Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief

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Overview

The extraordinarily captivating memoir of the remarkable jewel thief who robbed the rich and the famous while maintaining an outwardly conventional life—an astonishing and completely true story, the like of which has never before been told . . . or lived.

Bill Mason is arguably the greatest jewel thief who ever lived. During a thirty-year career he charmed his way into the inner circles of high society and stole more than $35 million worth of fabulous jewels from such ...

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Overview

The extraordinarily captivating memoir of the remarkable jewel thief who robbed the rich and the famous while maintaining an outwardly conventional life—an astonishing and completely true story, the like of which has never before been told . . . or lived.

Bill Mason is arguably the greatest jewel thief who ever lived. During a thirty-year career he charmed his way into the inner circles of high society and stole more than $35 million worth of fabulous jewels from such celebrities as Robert Goulet, Armand Hammer, Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Truman Capote, Margaux Hemingway and Johnny Weissmuller—he even hit the Mafia. Along the way he seduced a high-profile Midwest socialite into leaving her prominent industrialist husband, nearly died after being shot during a robbery, tricked both Christie’s and Sotheby’s into fencing stolen goods for him and was a fugitive for five years and the object of a nationwide manhunt. Yet despite the best efforts of law enforcement authorities from several states as well as the federal government, he spent less than three years total in prison.

Shadowy, elusive and intensely private, Mason has been the subject of many magazine and newspaper features, but no journalist has ever come close to knowing the facts. Now, in his own words and with no holds barred, he reveals everything, and the real story is far more incredible than any of the reporters, detectives or FBI agents who pursued Mason ever imagined. Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, expertly co-written by bestselling author Lee Gruenfeld, is a unique true-crime confessional.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief is a compelling memoir that details a life of crime and a series of gutsy capers rivaling anything that Hollywood could dream up, exploits made all the more astonishing for having been pulled off single-handedly. Bill Mason, a self-described "ordinary guy" who ended up ripping off everyone from Truman Capote to Phyllis Diller to the Mob, insists he's on the straight and narrow now, but his story sure stole a good night's sleep from me. "
—Les Standiford, author of Havana Run and Last Train to Paradise

“I think this book's tremendous. As is always the case, real life, when properly described, is vastly more fascinating than fiction, and you need look no further for proof than Bill Mason's amazing story. "
—Frank W. Abagnale, author of Catch Me If You Can and The Art of the Steal

"Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief is the kind of book that drives crime-fiction writers like me up a wall: No one would ever believe these amazing, compelling stories of theft and deception if they weren't sitting on the nonfiction rack. Mason tells his life story with such flair and confidence that I felt like I was dangling from a twenty-story ledge right along with him. Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief is the ultimate kind of guilty pleasure, because even though you know it's so wrong, it feels so right."
—Eric Garcia, author of Matchstick Men

From the Hardcover edition.

