Serge Rubinstein and the Scourge of Bad Men
An ongoing obsession with a long-ago unsolved murder finally subsides, only for the writer to find a plausible solution
By Sarah Weinman
Reading time 27 Minutes
The truest statement made about Serge Rubinstein was made at his funeral
The truest statement about Serge Rubinstein was made at his funeral by a man who did not know him, nor cared to. “The word 'paradox' best describes the strangely complex, ambiguous and unquestioned psychopathic personality of Serge Rubinstein,” said the man. There was no soft-pedaling. The crowd took it in with the requisite shock. In no small part because the man saying these words was Julius Mark, the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, the oldest and largest Reform Jewish synagogue in the United States.
The sanctuary on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, larger even than Saint Patrick's Cathedral a mile south, was nowhere near empty for Rubinstein's funeral, held in late January 1955. There were a few people in attendance who loved Serge, namely his mother, Stella, his aunt, Eugenia, and perhaps his daughters, Diana and Alexandra; but most of the spectators were acquaintances at best, enemies at neutral, and suspects at worst.
Mark had a difficult task. He'd been hired by Emanu-El seven years before, and was already known as a man who preached against religious intolerance of all forms, and in praise of tolerance in nearly all forms. But praising a man like Serge Rubinstein – who was not a member of the synagogue, though his mother was – would have gone against every moral principle Mark held, and that he was supposed to model for his congregants.
Yes, Serge's mother loved him. But he was a swindler. A philanderer. A procurer. A draft dodger, sent to federal prison for all of the creative ways he eluded World War II service. An admirer of Napoleon to the point where he dressed as the French Emperor for birthday parties. A man of such brazen, overweening ambition in the pursuit of riches and pleasure from Russia to Europe to America that, when he invested in a company, blew up the stock price, then cashed out before the crash that ruined every other investor but him, he took pride in his games, never mind the human cost.
“If they'd let me continue for another year I could have wrecked Wall Street with my system,” he once bragged in 1951, two years after his release from prison, two years after his first and only wife divorced him and took their daughters far West. America was a playground, its people his playthings. Morality was for suckers, and for, well, rubes.
Or it was, until Rubinstein turned up dead in his townhouse three blocks south of Emanu-El on the morning of January 27, 1955. Strangled and hog-tied, supine on the floor of his bedroom, still clad in silk pajamas. He'd gone out with a date at Nino's La Rue, a nightclub around the corner, until two in the morning. There were photographs of him and the woman dancing together to prove it. A phone call to a different woman immediately upon returning home, sometime after 3 AM. Then the butler found him dead just after 8:30 AM. Rubinstein's killer or killers had come in, done their work, and exited, like the ghosts they knew they would remain.
At forty-six, Serge's tumultuous, gargantuan life, which looked like it might carry on forever, without real consequence, was over.
What can you say about such a man? What wisdom can you impart, that could have any meaning? Mark could not countenance platitudes. He could not settle for neutrality. So instead, he told the truth.
Rubinstein, said Reverend Mark, “possessed a brilliant mind but was utterly lacking in wisdom. He had a genius for acquiring wealth, yet never learned that money is a good servant but a harsh master. He wanted friends and never had them, since he never seemed to realize that to have friends one must be a friend. He wanted love, but never knew that love must be earned, and cannot be bought. He declared that America was the finest of all countries, yet stubbornly scorned those who pleaded with him to answer America's call to service.”
When Mark was done, there was silence in Temple Emanu-El. He had been harsh, and he had been correct. Rubinstein's way of life had lead to his manner of death. And as multiple police detectives later joked, there were 10,000 possible suspects at minimum in the murder, and the likelihood of solving it was slim to nil.
They were, of course, correct. That didn't stop me, long ago, from trying anyway.
It is strange to look back upon the period of time, between 2005 and 2007, when I was completely obsessed with Serge Rubinstein's unsolved murder. I recall it taking over my life exclusively, though that cannot be true, because I also freelanced full-time and eked out a meager living doing so. Hundreds of hours of research, visits to archives at the national and the state level, telephone discussions with far-flung sources and government officials, all for a terrible book proposal that did not sell.
As if I was on the worst drug bender, I inhaled information on Rubinstein's bizarre life and death. This was a wild story. One that began in Czarist Russia – his father, Dmitri, was a money-lender to Nicholas & Alexandra, and Stella had knowledge of Rasputin – moved to Sweden after a daring (if well-funded) family escape from Revolution to Sweden, on to England and France, where currency speculation got him kicked out of the country in 1935, and finally, to America, which he thought he could conquer with illegal financial schemes, but instead conquered him.
