Authors: John Glatt
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FOR KEN CRICHLOW
In its glittering heyday, the Fontainebleau was
gold standard in luxury hotel grace and sophistication.
With its sweeping Art Deco design, antique French décor and furniture, the landmark hotel put Miami Beach on the map in the 1950s and ’60s.
Built by the legendary hotelier Ben Novack Sr., the Fontainebleau laid the groundwork for today’s Las Vegas.
Indeed, casino mogul Steve Wynn often stayed there as a boy, learning valuable lessons for his future dream palaces.
For almost two decades Ben Novack Sr.
and his ex-model wife, Bernice, reigned over Miami Beach.
Always larger than life, they entertained presidents, heads of state, and movie stars at their dazzling Miami palace.
World-class entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lewis played the La Ronde Room, and iconic movies like
The Bellboy, Goldfinger, Scarface,
as well as an episode of
were filmed there.
In January 1956, Ben Novack Jr.
was born and became the Prince of the Fontainebleau.
Known to one and all as “Benji,” he grew up in his father’s seventeenth-floor luxury penthouse with room service at his beck and call.
The little prince may have been spoiled and petted by the likes of Sinatra and the Rat Pack, but he received scant attention from his parents.
Naturally nervous, Benji grew up with a revolving door of nannies and housekeepers and developed a chronic stammer, which would plague him for life.
When Miami Beach fell out of fashion in the 1970s, Ben Novack Sr.
went bankrupt, eventually losing his beloved Fontainebleau in 1977.
A few years later, he died a broken man.
then launched a convention-planning business and made millions, having absorbed considerable knowledge from his father.
But in 1991, he fell in love with an Ecuadorian stripper named Narcisa Veliz, embarking on a roller-coaster marriage that would ultimately claim his life more than a quarter of a century later.
In April 2012, the final chapter in the long, strange story of the Fontainebleau Hotel was written in a federal courtroom in White Plains, New York.
I attended every single day of the stunning nine-week trial, where Narcy Novack and her brother Cristobal stood accused of orchestrating the brutal murders of Ben Novack Jr.
and his eighty-six-year-old mother, Bernice.
It played out like classic film noir, as the two siblings absolutely denied any involvement in the murders, claiming they were innocent pawns who had been framed by Narcy’s daughter, May Abad.
In recounting the story for this book, I have used personal interviews, police records, and trial transcripts to report the events leading up to the murders of Ben and his mother.
Regarding the alleged 2002 home invasion, I reviewed police records and interviewed participants, but no charges were ever brought, Narcy denied any wrongdoing, and evidence of the incident was excluded from the murder trial.
* * *
During my two years of exhaustive research for this book, I was helped by many people, some of whom wish to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.
I would especially like to thank Ben Novack Jr.’s aunt, Maxine Fiel, and his cousin Meredith for all their help.
I especially enjoyed the afternoon I spent with them in upstate New York.
I also owe a huge debt to Detective Sergeant Terence Wilson of the Rye Brook Police Department, for all his support and encouragement.
I also received invaluable help from Ben Jr.’s close friend and mentor Charlie Seraydar, who was there for many of the key events in this book.
I would also like to thank Lenore Toby for sharing her memories of her time managing the Fontainebleau during its declining years, and her reminiscences of Ben Novack Sr.
During our stay in Miami Beach, my wife Gail and I also shared a memorable brunch with Lenore and her charismatic late husband, Dr.
Many thanks also to Ben Novack Jr.’s first wife, Jill Campion, who gave me a unique perspective on the Fontainebleau and Ben’s early life, as he was getting his business started.
My gratitude also to: Eddie Argondizza, Chief Gregory Austin of the Rye Brook Police Department; Guy Castaldo, former mayor of Miami Beach; Alex Daoud, Dixie Evans, Scot Fleming, Pat Franklin, Mark Gatley, William and Rebecca Greene, the Reverend Temple Hayes, Douglas Hoffman, Cynthia Johns, Ed Kelly, Melanie Klein, Alan Lapidus, Rabbi Alan Litwak, Dr.
Barbara Lunde, Richard Marx, Joe and Peter Matthews, Steve Palazzo, Sergeant Colin Pfrogner, Prince Mongo, Dr.