Publishers Weekly
Fans of classic caper films like Topkapi and The Pink Panther will be fascinated by the true-life adventures of jewel thief Mason, who had a long and successful career. Starting in his early 20s in the 1960s, Mason stole valuable jewels from the famous (Phyllis Diller, Robert Goulet, Armand Hammer) and the merely affluent, using his wits and athletic ability to take advantage of supposedly burglar-proof security. His crimes, recollected in engrossing detail, involved careful planning and research, but he never fails to credit luck and simple human carelessness (almost every heist seems to feature at least one unlocked door or window). Mason's chutzpah is best illustrated by his confession to an unsolved burglary that victimized the then-boss of the Cleveland Mafia. Despite the long list of thefts he admits to, Mason spent little time in jail, largely thanks to some clever lawyering. While he apologizes for the impact his addiction to a life of crime had on his devoted wife, Barbara, and their three kids, the reader will find him a little less charming and sympathetic when the price his loved ones paid for his misdeeds sinks in. Unlike Frank Abagnale (Catch Me if You Can), who was a successful con artist during much of the same period, Mason hasn't taken steps to redeem himself by serving as a consultant to law-enforcement and sharing security vulnerabilities, and some may balk at further lining a crook's pockets by buying his book. Agent, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. (Apr. 20) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This book is both entertaining and perplexing. The author gives an account of his career as a cat burglar specializing in jewelry heists from the supposedly impregnable havens of the rich and famous (e.g., Mrs. Armand Hammer, Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Robert Goulet, and Johnny Weissmuller-Mason returned the former Tarzan's Olympic gold medal but kept his jewelry). Yet he spent most of his time living the tranquil life of a suburban husband and father, loved by both family and neighbors (who included a policeman or two). Though he has been shot by an overzealous security guard, he nearly always avoided being caught. Yet he did significant prison time, once because he fled before trial after allegedly being set up by a vengeful police force for a crime he didn't commit and once because police used a bogus search warrant. In the end, the reader hesitates: after all, this man is a criminal; can we believe everything he tells us? Some of this story of Mason's three decades as a thief has to be self-serving, but it is still entertaining. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/03.]-Jim Burns, Jacksonville P.L., FL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Now nearly old enough to receive Social Security and in a mellow mood, a once-notorious cat burglar reveals how he filched from the rich and famous. Mason was no Robin Hood; he kept what he stole. With evident aid from veteran thriller writer Gruenfeld (The Street, 2001, etc.), he details the mechanics of his most exciting jewelry heists. His m.o. included prospecting the society pages for those who had it and flaunted it, carefully casing their homes, and planning for every contingency he could think of. He never confronted a victim, never carried a weapon, and delayed fencing the loot. He worked alone, though the papers usually reported his daring robberies as the work of gangs. In his day, the one-man gang lifted serious bling-bling from notables like Mrs. Armand Hammer, Robert Goulet, and a Mafioso. He nabbed Johnny Weismuller's Olympic medal and sent it back. He hit Phyllis Diller twice. Though he mingled with the upper crust, clearly the savvy gonif consorted more with criminal toughs than society toffs. Supplementing his recreations of the thrill of the heist, Mason also offers abundant info on the feckless underworld life, sharp looks at lawyers and the criminal-justice system from arrest through prison to parole, and a couple of tips on thwarting break-ins. While burglary was his avocation, this thief had a decent day job. Even as he was nabbed and shipped to jail, he remained a regular family man. Eventually, his wife divorced him. A happy liaison with an heiress followed. As Mason reports, the police despised him, but his families loved him. That's his story and he's sticking to it, but the charm of it all evaporates a bit over time, as the narrative begins to sound like arepentant confession from atop a bar stool. Engaging, extravagant account of life on the wrong side of the law that leaves readers to decide how much to like the rogue-and how much to believe him. (Photo insert, not seen) Agent: Nick Ellison/Sanford J. Greenburger Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375760716
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/12/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 961,136
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

BILL MASON was perhaps the most successful jewel thief this country has ever known. While working as a real estate manager and investor and raising a family, he excelled in his secret after-hours career. He lives in New York City.

LEE GRUENFELD is the bestselling author of such celebrated novels as The Halls of Justice and All Falls Down. He has also written several novels under the pseudonym Troon McAllister, including the golf classic The Green. He lives in Southern California.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

From the Prologue

The challenge of planning a caper is to anticipate as much as possible and prepare accordingly. In addition to things like escape routes and contingencies in case you trip an alarm, you have to decide what kinds of tools you’re likely to need and what backup items make the most sense to drag along as well. I had a pretty good feel for what I was likely to be up against in the Hammer apartment, but I was also starting to come to grips with the fact that there was no choice but to navigate that sliver of a ledge and go in through a window. The door was just too risky. But with my back literally to the wall and the tips of my shoes sticking out over the edge, there wouldn’t be any way to carry a whole load of tools with me. And if I ended up tripping an alarm before I even reached the unit, it would be tough enough moving quickly along that ledge without being further encumbered by a lot of weighty gear strapped to my body and not easily undone and dropped.