Rubinstein's story was one of fraudulence, decadence, paranoia, espionage, lawsuits, perpetual law-breaking, violence, and then, murder. One of his associates (who himself died months after Serge) was convinced the violent death was the product of “a mob job, a syndicate job.” I was certain, with all of the pieces accumulated and characters involved, the archives visited and the files requested, the wildness could be contained into a coherent narrative, one that would help me understand this malevolent and fascinating man. But every time I tried, I failed. Rubinstein's life may have been larger-than, but it was also quicksand, slipping through my fingers again and again.
It's why the loose film adaptation, Death of a Scoundrel, starring George Sanders as the Rubinstein stand-in, is entertaining but ultimately a mess. Or why other narrative accounts, from Gene Smith's 1962 book The Life and Death of Serge Rubinstein, to an earlier magazine account in Esquire, to a newspaper column by the crime duo writing as Ellery Queen, don't quite land. Because Rubinstein was a victim of murder, but victimized so many along the way. Because he operated many decibels above the norm, but as we now know with so many terrible men – including the one still, inexplicably, president of the United States – such sustained operation is exhausting.
Perhaps that is why the case wasn't solved: sifting through the data tired every investigator out. Combing through every legal and illegal financial ledger, as well as the unsavory cast of characters Rubinstein associated with, was overwhelming. And once Rubinstein's mother and aunt died, who was left to care? Instead it became folklore, then faint legend, and then nothing at all. Another brick in the unsavory history of New York City. Another reminder that the wanton pursuit of success tends to backfire if you're incapable of loving anyone but yourself.
Serge Rubinstein's townhouse at 814 Fifth Avenue was razed decades ago
Serge Rubinstein's townhouse at 814 Fifth Avenue was razed decades ago, replaced by less attractive apartment complexes. The cafe society he inhabited vanished, stray embers remaining in the way that remnants of earlier New Yorks still linger in the air. My obsession also faded.
Embers, however, still flicker. My preoccupation with Rubinstein's unsolved murder simmered on the lowest level for over a decade, until a new procession of Very Bad Men of my faith – Weinstein, Epstein, Kushner, Miller, Dershowitz – dominated the discourse as they had dominated others. For power, for their pleasure, for the pain and suffering of untold others. For narratives that upheld their own victimhood even as they made victims out of far too many.
When I thought of them, I thought of Rubinstein. How similar villains are, pursuing all of the same desires, without care of cost, whether in the mid-20th Century or today. There were marked differences, of course. Serge's taste in women stayed legal – barely. His flirtation with Hollywood producing ended in disaster (and, once, a near-fight with the gangster Mickey Cohen over a woman). His instincts veered away from real estate and more towards currency manipulation. He never got so close to power as to shape foreign policy – the closest Rubinstein came was boasting about being in close personal contact with FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt after a visit to the White House, to their separate and joint puzzlement. And Rubinstein did not couch his grievances as embodying some larger ill about Israel or Zionism. Such talk bored him.
Like all these men, Serge Rubinstein's appetites were insatiable to the point of violence. The harrowing opening scene of Gene Smith's book, one that Smith, later the biographer of Woodrow Wilson, praised as “a hell of a research job” but otherwise disdained when we spoke in the mid-aughts – depicts Rubinstein's repeated verbal, emotional, and physical abuse of a woman who depended upon him for money and status. The power imbalance was immense. The woman never felt she could refuse him.
For that was Rubinstein's way. He sought beautiful women, those just over the age of eighteen, who had already endured broken promises and hearts. Whose confidence ebbed to low tide. Who contemplated leaving New York, or who might have left once and returned because home was even more intolerable than the numbing orb of Cafe Society. Who, at twenty-two, had lost the whiff of innocence, where experience was a net negative.
I would prefer to think of them than of him. Of Estelle Gardner, the woman he supped with at Nino's La Rue on the final night of his life. Of Pat Wray, the woman he rang upon returning home, who later learned to her horror that Serge had tapped her phone to spy on her having sex with another man. Of Betty Reed, left a token few grand in his will despite her public declarations of love for him, who went back to Texas because there was no place else to go. Of Barbara Payton, who had a brief relationship with Rubinstein just before her acting career declined into the terrible oblivion depicted, deglamorized, and fictionalized in I Am Not Ashamed. Of Rosemary Peters, who days after his murder gave a press conference announcing her own brief relationship with Rubinstein, craving the attention and not comprehending its hollow substitute, ridicule. Of dozens more I don't have room to name, though they should be named and remembered, too.
Most of all I think of another young woman who loved Serge once, or acted as if she did. Who had to keep cordial ties for the sake of her family. Who broke free of his orbit for good with his death, and lived nearly ninety-seven years entirely on her own terms, almost entirely in her own house. Who valued her children, her twin sister and her children, and her own autonomy, over any man.
