A Dec. 10 Style article about the disappearance of Jacqueline Levitz inaccurately reported the comments of a source. In using the phrase "bimbo types," the source did not refer to any of Ralph Levitz's wives. (Published 2/7/96)
The choicest real estate in town has a view of the river. Here the Mississippi bends wide and brown, and the city runs down to it with a clutter of casinos, train yards, warehouses and peeling-paint shacks. The river looks placid and benign, as many things do from a distance.
Jacqueline "Jacquie" Levitz, widow of furniture king Ralph Levitz, wanted that view. She bought a simple brick house on a high bluff from which you can see the gray steel trusses of the Mississippi River Bridge -- and a Waffle House sign. She was seduced by the vista, but in seeking a new life here, she may have found her death.
Levitz, a wealthy 61-year-old with blond curls and a cream-colored Jaguar, was last seen on Nov. 18. When her brother-in-law came in from nearby Tallulah, La., to find out why she hadn't been answering her phone, he found blood on the carpet and red press-on fingernails scattered on the floor. He called the police, who turned over her king-size mattress and found it soaked with blood.
The disappearance of Jacquie Levitz is, so far, without compelling theories. If she was kidnapped, where is the ransom demand? If she was killed, where is the motive, and where is the body? If she was somehow complicitous in her disappearance -- well, why would she be? What was she running from?
What we are left with is a puzzle. To say there are missing pieces would be not quite right. All the pieces are missing. There is only an empty, unfinished house and a blood stain.
Levitz, who started life as a humble farm girl, became a success on her own and then married a multimillionaire, is gone. The Jaguar convertible was left in the driveway, two fur coats still hung in the closet and $500,000 worth of jewelry remained in the secret safe. Her purse (black leather with a gold clasp) and tote bag (lizard skin) are missing. There were faint tire tracks in the lawn, as though a car had backed up to the front door.
Two young men, 21 and 17, were arrested last Saturday and charged with breaking into the house and stealing Levitz's fax machine and a billfold of credit cards. Paul Barrett, sheriff of Warren County, said the 21-year-old was high on Quaaludes. The two are still in jail and being questioned, but Barrett said it looks as if they had nothing to do with the disappearance, and broke in after Levitz was reported missing.
The FBI is questioning people who knew Levitz in Palm Beach, Fla., in Carlsbad, Calif., in Vicksburg and possibly in Washington, where she lived for about 20 years, starting in the late '50s. Police are following up tips, including those from psychics who said her body was (a) buried in the woods 200 yards from her house, or (b) near the Louisiana state line in a barn filled with tireless tractors. Neither panned out. They've taken a boat out on the river looking for signs (it's too deep to drag) and flown over the area twice, once with a machine somebody in Shreveport invented that was supposed to locate a victim's hair or blood. It didn't.
They are searching for anyone who might have had a motive to harm her. They know the terms of her will (which have not been revealed publicly), and are polygraphing most of the people who knew her here. Her family has offered a reward of $100,000 -- $50,000 for information that leads to finding her or her body, and $50,000 for anything that leads to the conviction of whoever is responsible.
Federal agents want to know what everyone else wants to know: Who is Jacqueline Levitz, and where is she? An Ambitious Woman
The people who know her say Jacquie Levitz is friendly, generous and energetic. She was driven to earn her own fortune, and just as determined to create perfect houses in which to show it off. Levitz was the model of a certain kind of Southern womanhood -- fluffy, soft and inviting on the outside, shrewd and iron-willed underneath.
Her life story scans like a Danielle Steel novel: Poor girl with ambition moves to big city, is divorced and widowed, vows to make it on her own, and does. Buying, redoing and reselling real estate, she earns her own furs and diamonds and a Rolls-Royce with a front plate that reads SPOILED ROTTEN. Then she meets Ralph Levitz, co-founder of the "You'll Love It at Levitz" furniture chain, and in 1987, marries him in a lavish ceremony with 10 bridesmaids and moves into a Palm Beach mansion that she had decorated herself.
"When he bought that house it had cypress boards for walls and ceilings," said her younger sister Gerri Brown, a farmer and retired hairdresser in Lake Providence, La., 15 minutes from their home town of Oak Grove. "When she finished it looked like the Capitol Dome in Washington. There were hand-painted scenes on the ceiling. The staircase was marble. The chandeliers -- I remember she told me the price of that chandelier and I said, My goodness, people build homes down here for that.' "
The gardens in back of the Palm Beach house were "a small Versailles," recalled friend Linda Schumacher, who was one of the bridesmaids at Levitz's wedding. "She paid thousands to gardeners to keep it immaculate and have the flowers in season." The Victoria's Secret catalogue was once photographed there, Schumacher said. Many of Levitz's dinner parties were held on the veranda, with hired bands and caterers. She became active on the busy benefit circuit in Palm Beach, raising money for the Heart Association, the Mental Health Association and the local opera company.
