Who doesn’t love a con man? Aren’t they the closest thing we have these days to Robin Hood? Their schemes are fun to learn about and their victims often seem like they have it coming. Isn’t there a part of you that wants to live by your wits, outside the law? To be Frank W. Abagnale and be played in the movies by Leo Di Caprio? Even Shakespeare has a con man, Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, who shows us how long ago some of the classic moves were in place.
But the movies always lie to us. On the day I am writing this post, the Toronto Star carries the story of a troubled 23-year-old woman who falsely claimed she had cancer and bilked well-meaning teens of some $20,000 in the form of small donations at concerts. The cancer research charity she said the money was going to was nothing but—this is 2010, after all—a Facebook page. Real-life con men aren’t James Bond types. They’re fat men in cheap suits swindling widows out of the T-bills in their IRAs and RRSPs—Bernard Madoff writ small.
Even so, if I had made it as a screenwriter I would so have pitched the story of Raymond Scott the day he was arrested. No, not Raymond Scott the pioneering eccentric genius American composer who wrote such tunes as “Powerhouse” (adapted by Carl Stalling for all those Bugs Bunny cartoons), “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” “War Dance for Wooden Indians,” and “Bumpy Weather over Newark”: Raymond Scott the con man. The Raymond Scott who was convicted last month and sentenced last week on a charge of handling (quite literally, as it happens) stolen property— a First Folio that had been missing since 1998.
The BBC was on the case. Last week they showed Stealing Shakespeare, a documentary about Scott and the theft of the Folio, narrated by David Tennant, which is how you know you’ve made it in the UK these days. Scott talks about wanting his Warholian 15 minutes, and he’s managed to stretch them into the 45 of a BBC hour.
Scott runs true to con man form. Very much the star of his own show, he is too flamboyant to be believed—smoking foot-long Havanas, drinking Dom Perignon from a jeweled Swarovski champagne flute he allegedly carries everywhere he goes, wearing oversized Tiffany shades and shoes made of some green material that looked to me like lizardskin. There’s a Ferrari in his garage. He shows up to his sentencing in a stretch limo, wearing a coat with outrageous fur lapels. He had shown up to the trial in a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by a Scots piper. The hometown Washington Post’s surprisingly extensive coverage (here, here, and here) was in its Style section.
There’s no way this man could be for real—and he isn’t. Many of his scenes in the documentary take place in his mother’s house. Yes, the international man of mystery lives with his mum. On public assistance. With £90,000 in credit card debt. It’s pretty clear from watching him that he’s the only one who believes his own fantasies, but in those circumstances, you might do a little confabulating yourself.
Trouble is, believing your own con is not only pathetic, it’s a recipe for failure. Being a successful con man is hard work. You can’t put it on a credit card, but that’s exactly what Scott tried to do. He may fantasize about being played by Leo but he’ll be lucky if Robin Williams takes the gig.
In 1998, the Folio was stolen from the Durham University library with seven other books. The Durham University press release about its recovery states that “[t]he theft appears to have been undertaken by professionals with long-term international connections in the art world.” (This shrieks CYA for lax security; as Stealing Shakespeare shows, the books were barely secured, and how a boob like Scott could possibly have wrested a First Folio from a gang of professional art thieves would be by far the biggest mystery in the case, if such a gang existed.) The Folio was not heard from again until Scott walked into the Folger Shakespeare Library with it.
This was a truly jaw-dropping move. The Folger, perhaps the only good reason to visit the hellhole known as Washington, D.C., was established by Henry Clay Folger, a second-generation robber baron who had amassed the largest collection of First Folios in existence. If you’re running a Shakespeare fraud, the Folger is the last place on Earth you want to bring your dodgy First Folio. Yet that’s exactly what Scott did. In fact, I first took note of the case when I saw him quoted as saying “Do you seriously think I’m going to walk into the foremost Shakespeare library in the world and, using my own name and address, with my fingerprints all over it, hand them a copy knowing and believing that it’s got a doubtful provenance?” Richard Kuhta, then Librarian of the Folger, asked to keep the book for two days to authenticate it, and Scott’s fantasy world had slammed straight into the wall of reality.
Stealing Shakespeare tells two linked stories. There’s Scott posturing for the camera (except when it is a police camera recording his interrogation), even in his mum’s house, as his true story emerges. Much more interesting in the end is the story of the experts: the scholars who patiently, over centuries, built up the body of knowledge of Shakespeare that the librarians, art professionals, and police who used that knowledge to smash Scott’s fraud. Scott was delusional in many ways but the fatal one was imagining that he could fool people who knew their stuff without knowing his. If you just let his story wash over you like an Oprah episode, you might actually believe it. If you poke at it, it falls apart like a rotten cobweb. Someone mutilated the Folio to get rid of identifying marks, but that person didn’t know that the dimensions of each copy of the Folio are unique, and known. All that really needed to be done was measure the book. It didn’t hurt that “Troilus and Cressida” had been handwritten in the table of contents, another distinguishing mark of the Durham First Folio. To my mind the hero of this saga is Anthony James West. The First Folio is one of only four books that has had a worldwide census. West’s life work has been to build on this already heroic endeavor and catalogue every identifying characteristic of every Folio, every variation on every page of every copy. The moment he appears in Stealing Shakespeare, Scott’s jig is up. Knowledge triumphs every time.
That’s the heartwarming part of the story. The sordid part is Scott’s, as his history unfolds. At least one online report says the jury heard evidence that he’d kept the Folio at his house for a decade before he brought it to the Folger. That implies that he, living just a few miles from Durham University, was the thief, not some imaginary posse of international art thieves. Certainly his story that he got it in Cuba where it had been in the family of an acquaintance for a century was exposed as a tissue of lies. There was a Cuba connection, though, and it explains why Scott tried to sell the Folio when he did.
If you’ve guessed a floozy was involved, you’re right. Heidy Rios was an “exotic dancer” who worked out of the posh Hotel Nacional in Havana, where Scott met her. He was over 50, she was in her early twenties, she liked men who threw money at her, and soon he was sending her £1000 a month, an astronomical sum for a Cuban (she was making all of £20 a month at her job), and proposing. It was an astronomical sum for Scott too, because he was putting it on his credit cards. Police theorize that it was Heidy’s demands that led Scott to break out the Folio. Shades of Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings! Alas, Heidy has already moved on to dig gold from other pockets. As a friend and fellow dancer remarked: “Did she love him? Of course not. He was a means to an end.”
Scott was acquitted of the theft but convicted of handling stolen property and sentenced to six years. Two years were added for the theft of two paintings worth about £1000 each from a department store. I’d like to say I feel sorry for him, but I don’t. It’s true his antics didn’t hurt anybody, and that’s more than a lot of cons can say, but he shows himself to be a foolish and irresponsible man who did something barbaric–I repeat, barbaric–in a patently futile grab for money. Thanks to Anthony James West and his predecessors, I guess it doesn’t really make much difference if all of the First Folios were Raptured up tomorrow. We would still know their precious contents. Still, stealing and vandalizing one feels like a direct attack on what makes the West worth caring about. Scott’s failure to see that means he’s not somebody I would ever want to have a glass of Dom Perignon with.