The answer, when it came to me, was so simple I kicked myself for not having thought of it sooner: I could carry all the tools I wanted up to the guest apartment and stash them there before I went out on the ledge. Once I was inside the Hammer place, all I had to do was go out their door and across the hall to the guest unit, pick up all my stuff and carry it right back.

All I really needed to have with me out on the ledge were some glass-cutting tools. If the Hammer patio door was locked and I suspected it was armed, I could cut a hole in it big enough to crawl through and then disable the alarm system from inside. This was in the days before ultrasonic motion detectors, so once I was in, there’d be nothing further to trip.

Best of all, I wouldn’t have to get back out on that hairy ledge to leave once I was done. I could just go down the stairs, same way I got up.

This was looking better and better. It further occurred to me that if I found I was missing a tool, I could simply leave the building altogether–using the stairs and the grappling hook–go get what I needed and come back. Again, no second outing on the ledge.
My escape route in case I somehow tripped a silent alarm in the guest apartment was looking good, too. I’d have such a good view from that ledge I’d be able to see flashing lights from miles away, with plenty of time to get inside and hide in almost any unoccupied unit with a cheap lock. By the time I was ready to do the job, I’d identified three such apartments and knew how to open the doors on all of them. As long as I didn’t have to cut through the glass in the patio door, there would be no trace of my having been in the building at all, and it would be treated as a false alarm. I could then come back after things had settled down and try a different tack.

The ideal time for a job like this would normally have been when the Hammers were planning to go to some fancy do, which I’d be able to know in advance from the society pages. But that would probably be on a Friday or Saturday evening, and the beach area those afternoons would be teeming with people who could spot me easily. If I hit the place when they weren’t in the process of getting ready for some event, though, there might not be anything worth stealing. It was certainly possible that they kept the baubles in a safety-deposit box and took out what Mrs. Hammer needed only when she needed it. So one time when I knew they were scheduled to attend a particularly fancy gala, I followed the Mrs. around for two days to see if she went to the bank, and she didn’t. That told me they had a safe up there, and I included on my list of tools the stuff I’d need to get into that.
More important, though, all that surveillance and analysis led me to a truly unpleasant conclusion: As if that ledge wouldn’t be dangerous enough, I decided that this job needed to get done on a stormy night, when the beach would be deserted and there’d be the sound of thunder and rain to drown out any noise I might make. It also had to be on a night when the Hammers weren’t going to be at a posh soirée, because I didn’t want to go into that apartment on a night when Mrs. Hammer’s best stuff was around her neck instead of in her safe.

Windy, wet and dark . . .

Over the next few days I started looking at the wisp of a ledge in a whole new light.

About two weeks later a perfectly timed storm roared in from the south. It began in the late afternoon of a weekday, and by the time I’d grappled my way up to the stairs, stashed the hook and rope in a fire-extinguisher case and walked up to the fifteenth floor, it was coming down like a monsoon. I got into the guest unit without incident and did a quick look around to make sure I was really alone. I stayed busy and fast and wasted no movement, because I didn’t want to dwell on what it would be like out on that ledge. I had planned this down to the tiniest detail, had even thought of carrying a washcloth to wipe the bottoms of my shoes so nobody could tell afterward how I’d gotten in, and so now all that was left was to execute the plan, not give it any more thought. Front door closed but unlocked, bag of tools just inside of it, nothing sticking out of my jacket or pants to impede travel. That was the extent of my mental checklist, so I opened a window and put one leg through it, setting my foot down onto the ledge and sliding it around to test the traction.

It wasn’t good. I’d assumed the surface was of rough concrete and would have decent grip, but it was smoother than I’d anticipated and the water from the rainstorm only made it worse. I’d have to make sure to set each foot straight down with every step so as to rely as little as possible on friction to stop my forward motion, which is not the normal way of walking. I got my other leg through and then I was standing up on the outside of the building, still holding on to the bottom of the open window. I leaned back to slide it shut, in order to keep the rain out of the room, leaving a small gap to make sure I could get my fingers in to open it again. Not that it would have locked, but with no real purchase on that tiny ledge, I didn’t want to be shoving upward on the glass itself trying to get it open. Finally, I let go completely and stood up again, then started moving.

