Jillian Wyckoff, to the Langham. The fate of 12n had finally been decided after years of litigation. The McQueens had lost, just as E had predicted. By then my mother was back in Brittany, and I was in a Swiss boarding school. Alistair decided to pay one last courtesy call to my father. Jade Mandrake Klein’s disappearance was all over the news, and Alistair told Basil that he would share her sad fate—unless he agreed to give him fifty grand to compensate for the “dirty trick” he’d played on him.
“Berkman,” he fumed, “you’ll end up like Hugh’s wife unless you pay me. I’ll fry you in one of my incinerators.”
In the early eighties, many property owners disposed of their garbage the old-fashioned way, by burning it. Although the city was already beginning to require buildings to switch to garbage compactors, the transition took a while, and most big landlords kept their incinerators running for years—it was far cheaper to bribe the inspector from the Sanitation Department than to comply with the new ordinance. McQueen was managing one or two of his father’s biggest residential buildings. The kind that had the sort of industrial-grade incinerator that could easily accommodate a body, and burned hot enough to turn bones to ash.
The main reason that Hugh Klein wasn’t charged with Jade’s murder was the complete, inexplicable absence of material evidence. The official police report stated that Jade had left the couple’s country home and caught the Tarrytown Express back to Manhattan on January 31st, 1982. At least three witnesses saw her, or spoke to her on the phone (or at least declared that they saw her, or spoke to her on the phone) on both the night of the 31st and the following day. According to the elevator operator in the building where she lived, a man paid her a late-night visit on the night she purportedly got back to her apartment. With Hugh out-of-town, let’s assume that Jade did actually make it back to Manhattan on the Tarrytown Express. Who then was her gentleman caller?
The Big Apple was uniquely perilous habitat in the early eighties. With over three-thousand homicides on average per year (more than died on 9/11), the official statistics already painted a dire picture—but the truth was worse. Just as many “disappearances” passed under the radar of law enforcement. Hugh Klein certainly wasn’t the only one in his ritzy entourage capable of inflicting a lethal dose of bodily harm. You don’t swing a tire iron at someone’s head in broad daylight on a crowded street if you find murder constitutionally unpalatable. For years, my father had displayed the tire iron from McQueen’s Silver Shadow. “Now I just need to find the car.”
Alistair’s father-in-law was one of these dodgy sociopathic characters. Hermann Moses served three years for hiring a contract killer to murder his business partner. During that period, he had a falling out with his daughter, Sissy, who sued him for bilking millions of dollars from the family trust. And while he was doing hard time, Moses payed his cellmate, who was about to be liberated, to assassinate… Sissy McQueen. Investigators got wind of the plot and placed her under police protection. Klein and Moses were not, sadly, unique. The culture of killing was entrenched in the seedy, old school world of New York City realty. Murder was endemic, and it was part and parcel of the brick-and-mortar racket. After I moved into the Langham, I befriended a pair of witty, precocious twins who lived on the fourth floor. They were, like me, developer progeny. Our mothers eventually became friendly as well, and their mom told mine, over one too many gin-and-tonics, that her husband used an “expeditor” (wink-wink) to handle his most intractable tenants, “permanently.”
McQueen and Klein, both sons of privilege, didn’t think the rules really applied to them. In the New York of the late seventies and early eighties, they were correct. This was a time when landlords with deep pockets and multilayered associations could make troublesome tenants simply vanish off the face of the earth. In the absence of digital databanks, utility records could be disappeared by greasing the right hands, and although there were also honest cops, the NYPD as an institution was corrupt to the core. Everyone had stories. “Another one gone, another one gone. Another one bites the dust,” as the hit single went. Whether the song was inspired by the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, or something else, didn’t matter. In 1980, it epitomized New York. I’d belt out the lyrics with my classmates in the playground, channeling that relentless, terminal beat, as we pretended to shoot each other down.
When I got home on that balmy evening in September, Jillian Wyckoff couldn’t repress a slight grimace, reminiscent somehow of Sissy McQueen’s look of distaste when she spotted me scrambling into the den all those years ago. I had been recovering human remains since dawn. I was plastered in dust and dirt and stale bodily fluids. I had gotten past the various checkpoints with a climbing harness and some gear, for the third time in four days. My flight from Paris had landed on the evening of September 10th, ending my two-decade exile. I had skipped just one daily rotation since the beginning of the search and recovery effort, the day George W. came to wax lyrical to the first responders, promising fire and brimstone on a secular despot who had strictly nothing to do with the terrorist attacks that had paralyzed New York City. I’d been scrambling down broken water mains and collapsed parking ramps. Every time we (a motley, completely improvised crew made up of civilian daredevils, FEMA personnel, and a few intrepid firefighters) shimmied down to the sublevels of the bygone Twin Towers, where the damage wasn’t comparable to what lay above and where there were still voids that could have contained survivors, we were ordered back up—too quickly.
