Friday, May 3, 2013

Peter Scott

"The people I burgled got rich through greed and skullduggery. They indulged in the mechanics of ostentation - they deserved me and I deserved them. If I rob Ivana Trump, it is just a meeting of two different types of degeneracy on a dark rooftop."

I'm a sucker for "caper" movies; even the bad ones.  It doesn't matter if it's Cary Grant, David Niven, Maximilian Schell, Robert Wagner, Tom Selleck, or even George Hamilton, once the protagonist dons crepe-soled shoes and a cashmere turtleneck, I enjoy the un-knotting of the elaborate details of the theft and root for the thief to successfully steal the diamonds, ornamental knife, Nazi secret plans, or whatever macguffin drives the plot.

I recall being fifteen and adrift in Europe, living on 75 cents a day, when I thought that this would make a pretty good life, especially if it meant a villa on the Cote d'Azur and some quality time with Grace Kelly.  I also always liked the ingenuity it takes to figure out how to get into a place that is supposedly impregnable.  Rather like a logic puzzle, I guess.

But what a lot of people don't know is that, during my time in Europe dreaming of being a cat burglar, there was an actual cat burglar on the loose who had been plying his trade among the rich and famous for some time.  His name was Peter Scott and he died just a few weeks ago, leaving behind some very interesting writings and stories, and a legend that may never be touched.  After all, computer hackers, who are the cat burglars of the 21st century, aren't generally fit enough to scale a wall and are too socially awkward to hang out with Melina Mercouri.  Besides, in turtlenecks, they tend to look more like beatniks than international men of mystery.

High-society cat burglar Peter Scott, pictured in 1998, has died aged 82
Brits of a certain generation just can't help but be jaunty

Most of the facts of Scott's early life are unknown except through his autobiography, Gentleman Thief, and require a considerable amount of salt.  According to Scott, after flunking out of the Royal Belfast Academy around 1950, he squandered his inheritance and turned to a life of crime, using his posh appearance and familiarity with the lives and manners of the affluent to simply walk into homes, usually during parties, and pass himself off as a guest to the household staff or as a member of the household staff to the guests.  He perfected this double-subterfuge over 150 times in the homes in Belfast and, eventually, London.

While he was first caught in 1952, he served only six months.  This gave him time to perfect his technique and enjoy a bit of a holiday.  After his release, he returned to a life of crime with a vengeance, now casting himself, if just in his mind, as a new type of Robin Hood:  He stole from the rich and...well... that was pretty much it.

Throughout the 1950's and 60's, Scott used the Daily Mail gossip pages as the source for his research as to what homes were most deserving of his professional attention.  As a surprising amount of information about party guests, the value of jewelry on display, and security precautions would be listed in print, Scott found a lush field of information   Soon, the homes of Mayfair, Belgravia, and Sloane Square became featured in another section of the newspaper.  Namely, the crime pages.

Using his ill-gotten gains, Scott enjoyed memberships in a variety of exclusive clubs and the company of many female members of the swank set.  In turn, these social connections introduced him to even more victims, enabling him to continue his pursuits and become the creme de la creme of burglars.

Just to give the reader a primer on Scott's professional life, over the course of 40 years, using techniques as various as the above-described party-crashing or the old-fashioned shimmy up a drainpipe, Scott stole jewelry from, among others, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Lauren Bacall and Sophia Loren. Actually, it may have been that latter theft that lead to his undoing, as the Italian starlet, upon discovering that her $400,000 diamond necklace had been lifted, placed a gypsy curse on the burglar. Shortly thereafter, Scott was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 12 years in Wormwood Scrubs [or some such place].

[I should note he wasn't limited to jewelry.  In the 1990's, by now in his late '60's, he was arrested for stealing Picasso's Tete de Femme from a London gallery.]

Personally, I'm not sure why anyone would want it. 

After four wives and four divorces, partying with The Rolling Stones, millions of pounds stolen and spent, memoirs written and published by name even while he was still actively stealing, and occasional "vacations" at the pleasure of Her Majesty, Scott died peacefully in a council flat [a tax-supported housing complex], his medical bills and living expenses generously paid for by the honest, working, and law-abiding people of the United Kingdom. 

And they say that crime doesn't pay.  I think I already had that one figured out when I was fifteen.

Scott's autobiography is now out of print and rather difficult to find, or afford, even when using online used and rare book agencies. 

However, some recommended "caper" films include the following:

To Catch A Thief [1956]
Topkapi [1964]
The Pink Panther [1964]
Bob le Flambeur [1956]
The League of Gentlemen [1960]
How to Steal a Million [1966]
The Italian Job [1969]
The Great Train Robbery [1979]
Jack of Diamonds [1967]
Lassiter [1984]

Also the old TV shows It Takes A Thief [1968] and T.H.E. Cat [1966] are pretty good, too, if you like that sort of thing.