The crime that triggered all the excitement happened on a bone-cold night in 1959. A “blue norther” had blown across the barren stretches of Texas into Dallas. Rich women in Dallas turtled down into their mink coats and said “Brrrrr!” to their husbands as they hurried out to cocktail parties. 

Few realized it at that moment, but they were living in auspicious times. The country was entering a new era that year—and so was Dallas. 

Dwight Eisenhower was finishing his last term in the White House. Despite Cold War tensions, he remained one of the most popular presidents of all time. He rarely spoke to his vice president, Richard Nixon, but he didn’t much want to. 

Lyndon Baines Johnson, the arm-twisting, vote-counting Master of the Senate, had his eyes fixed on the presidency. He had the support of an armada of Texas oilmen who handed over envelopes of cash with a wink. Yet a junior senator from Massachusetts was preparing his own run for the White House. John F. Kennedy had the support of the starstruck media and, some said, the Mafia in Chicago. 

The fifties had been an era of bobby sox, tuna casseroles, and home milk delivery. The world after 1959 would be a more dangerous place. The Soviets were launching satellite after satellite, while American rockets exploded like firecrackers. Civil rights protests erupted in the South. The first American soldiers were killed in Vietnam. 

Fidel Castro took over Cuba the same year. Castro’s takeover forced mobster Meyer Lansky to shift most of his gambling operations to a godforsaken outpost in Nevada called Las Vegas. The first time Lansky visited the dusty railroad stop, temperatures approached 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The wires in his Cadillac melted. Yet the desert watering hole was his best hope for riches after Castro booted him from Havana. 

Meanwhile, a little-known engineer at Texas Instruments, Jack Kilby, had invented a miniature computer circuit in Dallas. It would become known as the “microchip” and usher in a digital revolution. 

But the consequences of these events were as yet unknown. The new economic surge required oil and gas, so Texas became the gas station for America. And that meant Dallas, the banking center for much of the oil industry, was a boomtown. The lucky rich were celebrating in grand style. They were eager to show off their new wealth—and a master thief was happy to relieve them of it. 

At first, people weren’t paying attention when jewel thefts sprang up. They were throwing parties. Wildcatter Jake Hamon’s wife, Nancy, flew in planeloads of snow for her “Christmas in July” party and cancan girls for her Paris party. As a former dancer, Nancy knew how to make entrances. She rode into her circus party on an elephant. For another party, she was carried in on a litter by four bare-chested men and wore a purple satin turban. 

All the beautiful people of the day came to Hamon’s parties—women with acres of diamonds and men with ranches the size of states. Landscaper Joe Lambert came in a cape. Opera patron Elsa von Seggern came in a headdress like Queen Nefertiti. 

Other millionaires did their best to keep up. One brought in belly dancers from the Middle East for a Casablanca party. Another flew in Michelin-star chefs from around the world. One oilman’s wife hired a full orchestra, a gospel choir, and a Dixieland band for her husband’s birthday. 

Dallas had a population of only about 680,000 in 1959. The small cluster of downtown skyscrapers looked out over farmland as far as you could see. An astounding amount of cotton was once produced within a three-hundred-mile radius of Dallas. The cotton millionaires had offices in New Orleans, New York, and London. They built fine homes and sent their children east to school. But many were left in ruins after the stock market collapse in 1929. 

A prolonged drought did not help matters. As their farmland dried up and blew away, some West Texas families were reduced to eating cooked tumbleweeds. More than seven thousand people in parched areas of the U.S. died from “dust pneumonia.” When Eleanor Roosevelt came to Texas on a political tour in 1939, a horrific dust storm brought her train to a standstill. She was so shocked by conditions that she urged her husband to speed money into soil conservation programs. 

By the 1950s, much of the state’s population still lived below the poverty level. Yet Dallas thrived, thanks to wildcatters who bet big on oil and won. Dallas County did not have a drop of oil, but it had shrewd bankers. The city became an oasis in what was still a rural, agrarian state. One advertisement read, “If you don’t have an oil well, GET one!” 

When New York cultural critic Leo Lerman visited Dallas in 1958, he wrote in his journals of “the flabbergasting richness.” Dallas was “parties, parties, parties,” he said, noting that one host pointed out that four of his party guests were billionaires and one made a million dollars a week. 