Jillian Wyckoff didn’t know what to make of me. I was wearing a USARF 1 shirt and my safety harness was dangling from my waist. By then, my so-called “ripstop” Carhartt workpants, which I had unearthed at Trinity Church on my second day on the pile, were shredded, and I was bleeding from a profusion of minor scrapes and cuts. I smelled like roadkill.
“This is my son. He’s been helping out downtown.” Basil seemed proud, which felt surreal because he’d never paid me a compliment or even said anything positive about me that I could recall. I didn’t spare Jillian Wyckoff by throwing my clothes into the wash and jumping in the shower before joining the conversation. The blood et. al. was appropriate, I thought, considering why she had come to meet to my old man. I was technically a news correspondent for a French daily, but all I had been able to think about since the collapse were the folks that might still be buried alive. On the pile, a pervasive rumor circulated about 911 calls from people trapped in sublevels. I had told my editors I wouldn’t be covering Ground Zero after filing some copy on the first day (which, obviously, cost me my job). And here was another reporter, in my childhood home, intent on crafting some kind of sensationalistic yarn by exploiting a bad situation. This was just the beginning of course. The world was about to discover, or rediscover, the killing machine known as Hugh Klein.
After she’d listened to Basil’s recollections, Jillian Wyckoff began to brief us on the real estate scion’s recent vanishing act. Not only was he currently MIA, his longtime friend and confidante, the daughter of a famed Mafiosi, had recently been executed with a .22 caliber bullet to the head in LA. The LAPD was convinced she’d been murdered by Klein himself. Jeanine Pirro, the ambitious Westchester County D.A. who had reopened the Jade Klein case and was hoping to build her run for Attorney General around it, believed that Dee Bonanno knew something about Jade’s disappearance, and Bonanno (big mistake) probably told Hugh she was on the hot seat. The cops had already placed him in LA when his old friend was found, face down, in a pool of her own blood. A trail of death followed Klein. As we were going to learn, almost anywhere he set foot, someone ended up in a bad way.
So Hugh Klein was on the run, location unknown. And someone else was dead, unambiguously so. No lack of a crime scene this time around.
I didn’t really care much for any of it. The whole affair seemed trivial after Ground Zero. Even if there was no doubt that my father could push Alistair McQueen to paroxysms of homicidal rage—even if his old rival had really threatened him with the same sorry fate as Jade Klein, so what? My dad, like Alistair and quite a few more besides, seemed to have an unhealthy fascination for Hugh Klein. I was relieved to see Jillian Wyckoff put down her mint julip and tell my father she had another pressing engagement. These were unsettling times. In the churning wake of the rescue effort, I forgot all about Jillian Wyckoff. Until two detectives showed up at the door, three weeks later.
Hugh Klein had killed, again. The information hadn’t been made public, but the two cops briefed us. A colleague of theirs in Texas had just found a laundry receipt belonging to Klein inside a garbage bag that had been hurled into Trinity Bay. A garbage bag that also contained the dismembered remains of Klein’s next-door neighbor. They had tracked him down. Klein was living incognito in Houston, posing as a mute woman. With Dee Bonanno dead, he was hoping Pirro’s belated investigation would simply go away. To wait it out, he had gone to Texas, about as far away from Westchester County as he could get without using his passport. His plan probably would have worked. Except for the laundry receipt, and Klein’s apparently irrepressible bloodlust. This would soon all be the topic of tabloid headlines, but the point was this: Hugh Klein was now an official suspect in at least three separate murder investigations. Lloyd and Murphy had been on the verge of boarding a plane to question Dee Bonanno before they were informed by the LAPD that they were too late. The two bloodhounds had been on Klein’s trail for a while, but he was always one step ahead.
I still have the detective’s calling cards. One was a special investigator from the New York State Police Major Crimes Unit. The other, a senior detective from the DA’s office in Westchester. They couldn’t agree, apparently, on who had jurisdiction over the case of Jade Klein. It all depended on where she died, New York City or somewhere up the Hudson River Valley. Hence the importance, from their perspective, of having a conversation with Basil Berkman.
