Sunday, August 19, 2012

Frum beggar's death still a mystery

He was a pauper who spent his days begging in front of Brooklyn synagogues — at once memorable and forgettable, like so many other desperate characters on street corners across the city.
He never met a word he didn’t like, spinning tales of distant relatives who were once great rabbis, debating the merits of one cellphone carrier or another, or weighing the best place to get hot soup in Borough Park.
He was always a bit odd — the sort of guy who would wear striped pants and a plaid shirt, who dangled a thick stack of identification cards from his neck, ready to show anyone who cared to examine them. Sometimes, he had to be told to shower.
And he was always grateful for any small act of kindness that would ease the loneliness of the day’s hustle.
But a few weeks ago, his mood turned dark.
He grew erratic — pupils big and dark as coal. Friends said he paced wildly as he spoke.
He was terrified.
“He said he needed money fast,” said Hollywood agent and longtime friend Fred Wostbrock.
“He was in a frenzy,” recalled another beggar.
“He’d say that someone is out to kill him. He said he needed $17,000 right away,” said another friend, Abie Maltz.
His life was in grave danger, he told anyone who would believe him.
No one did.
But on June 28, Howard Frank, 55, was found floating facedown in the Gowanus Canal, amid circumstances as murky as the fetid waters where he took his last breath.
Frank had a million-dollar secret — and family and friends are now wondering if it was a deadly one.
It turns out that the disheveled beggar from Brooklyn was sitting on a collection of entertainment-industry photographs that could be worth an estimated $1 million.
The son of a disabled bookkeeper, Frank dropped out of high school to focus on collecting TV and movie publicity stills, amassing an array rivaled by few and envied by most.
He grew up in an assortment of Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Bensonhurst, Brownsville and Midwood. The family was forced to move around because their father, Alex, was in between jobs because of his disability, Little’s disease, a form of cerebral palsy.
He often spoke of his distant cousin, Tzvi Pesach Frank, an influential rabbi, as well as Louis Schurr — Bob Hope’s agent — who was his grandfather’s first cousin.
Like the stars frozen in time on his photographs, he hoped one day that he too would be famous.
“He wanted to tell the story about his life and how he was raised. That he came from a respectable family,” said Maltz, a chef at the Nu Cafe in Borough Park, where he said customers are collecting money to engrave a memorial inscription on Frank’s tombstone.
As a teenager, Frank used a small inheritance to buy out Kier’s Celebrity Photos, a Midtown shop, significantly adding to his stockpile, which he’d sell through the mail and at memorabilia conventions and flea markets around the country.
“The first photo I bought from him was of Raquel Welch,” said Wostbrock, who first met Frank in 1973. “We became lifelong friends.”
He was a high-school dropout but had an encyclopedic knowledge of movies and TV shows. He loved Lucy — collecting over 10,000 photos of Lucille Ball — considered in its totality to be the most valuable part of his collection, which would eventually swell to 1 million entertainment photos spanning 1946-1990.
The value of the collection comes from the sheer volume of photos, as well as the rarity of some of the items, noted Wostbrock. “If you wanted television, my God, Howie had everything,” he said.
“I don’t know if he knew how to use a washing machine, but he was brilliant in certain things. He was a savant,” Wostbrock said.
I* recent years, Wostbrock, who represents the likes of Phyllis Diller and Wink Martindale, saw his friend struggle, so he helped out when he could, sending him money on holidays and putting him through a three-week security-guard training program.
“He would rather buy pictures than eat,” Wostbrock said. “But that’s collecting — it’s obsessive. He loved his photos the way a billionaire loves his artwork on the wall.”
Wostbrock spoke to Frank a week or so before his death.
“He wanted me to be his agent to sell his life story,” he recalled.
To earn a living, Frank leased his photos for one-time use to newspapers and magazines, usually at about $75 a pop. The copies he sold at conventions went for as low as $1.
But he hated selling them, his brother Robert Frank said. “He would always make 8x10 copies if he had the originals,” he said.
His expertise led to opportunity: Frank co-authored books, rubbed elbows with celebrities like Barbara Eden and Adam West and became a coveted resource for newspaper and magazines.
“He had this amazing photo collection with a particular strength in ‘I Love Lucy,’ ” recalled retired People photo editor Ira Berger. “There were a lot of a--holes selling photos, but he was one of the nice guys.”
Berger did business with Frank for 20 years. “He was an odd duck.”
He was never diagnosed with a mental disorder — because he never went to see a psychiatrist, said Robert Frank. “He wouldn’t even see a regular doctor.”
