11.02.11

The White House Scammer

Barry H. Landau knew everyone, mingled with Warhol, and dined with presidents. But today he’s accused of stealing thousands of rare documents worth millions. Jacob Bernstein on how a lifelong obsession with presidential memorabilia went wrong.

In one video posted on his website, Barry H. Landau is sitting with Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer, discussing the funeral arrangements for Ronald Reagan. In another, he’s on Martha Stewart, promoting his 2007 book The President’s Table, about the history of entertaining in the White House. In a third you can see him on the Today show, giving commentary about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

Landau was a man who hobnobbed with the great and the good, living a life that was all about being at the center of everything. He attended state dinners for George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, posed in photographs with Frank Sinatra, met Oprah Winfrey.

As Landau tells it in The President’s Table, the former talk-show queen was the one who implored him to write the book, which was published in 2007 by HarperCollins.

But today the invitations to lavish affairs have dried up, his finances are said to be dwindling, and the only attention Landau is receiving is of the unwanted kind. Holed up in his apartment on West 57th Street with an electronic ankle monitor, he is awaiting trial for allegedly stealing thousands of rare documents from national museums. If true, it’s a crime of unparalleled scope, said by investigators to be the largest seizure of valuable documents in U.S. history, with losses to museums totaling well into the millions.

Over the last decade, Landau turned his lifelong obsession with presidential memorabilia and American history into a nice third act. Now it’s all come undone, and with no endgame in sight. On Friday, the noose around him pulled even tighter, as his alleged partner in crime, Jason Savedoff, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit theft of major artwork.

In the plea agreement, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Beast, Savedoff is described as a pawn who worked “under the direction of Landau,” compiling lists of valuable documents by former presidents and heads of state, and then traveling with Landau all around the East Coast to steal them from libraries and other educational institutions, such as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

At these institutions, the agreement says, the two men plied overworked archivists with cupcakes and cookies, and then spirited away valuables in “sports coats and other outerwear which had been modified to contain hidden pockets as well as distracting museum curators to disguise their true intentions and actions.”

The pair allegedly lied about Savedoff’s identity, sometimes using aliases for the young pretty boy, who was living with Landau, and at other times, the agreement says, describing him as Landau’s nephew. No such relation exists between them, at least not one like that. (Landau, who is pleading not guilty, declined repeated requests to comment for this article.)

In July, the pair was caught while on an expedition at The Maryland Historical Society. Archivists there noted suspicious behavior and called the police, who arrived to find a locker filled with missing documents. The key was being held by Savedoff.

After that, investigators headed to Landau’s apartment in New York, where they say they found heaps of other stolen material. Among the prized findings recovered was an endorsement written by George Washington of John Laurance as judge of the District Court of New York; a letter from Marie Antoinette; and another from Napoleon Bonaparte.

Friends of Landau are shocked, to say the least. “I’m stunned,” says Carmen DeLavallade, who in better days dined with Landau at Elaine’s.

“I cannot believe it,” says Lynn von Furstenberg, the second wife of Prince Egon von Furstenberg and a close friend of Landau’s for many years. “The things I’ve been reading about him in the press are not the Barry I know. He’s just this gregarious, sweet, sensitive human being.”

But others are less generous to Landau, a man who spent more than 30 years cultivating relationships with the famous and the powerful, but frequently left people with a bad aftertaste.

As detractors describe him, Landau was a strange character from the start, slightly overeager, frequently dressed in the wrong clothes, speaking in an accent that was meant to hide his Queens roots but exposed him as a great pretender. He was, they say, endlessly padding his resume. If someone made a movie of his life, it would invariably have Paul Giamatti in the starring role.

The biographical details of Landau’s life are hard to come by, first because so few people appear to have been genuinely close to him, and second because so much of what Landau has said is now coming under question. But according to a 2007 profile of Landau that appeared around the time of his book’s release, his father was a ticket broker and his mother was a photographer who took pictures for Walter Winchell. At the age of 10, Landau met President Dwight Eisenhower while the commander in chief was on a visit to New York. Soon after the young tyke began collecting presidential memorabilia and other knickknacks.

In his 20s and 30s Landau was a ubiquitous presence on the social scene, where he encountered everyone from big-name politicos to New York personalities like Halston and Andy Warhol.

“He always struck me as a hapless guy,” says Liz Smith. “I was stunned when he appeared to be on the verge of success with these connections to the White House I couldn’t figure out.”

Brigid Berlin, the former Warhol superstar, was one of many people who ran into Landau in the '70s and was left with a negative impression. Speaking to The Daily Beast, she describes Landau as a “horrible, phony, social climber” who would “butter up to a piece of bread.”