"She may not have been blue-blood society but she was cafe society," said Palm Beach jeweler Adele Kahn, who knew and made jewelry for Levitz. Her personal style, judging from photographs, tended toward the flashy -- lots of gold and cleavage. Everything in her house was in perfect order, far from the genteel shabbiness of the old-money crowd.
Jacqueline Levitz liked her cars expensive and white, her hats big and trimmed, her clothes snug and pricey. Some of her friends couldn't understand why she married Ralph Levitz, but none doubted her devotion to him. They insist she didn't marry him for his money because she had plenty of her own. But there is no doubt that their union put her in a different stratosphere: She went from a nice house in Palm Beach Gardens to the mansion by the sea. A Furniture Empire
Ralph Levitz started to build his fortune in Pottstown, Pa., where he and brother Leon pioneered the idea of cash-and-carry furniture. Leon resigned as president in the wake of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation in the early '70s in which his brother, as chairman, was also named. Ralph stayed on until 1983, when he retired. By the time he died last March, the company had annual revenues of more than $1 billion and was no longer under family control. The Levitzes took care of the SEC problem with a consent decree under which they changed some of their business practices.
Ralph Levitz divorced his first wife after he made his first million, recalled Agnes Ash, retired editor of the Palm Beach Daily News. He then bought a huge yacht and became, she said, a "playboy," dressing the part and marrying, in quick succession, four "bimbo types."
Jacquie had moved to Palm Beach because "real estate was hot as a firecracker," sister Gerri Brown said. Jacquie met Ralph at a party there in the mid-'80s, shortly after he had divorced wife No. 5. She told him, Brown said, that she bought a lot of Levitz furniture in her business. He invited her to decorate his new mansion on South Ocean Boulevard. He told her to do it up as if she were going to live there herself, and by the time it was finished, she was. Her decorating scheme did not include any furniture from the family store, but there was a portrait of Ralph over the fireplace.
Some of her friends wondered what she saw in him, since he was more than 20 years older and known for being difficult. They married in 1987.
"I think she was lonely, and he was lonely," said Schumacher.
"She was one of his best wives," said Kahn. "She helped him become social."
Six weeks after the wedding Ralph Levitz had his first stroke.
"Jacquie was a beautiful person. Generous, kind, very loyal, and a couple of things I read made her look like a piece of fluff, a lightweight," said another Palm Beach friend, Doris Shell. "She took such magnificent care of Ralph Levitz, and Ralph was not easy to get along with on the best of days."
Ralph Levitz was slightly disabled by the first stroke. They went to a spa in Italy for a month, and afterward he continued to play golf and host benefits. But over time his condition worsened, and Jacquie had to devote more and more energy to his care.
In 1989 the couple decided to renew their wedding vows; Jacquie told friends it was Ralph's idea. This time the ceremony was held at the lavish Breakers hotel, and there were 42 bridesmaids, all in white lace dresses and matching hats. Jacquie wore a long white beaded satin gown, a veil attached to a diamond tiara, and an eye-popping diamond necklace festooned with teardrop pearls. The bride was 55, the groom 76.
By 1991 the house on South Ocean Boulevard was too much for them, and they sold it for nearly $4 million (it had been listed for $6 million) and bought a smaller, Mediterranean-style home for $2 million. It is currently on the market for $2.7 million. As Ralph's health deteriorated, they spent more time in California, at the La Costa spa in Carlsbad. They eventually bought a house there.
"She really took care of Ralph," said Schumacher. "She had round-the-clock nurses, but after he got sick she didn't go out at night. I can remember many an evening sitting on her veranda, drinking a glass of champagne, and Ralph would call: Jacquie, I need you.' She really extended his life."
Brown said Levitz worked so hard taking care of her ailing husband that she herself collapsed from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized twice, probably for complications relating to her high blood pressure.
"He wanted her close by a lot," said Brown. "She gave him his medicine. She read to him. And she talked baby talk to him. He really liked that." She inherited about $15 million. Husband Smitty
Levitz was not the first husband Jacquie buried. In 1969, 18 years before she married Ralph, she was living in Waldorf, Md., married to Banks L. "Smitty" Smith, who died at the age of 46 of a heart attack. He owned a couple of steakhouses called Smitty's, and Jacquie met him after she'd taken a job as a hostess at one of them.