“He was very lonely, and he suffered a lot,” said friend Yaakov Shajnfeld, who said Frank refused all government assistance.
The NYPD says Frank’s death, first reported on the blog Failed Messiah, is not a homicide. Detectives are investigating it as a suicide or an accident.
But those who knew Frank said he’d never kill himself — and especially not by jumping in a canal.
“He was deathly afraid of the water. He wouldn’t go near the water,” said Maltz, who echoed that Frank insisted someone was trying to kill him during the two weeks leading up to his death.
Robert Frank said a detective told him there was water in his brother’s lungs — meaning he was alive when he entered the waterway.
The city Medical Examiner’s Officer says the cause of death has yet to be determined but did not conduct an autopsy at the family’s request — even though his brother denies ever giving such instructions. Robert Frank claims an Orthodox Jewish group that prepares bodies for burial, Misaskim, put the kibosh on the autopsy, which is against Jewish law in most circumstances. The group did not return a call for comment.
The Medical Examiner’s Office is relying on NYPD crime-scene photographs and photos and X-rays taken of the body in the morgue, to determine a cause of death, spokeswoman Ellen Borakove said.
“The manner of death might be undetermined if there isn’t enough evidence,” she said.
The lack of an active investigation has chafed family members.
“Was he pushed?” wondered his brother, who said plenty of people would have a motive to kill his brother.
“They have made no attempt to speak to any of the acquaintances who saw and spoke to Frank in his last days,” he said.
Even a high-ranking police official expressed skepticism about what appeared to be a hurried police investigation.
“How in the world did a body just turn up and they determined it a suicide. Was there a note? The undercurrent here is that everyone is under a tremendous amount of crime [stat] pressure,” the official told The Post.
“There’s almost like a hidden agenda here: ‘The guy committed suicide. The guy was sick in the head. It’s not a homicide.’ That’s what worries me.”
Despite his brushes with celebrity, Frank lived on the edge of destitution.
After 9/11, Frank’s photo-leasing business declined. He started an online enterprise,, with a partner but struggled to find a permanent place to live after being evicted from an apartment in Flatbush.
Frank took odd jobs, even working as a shomer, a guardian of the dead in Jewish tradition, who sits in a morgue with the body until its buried.
About six years ago, his business partner, Frank Pohole, gave Howard a place to live in his Sunset Park home — which is without heat, electricity and running water, Robert Frank said. Pohole did not comment for this story.
As he struggled to digitize hundreds of thousands of photos, Frank’s beloved collection became unwieldy — and costly.
Friends and family say Frank needed the cash to square up years-late storage fees for his massive collection.
“He was saying that he needed $80,000 to save his life,” recalled Aaron Farrell, saying Frank owed money to someone who was leasing him a warehouse in Bensonhurst.
But real estate developer Henry Hewes said he’s been paying Frank’s storage bills for the past five years.
“His agreement with me is that when his collection was sold or when he died, I would be paid,” said Hewes, 62, an Upper East Sider who ran for mayor in 1989 and met Frank through Pohole, with whom he went to graduate school. He said the money amounted to about $70,000. “I wouldn’t say it’s that much money to me.”
So, who would want to kill Howard Frank?
“From time to time he would talk about revealing secrets about the Orthodox community,” Hewes recalled. “He told me weeks ago he was going to reveal a big scandal — he never got around to it.”
In January, Frank told The Post about a Crown Heights synagogue that charged panhandlers $5 for the privilege of begging inside the house of worship.
“It’s like graft, payola,” he said at the time.
Worshippers said the policy was in place because beggars were disrupting congregants.
But Frank refused to pay up, and instead stationed himself outside the synagogue. “It’s embarrassing that you have to beg, and the fact they won’t help you is embarrassing — you’d think your rabbi would help you.”
Robert Frank thinks his brother may have crossed the “wrong rabbi,” or may have borrowed money from a loan shark in order to own his photos free and clear of Hewes’ generosity.
Frank’s photos remain in the storage facility, locked until his will is executed. The photos are under the control of Ian Lerner, a cousin, who is the executor of the estate, according to Robert Frank. Ian Lerner did not return a call for comment.
According to Frank’s will, cousins Seth, Todd and Ian Lerner will inherit his collection — which everyone agreed was as much a part of Howard as an arm or a leg.
“If he did commit suicide, it was probably because he was losing them,” said Seth Lerner. “He knew something about every photograph. That was . . . his life.”
Additional reporting by Kathianne Boniello.

No comments: