Growing up in the 1930s in segregated coal mining country in West Virginia, Doris Payne played a game she called “Miss Lady.” She’d don a hat and purse, and imagine herself living a life far from her own impoverished circumstances. This ability to cast herself as someone else would prove a lucrative one—and take her from a child playing pretend to one of the world’s most notorious jewel thieves and career criminals.
Over nearly 70 years, 32 aliases and nine passports, in a trajectory worthy of the Ocean’s film franchise, she traveled the world and stole over $2 million worth of jewels. Payne has been arrested and incarcerated more times than she can count. She claims to have spent every cent of her takings. Her story is currently being adapted for a forthcoming Codeblack Film, starring Tessa Thompson.
Payne was the daughter of a Cherokee mother and an illiterate African-American father, who beat his wife. This experience, producer Eunetta T. Boone told filmmakers in the 2013 documentary The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, seems to have had a profound influence on her. “Those things can set in the mind of a young girl: ‘I’m never going to be under the thumb of a man. I’m gonna be the judge of my own destiny,’” she said. ‘I really think that that alone drives Doris.”
Tracking the course of Payne’s life is nearly impossible to do with much accuracy, the filmmakers told the New York Times. The names and dates in her stories change with staggering pace, and it’s hard to know the extent of her crimes.
But it all started, Payne said in a 2013 interview, when her father’s abuse of her mother worsened. She boarded a bus to Pittsburgh, stole a diamond, fenced it, and gave the money to her mother to get out of town and away from her father. (A 1976 Associated Press article suggests she was about 16 at the time, though she’s since claimed she was 23.) “I think that was the day that empowered her,” Boone said.
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Whatever the impetus, Payne realized she had a talent for disguises and sleight of hand. She was well-mannered, attractive and had a knack for making people trust her. In Europe, it might be as simple as wearing the right clothes; on another occasion, she posed as a Caucasian friend’s private nurse. “I could pull it off anywhere,” Payne said—Milan, Paris, New York, London, Tokyo.
The game was simple: Payne would visit the store holding a designer purse and dressed to the nines—crime reports repeatedly stress how attractive and “like a model” she looked. At a time when African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens, she explains in the documentary, people ignored her skin and took her manners at face value. “You’ve got to look like you belong,” she said. Next, she’d ask the salesperson to see a variety of specific pieces, which she’d move around with dizzying pace, sliding them on and off her hands and wrists. Next, an item would mysteriously vanish: she’d find it and win the salesperson’s trust. Then, she’d find some way to distract them, hide the piece she actually wanted on her person, say goodbye, and get out of the store.
Between 1952 and the mid-1970s, she used these techniques to make off with more than $100,000 worth of jewels. In Monte Carlo, she made the mistake of pocketing a ring “with nine zeros on the label” in the upmarket jewelers Cartier. The piece was too significant: when she arrived at the airport, police were waiting for her. While in custody, she managed to pry the stone from its setting, throw the ring from her window into the Mediterranean, and sew the stone into her girdle. Eventually, she escaped the clutches of law enforcement, fled to New York and sold it for $148,000.
A life on the run has not always been an easy one—yet for Payne, the rush of criminality was a considerable incentive. “It was a challenge,” she said. “The finer the heist, the greater the challenge.” Experiences of racism in stores as a child also helped her rationalize these heists. “It was punishment,” she said. “In the back of my head, I was saying, ‘Take that.’” Even now, she struggles to find any real victims to her crimes, and says she sees herself not as a criminal, but someone outsmarting a world that wanted to keep her down.
Aging has barely dampened that fire. A little over a decade ago, she told journalists she was through with theft: She’s since been arrested five more times, once while wearing an ankle monitor, and was most recently released from jail in September 2017, at the age of 86. Yet given the opportunity, she’d do it all over again: In the documentary, Payne said she felt little remorse about her spectacular life of crime. “I don’t regret being a jewel thief,” she said. “Do I regret being caught? Yes!”