I’d envisioned the whole trip with my back to the wall, but after about ten feet of futilely wiping rain from my eyes and imagining my feet sliding out from under me in a heel-to-toe direction, I turned around and hugged the wall instead. I wiggled my feet slightly with each step, feeling for any changes in traction, and the way my shoes were sliding on that slick surface started up a sickening feeling in my belly. I wondered what the police would make of a body squashed on the concrete far below if I slipped. A suicide, perhaps?
It was a truly horrific goddamned trip. I’d already done some high-wire heists, like at the ultra-ritzy Fountainhead, but that was a cakewalk compared to this. That had been a vertical climb, and I’d had a nice comfortable rope to hang on to with both hands, could even wrap my legs around it if I needed a rest, and at worst would have had a forty-foot drop to some sand and a broken leg or two if it all went to shit.

But this . . . this was insane. One sneeze and I could be over the edge. I hadn’t fully appreciated before this how reassuring it was to have something–anything–to grab on to. All I had here were my hands flat along the wall, and every gust of wind that whipped at my back was like a malevolent force trying to tear me off the building and fling me into the void.

Maybe you were expecting some bullshit about how I stared imminent death in the face and forced it to keep its distance. Well, forget it. I was scared shitless. I was always afraid on scores. Not to be would have been lunacy, and this was the most lunatic situation I’d ever launched myself into. On top of all the inherent physical danger was the fact that I was engaged in a criminal activity, so at the same time that I was trying not to die, I was also trying not to be seen. The trick was not to be afraid of being afraid, because fear was a healthy thing in this game, and what you were really after was balance: Be afraid enough to keep you on your toes but not so much that it compromises the execution of the plan. If you’re going to let fear get in the way, this is the wrong business to be in.
Stepping onto the Hammer balcony was such a relief, I just sat there and gulped air for a minute, gripping the railing so hard I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to uncurl my fingers from it. When I finally did, I found that the patio door was unlocked and there were no sensors anywhere to be seen. That bit of good fortune should have had a calming effect on me, but my mind was racing nevertheless. This was going almost too smoothly, notwithstanding the nightmare trip along the ledge. I started to wonder if I’d really thought of everything, but I drove that out of my head immediately. It wasn’t too likely I was going to think of anything useful while in the thick of things that I hadn’t already considered during weeks of careful planning.

I stepped into the apartment and just listened for a while, then did a thorough search to make sure I was absolutely alone. It was dark, but I didn’t want to turn on any lights, so I used my penlight. Last stop was the bedroom, and what do you know: There was a large jewelry box right on top of the dresser. The lid was flipped open and the top section was nearly overflowing with fabulous stuff. Santa Claus never had it this good, and he was only after cookies.

This moment, right here, was why I was a jewel thief. It was like a narcotic, being someplace that everyone assumed no one could possibly get into. People spent fortunes, even altered their lifestyles, trying to protect valuables like these from people like me, and here I was, all alone, inches from the treasure. As I liked to do, I’d leave the premises looking exactly like they had before my arrival. To the astonished occupants, it would seem as if the jewels had simply evaporated. This wasn’t some mind game I was playing, though, not thumbing my nose or demonstrating any superiority or trying to make a point. It was simply how I avoided getting caught. No changes meant no clues. By keeping my ego in check and my methods obscure, everything the police came up with concerning how I might have done the job was the purest speculation, and the more they had to guess, the safer I was.

I wasn’t going to need any of the tools I’d brought, so there was no sense making a trip next door and back. I grabbed a pillow off the bed, stripped it, then emptied the jewelry box into the pillowcase. At that point I’d been there just five minutes but was already anxious to get the hell out, so I didn’t bother looking around for additional goodies. Incredibly, not only was the front-door alarm unarmed, but neither of the additional locks had been engaged. Had there been any way for me to know that in advance, I could have avoided that walk along the ledge.

I went across the hall and got my unused tools from the guest unit, closed the window I’d left partially open and wiped down the sill. After locking the door behind me, I walked down to the third floor and retrieved the grappling hook from the fire-extinguisher case. The pillowcase full of jewels tucked under my shirt, I lowered myself down to the ground, shook the hook loose, then headed across the street and straight to the water’s edge, where I walked two blocks to my car. Once safely away from the building I started going over everything in my mind. Had I left anything at all up there that could be traced? I thought I’d been careful, but I wasn’t above second-guessing myself.

I drove to my office and allowed myself a quick look at the loot before stashing it. There were a large number of diamond pieces, mostly bracelets, earrings and pins, and some beautifully worked gold items, including an exquisite gold filigree bracelet. The most outstanding item was a custom-made pin in the shape of a rose. It had diamond-encrusted gold petals that folded open to reveal a three-carat diamond mounted inside. It was absolutely stunning. What a shame it would have to be broken down and sold in pieces so nobody could recognize it and tie me to the heist.

The police never did find out who’d done the robbery, nor did they figure out how the “thieves” (they assumed there was more than one) had gotten in. It was a major embarrassment to everybody concerned: the building’s managers, who had assured their tenants of world-class security; the police, who weren’t able to figure out how the job was done and had no clues or leads; and the Hammers themselves, who would rather the outside world didn’t know they’d left a fortune in jewels lying around their condo and hadn’t set the alarms. It seemed to be in everybody’s interest to keep the whole incident quiet, so no mention of it appeared in any of the local media.

Four years later, when the police still hadn’t identified a single suspect, I would confess to having been the thief.

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

Beginnings


My name is Bill Mason. If that name is not familiar to you, then I've done a good job of keeping things to myself, which was my way of keeping myself out of jail, at least most of the time.

In a "career" spanning nearly three decades I've stolen many millions of dollars' worth of jewelry, gotten shot and almost died, wrecked a good marriage and raised three great kids despite their father's odd (pre)occupation. Although law enforcement authorities were aware of many of my scores, I've never been convicted of stealing jewels.

I've taken rare gems and jewelry from the likes of Robert Goulet, Johnny Weissmuller, Truman Capote and Phyllis Diller (twice), and even cracked a safe belonging to the underboss of a major Mafia family. I've also had some scores that didn't work out, including attempts to rob Marvin Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Margaux Hemingway and the McGuire Sisters.

I've been chased all over the country by local cops, state cops and the FBI, some of whom I've even developed odd sorts of relationships with. And on the subject of odd friendships, I was the key figure in a major scandal involving a prominent heiress that shocked Cleveland high society.

I didn't have very good reasons to steal; I was by no means poor and my upbringing was perfectly normal, so when you get right down to it, the reason I stole was because I felt like it. Call it a personality defect-many have thought so, including me-but I didn't really need the money.

This book is by no means a justification of how I chose to live my life. I was a criminal and there is no justification for that unless you're starving or living under a systemwhere the laws themselves are unjust or you're forced to break them for some higher purpose. None of those motives was applicable in my case, and I wasn't some kind of Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor, so you're not going to find any excuses in these pages.

Rather, this book is simply a description of what I did, how I came to do it, how I felt about it and how it affected those close to me. The reason I can tell the story now is that I'm no longer "in the life" and the statute of limitations has run out on the last of my scores.

Everything you'll read is true, with the exception of an occasional hazy date, imperfectly recalled conversation or altered name. In some cases, people who were robbed of precious gems, jewelry or cash are going to learn for the first time who it was that stole them. A good many of my targets, including the Mob, were convinced all along that they were hit by a gang and will be surprised to find out it was just me, acting alone.

I don't expect any more forgiveness from friends and family for the pain I caused them; what I've already received from them is well beyond what I had any right to expect. I just want them to understand a bit more than I was ever willing-or able-to explain while the events in this book were taking place. This is their story as much as mine.


I think the most extraordinary thing about my life is how ordinary it was-at least if you don't count my little hobby of stealing jewels.