And so, Detective Lloyd, representing the New York City arm of the law, asked him about Alistair McQueen and the incinerator. And my father got cold feet. He told the two detectives the same story he had told Jillian Wyckoff, but in some vague, diluted iteration, as if he didn’t take it all that seriously. And he threw in a little twist, telling the pair that McQueen’s heated outburst in 1982 was “a scare tactic—maybe bullshit.” I almost jumped out of the old suede couch that had followed my parents from Hartford all those years ago. But I wasn’t exactly surprised. Edifying Jillian Wyckoff as to what may have happened to Jade Mandrake Klein over the course of a lazy Sunday afternoon rife with rambling, self-obsessed digressions (one roving eye on the attractive crime reporter, the other on a pewter pitcher of mint julep) suited the old dog well. But being dragged smack into a murder investigation conducted by a phalanx of hardscrabble cops who were decidedly un-sexy? That simply wasn’t my father’s MO. I didn’t know if Jade Klein had really ended up in one of McQueen’s incinerators, but I knew this much: Basil had always believed it.
Perhaps my father’s fudging actually suited Jeanine Pirro, who wanted to prosecute Klein in Westchester County. If Jade had died in New York City, as initially thought, then this wasn’t her case at all. Pirro’s spiel remained remarkably consistent over the years: the NYPD bungled the original investigation, and she was the crusader who would fix it, and finally bring Klein to justice. True enough, Klein’s house in South Salem wasn’t thoroughly searched in 1982. But after Pirro reopened the case, a team went through the Klein’s old country home using the latest forensic techniques. They dug up the basement and the crawl spaces. They sent divers into the shallow lake that fronted the property. They found nothing.
Nineteen years later, because it suited Pirro’s political ambitions, the Westchester D.A.’s office led a media campaign blitz to discredit all the early eyewitness statements that placed Jade in Manhattan, and eventually the elevator operator, Leander Abrams, recanted. It may not have been Jade he saw standing in the entrance of her apartment in her nightgown after all. What a plan Klein must have orchestrated! Having just savagely murdered his spouse in South Salem, he managed to station a body double in their Manhattan penthouse, and then placed a call to an accomplice to arrange a courtesy call to faux Jade. He made sure to tell this stand-in to slip on some skimpy attire so that the elevator operator would be too troubled to even realize he wasn’t looking at the real McCoy. Leander Abrams, in his flustered state, was obviously gazing at someone else entirely, someone who must have entered the building like a wraith, without alerting the doorman, superintendent, or indeed Abrams himself (or another lift attendant). This magical being must have come in via a secret entrance, and climbed up sixteen stories. And this inextricable scheme would have been hatched, for what exactly? Apparently, just to dupe none other than, well, Leander Abrams. What a troublesome way to obtain an alibi. Besides the glaring logistical hurdles, it would have been absurdly risky to attempt to manufacture a false witness: Abrams, or any other elevator operator, would have been far more likely to realize that the stranger standing in the Klein’s apartment was NOT Jade. Which would have made matters very dicey for Hugh Klein. Why take the chance?
In 1982, Hugh Klein still had a following, and very loyal friends. Maybe he was psychotic, irrevocably damaged by seeing his mother commit suicide as a boy, but he was, by all accounts, a beguiling personality. And he had access to the well-oiled apparatus of his father’s empire. In 1982, Times Square was the nexus of an illicit parallel universe—rife with prostitution, drugs, and violence. The Kleins owned porn theatres, sex shops, and seedy hotels that catered to sex workers and their pimps. This was the customer base that made the Kleins into New York’s most successful real estate dynasty. Hugh Klein was not created in a vacuum.
In her desire to take over the Jade Klein case, Pirro was conflating the Klein who executed Dee Bonanno and dismembered his next-door neighbor—the repudiated heir, the alienated loner, the paranoid misanthrope—with the charismatic rebel, the young jet-setter who, at the time Jade vanished, was having an affair with Prudence Farrow, the inspiration for the second track in the Beatle’s White Album. With the seductive, feral first-born son who was still seated to take over his father’s billion-dollar real estate holdings. In Manhattan, Klein could use his native web, and have someone else do the dirty deed, a professional “expeditor” or a trusted friend. South Salem was a riskier proposition.
After Detectives Lloyd and Murphy left, I tried to pick my father’s brains, for the very last time. He shrugged off my questions, and ambled over to the rosewood parlor grand, which he favored over the walnut Steinway, and launched into his own arrangement of “Rhapsody in Blue.” He was a phenomenal pianist, and I wondered for the millionth time why he’d never taught me how to play a note. But I already knew the answer—you were never around, your mother made sure of that. I waited for him to finish the piece, with an original flourish.
“Dad…” I said emphatically, using the word for the very first time, as an adult. It felt strange, but also, well, not bad. “Why didn’t you go to the cops in 1982?”
“What was the point? I told Alistair the police would be interested in his incinerator. He was a smug sonofabitch—he said they’d already searched it. He said they even found a little bit of gold. ‘Enough for a wedding ring.’”