They, too, had a big house, said Brown, who visited there. It was on about 25 acres, nice enough that Spiro Agnew, when he was vice president, had considered buying it, Brown said. Jacquie stayed there for several years after Smith's death, her sister believes, then sold it and moved to a town house in Alexandria, and later to the Watergate. It was in the Washington area in the early '70s that she began to amass a small fortune by capitalizing on her talent for redoing houses and selling them at a profit.
"She had a real knack for taking an apartment or house and turning it into the loveliest thing you ever saw, down to the toothbrushes and towels," said Schumacher. This was her real strength -- flair, combined with a tough business sense. She bought home after home, turned each into a kind of fairy castle, then sold it and moved on.
What few of her friends knew was that before Smith, Jacquie had been married to another man, Walter W. Bolton.
"She always said she'd been married twice and widowed twice, and didn't intend to marry again," said Betty Moody, who sold Levitz her house in Vicksburg and became a friend.
Bolton, 14 years her senior, met Jacquie in Beaumont, Tex., where she had moved after high school to live with her older sister, Pat Tuminello, and attend Chenier Business College. The Boltons moved to Alexandria in 1956 or 1957, Bolton said, where he was president and treasurer of a dehumidifier manufacturing firm. Their son, Walter Jr., was born in 1959. The Boltons divorced in 1961 or 1962 -- he can't quite remember.
"We split up for a simple reason," said Bolton, who is now 75 and living back in Beaumont. "I had a business reversal and went broke. She found another guy with money. Smith had this restaurant in Waldorf with slot machines, and she liked him better."
The divorce was amicable, he said, and Jacquie got custody of their son. According to her sisters, Jacquie was the sole supporter of her child.
Walter Jr. lives in Clinton, Md., where he paints cars, relatives said. Jacquie's relationship with him is something of a puzzle -- she told Moody she wished she'd had a daughter, and that whatever she wanted her son to do, he'd want the opposite. But she was encouraging him to come to Vicksburg and talked about buying a mini-storage business for him to manage. A few days before she vanished he called to ask for $3,500 to buy a boat, which she sent.
He lived with his aunt Pat Tuminello in Beaumont during high school, his father said, and went there after the news of his mother's disappearance.
"He took more after me," said his father, who became a college professor and consultant after his business failed. "He didn't give a damn for the hoity-toity Palm Beach scene."
Walter Jr., 36, is unmarried and has no children.
The elder Bolton didn't know Jacquie back in Oak Grove, but he got closer than either of her other husbands. "She grew up on a farm, they were poor sharecroppers," he said. "Even in high school she picked 300 pounds of cotton herself."
That was back when her name was not Levitz or Smith or Bolton, but Broadway. Gerri Brown, the fifth of the 10 Broadway siblings, disputes Bolton's recollection. "The girls didn't do farm work," she said. "We did chores." Her Home Town
After Ralph Levitz died, Jacquie started telling her friends and siblings that she wanted to move closer to her family. Her last years of nursing her husband, she'd say, made her think that being around people who really cared about you was more important than money as you entered the years of vulnerability. The Palm Beach social world was less appealing to her; when she returned for Ralph's funeral she changed her unlisted phone number to avoid the inevitable charitable appeals. She put the house on the market but planned to keep the condo, where she has an office.
She settled on Vicksburg, 20 minutes from sister Tiki Shivers, an hour or so from Gerri and brothers Joe and Sonny. She looked at several places over the summer, including a rebuilt antebellum mansion, but the only one with a river view was the brick house that belonged to Betty and John Moody. She paid cash (about $260,000), and took title on Oct. 13. It was her 28th house.
"I've never seen her so excited," said Shivers.
She had big plans. Leopard Prints and Prayers
Levitz moved into 15 Riverwood Circle, one of a motley cluster of homes on a bluff, with nothing but a new bed, a table and chair borrowed from Tiki, and a closetful of clothes and furs. She had a small, empty refrigerator but a well-stocked liquor cabinet. She was camping out, and she loved it.
"She told us she was going to gut the whole place, and anything we wanted we could have," said Betty Moody. "She didn't have to do that."
The Moodys became friends of, and spoke to, Levitz nearly every day in those last few weeks. Moody told her about the hidden safe, and warned her about the bright searchlights from the river boats, which could scare you if you didn't know what they were. Levitz gave her National Enquirers and Star tabloids to Moody, and told her about some of the movie stars she'd met.
"She said she was tired of Palm Beach, where she had to wear designer dresses all the time and jewelry. She said if you didn't have 30 formals in your closet there you were nothing." In Vicksburg, Levitz wore leggings and oversize sweaters -- embroidered with little flowers or gold -- and suede ankle boots. Her hair was pushed back in a wide headband, with a bunch of her honey-blond curls spilling over it. She felt, she told the Moodys, like she was in hiding.
