The photograph is burned into the memory. A group of people are lounging around a large swimming pool. The sun is bright, the lawn is mowed, the water is clear.
At the center of the picture is Bernard Cornfeld, dressed in a bathing suit and lying on a chaise. He is doing business in the style to which he is accustomed. But what makes this photo so memorable is that while Bernie and his buddies do business in the foreground, off to the side is this beautiful long-haired girl, dressed in a bikini and sitting atop a white horse.
For at least one observer of that unusual period in the history of international finance, the picture says it all. Bearded Bernie, the Brooklyn College grad, went to Europe and in the 1960s he built Investors Overseas Services, Ltd., a combine of insurance, mutual funds and investment trusts worth nearly $4 billion.
He did it with a style and flair unknown before then. He did it without ever learning to read a balance sheet. He did it, in fact, by applying his natural chutzpah, thinly masked by a veneer of Flatbush sincerity.
Even now, as 49-year-old Bernie quietly shuffles about a friend's penthouse above Fifth Avenue, a glassed-in terrace offering a transfixing view of the park below, he seems to belong across the East River in the borough where the ailanthus grows.
Occasionally the telephone rings with potential buyers on the line asking questions about two of his homes that he has on the market. There is the Beverly Hills house with its 24 bedrooms. He is asking $2 million for it. He also is selling his castle in France near Geneva where the memorable photgraph was taken.
"I've got $1.5 million in it and that's what I'm asking for it," says Bernie sounding a little like he's trying to unload a split-level. Actually, it may be the only centrally heated castle in the neighborhood. It has a pool, 50 rooms, 150 acres, a trout stream and "it's an easy half-hour drive to Geneva," says Bernie.
Though he is selling his castle and mansion, Cornfeld has no plans to move back to Brooklyn. "I'll spend most of my time in Paris and London," he says.
It's not a bad life, but Bernie clearly is restless. He notes a bit wistfully that at one point he was personally worth $250 million (on paper). He proudly states that more than 100 IOS executives were millionaires.
Then the stock began to slip, and panicky sharesholders started unloading their holdings in IOS. Bernie resigned and the board of directors began casting around for a savior.
Unfortunately they came up with Robert Lee Vesco, a New Jersey conglomateur of no particular distinction. As nearly everyone knows, Vesco no sooner set foot in IOS's Geneva headquarters then he and his operatives grabbed every free asset they could find. The Vesco team fled with $500 million of investors' funds. Since then, Vesco has been avoiding European and U.S. authorities, first in a redoubt in the Bahamas and more recently in Costa Rica.
On Cornfeld's desk are no less than seven telephone numbers for Vesco in Costa Rica. Yes Bernie says, he spoke with his nemesis about two months ago, the first conversation in four years. He says he has heard that fugitive Vesco has become paranoid, that he, too, has grown a beard and fears that the CIA is plotting to snatch him or worse.
Do you think some investor who lost his whole fortune in IOS might try to get revenge at Vesco's expense?
"When I talked to him about that," says Cornfeld, "he said, 'They're not going to bump me off, they're going to bump you off because you sold the stuff to them.'"
(Vesco becomes eligible for citizenship in Costa Rica next month, which would remove the threat of extradition by U.S. authorities. He is a fugitive, charged with making illegal contributions to President Nixon's 1972 campaign. Recently, there have been revelations in Costa Rica that Vesco allegedly financed the 1974 campaign of that country's current president. There is growing pressure to kick him out of the country.)
Cornfeld is very quick to point out that when he got $5.5 million for a chunk of IOS stock he sold just before the fall, he did not realize he was selling the stock to Vesco. The deal was done by an intermediary bank fronting for Vesco, he says.
What has Bernie done with his money in the years since?
He is not terribly expansive on the subject of his net worth.He says vaguely that he puts together groups financing films. He has backed about 18 movies recently, including "The Hireling" and "The Go-Between."
He also says he has "an interest in a California company that manufactures large-screen TV projectors."
In the penthouse living room is a sizable concave screen and across from it is a standard TV set with a normal cardboard box in front of it. Stuck into the box is a large lens. If this makeshift arrangement is any indication, Cornfeld's TV projectors are still in an embryonic stage.
Cornfeld and the law somehow seem incompatible. In July 1975, the millionaire globe-trotter was caught up in an incongruous legal hassle. He was accused of using a "blue box" device to bypass overseas telephone charges. Last August, he was found guilty by a federal jury on three counts of causing his secretaries to defraud Pacific Telephone Co., and he could spend 15 years in prison.
Cornfeld, who is appealing the verdict, says two European secretaries working for him had installed the blue box. "But the FBI is not interested in secretaries," he says bitterly.
In still another legal hassle, Cornfeld still has $2 million in bail - the highest in Swiss history - tied up in Geneva, where he skipped in April 1974 after being held in jail 11 months for questioning. He hopes to get something back because the five charges of allegedly circulating false information on a 1969 financial statement have been reduced to a single count. Bernie protests that he didn't know what he was getting into.
"We had a half dozen of the most prestigious financial firms in the world preparing that financial document," he says. "All I did was sign it."
But the subject that preoccupies Bernie, and the one he introduces whenever he gets the chance, is the unhappy fate of all those investors who bought his sales pitch. "There was $500 million that Vesco didn't get, and so far only about $20 million of it has been distributed," he says.
Two weeks ago, a Canadian court ruled that $124 million held in escrow should be distributed to IOS shareholders.But Cornfeld angrily points out that liquidators and lawyers involved in the case have collected $41.9 million for their efforts.
Bernard Cornfeld plans to tell his side of the IOS story in a book. He says he has completed a draft. This very day, in fact, he is off to have lunch with author Martin Mayer to try to interest him in collaborating.
Cornfeld obviously is groping for a new metier, some way to fill the void left when Vesco stole his creation, IOS. He got married to Lorraine June 15, 1976. That destroyed the well-publicized image that Cornfeld's heart belonged only to his mother.
But perhaps the most shocking change in Bernie is his new role as father. As he sits holding 8-month-old Jessica, his mind wanders and questions go unanswered.
"I used to think all babies look the same," Cornfeld says while bouncing Jessica on his lap. "But I'm convinced that this is an unusually pretty child."