Before Bernie Madoff came a man named Serge Rubenstein. Rubenstein was many things. Most famously, though, he’s remembered as a money manipulator, draft dodger and murder victim.
On January 27, 1955, he was found on his back in his luxurious Fifth Avenue home, hands and feet tied up with a cord and adhesive tape covering his nose and mouth.
The movie Death of a Scoundrel – starring George Sanders, Yvonne De Carlo and Zsa Zsa Gabor – came out the following year and is loosely based on Rubenstein’s life. The Cambridge University grad was known for his swift willingness to sell out his own family if it would help him get ahead in life.
Directed by Charles Martin, Death of a Scoundrel starts with the murder of its main character: Clementi Sabourin (portraying Serge Rubenstein) at his posh Upper East Side pad. Before we see his life as a flashback through the eyes of his fellow con artist Bridget Kelly (Yvonne De Carlo), police ask her if she knows anything about Sabourin’s death.
“Yes, I know all about it. You could say I killed him I suppose. If he never met me he might still be alive,” says Kelly as she shifts her attention from the distance to the detective’s face. “He was the most hated man on earth, but he could have been one of the great men of the world. He had a big mind. When they talk about him, they’ll be talking about a giant, a genius, some people call him an evil genius.”
The real Rubenstein was born in Russia in 1908. A New York Daily News story from 2020 – titled “JUSTICE STORY: Death of millionaire playboy Serge Rubinstein one of NYC’s enduring whodunits” – details how Rubenstein’s father was reportedly the financial adviser to Tsar Nicholas II and Grigori Rasputin. Journalist Robert Dominguez writes about Rubenstein coming to America with a forged Portuguese passport, while in the film, Sabourin sells out his own brother by telling authorities about his forged immigration papers and illegally acquired wealth; in exchange, Sabourin got a French passport that would allow him to travel to the United States.
“Although some viewers may find this fiction vaguely reminiscent of the storied career and unsolved death of a local financier and gallant, it should be pointed out that it is presented as an original script by Charles Martin, who also produced and directed,” wrote the New York Times in a 1956 review of the film.
The critic ultimately finds the picture “to have no point of view as [a] drama,” saying it “only casually tries to probe the hearts and minds of its principals.”
Some rather glaring Madoff-esque quotes play their way into Death of a Scoundrel. Shortly after arriving in New York City, Sabourin is shot in the streets during a $20,000 getaway where he stole from the woman who later loves him, Bridget Kelly (that love was not reciprocated). Under a doctor’s care, he learns of the wonder drug penicillin to stop his infection.
In an era when news traveled slowly, he knew this valuable information ahead of the public and quickly turns the stolen $20,000 into $120,000 by buying and selling stock of Wentworth, the company which produced it. Sabourin says, “Business is the art of getting something for nothing.” He employs this moneymaking scheme before using his profits to pay off the banker who helped him use the stolen money to his advantage. Together, they turn trick after trick with Bridget Kelly, who also joins the team. She uses her beauty and charm to loosen up marks for Sabourin, who at one point tells Gabor’s character, the wealthy Mrs. Ryan (who would at times help him artificially pump up stock prices with her bankroll), “Money isn’t everything. No, but it’s the nearest thing to it.”
Donald Winfred, the late American television producer and president of NBC, is credited with saying, “The answer to all your questions is: Money.” Rubenstein is living proof of this, as the Daily News writes, “Money bought him friends in high places — his campaign contributions earned him a dinner at the White House with the Roosevelts.”
Despite his connections, Rubenstein made a lot of enemies as he amassed his fortune. Things began to get hairy for him in 1947 when he was convicted of evading the military draft during World War II. He served two years in a Pennsylvania prison during which time his wife, Mrs. Laurette Rubinstein-Rovello, divorced him “on the grounds of mental cruelty and the fact he was convicted of a felony,” wrote the NY Times in 1949. During the same year, he was also indicted for stock fraud but gets acquitted.
Rubenstein built a reputation for being a playboy and café society denizen, which “made him a quasi-celebrity in New York,” wrote the Daily News. “It wasn’t unusual for Rubinstein to open the morning papers and see himself on the gossip pages, clad in a sharp tux and sharing a bottle of bubbly with a comely dame du jour.”
This is very similar to how Rubenstein spent his last night alive.
On Wednesday, January 26, 1955, the Times reported that Rubenstein spent his final hours with a brunette saleswoman in her twenties named Estelle Gardner. They’d dined at Nino’s La Rue at 45 East 58th Street. Earlier in the day, Rubenstein was with “Patricia Wray, a young blonde, employed as a secretary by Trans-Era Oils Ltd. of 655 Madison Avenue” for a business conference.
The Daily News refers to Estelle Gardner as a “model” in its 2020 story, writing that, “After dinner and dancing at a nearby club, Rubinstein took his date, a pretty brunette model named Estelle Gardner, back to his six-story house on Fifth and 62nd St. for a nightcap at about 1 a.m.” Gardner told authorities she left about a half-hour later from his exact address of 814 Fifth Avenue, between 62nd and 63rd streets (the building was razed in 1961, along with 812 and 813 Fifth Avenue.
The Times reports that Rubenstein was found dead wearing blue and black silk pajamas that morning in 1955. The walls of his room were “adorned with hunting scenes and oriental prints. On a marble-topped table, stretched out in accordion fashion, were photos of Rubinstein with two children — presumably his daughters, Diana and Alexandra.”
In the film, the scoundrel known as Sabourin goes out apologizing to his mom and Bridget Kelly, two women who admired him up until the end, before he ultimately lets them down with his selfishness.
While nobody has ever been convicted for Rubenstein’s murder, stories of who could have done it have been tossed around. “‘I bet it was a mob job — a syndicate job and a paid killing,’ stock broker Stanley T. Stanley told reporters, adding that Rubinstein had recently been threatened,” wrote the Daily News.
Rubenstein’s passing was ruled death by strangulation: “Whoever squeezed the life out of the nutritious bon vivant had choked him hard enough to break two bones in his throat.”
One thing that seems to be agreed upon is how few people actually seemed to care about finding Rubenstein’s killer. The Times reported that when his body was being loaded into a hospital truck, “four policemen on the stretcher detail shivered a little. They seemed glad to get it over with.”