THE MAN WHO ROBBED THE PIERRE The Story of Bobby Comfort & the Biggest Hotel Robbery Ever By Ira Berkow Atheneum. 318 pp. $17.95

The stately Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue in New York City -- exclusive residence or home-away-from-home for the world's wealthiest kings, princes, magnates and society matrons for more than half a century -- has never had a more unwelcome guest than Robert A. Comfort.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 2, 1972, Comfort (also known as "Bobby from Rochester") coolly led four accomplices into the 700-room hotel's ornate lobby, handcuffed and blindfolded 21 guards, bellmen and unlucky guests, and escaped with an estimated $10 million in jewels and cash from the hotel's safe-deposit boxes.

To Bobby Comfort, then 39, the Pierre heist was to be the final "big score" that would allow him to retire from his life of crime and spend more time with his long-suffering wife and children. In "The Man Who Robbed the Pierre," Ira Berkow, a New York Times sports columnist and feature writer, has thoroughly documented the "inside" story of this robbery and its mastermind.

Until his death of a heart attack in 1986, Comfort was a willing collaborator in Berkow's research. By 1978, when Berkow began work on the book, the statute of limitations had expired on Comfort's criminal career -- he could no longer be prosecuted for information he divulged. Berkow interviewed more than 100 subjects in all, but Comfort's recollections are the backbone of the story.

In his early chapters, Berkow recounts in plain but sturdy prose how Comfort grew up with a "moral code" that accepted stealing as a way of life. When Comfort was 7, his mother induced him to steal $20 from his father. At 12, he was robbing department stores and Rochester mansions; he first landed in a penal institution at 13. His father, who ran a Rochester gambling parlor and tried to convert him from stealing to cheating at cards, would later offer such paternal advice as: "Never admit anything to the cops. Always deny everything, no matter what promises they make to you."

Knowing that the Pierre heist lies ahead, an impatient reader will wish these background sketches -- including the repeated arrests and parole violations that kept Comfort almost continuously in prison -- were even briefer than they are. But the narrative snaps into dramatic focus when Bobby, freed again on parole in 1969, meets his future partner Sammy (the Arab) Nalo and begins a successful string of New York hotel robberies (inspired, Berkow tells us, by Humphrey Bogart's character in the movie "High Sierra").

Berkow laces his play-by-play of the Pierre robbery with a wealth of "inside" details: Comfort and Nalo comb the society pages for details of fabulous jewelry and its owners (the "Suzy" column in the New York Daily News was especially helpful). Comfort checks into the Pierre for two weeks under an assumed name to study the habits of the hotel staff. We learn the price of handcuffs purchased in Times Square novelty stores ($6 a pair), the width of adhesive tape used to gag and blindfold the hostages (two inches), and even the number of cigarettes Comfort smoked during the 2 1/2-hour robbery.

The narrative retains its dramatic edge in the final third of the book as Berkow tracks the all-out police and FBI investigation, the slip-ups that threw Bobby and Sammy into custody as their accomplices disappeared with the jewels, and the plea bargain that let Comfort avoid a trial and serve only 2 1/2 years for the crime.

In the process, Comfort emerges in this portrait as an intelligent, cynical and, in his own way, principled criminal. During stretches behind bars, he became a prison bridge champion and a sought-after legal adviser. More than once he successfully filed his own petitions to the courts, believing as he did that "the law was made by smart people who provided, in the maze of legal mumbo jumbo, an 'out' for other smart people." He claims he never killed anyone, and never hurt hostages in his robberies. In a remarkable letter to a judge who tried to renege on his plea arrangement in the Pierre case, he wrote: "You in particular are not an honorable man; I am honorable in my chosen profession."

Berkow fails to reveal his own final judgment of Bobby Comfort. He offers instead a choice of possible verdicts: cold-blooded thief or Robin Hood? Devoted friend and family man or menace to society? Product of our culture or practitioner of a twisted personal code? Perhaps he hopes readers will find his own testimony ambiguous. One other matter remains unresolved -- the whereabouts of the loot. Most was never recovered, and Comfort claimed he never received his share. For the curious, the glittering inventory is listed in an appendix. The reviewer is an editor and electronic media consultant based in New York