A Crooked Career

A Crooked Career

Bobby Comfort was a distinguished thief. He was intelligent, quick-witted, affable and cool under fire. His Fairport, N.Y., suburban neighbors took him for a family man who worked, they surmised, as a traveling salesman. Comfort frequently was gone for long stretches.

Ira Berkow, a New York Times sports writer, has written a delectable book about a thief that`s full of drama and tension, more exciting than most fictional thrillers. It is not simply a profile of the shadowy world of a professional criminal, however. "The Man Who Robbed The Pierre" is about how society tries, often vainly, to deal with its persistently wayward members.

Comfort learned to steal at his mother's knee before the age of 10. She would ask him to sneak into his father's room while he was sound asleep and take a few bills from the wad stashed under his pillow. It didn`t take the youngster long to begin peeling off a 10-spot for himself. The elder Comfort acquired his ample income by gambling (son Bobby was not reared in poverty) and later tried to convince his teenager not to rob but to become a "card mechanic," also known as a cheat. The son took half of the advice: He became a burglar and a cardsharp as well.

Comfort perfected his craft the way many young professionals do, through trial and error. In his early 20s, after four stints in prison, he and an accomplice broke into a car dealership, then hid in the bushes to make sure a silent alarm wouldn't summon the police. After what they figured was enough time (15 minutes), they made for the cash register. They figured wrong.

In jail Comfort acquired both culture (he read the classics) and legal acumen, a talent he would turn against the state successfully on several occasions. He came to accept his terms in prison as a grim cost of doing business, which he resumed every time he was paroled.

Ironically, Comfort received his stiffest penalty at age 16, up to 30 years in prison, for sticking up a grocery store. The judge was incensed that Comfort refused to finger his two cohorts. Still, he would be paroled in less than three years.

Twenty-five years later - after numerous other convictions and agreeing to plead guilty to the Pierre heist of millions of dollars worth of jewels - Comfort got just four years in the slammer; he was paroled after two and a half.

Comfort and his partner, "Sammy The Arab," were at the height of their careers in the late 1960s. In less than three years they knocked over some 40 tony New York City hotels. Yet Sammy was always in debt for his prolific gambling and Comfort let money slip through his fingers as fast as he could steal it.

Neither the courts nor the jails nor the cops (who occasionally brutalized him) nor his mother (she once threatened to cut his throat if he didn't confess to stealing) were able to stop Comfort. Crime gave him thrills, a feeling of superiority over the timid human horde, and cash to lavish on friends and family, while it lasted. Besides, there was little heavy lifting.

What stopped Comfort was what gets all professionals eventually. He retired. Finally, ill health foreclosed the possibility of a comeback last summer. Bobby Comfort, 53, had been a heavy smoker.