Serge Rubinstein was the villain, a figure of surface fascination that fell apart when viewed up close. Laurette Kilborn, his onetime wife and mother of their two daughters, was the polar opposite. A cipher from a distance, performing the domestic hostess goddess role for spectators invited to gawk at Rubinstein's opulence. She was beautiful, yes, but more important was the survival instinct that got her out of working-class Queens and eventually, to her own terms.
Laurette Kilborn would be a great hero for this sordid story. And in a different version of this essay, she would be. In that version, I thought I would ruminate some more about how Very Bad Men are depressingly permanent. Or about cafe society in New York City. Or about harmed women making sense of their lives. I thought it would be elegiac, not the result of a few days' research and corroboration.
Which is why it's so odd that now, long after my obsession with the case ebbed, I have a pretty good idea of who killed Serge Rubinstein and why.
I kept my notes from all those years ago, when my obsession was at high fever
I kept my notes from all those years ago, when my obsession was at high fever. When I let myself tumble down rabbit holes of all manner of conspiracy theories involving the White House, the prototype for the NSA, and strange financial doings. Could it be true that one of Rubinstein's girlfriends disappeared from sight because she became romantically involved with a spy? Or that a rock had crashed into the Fifth Avenue townhouse days before Rubinstein's murder as an omen? Or that his mother consulted a psychic to find out who killed him? (That last tidbit really did happen, and gave little comfort to Stella, who died in 1958, three years after Serge.)
I was so hung up on elaborate, fanciful theories that when I got Gene Smith on the line to talk about his book, the one he so disdained, I didn't really listen to what he was saying. He'd written that he had a pretty good idea of the culprit. He gave me a name and didn't care if I used it or not. I wrote it down in neat cursive handwriting I no longer possess. He mentioned the man had been married to a French actress. That he had dated one of Rubinstein's regular girlfriends. And that he later ended up indicted for financial crimes along with other men in Serge's professional orbit.
Somehow I had forgotten all of it until I found the man's name in my notes. Five minutes of research using my favorite databases confirmed everything Gene Smith told me. He is dead now, as is the suspect he named. That man may have gotten away with murder, but ended up emulating Rubinstein's life in uncanny ways. Perhaps that is why they were adversaries. Like recognizing like.
Peter Francis Crosby – sometimes the first and middle names were reversed, other times he used other names entirely – was a decade and a half younger than Serge Rubinstein. His family was wealthy, born in Great Neck but long residents of Washington and New Jersey, and developed real estate in Atlantic City, Vegas, and Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Their doings sometimes skirted the law, but never the way that Crosby did. His brother James, younger by three years, was quoted as calling Peter the “black sheep” of the family. And that whenever Peter's name was brought up in conversation, James would start fuming. There was a good reason.
Peter, when young, was good looking in a dissipated way, dark hair carefully framed around a face that fixed itself into semi-permanent seriousness. He circulated around New York City nightclubs like Twenty-One, picking and choosing among the lovely and beautifully attired young women. In October 1950, after a protracted engagement that made constant headlines, he ended up married to Denise Darcel, a French actress and cabaret singer.
But it was all over within months, cemented the following March by an argument at El Morocco well-covered by the gossip columns. Crosby became infuriated when he saw Darcel speaking to another man. He threw a glass of champagne in Darcel's face. She responded by slapping him in the jaw. After some public attempts at reconciliation that ended in her accusing Crosby of assaulting her in her hotel room, Darcel obtained a Mexican divorce. “Peter and I,” she told the Daily News, “have been under a terrible strain.” She had once claimed to marry him for “loff” not money, and that she didn't mind when he misrepresented being a millionaire, but clearly this wasn't true.
More public arguments ensued, as well as more violent private ones. Just as the divorce was finalized, on July 25, 1951, Crosby became so incensed that he threatened violence upon reporters asking him about the breakup. “I'm mad enough to kill anybody who asks me any more questions,” he said. “I've reached the stage where I trust no one. Everything I say or do is misunderstood.”
After Darcel divorced him, things quieted down some for Crosby. He spent more time in Washington, while still leaving plenty of room to be a Manhattan socialite. The gossip columns linked him with other women, and married him off to one Candy Nelson (it was, allegedly, annulled.) He met a comely brunette named Estelle Gardner and took her out several times, including, on the night of January 13, 1955, to a Russian Orthodox New Year's Eve ball held at the Hotel Ambassador. The ball was hosted by Serge Rubinstein. Crosby apparently introduced Gardner to the Russian-Jewish financier.
This would have marked consequences several weeks later.
