The world of 1950s New York will forever be etched in the minds of most Americans. It is a now bygone age of trench coats and trilbies, of unquestioning patriotism and the dawn of the television age. Coming at the mid-point of the decade, 1955 marked the Cold War’s height, with Soviet tensions dominating the news and all manner of B-movies filling cinema-goers’ minds. Buddy Holly was just a year away from his first single, and both rock and roll and the greaser subculture were about to redefine the era. America was at a crossroads.
Serge Rubinstein, meanwhile, seemed something of a throwback. He could almost have been a stock character from all manner of 1930s and 1940s pulp detective fiction, the perfect kind of adversary for the likes of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. Few had a good word to say of Rubinstein — he was a crook, a scoundrel, and a swindler. The man had few friends yet had an immense talent for acquiring wealth through fair means and foul. He believed that the rules didn’t apply to him and that all was fair in love and the acquisition of money. This money opened doors for the young man and created an endless stream of enemies across New York that eventually led to his downfall. In 1955, one of those enemies would have enough of Rubinstein, murdering him at his Manhattan mansion. The killing is unsolved to this day and remains one of the most intriguing affairs in New York City’s history.
Serge Rubinstein was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1908. His father, Dimitri, was a money lender and financial advisor to the infamous Grigory Rasputin. His allegiances and associations made remaining in Russia impossible following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and after fleeing to Europe, the Rubinstein family settled in England. It was here at Serge spent his teenage years, graduating from Cambridge with a degree in economics.
By 1932, Rubinstein had not only joined the Banque Franco-Asiatique in Paris but was running it, a magnificently short rise. However, while his future may have looked bright, the young refugee soon proved himself prone to greed and deception. He was accused of short selling the Franc in 1935 and was promptly expelled from the country. With a flavor for finance under his belt and seeking his next opportunity, Rubinstein’s next destination was logical — New York.
Entering the country in 1938, Rubinstein used a false passport to gain entry, the document being in the name of “Serge Manuel Rubinstein de Rovello.” He was now claiming to be half Russian and half-Portuguese. Again, his rise was astounding, making an immense sum of money through stock dealings throughout 1939 and 1940. His genius with money opened the doors to New York high society. Soon enough, his donations to the Democrats granted him a seat at the high table, sharing dinner at the White House with Elenor Roosevelt.
However, just as in France, Rubinstein couldn’t keep his dealings clean. Following his takeover of the British mining company Chosen Corporation, Ltd., Serge immediately sold its three gold mines in Korea to a Japanese firm. He kept the $1.7 million price for his own pocket and smuggled most of the cash out of Japan due to harsh restrictions on exportation of the Yen. In 1941, the affair would come back to haunt him as Rubinstein was sued by the other Chosen Corporation board members, being forced to settle out of court for $2 million, losing any profits he made from his Japanese dealings.
Indeed, the 1940s were a mixed bag for the financial wizard, with his constant attempts to evade the Second World War draft winning him notoriety. While many associates and acquaintances were willing to forgive his corruption, few would forgive his cowardice. Marrying in 1941, Rubinstein claimed to be on a low income and supporting seven children, in reality having just two. He would also try and claim to be involved in vital industry on the home front and even tried to use his fake half-Portuguese identity to claim exemption through Portugal’s neutrality. The draft board finally had enough of his shenanigans, and after claiming to only earn $11,000, investigations discovered that in reality, his yearly income was $337,000. Serge Rubinstein was convicted as a draft dodger and sent to the Lewisburg Penitentiary, serving two years from 1947 to 1949, during which time his wife filed for divorce claiming cruelty.
Despite having legions of women involved in his life throughout his time in America, Rubinstein was a cruel man who mercilessly beat his wife unconscious, ripping off her clothes in the process. His charm was superficial, backed by lavish displays of wealth. Privately, he was far from the “artful dodger” character that many believed and, despite his undoubted high intelligence, was a man without a conscience. The exploitation of Rubinstein went far beyond his dealings in his financial life. He gravitated toward attractive young women, often little over 18, ensuring that they would be entirely dependent on him emotionally and financially. His attempts to control his girlfriends went as far as tapping their phones. He was, in every respect, an abuser.
