Sante and Kenneth Kimes: A Life of Crime
Irene was nicknamed Zambi by the other dancers because it rhymed with Bambi. She soon developed a reputation as a bit of a practical joker.
"The $36 a week looked like a lot of money back then," she once remembered, giggling. "Still, I was very mischievous. I would walk on the train of the girl in front of me, little things like that."
After eight years of grinding it out on the Radio City Music Hall stage, Irene let a man, someone who was more than a decade older than she, into her life. His name was Samuel Silverman, and he was a real estate mogul whose fortunes were still on the rise.
"Whatever reservations I had were overcome with the realization that I was going to be very rich," she later recalled. "It was a marriage of convenience for us both."
"He was her Stage Door Johnny," said a pal of the two, the Hawaiian real estate tycoon Stuart Ho. "She was bright and bubbly, a regular Auntie Mame. He was brilliant, with connections at the highest level."
The two were married in 1941. Part of the deal was that Irene's mother would live with them. They never had children of their own, just money, and lots of it. Sam was able to sniff out good real estate deals in every borough of New York. After World War II, he expanded his real estate empire to countries outside the U.S. where Irene used the Cajun French from her childhood to charm the Parisians. They not only purchased the grand gray stone five-story mansion on East 65th street in New York but owned apartments in Honolulu and the City of Lights. There, the balcony of their bedroom backed onto a music theater where they heard songs coming from the stage each night as they lay in bed. Irene and Sam always had the best seats for every opera and ballet performance in Europe.
The grand, globetrotting life ended in 1973 when Sam succumbed to cancer. Her mother lasted a few years longer and for the first time in her life, Irene began to live alone.
The woman once called Irena, then Zambi, and finally respectfully as Mrs. Silverman wasn't the type to shrivel up and wait for death. Instead, she actually had begun quickening the pace of her life.
She began by having the mansion divided into suites and made it into the most luxurious bed-and-breakfast in all of Manhattan. She always said it was for the company and not the cash.
"If she liked the guest, she'd have the servants bring him breakfast in bed," said her neighbor, Miki Ben-Kiki. "And if she really liked you, then she'd take you out to dinner."
She began taking classes at nearby Columbia University. She was popular with the younger students, partly because she always kept a bottle of first-rate champagne in her purse and partly because she was the only person who not only came to classes by limousine but would sometimes volunteer to have her driver drop off a classmate after a lecture. She became known as a charming eccentric, someone who once showed up at a party with ten muscular young men in tow.
"I rented them. For the night," she cracked. Her quirks became legend and the servants loved to gossip about how she would only allow her plants to be watered with old gin bottles and that she would breed prize boxer dogs to sell at $500 each. Still, when a little girl wanted one but didn't have the cash, Irene said she would take the change in her piggy bank and did.
In 1998, Irene was 82, but had no plans to slow down. Her stylist dyed her hair Lucille Ball orange and, despite her arthritis and a bad back, she would sometimes amaze her guests by rising on tiptoe, her hands pointed above her head, like Odile in "Swan Lake," about to do 32 fouette turns.
Then she would giggle. For a moment, she was Zambi again.When Kenny Kimes showed up on Irene's doorstep, he used one of the oldest cons in the book. First, he used the name of an old friend of hers as a reference. Then he showed her the money. He had $6000 in $100 bills. Irene had always received checks but she knew that cash couldn't be traced: no money for the I.R.S. Irene, a child of the Depression, sealed her lips and fate. Kenny Kimes was nicely dressed in a suit. He seemed okay. And when his loudmouthed female assistant showed up a few days later and began living with him, Irene held her tongue. She had signed her own death warrant.