“Why didn’t you mention that to these two?” Peevishly, I brandished Lloyd and Murphy’s cards a few inches from his nose. I was doubtful that any McQueen incinerator had been searched in 1982. In the absence of a lead, how would the cops have known what building to scour? Or gotten a search warrant? Basil shook his head slowly.
“Because they already know about it. I bumped into Alistair at Tavern on the Green a few years ago. It brought all of this stuff back. I hadn’t given any serious thought to any of it for a long time. I called the cop who was on the case back then, because, well, they had never found a thing. It got the ball rolling. They reopened the investigation.” I sat down heavily, in utter shock. How daft of me, how perfectly silly. How did I think Jillian Wyckoff had ever tracked him down? Same for the two gumshoes who had just slogged out the front door, at an apparent loss to make sense of his story. Basil Berkman, even if he had just tried to debunk his own version of events, WAS the very reason the Jade Klein case had resurfaced at all. My father’s belated revelations, had, sure enough, “got the ball rolling.” Even if the ball had taken a wrong turn and was currently rolling toward Westchester.
He was also, therefore, the spark that had ignited Klein’s latest killing spree. How strange, I thought, that my past and my present were tied together by this, in the hecatomb that was Manhattan at the dawn of the new millennium.
Hugh Klein was taken into custody in Texas on October 9th, three days after Lloyd and Murphy’s visit. Klein made the 300 thousand dollar bail in short order, and then skipped his indictment hearing. Then he pulled yet another vanishing act. A few weeks later, he was arrested in a Wegmans outside Bethlehem, PA, for shoplifting a chicken sandwich, although he was carrying enough cash in his rental car to buy the supermarket’s entire shelf inventory. Officers found a map with directions to the residence of an old friend of Jade’s, someone who had campaigned for his arrest following her death. He also had two handguns in his car, including a compact .22 like the one that was used to kill Dee Bonanno.
After he was extradited to Texas, Klein hired a crack legal team and pled self-defense in the killing of his neighbor, Manfred Charpentier. My father, incidentally, believed that Charpentier, who had once lived in New York City, had a deeper connection to Klein than the authorities believed. He thought that Charpentier had been Alistair’s chauffeur around the time he was assaulted with the tire iron on Canal Street. He thought that Klein had kept in touch with Charpentier over the years, and that it was no accident Klein moved into that particular apartment in the same building as Charpentier. Basil thought that Charpentier had been murdered because he knew something about Jade’s fate.
In the Charpentier case, Klein was acquitted of everything but tampering with the evidence and skipping bail. In the interim, he received sixty-odd million dollars from the family trust. Years later, in New Orleans, he would be arrested once again following a muttered admission of guilt that was recorded during the shooting of an HBO mini-series in which Klein himself was the main protagonist.
On September 13th, 2017, I placed a call to a detective from the LAPD, who had been attempting to reach Basil. By then, Klein had been transferred from New Orleans to LA, where he’d been charged for the murder of Dee Bonanno. Until then, I had never spoken directly to a cop about any of it. That spring, I had said my goodbyes my father, staying a few day s by his side in a hospital room in Dunedin, Fl. He told me he didn’t want to live another day without being able to take a piss unassisted, and he carried around a little index card with the letters “DNR” written on it. His longtime girlfriend, a sprightly jazz singer about half his age, had other ideas, and she made it her mission to keep him alive. He lived another nine months, a few days shy of his ninetieth birthday, despite leukemia, COPD, and a virulent bacterial infection in his lungs. He could barely talk, much less fly to LA to be deposed in front of a judge. I told the cop there was no testimony to be had.
Why did I choose to talk about this? The truth is, I’m not sure I know the answer. To me, Klein and his bloodletting are parenthetical, and the scenario I’ve laid out, in which Jade Klein perished in New York, was likely incinerated, is quite irrelevant to anything but the matter of legal jurisdiction—over a highly hypothetical prosecution. Alistair McQueen is dead, and (absent some new revelations from Klein himself), nothing more about Jade Mandrake Klein’s demise is likely to be gleaned. By delving into this particular episode of my early life, I am just hoping to gain a deeper understanding of my own father and his singular motivations.