“He showed up at every place and dropped a million names a minute. I could not stand him, Andy [Warhol] couldn’t stand him, nobody could,” Berlin says.

Indeed, Warhol’s famous diaries contain several nasty passages about running into Landau and trying to get away from “that creepy guy we can’t figure out who somehow gets himself around everywhere.”

One of the places Landau frequented was Studio 54. In 1979, he achieved some notoriety, landing on the front page of the New York Post, after he snitched on Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, for trying to buy cocaine at the famous club. Many people in New York social circles disliked Jordan but saw Landau’s testimony before a grand jury as being a somewhat misguided attempt to “get closer to the cool crowd,” as one source put it to The Daily Beast.

Still, if Landau could be cloyingly sycophantic, in a way that was obvious to New Yorkers, his manner occasionally worked on actresses with insecurities. Over the years, he worked as a press representative Eartha Kitt, Phyllis Diller, and Patricia Neal, all of whom seemed to come under his spell. Occasionally, he was seen out with Liza Minnelli and Diana Vreeland, as well.

Landau didn’t make a lot of money, at least not consistently. Von Furstenberg remembers going with Landau to a black-tie gala attended by Prince Charles in the early '80s, and then walking home with him because neither had money for taxi fare.

The gossip columnist Liz Smith tells The Daily Beast that during a particularly hard period, she lent him $1,500, which he later paid back.

But the invitations kept arriving, and many were to pretty illustrious affairs. “I’ve been to two inaugurations with him and two state dinners,” says von Furstenberg. “My late husband went to the second Reagan inaugural with him. Barry just knows the entire world. Broadway, Hollywood, Washington. I never really knew how he knows all these people, but he’s the kind of person who never meets a stranger.”

Landau was also the sort of person who always kept a memento, whether it was the invite to a gala or a menu from a state dinner, all of which went into his increasingly voluminous collection of memorabilia. It was this collection that enabled him to reinvent himself in recent years as a “historian,” though few who ever met him would have thought to describe him that way.

“He always struck me as a hapless guy,” says Smith. “I was stunned when he appeared to be on the verge of success with these connections to the White House I couldn’t figure out.”

Neither could many others. On his website, Landau says he worked for nine presidential administrations, though evidence of this work experience is hard to find.

Shortly after his book came out, an Associated Press article described Landau as having been hired as the “assistant chief of protocol” for Gerald Ford. Yet Maria Downs, the White House social secretary from 1975 to '77, tells The Daily Beast that she has no recollection of Landau’s ever having worked there during President Ford’s tenure. “He attended a state dinner as a guest of a guest,” she says. “I think he came with the actress Hermione Gingold. I’m not trying to be mean!”

In July, shortly after Landau was arrested, a richly detailed article in The Washington Post poked numerous holes in his resume. For one, he claimed in interviews that he’d accompanied President Nixon to Moscow. Yet Landau’s name does not appear in a passenger manifest or a lot of the president’s daily activities, an archivist with the Nixon presidential library told the Post.

He’d also said previously that Laura Bush had “consulted with him” about her husband’s second inauguration. Bush officials subsequently said the meeting “never occurred.”

In addition to his supposed work for the Ford administration, Landau also had previously claimed to have been a White House fellow during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. A spokeswoman for the Johnson presidential library told the paper, “His name does not appear in a publication that lists fellows from that period.”

How had Landau gotten this supposed fellowship? Well, through a “friendship” with the first daughter, naturally. But speaking exclusively to The Daily Beast, Luci Baines Johnson says her only recollections of Landau are meeting him out socially and occasionally getting theater tickets through him. “I have met him,” she says. “He offered to get theater tickets for me, and he got them and I paid for them. That’s the nature of our relationship.”

As the legal case drags on, Landau has reportedly begun to ponder selling artwork of Warhol’s that he’s in possession of. Various people around Landau say the works were given to him by the late artist, but even this provokes a certain amount of head-scratching. Says Berlin: “Andy wouldn’t have given him anything. No way.”

Still, at least one friend continues to stand behind the man she’s known for more than 30 years. Von Furstenberg believes categorically that investigators have the whole thing backward, that it was Savedoff who was the criminal and Landau was merely his dupe.

“There’s nothing about Barry that’s dishonest,” she says. “When I heard about this, I thought, ‘He’s the perfect patsy.’ He’s so trusting. I didn’t meet this Jason character, but many of his friends did, and they were very concerned something was not quite right. I keep thinking, ‘This will get straightened out because it’s just not the person I know.’ [Barry’s] this big teddy bear. The thought of him being a mastermind is ludicrous.  His mind doesn’t work that way. He’s never even been interested in money.”