Larry Robbins, James Scarberry, Donald Spadaro, Larry Sheehan, Howard Tanner, and Vincent Zurzolo.
I also owe gratitude to: Allen Alter, Jonathan Bandler, Tom Delehanty, Christine Fillmore, Bob Gilmartin, Susan Giordano, Dena Goldstein, Candace Eaton, Herb Hadad, Anthony Mercurio, Joe Occhicone, Special Agent John Sullivan, Chuck Stevenson, and Joe Viola.
As always, I would also like to thank my editors at St.
Martin’s Press, Charles Spicer, April Osborn, and Yaniv Soha for everything that they do, as well as Jane Dystel and Miriam Goderich of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, for their invaluable help and advice.
I also want to thank David and Diana Hayes for all their hospitality during my Spring 2011 week in Fort Lauderdale, as well as Chris Bott in Miami.
Much thanks also to my wife Gail; Jerome, Emily, and Freddie Freund; Debbie, Douglas, and Taylor Baldwin; Trudy Gerstner, Gurch, Danny and Allie Tractenberg, Cari Pokrassa, Virginia Randall, Roger Hitts, Ena Bissell, and Annette Witheridge.
When retired police chief James Scarberry heard in July 2009 that Ben Novack Jr.
had been brutally murdered, with his eyes gouged out, he was not surprised.
On the contrary, he had foreseen the event seven years earlier, when he told his old friend to leave his beautiful wife, Narcy, or he would die.
Scarberry’s warning came after the former Ecuadorian stripper hired thugs to beat up her wealthy forty-six-year-old husband, whose father had founded the legendary Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach.
After mercilessly binding and gagging him with duct tape, the hired hands had held him at gunpoint for twenty-five hours while Narcy ransacked the family home.
On her way out, Novack’s forty-five-year-old wife boasted that she could have him killed anytime she chose.
“If I can’t have you, then no one will have you,” she snapped at him.
“You’re not dead now because I stopped them.”
Then she disappeared with more than $400,000 in cash and Novack’s collection of Batman collectibles, worth millions.
After breaking free, Novack first called Chief Scarberry, who had once worked security for Ben Jr.’s father at the Fontainebleau.
Scarberry then used his contacts in the Fort Lauderdale Police Department to launch a criminal investigation.
An active member of the Miami Beach Police Department Reserve and Auxiliary Officer Program for more than thirty years, Ben Jr.
told detectives that Narcy had organized the home invasion and that he still feared for his life.
Then he hired a lawyer and initiated divorce proceedings.
When brought in for questioning, Novack’s statuesque wife told detectives another story.
She claimed that they were both into hardcore sexual bondage and had been role-playing.
The one-time exotic dancer then stunned detectives by emptying out onto a table a brown accordian file full of her husband’s huge collection of amputee porn magazines, including his own photographs of naked disabled women.
Within hours of Narcy’s police interview, Ben Novack Jr.
had called off the divorce, refusing any further cooperation with detectives.
Then he welcomed his wife back into their home, explaining to police that they had started marriage counseling to get their relationship back on track.
Baffled friends wondered if Narcy was blackmailing him by threatening to reveal his bizarre sexual secrets and ruin his thriving $50-million-a-year convention business.
“I told him,” recalled Scarberry, “Benji, you’re nuts.
This girl could have had you killed, and you’ve got to get out of that relationship.”
Ben Novack Jr.
had refused to listen, so Chief Scarberry ended the friendship, and the two had not spoken since.
* * *
It was ironic that Ben Novack Jr.
should die in a hotel room, for, a half century earlier, his father, Ben Sr., had built and run the legendary Fontainebleau hotel, transforming Miami Beach into
glamour capital of America and drafting the blueprint for today’s Las Vegas.
Benji, as everyone knew him then, had grown up in the luxurious seventeenth-floor penthouse, pampered by nannies and fussed over by the likes of Frank Sinatra, President John F.
Kennedy, Bob Hope, and Ann-Margret.
“He was the Prince of the Fontainebleau,” explained his cousin Meredith Fiel.
“Anything that Ben Jr.
wanted, Ben Jr.