Crosby was questioned by police within hours of Serge Rubinstein's murder on January 27, 1955, photographed by the papers going into the midtown precinct. What he was asked, and whether he was ever a proper suspect, cannot be known. The investigative file is no longer with the NYPD, which considers it “lost” (at one point I learned a retired cold case detective took it with him upon retirement, but he stopped answering my emails and phone calls years ago.)
But it seems likely that Crosby was asked how he knew Serge. Their association apparently began in the early 1950s, perhaps during and after Crosby's marriage to Denise Darcel, whom Rubinstein was also friendly with. Gene Smith reported on one rumor of Crosby owning a “special key” to Rubinstein's manse, a rumor he apparently denied to investigators.
Crosby was likely also asked about a 1953 business deal gone sour, in which Rubinstein had promised to buy $100,000 worth of oil land stock from Crosby, but only spent three grand. Dorothy Kilgallen had printed a rumor in her September 1954 column that Crosby intended to sue Rubinstein for more than a million dollars, a rumor that would certainly have piqued investigators. As well as a second rumor that Crosby had delivered a note to 814 Fifth Avenue saying that “since Rubinstein had knifed Crosby, who had thereupon been forced to knife the Mafia, which was behind the oil deal, the Mafia intended to take revenge upon Rubinstein.”
Since Crosby attended the New Year's Eve Ball in early 1955, it would seem nothing came of the note – at least, not overtly. There were plenty of other credible suspects – including one who had tried to extort Rubinstein on another matter, arrested within hours of the murder – so Crosby's interrogation dead-ended fast. Police let him go at 11 PM on the night of January 27, and there are no additional reports he was taken in again for questioning on the Rubinstein murder.
Crosby, however, became all too familiar with law enforcement. His compulsion was stock market schemes, sometimes working the scam alone, but mostly in tandem with others. One involving a mutual fund company netted him a four-year prison sentence in 1960, this on top of a five-year-term earned for an earlier swindle rooted in a Canadian company. Upon release, Crosby was at it again, teaming up with several others – two of whom were close associates with Rubinstein, including the man arrested on the failed extortion plot – for more complicated grifts involving fake corporations, the island of Sark, and millions of dollars. That got Crosby arrested on federal charges in 1971, and though he eluded capture for a while, eventually he served yet another prison sentence.
In between prison stints, Crosby found time to marry again and sire several children. His family lived in a town just over an hour Northwest of Chicago, and he was not a regular visitor. As his wife told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1987: “He doesn't come home that often. We're used to it.” (She did not respond to multiple telephone contact attempts, which is why her full name is not included here.) By a legal agreement forged a decade earlier, they were still living in the family home. He, on the other hand was unemployed, living in subsidized housing in Northern New Jersey.
Mrs. Crosby's quote appeared in the paper because Peter made headlines one last time before his death in 1996. His brother James, the real estate scion, had perished unexpectedly in 1986 at age 58, awaiting surgery for emphysema-related complications. Crosby's will left equal stock portions of his business, Resorts International, to his siblings – all except Peter, who would receive a trust, under the provision that he could never directly access the money. (The multiple convictions for fraud, plus millions of dollars in tax liens to the IRS, made him a poor candidate to manage the trust himself.)
Things get complicated, as wills involving millions of dollars, multiple family members, and real estate tend to do. But the gist is that when Peter learned his family had decided to sell the business – and the still-in-development hotel that would eventually be called the Taj Mahal – to a Queens-born, Manhattan-dwelling developer named Donald Trump, Peter tried to block the $79 million sale in Florida court.
Crosby claimed he filed the appeal because some other business could get more money for his family. But even his wife wasn't sure. “I know there's more to it than that. He's so insecure. All of his family has made it . . . Everyone seems to be somebody. He's trying to finagle his way in. He can be an irritant, and he's irritating the trustees.”
If Crosby was responsible for Serge Rubinstein's murder, either by himself or with the help of others, the motive appears to be rooted in the twin obsessions of Serge's life: finance and females. Those, rather than love and money, because Rubinstein was incapable of love and of recognizing love, and money was a paper tiger.
Crosby was a worthy adversary only in that he emulated Rubinstein in far too many ways. He, too, was preoccupied most with finance and with females. He, too, could not see the world beyond his own self-centered perspective.
Is this the ending to this case, and my long-ago obsession, I wanted all along? A Very Bad Man likely responsible for the death of another Very Bad Man? Or is the snake merely gobbling up its own tail, since all the viable suspects are dead anyway?
For Serge Rubinstein, companies were worth more dead than living. It turned out the same went for himself.
Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita (Ecco) and editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s (Library of America) and Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit & Obsession (Ecco), forthcoming in July 2020.
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