She told them she wanted to rebuild their house into a place where her brothers and sisters could come and stay and feel comfortable. The place was going to have big leather recliners where her brothers-in-law could watch TV. She was going to turn Moody's workshop into an octagonal master bedroom suite for herself, with a separate kitchen. She wanted leopard-print wallpaper there, and had ordered leopard-print sinks to match.
There would be two bedrooms for the children of her nieces and nephews, with child-size furniture. The girls' room would have canopy beds, and the boys would have a sports theme in theirs, and their separate living room would have miniature red recliners.
A kidney-shaped pool was being dug, one that would have a Jacuzzi and waterfalls, with the bottom covered with glow-in-the-dark paint. You'd be able to see it from the Mississippi River Bridge.
She told the Moodys she planned to bring in furniture and books from her house in Palm Beach. "She had a wonderful library," said Betty Moody. "All hardbacks."
Levitz interviewed local contractors, which the Moodys found unusual. "She let you know right up front: Don't screw around with me, I can ruin you in a heartbeat. She wanted this done right, and she didn't want anyone who was working other jobs." She settled on a young firm, Built-Wright, for most of the work.
The workers began each day at 7:30 with a prayer: "Dear Lord, let it not rain so we can get a lot of work done for Miss Jacquie."
Thelma and John Gradick live across the road; Thelma invited Levitz to a Mary Kay cosmetics party.
"She came in and threw that mink stole over my chair like it was a $3 sweater," marveled Gradick. Levitz bought $120 worth of cleansers and creams and perfume, paying with cash from a pad of $100 bills in her wallet. "She said she liked to have a different kind of perfume for each day of the week," said Gradick.
Her friends from Florida don't remember Levitz being such a fan of Mary Kay. "I think she wanted to blend in," said Doris Shell. "If it had been Tupperware she would have been there, too." The Mystery
Sheriff Paul Barrett's office is wood-paneled and windowless. In a suit and tie, he looks more like a businessman than a cop, but he's been one for over 40 years, and sheriff for 28. His office and the lobby of the jail are decorated with framed newspaper pictures of some of his exploits, like the time he caught a would-be suicide by the wrist as he jumped off the top of a hotel. (Two other officers were holding on to Barrett's legs.)
Vicksburg, population 28,000, is not a huge crime center. There were only 14 homicides last year in the area, most drug-related. The four casinos are now the largest employers in town, outranking the Army Corps of Engineers, and their presence is as unmistakable as the searchlights in Harrah's parking lot that rake the sky every night. There are two dolled-up river boats that stop here between New Orleans and St. Louis, bathing the town in slightly off-key calliope music.
Barrett has had a few calls suggesting that Levitz has somehow faked her disappearance, but he doesn't buy it. It doesn't make sense. And so far nobody has turned up any enemies. Who would have a motive to kill her? Could it have been a kidnapping gone wrong?
The more time that passes, the less likely it seems that Levitz will be found alive, and the mystery deepens. A neighbor's visiting son, out to walk the dog and have a cigarette the night she disappeared, heard a car start and then leave. Who was it?
The state crime lab hasn't even gotten the results of the blood tests to Barrett yet. Meanwhile, he's getting calls from reporters and from Holly Hunter, who wants the film rights. "Holly's a real nice lady," he says.
Back at Jacquie's house, sister Tiki Shivers is doing one more TV interview in hopes it will somehow help. A bathtub sits in the yard, and the unfinished pool is now just an expensive mudhole.
"If someone wanted to do harm to my sister, why take her?" she says. "That's why the family is holding on to a little ray of hope." Her eyes glisten with tears. "I think someone has seen something they don't even realize. If you see someone carrying pillows or bedclothing, or purses . . . you never know . . . I would like everybody to understand that if they came to her house for anything, she would have given it to them."
Shivers swallows hard and turns. She looks at the Mississippi River Bridge in the distance. And at the murky water down below.
Special correspondent Carol Wright from Palm Beach contributed to this report. CAPTION: Jacqueline Levitz's Vicksburg house with its Mississippi River Bridge view. Extensive renovations were underway when she disappeared. A police helicopter flies along the river searching for evidence. Levitz, top, is the 61-year-old widow of furniture magnate Ralph Levitz, shown with her, left. CAPTION: Who is Jacqueline Levitz? "She may not have been blue-blood society but she was cafe society," said Palm Beach jeweler Adele Kahn. Her personal style tended toward the flashy--lots of gold and cleavage. Left, a portrait from 1989, when the coupole renewed their wedding vows. CAPTION: The Levitzes' Mediterranean-style Palm Beach home, currently on the market for $2.7 million.