At his own future funeral, Rabbi Dr. Julius Mark would controversially describe the “unquestioned psychopathic personality of Serge Rubinstein” as “strangely complex” and “ambiguous.”
“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.” — Rabbi Dr. Julius Mark.
For most men, prison and divorce would either be a wake-up call or the end of their public life. Not to Rubinstein, who quickly worked his way back into society, frequently being seen about town with a variety of eligible women and once more beginning his dodgy dealings. His usual methods involved investing in companies where liquidation value exceeded stock value. He would gain control of a company and then exchange the assets for shares in a shell company through a long string of transactions that were incredibly difficult to unravel. He would then dissolve the sham company and cash-out. His tactics won few friends and gained him plenty of enemies and legal trouble, being indicted almost the moment he left prison on charges that included stock and mail fraud and violations of the Securities Act. Through his ability to pay for some of the country’s best attorneys, he was acquitted in 1951. The same year he was sued by his sister-in-law as she accused him of defrauding his own brother Andre out of $1.5 million during the Japanese Chosen Corporation affair. In 1954, Blair Holdings sued Rubinstein for $5 million as they alleged his involvement in a conspiracy to defraud them. As the 1950s reached their mid-way point, it seemed his enemies and the law were getting closer, with Rubinstein having long given up any pretense of being in any way legitimate. On January 27, 1955, Rubinstein’s actions would finally catch up with him, hubris meeting Nemesis as the fraudster was brutally murdered at his lavish Manhattan mansion on Fifth and 62nd St. overlooking Central Park.
Rubinstein had returned from dinner at Nino’s La Rue supper club in the company of one of his girlfriends, a pretty brunette model by the name of Estelle Gardner. It was around 1:30 am, and after a quick nightcap, she left after approximately 15 to 30 minutes. She didn’t stay the night and took a cab home. Perhaps disappointed, Rubinstein got ready for bed. Before he retired, he attempted a booty call, trying to get a secretary by the name of Patricia Wray to come over. She refused, and Rubinstein seemingly went to bed. It would be the last thing he would ever do.
No disturbance would be noted until the morning when Rubinstein’s butler, William Morter, discovered his body in his third-floor bedroom. Rubinstein was still attired for bed and wearing silk pyjamas. He had been bound at the hands and feet using the cord from the room’s Venetian blinds, and his mouth was taped. A coroner’s report would later reveal the cause of death as manual strangulation, with the victim dying not long after retiring to bed around 3 am. Such was the force used to choke Rubinstein; two of the bones in his throat were broken.
Police assigned a significant task-force to the killing, 50 detectives put on the case, meeting silence at every turn despite interviewing 500 acquaintances. It seemed that few were saddened or surprised by events in Manhattan, with most saying that it had only been a matter of time before somebody murdered Rubinstein. A majority seemed to believe he deserved all that came to him and that justice had already been served. Such was the animosity toward the man that one New York Times reporter quipped that the NYPD had “narrowed the list of suspects down to 10,000.”
The room in which the body was found had been ransacked, with drawers emptied and clothes tossed from wardrobes. The bed was a mess, and a search of some nature had seemingly taken place. However, nothing of any note was missing from the house, and both police and Rubinstein’s associates came to believe the scene was staged. There was no sign of forced entry at the property, and being in his bedroom, it seemed unlikely that Rubinstein himself had let anyone into his abode. While suspicion might fall on the butler or other staff, police noted that the deceased had given keys to the property to many of his girlfriends and associates, many undoubtedly with their own nefarious associations.
The mansion was shared by Rubinstein’s 78-year-old mother and 82-year-old aunt, the pair living on the upstairs floors. Both family members claimed to have seen a woman in the house around 1 am, the mysterious “girl in brown” being spotted after the sounds of a quarrel were heard throughout the house. Police believed they were mistaken.
The killing sparked a press sensation, with Rubinstein’s dodgy dealings already well known both amongst the media and across New York. The press had long reveled in the big-spending socialite and his corruption, with his death now adding one final grim chapter to their fascination with the man. The theories came quick and in abundance, with a jilted lover, the mob, and an angry victim of his frauds being popular angles.
