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The Playboy Murder

Updated on August 26, 2011

To the readers of New York gossip columns, Russian-born émigré Serge Rubinstein was a highly visible socialite, known for the stable of gorgeous blonde girlfriends he kept and a hectic life spent in the night clubs of Manhattan. To those who read behind the headlines, Rubinstein was a shifty ex-con who had served time for draft dodging in World War Two, and a stock swindler of mammoth proportions. In 1949, at age 40, he had been indicted on securities fraud, charged with bilking investors out of $3 million, but a two-year investigation was unable to establish clear proof of Rubinstein's involvement in the swindle and he was cleared on all charges.

Serge Rubinstein
Serge Rubinstein

This triumph only fueled his arrogance; hardly surprising since he had patterned his life on that of Napoleon Bonaparte. He idolized the little Corsican and frequently dressed up as him at society masquerades. He also kept a foot-high statuette of Napoleon on his desk. When it came to building a financial empire, Rubinstein showed that he had certainly inherited Napoleon's ruthlessness.

$10 Million Fortune

He became enormously wealthy. Some estimates put his personal fortune at $10 million ($80m in 2011), enough to live the kind of life that most can only dream about. In 1944 he paid $178, 000 for a luxurious five-story townhouse on Manhattan's upper Fifth Avenue. It was a palace of marble flooring, carved oak ceilings, tapestried walls and near priceless paintings. Pride of place went to Rubinstein's opulent bedchamber – it was too grand to call a bedroom – on the third floor. It contained 19 pieces of furniture and 15 paintings, and formed the epicenter of his existence. It was here that Rubinstein indulged the great driving force of his life – sex. He was insatiable. Not much to look at, mind you, just 5 feet 7 and a little on the tubby side, but he definitely had charm. That and his lavish spending more than compensated for any physical shortcomings. Women threw themselves at him in droves. On one occasion he reportedly turned up at a New Year's Eve ball at the Ambassador Hotel with no fewer than seven female escorts in tow.

It was similar story at his elaborate suite of offices on Wall Street. Most of the secretarial staff were gorgeous and most knew what it was like to spend a few minutes in one of the discreet antechambers that were hidden behind sliding walls. At night some of the more favored lovers were squired to the restaurants and nightclubs of Manhattan, where Rubinstein was a regular fixture.

A String Of Enemies

But Rubinstein had enemies. Not the least of these was the U.S. government, which had been trying to deport him for years (they claimed that he had entered America on a fraudulent Portuguese passport), while his shady business dealings had also stirred up a hornets nest in the world of high finance. Rubinstein just scoffed at his problems. He'd always lived a charmed life, and had no reason to suspect that anything would change now.

Certainly he was in a good mood on the night of January 26, 1955, when he visited Nino's La Rue, a swanky supper club on East 58th Street. This was one of Rubinstein's favorite haunts and he arrived with his latest paramour, Estelle Gardner, a glamorous cosmetics saleslady, on his arm. Together they sipped pink champagne and danced the night away. At about half past midnight, they left for a nightcap at Rubinstein's mansion.

According to Gardner, she left about an hour later. Within minutes of her departure, Rubinstein was on the phone to yet another lady friend, Patricia Wray, a blonde secretary who worked for an oil company. Rubinstein invited her over. Wray cried off, claiming she was too tired, and put the phone down. Then it is thought that Rubinstein went to bed.

The Butler Didn't Do It!

Six hours later, his English butler, William Morter, knocked at the bedchamber floor and entered, carrying a breakfast tray. He jolted to a standstill, eyes agape. The room had been ransacked, stuff thrown everywhere. Then he saw his employer. Serge Rubinstein, still wearing his midnight blue pajamas, lay sprawled on the pale green carpet. He was quite dead. His hands and feet were bound with rope and adhesive tape had been wound around his head and mouth. A Venetian blind cord was tied around his neck. Just above Rubinstein's body was a picture of himself attending a costume ball dressed as his beloved Napoleon..

Crime scenes in 1955 were processed very differently from today. As soon as news of Rubinstein's death leaked out, reporters were swarming all over the townhouse. At 1.30 p.m., when Rubinstein's body, covered by a gray blanket, was borne down the stairs on a gurney, photographers and newsreel cameramen shoved each other in a untidy scrum, all scrambling for the best angle to get their shots. Their rowdiness didn't make the detectives' job any easier.

Rubinstein's body being taken to the morgue
Rubinstein's body being taken to the morgue

The body was taken to the morgue at Bellevue Hospital, where the NY Chief Medical Examiner, Milton Helpern, performed the autopsy. Close examination of the abrasions on Rubinstein's throat told him that death had been caused, not by ligature, but by manual strangulation.

No Sign Of Break-In

Meanwhile back at 814 Fifth Avenue, detectives were trying to make some sense of the crime scene. They learned that at the time of Rubinstein's death, six other people had been in the cavernous house, all on other floors. These included Rubinstein's mother and aunt, and various domestic servants. None said they heard anything suspicious.

There was no sign of forced entry and judging from the manner of Rubinstein's death detectives inclined to the view that this was a mob hit. There had been a token attempt to make it look like a botched robbery, but an inventory showed that nothing of any consequence was missing. Investigators theorized that one or possibly two assailants had somehow gained access to the house, perhaps when Rubinstein had gone looking for a cab for Estelle Gardner, and had concealed themselves in the house, biding their time. They had then crept up to the third floor, entered his bedroom, and taken him by surprise while he was asleep.

Rubinstein's murder continues to fascinate
Rubinstein's murder continues to fascinate

Finding people who held a grudge against Rubinstein wasn't difficult and the range of possible suspects ballooned exponentially when the police discovered six ledgers in the dead man's desk. These revealed the murkiest secrets of his business dealings, as well as listing thousands of names, mostly financial associates and ex-lovers. An even darker side of Rubinstein's character emerged with the discovery that he had paid to have bugs planted in the apartments of some girlfriends. The ledgers provided a catalogue of motive for murder. Had someone decided that it was now payback time?

So Many Suspects

In most celebrity murder cases the killer is caught in short order. But not this time around. A team of 50 detectives worked the case for months, only to come up empty-handed. Since that time it has become the coldest of cold cases. In truth the police faced an almost impossible task. As one reporter joked, "They've narrowed the list of suspects down to 10,000."

To this day, no one knows who killed Serge Rubinstein.

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