When I decided to write this book, I thought one of the more interesting aspects of the effort would be to reflect on my childhood days and try to identify those experiences that pushed me in such a questionable direction. I'd read some biographies of unusual people and there always seemed to be large forces prodding them inexorably toward their destiny. The way those books were written, you'd think it was impossible for them to have turned out any other way than they did.

But biographers, and that includes autobiographers, tend to focus on those things that support the impressions they're trying to establish. The way they write makes it seem that absolutely nothing else was going on in their subjects' lives other than the handful of specific events and experiences that turned them into musicians or politicians or scientists.

Fact is, children are bombarded with all kinds of influences, and it's nearly impossible to tell which ones had which effect. Just because it makes a good story doesn't make it true. My guess is that Newton would have figured out gravity whether that apple had hit him on the head or not, if it ever really hit him in the first place.

I think what's actually going on is that childhood is like an allergy test for talent. If you've ever been tested for allergies, you know that the doctor rubs your skin with hundreds of different substances until one of them raises a welt. In the same way, a kid comes across hundreds of opportunities to uncover some latent talent until one of them hits, and then his course in life starts to take on some direction. Sometimes it's obvious, like when a seventh-grader is six feet tall and can dribble a basketball blindfolded with either hand, or a grade-schooler builds a radio out of old washing-machine parts.

Sometimes it's not so obvious, as in my case. I could climb trees like a monkey and take apart all kinds of machines and put them back together; there was little that frightened me and I could keep my mouth shut while listening. But so what? How did those thing add up to a career?

It wasn't until I went out and tried to steal something that I realized what my odd collection of skills might be good for.


As I said, nearly everything about my life was ordinary, including my early childhood.

I was born in 1940 in a small West Virginia burg called Hundred. It was in Monongalia County, which was known as the mother county of northern West Virginia because eighteen other counties, some in Pennsylvania, had been carved out of it since its creation in 1776. Hundred was about three miles and fifty years from the Pennsylvania border, rural and mostly dirt-poor.

Many of my earliest memories were wrapped around the things people generally did in those years to support the war effort and not go broke. It was a time of great thrift, and, like other families, we saved everything: foil from cigarette packs, cooking fat, string, paper . . . anything that might conceivably be turned to a further purpose rather than discarded. We didn't know at the time to give it a fancy name like "recycling."

There were nightly blackouts, even in the heartland, where the likelihood of an attack was pretty remote, unlike in the coastal communities 350 miles to the east. I can still easily summon up the fear I felt as a four-year-old-depending on the darkness to keep us safe, hoping that the Germans couldn't see our small town and drop a bomb on us.

It's an easy leap, I suppose, to the conclusion that my strong need for financial security and the comfort I feel in darkness were shaped at that time, but thousands of kids scrimped pennies and sought refuge from the enemy behind blackout curtains without turning into criminals, so who knows?

Don't get me wrong, though, because aside from the occasional stresses of wartime, it was a great time and place to be a kid. I was the adored only child of educated parents. I had acres of open land on which to roam and explore, farm animals to play with and the kind of delicious freedom available only to children in wide-open rural areas.

Best of all were the trees. As far as I was concerned, they were put on earth for me to climb, and I was good at it. By the time I was five, I was able to climb without using my legs, just my arms. When horizontal branches were too high to reach from the ground, I was often able to shinny right up the trunk, like a koala bear.

Things changed when I was six. Both my parents were teachers-Ella, my mother, taught third grade in the local elementary school, and Ora, my father, was a gym teacher and coach at Waynesboro High School in Pennsylvania-but the region was in dire straits. Monongalia County, an apparent spelling error on early documents, was named after the Monongahela River. It meant "river of crumbling banks," and that pretty much described what was happening to the local economy. My father found a better-paying job but had to go to Detroit for it. He was gone for long stretches at first, but that became too much, and he eventually decided to move us all to Detroit, where we lived with my aunt Nell. She had two children, and they became like my brother and sister. Still, I missed West Virginia and kept alive the hope that we'd move back there someday.