After his interview with Jillian Wyckoff, Basil told me that it was preferable to “let sleeping dogs lie.” But not totally. My father knew someone who was acquainted with Klein’s second wife, a realtor. When Klein was released from his Texas jail cell on time served, he moved back to New York. Basil placed a call to his home. He wanted to meet Klein. They made an appointment, but Klein stood him up. They talked on the phone a few more times. Basil told me he told Klein he could help him in some kind of advisory capacity. He was hoping to gain his trust, he said, and eventually find out precisely how Jade had been murdered. He recorded their talks. Maybe his intentions were less honorable, and the thought that he wanted to blackmail Klein did occur to me. Which all says more about my father than it does about the troubled scion of New York’s biggest real estate dynasty. Just as, for as long as I could recall, Basil had been fascinated with Leopold and Loeb—two intellectually gifted Jewish boys who murder another for no particular reason other than to break the ultimate taboo—I believe my father was, for a time, fixated on Klein. And via Klein, to the Nietzschean conceit that the societal norms that saddle most of humanity can be transgressed by a select few.
In the mid-eighties, during the height of the AIDS pandemic, my father concocted a serum he imagined would boost the immune system of ailing HIV-positive men. He wasn’t a doctor or a scientist, but he was convinced that his insights were better than those of anyone in the medical establishment. The serum was derived from alpha toxin, which is what makes the venom of some scorpion species highly toxic and gives gangrene its so-called virulence factor. He kept the little bottle of alpha toxin in the refrigerator. A single drop of concentrated alpha toxin, injected intravenously, could kill an elephant. Basil tested the dilution on himself first. Nevertheless, most of the terminally sick individuals he injected with the “cure” died in short order. Others, he claimed, survived, and “beat” the retrovirus, thanks to his breakthrough. Either way, the ethical implications of his peculiar experiment were never a consideration.
Just like Klein, Basil did not want his beautiful bride to file for divorce. To that end, while we were all still living under the same roof in the Langham, he cautioned my mother that leaving him wasn’t an option. “Anyone can disappear in this town,” he warned her. I am convinced that my father, like Klein, Moses, and McQueen, was pretty much capable of anything. While Klein, a tabloid celebrity, is invariably depicted as a repugnant serial killer (which he is), he is not that extraordinary. Intractable tenants, business rivals, estranged daughters, and alienated spouses were all fair game for these well-heeled movers and shakers of the built environment. My mother got lucky.
When Jade vanished, Prudence Farrow was living a few stories below my father, in another rent- controlled apartment that had once been her mother’s—who played Jane to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan. While my father and McQueen were still going toe-to-toe over apartment 12n, Klein would visit his lover in the Langham. Lennon wrote “Dear Prudence” while the two were at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s retreat in India. Fatefully, Lennon had moved in just across the street some years earlier. His murder happened the year before Jade’s, in a demented act of violence that epitomized the time’s lunatic zeitgeist.
I was eleven when Lennon was shot dead in the courtyard of the Dakota, and it would be my last winter in the City. The next day, after school, I found my way to Basil’s still-disputed apartment, courtesy of a classmate who lived in the same building and was ferried around via chauffeur. As always, Basil was at his office when I got dropped off. Typically, I had the run of the place. I’d dig into a pint of rum raisin Häagen Dazs, and I would settle down to play Pacman or sneak one of my father’s tapes into the VHS player (The Exorcist, The Blue Lagoon, Behind the Green Door). Some days our paths crossed, but mostly not. At some point, I would either walk or take the bus to Ninety-first Street, where I lived with my mother in a one-bedroom directly across the street from Haywood Towers. There, I spent most of my free time playing stickball with the kids from the projects. Nothing bad happened, until a broken section of Con Ed pipe peeled my face open like a can of tuna. The kid who hurled it at me wasn’t from the projects. Twenty blocks—two worlds.
By the time I reached the Langham, the news of Lennon’s late-night murder had been widely broadcast, and a crowd had gathered in front of the Dakota. By late afternoon the dense throng had grown to encompass neighboring blocks, and I was no longer able to exit the Langham. So I stayed put. I opened the living room window and sat on the limestone ledge. The ample gutter into which I wedged my feet always made me feel secure. I peered downward, taking in the spectacle of mourners. The weather was spectacular—an ultramarine sky radiated over the park and the entire city. Milling restlessly on the macadam, the maddening crowd was silent for a long time, but as it swelled further, spilling from the sidewalk and spreading across the entire avenue and into the park, the usual sound of rush-hour traffic was entirely replaced by the sound of singing. When darkness fell, the lighters and candles were raised, and from my perch it looked like a swarm of bio-luminescent locusts had landed, occupying every inch of Central Park West between Sixty-Eighth Street and the Natural History Museum. A bonfire sprouted in the park, the material proof that spontaneous combustion was more than a literary artifice. I slept fitfully that night, and from my old berth I could hear the stricken and the lost singing Strawberry Fields Forever and Come Together, the words echoing dully in the shadow of gods and monsters.
- United States Aircraft Rescue firefighting