A least five girlfriends were questioned by police over possible involvement with the killing, all drawing few leads. However, the NYPD’s eyes soon turned toward two businessmen that Rubinstein had already complained to police over. Rubinstein had informed the police that he had had his windows broken and was assaulted in the street by the two men. Despite peaking detectives’ interest, there was no evidence that either was involved in the killing, and solid alibis eliminated them from inquiries. The case was going rapidly cold when a tip was received about a petty thief by the name of Herman Scholz. He would have an astounding tale to tell.
Under questioning, Scholz alleged that he had intended to kidnap Frank Costello, the godfather of the Luciano crime family, and the inspiration behind Mario Puzo’s Don Corleone. To say such a plan would have been bold is an understatement. Perhaps realizing the difficulties in his idea, Scholz switched his target to Serge Rubinstein. To carry out the plot, Scholz says he enlisted several men that he described as “underworld types.” He had eventually called off the entire conspiracy and told police that he believed those he had been working with had continued on without him and were responsible for the killing. The whole affair was a bungled attempt at extorting a ransom. Despite the possible plausibility of the claims, there was no evidence that anything Scholz said was real, and police dismissed his testimony as a false confession. Written off as a crank, Scholz was charged with the possession of a large illegal cache of weapons. He would be the only name ever prominently involved in the case to be charged with a crime.
Overwhelmed by the sheer number of corrupt characters and connections in Rubinstein’s life, it seems likely that the NYPD could never have engaged the manpower required to unravel the many dealings and frauds surrounding the case. With many having little interest in bringing the killer to justice outside of Rubinstein’s family, witnesses and tips were either misleading or entirely non-existent. With no hope of then-unknown DNA or other evidence at the crime scene, the murder was destined to remain unsolved.
In 1962, the author Gene Smith published an extensive investigation into the case The life and Death of Serge Rubinstein. As recanted by true crime writer Sarah Weinman, Smith was displeased with the book, yet confident that he knew the killer’s identity — Peter Francis Crosby.
Crosby and Rubinstein were two peas in a pod. Crosby was ruthless in his pursuit of money and women, coming from a prominent family of property developers. He was regularly seen on the New York Club scene and was noted for his abuse of women, beating his first wife, Denise Darcel. After being divorced, he met a new love interest, Estelle Gardner, the same woman that Rubenstein brought back to his mansion on the morning of his murder. In fact, it had been Crosby who introduced Gardner to Rubinstein just two weeks before.
Gene Smith reported that there was a rumor that Crosby was one of the individuals who had a key to the mansion, denying this was the case to NYPD detectives. In September of 1954, it was noted in the press that Crosby intended to bring proceedings against Rubinstein for over a million dollars stemming from an oil deal in 1953 where Serge had backed out of a $100,000 agreement to buy oil land stock, investing only $3,000. There were other rumors that the mafia had been involved in this deal, and when screwing over Crosby, Rubinstein had inadvertently crossed the mob. A controlling personality and obsessed with money like Rubinstein himself, it seems more than possible that Rubinstein’s overtures to Estelle Gardner were the final straw for Crosby. He was questioned by the police just days after the death of Rubinstein though whether he was an official suspect in the killing is unknown as the file has been “lost” in the years since the murder. Crosby would eventually serve time for stock market swindles in both 1960 and 1971, his criminal career continuing alongside former associates of Rubinstein. He died in 1996.
Serge Rubinstein’s story is one of arrogance and greed, one that perfectly exemplifies the belief as to the corrupting nature of money and its pursuit. It stands as a warning that actions always have consequences and that all the money in the world is of little value when you’re gone. With few to speak well of him and perhaps even less to mourn him, it is easy to wonder if thoughts of regret passed through Rubinstein’s mind between his dying breaths. Had he foreseen Rabbi Dr. Julius Mark’s words at his funeral, would he have changed his ways? Perhaps, but these are questions of human nature and the only traits on display, both from Rubinstein and his murderer, are the very worst of us. Sordid and without conscience, the murder of Serge Rubinstein is not only a tale of one of New York’s most famous unsolved murders, but a glimpse into the darkest corners of Gotham itself.
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