But about two years after that move my father was offered another job, and as much as he didn't want to relocate us again, this was too good to turn down. My uncle, who owned two apartment buildings in Cleveland, hired Dad to manage them, and we moved to Shaker Heights. Taking up residence in that more affluent neighborhood was quite an occasion for my parents but devastating to me.

Shaker Heights had high-rise apartment buildings, paved streets and sidewalks, and hand-planted trees with wire fences around them to keep kids off. It had neighbors who were ten feet away instead of a ten-minute walk, and many of them were the well-off kind who liked children polite and quiet and clean. One quick glance around the concrete-and-asphalt prison of Shaker Square Apartments and I knew that my days of running in fields, milking cows and climbing trees were behind me for good. I doubt either of my parents truly understood how miserable that move made me. I was lonely and despondent, and used to daydream about running away from home and going back to West Virginia. Eight years old and convinced my life was already ruined.

I hated apartment buildings from the very moment I first laid eyes on one. If adults chose to live in oversized chicken coops, that was their business, but what's the point of condemning a kid, and a country-raised one at that, to that kind of stifling confinement? Nevertheless, kids adapt; stuck for anything else to do, I started climbing buildings instead of trees. I discovered roofs and basements and they became my playgrounds. As a result I became friendly with a lot of maintenance men and building superintendents, and thereby got a first-class education in matters that Boulevard Elementary School didn't seem to feel were important.

People who take care of apartment buildings are underappreciated masters of many arts. They do the work of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, masons, painters, locksmiths, glaziers and machinists, often all in the same day. Something I noticed early on was that their orientation was 100 percent practical; they weren't interested in the purity of craft, they just needed to get stuff working, and quickly, in order to avoid bringing down the wrath of demanding tenants.

Imagine having all those skills and nobody to show them off to. Then imagine that a curious kid shows up; he's interested in everything and he doesn't start yawning every time you try to share your wisdom. He's good with his hands, too, and helps out whenever he can.

I learned a lot from those guys, not because I had any life plan or was consciously preparing for anything, but just because I found it interesting and fun. Always handy with things mechanical, I badgered maintenance men into letting me try to fix washing machines and refrigerators that they'd given up on as hopeless or not worth the effort. There was little downside if I couldn't fix them, as they were slated for the junk heap anyway, but after I managed to get some things working again, I was allowed to tackle tougher jobs. A couple of guys also began taking time to teach me a few things.

Locks were particularly fascinating. Precision mechanisms full of tiny springs and bits of metal machined to close tolerances, they got slammed and banged around all day yet hardly ever failed. About the only reason to take them apart was to change over to a new key, or if someone broke a key while fumbling to get a door open when he was drunk or in a hurry and left a piece inside the mechanism. When that happened, the quickest fix was to just replace the lock, but a couple of the handier maintenance men were able to dismantle the mechanism right down to individual components, put it all back together and avoid the cost of a new lock. I watched them do that for hours on end, began helping out and gradually got to the point where I could do it by myself. There's no better way to learn how something mechanical works than by taking it completely apart.

I was more comfortable around working adults than I was with my fellow elementary school students. Around kids and teachers I was very quiet, less interested in the kinds of questions they wanted me to ask than in those I really wanted answers to. The practical aspects of how things worked in the real world were of more immediate concern than whether you used "I" or "me" in a sentence. I remained a kind of introvert through high school, which somehow must have increased interest in me among the female student body. I wasn't aggressive about pursuing girls but was never short of dates.


As I got older, I began helping my father in the buildings he managed. I enjoyed the work, but the best part was that I got to read all the magazines the tenants discarded. The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post were among my favorites. I managed to earn some change running errands for tenants, and when I was old enough, I got a newspaper route. Here was one great advantage of apartments over widely spaced houses: I could deliver nearly five hundred papers on a Sunday morning, and the money I earned looked like a small fortune to me.

Once I got into the upper grades, I started enjoying school more,

too. I played a lot of football and was on a championship dodgeball team, and I even liked some classes, especially science and history. And even though I was getting up at five every morning to deliver papers, I still had enough stamina to go to a lot of parties and after-school events.
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