It was winter in New York City in the late 1970s, and the beloved daughter of a famous fashion designer was on her way to school. Sadly, she did not attend class that day. Instead, the young girl was spirited away by kidnappers, and a ransom of thousands of dollars was demanded for her safe return. But what really happened to little Marci Klein?
Marci was born on October 21, 1967, the only child of Calvin and Jayne Centre Klein. Today, Calvin Klein is a global brand, legendary for its fashion and luxury goods. But this was far from the case for the man behind the successful company at the time of his daughter’s birth. Marci’s father was then a 35-year-old drop-out from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Having completed an apprenticeship under Dan Millstein, a coat manufacturer, Calvin was making ends meet by designing clothing for retail outlets across the city.
However, the year after Marci was born, Calvin’s fortunes began to change. Tired of working for other designers, he teamed up with his friend Barry Schwartz to launch his own company. And fortune smiled when a vice president of upmarket New York department store Bonwit Teller chanced upon a Calvin creation. The retail executive bought from the designer in bulk, and the orders for Calvin Klein the company began to pour in.
Throughout the following decade, Calvin’s fame continued to grow. As well as winning a number of awards and accolades in the early to mid-1970s, the designer was raking in millions of dollars a year. And by the time that 1978 rolled around, he looked set to expand his empire even further with plans for a branded scent and a range of denims.
However, Calvin’s personal life had not turned out to be quite so blessed as his professional career. In fact, he and Jayne had divorced in 1974, and Marci was living with her mother on the well-heeled Upper East Side in Manhattan. Nevertheless, it was her connection to her famous father that would plunge the young girl into a terrifying ordeal.
On the morning of February 3, 1978, Marci left her mother’s apartment and boarded a bus headed north along Third Avenue. Although the 11-year-old student was traveling unaccompanied, it was just a few blocks to the Dalton School on East 89th Street. But that day, Marci would not be there to answer her name at roll call.
At some point during the journey, Marci was approached by 23-year-old Paule Ransay Lewis, a woman from the West Indies island of Martinique. Having moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s, Lewis had found gainful employment as a waitress at a restaurant on Fifth Avenue. Crucially, however, she also worked as a babysitter and had taken care of Marci a short while before that fateful day in February.
However, Marci’s welfare was not foremost in Lewis’ mind when she approached the blonde-haired girl on the bus. Instead, Lewis told the child that Calvin had been taken ill and was being treated a few blocks north at the city’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Innocently, Marci got off the bus with her one-time babysitter, believing that the woman was taking her to visit her ailing father.
But Calvin was not sick and instead the entire story was just a ruse. In fact, Lewis took Marci by taxi to her home, a four-room apartment on 97th Street on the fringes of East Harlem. Once there, the girl was confronted by two accomplices of Lewis – the woman’s 19-year-old half-brother, Dominique Ransay, and his friend, 24-year-old Cecil Wiggins.
The no doubt terrified Marci was soon gagged, tied up and blindfolded. She was now unable to tell what was happening around her. But with the child totally under their control, the kidnappers got busy with their demands. In an 8:15-a.m. telephone call to Calvin, they ordered the designer to pay out $100,000 in exchange for his daughter’s safe return. But a cool Calvin next made a call of his own.
Having notified the authorities, the New York Police Department and the FBI stepped up. Undercover officers were then able to track Calvin’s movements as the kidnappers gave him instructions at various public phones around Midtown. Eventually, the designer was told to leave the ransom in $20 bills at the Pan Am Building, a skyscraper close to Grand Central Station.
In fact, it was Calvin’s business partner and childhood friend Barry Schwartz who actually made the drop. And there was a twist awaiting the miscreants inside the brown-paper bag they insisted upon. In the hope of trapping the kidnappers, the FBI coated each banknote with a special spray. If the perpetrators attempted to spend any of the bills featuring President Andrew Jackson, their fingerprints would be invisibly imprinted on them.
Shortly after the ransom was retrieved by the kidnappers, they called on Calvin again. This time they told him where Marci could be found – unbelievably, the address they gave was Lewis’ six-story apartment block. But Calvin did not travel there alone; his entourage included about 60 NYPD officers and FBI agents. However, when the posse reached the 97th Street address in the late afternoon, it was Calvin who ran into the building, desperately searching for his missing daughter.
Apparently, Calvin raced up the stairwell, frantically banging on doors and calling out Marci’s name. But even though he was in the right hallway, the kidnappers had told Calvin the wrong apartment. Eventually, after an ordeal that had lasted almost ten hours, father and daughter were safely reunited.
With Marci finally out of harm’s way, a police investigation into the kidnapping began. They soon caught up with the three perpetrators. Initially, Lewis claimed that she too was a victim and that she had been forced against her will to detain Marci. The abducted girl was in no position to back this up, having been blindfolded for the ordeal. Nonetheless, there were elements of Lewis’ story that did not seem to make any sense. For example, why hadn’t the woman alerted the driver of the bus to her predicament. Furthermore, why didn’t Lewis take the opportunity to deliver Marci to the police once they were alone in the taxi on their way to 97th Street?
Consequently, Lewis was given a lie detector test which she failed. Eventually, the waitress confessed her true role in the crime. Lewis admitted that, along with Ransay and Wiggins, she had plotted to kidnap Marci and demand the ransom money. However, the funds were soon recovered from the apartments of Wiggins and a female friend, and the three collaborators were arrested and arraigned. But there would soon be a shocking further development…
Indeed, during the subsequent trial, Lewis made a jaw-dropping claim. Astonishingly, the accused alleged that she and Calvin had in fact been romantically involved. However, that was not the end of the courtroom revelations. According to Lewis, the lovebirds had concocted the kidnap plot together in order for Calvin to drum up some publicity.
Unsurprisingly, Calvin promptly rejected these claims. Meanwhile, prosecutors pointed to the amateur nature of the operation. They cited the perpetrators’ poor planning and – considering Calvin’s great wealth – their relatively insignificant ransom amount. Eventually, the trio were found guilty of second-degree kidnapping and given jail time of up to 25 years.
But could Calvin really have fashioned the whole scam? While the publicity certainly didn’t hurt the Calvin Klein enterprise, his designs were already set to be a great success. His then upcoming denim collection kickstarted the craze for designer jeans. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that Calvin would have risked colluding with low-life amateur criminals just for a P.R. boost.
Today, his daughter has grown up to be an acclaimed TV producer. She has earned credits on hit shows such as 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live. But even as an adult, Marci still recalls when she was finally reunited with her father following her kidnapping ordeal. “I ran out and I saw him and I jumped into his arms,” Marci told Vanity Fair in 2008. “I’ve never felt so safe in my life.”