The new fortunes fueled city ambitions of becoming a big-league player in the country. Civic leaders bragged that Dallas had the biggest state fair in the nation, the largest Rotary club, the biggest churches, the Cotton Bowl, and football stars like Doak Walker, Bobby Layne, and Don Meredith. Everyone was humming a song called “Big D” from the Broadway musical The Most Happy Fella. While the rest of Texas was a mess, the lyrics said, every home was a palace in “Big D, little a, double l, a-s!” 

The song was terrific advertising for the city, but in truth, most people in Dallas did not live in a palace; far from it. However, there was a glittering veneer of wealth that drew attention, like sparklers on a cake. The oil-rich were a small slice of Dallas, yet they became a big part of the city’s gaudy image. Their conspicuous abundance was an irresistible attraction for opportunists—of all kinds. 

Bruno and Josephine Herbert Graf on their way to the Fort Worth Opera on April 8, 1953.
Bruno and Josephine Herbert Graf on their way to the Fort Worth Opera on April 8, 1953.AP

On the chilly night when the jewel thief made his leap into fame—Saturday, January 24, 1959, to be exact—Bruno and Josephine Graf were going to one of the year’s most glamorous social events. For him, that meant black tie. For her, it meant jewels, cascades of them. 

The Grafs were attending the Jewel Charity Ball in Fort Worth, where women were expected to sparkle. Mrs. Graf carefully selected some of her most beautiful jewelry to wear. Sitting in front of the big mirror in her dressing room, she put on a pair of stunning diamond earrings. Then she fastened a matching necklace around her throat and pinned a diamond-studded brooch to her gown. 

Lastly, Josephine slipped on her 20.4-carat diamond ring. The ring was a showstopper. People said in awe that it was “as big as the Alamo.” Decades later, Kim Kardashian once wore a ring not quite so big that was valued at more than $2 million. 

Josephine had been left with a fortune after the death of her first husband. She wore her wealth well. In photos, she is always exquisitely dressed, her face tilted up to the camera with patrician confidence. She went to the hairdresser several times a week to keep her hair in a fashionable midlength flip, like movie star June Allyson. Her eyes were her most striking feature because they were an unusual pale blue, like the still Nordic sky in winter. 

She joined oil society when she married John Warne Herbert III. “Jack” Herbert’s family in New York had made a fortune in tobacco products. They lived in an apartment on Fifth Avenue, and when they attended the opera, the New York Times reported it. To his father’s chagrin, Jack preferred to spend more time on the town than with the family business. He was the kind of man who looked as if he slept in a tuxedo, and some evenings he did. 

In the 1920s, the young Herbert headed down to Texas to prove his worth. Texas was becoming known as a place where anyone with gumption and a bank loan could strike it rich. Some made it on gumption alone. When oil erupted like a pent-up volcano at Spindletop in 1901, it spawned a black gold rush. Young men from all over the country were inspired to go to Texas and poke holes in the ground. 

It was an exciting time. Children were let out of school to watch when word spread that a gusher might shoot up. Crowds gathered like tourists waiting for Old Faithful to spout. 

That said, the fortune hunters who rushed into the state soon discovered the Wild West was still awfully wild. The roughnecks who did the hard, dirty work on oil derricks cussed like grimy poets and spent everything they earned in bars. The Texas Rangers were often called in to settle drunken brawls in boomtowns. And when the jails filled up, they handcuffed belligerents to telephone poles. The oil hands were easy to spot because they were missing fingers from wrestling with the massive, medieval chains that pulled drill pipes into place. Explosions and falls added to the risk. As one grizzled veteran put it, “I got blowed up twice and burned up once.” 

This was no country for the meek. 

Jack Herbert arrived in the oil fields at the wheel of a white convertible. He wore jodhpur riding pants, looking as if he were on his way to a fox hunt. “He was a wild Indian,” fellow wildcatter Jake Hamon would say later. “If you went out with him for the evening, you had to plan on fighting your way out of a place or getting thrown out bodily.” 

Then Jack Herbert met Josephine Weaver. She had the kind of looks that made a man ambitious. So that was that. 

Herbert hit it big in the oil patch. Not something for the record books, like Spindletop, but big enough. It wasn’t long before the Herberts bought a mansion near the River Crest Country Club, in Fort Worth. 

The colonial mansion had once belonged to cattle giant W. T. Waggoner. His 520,000-acre ranch in North Texas was second in size only to the 825,000-acre King Ranch in South Texas, so Waggoner built a mansion of appropriate stature in Fort Worth. His showplace had stately white columns in front and acres of lawn in back. Josephine Herbert remodeled the mansion and filled it with fine art and antiques that had been burnished to perfection by time. 

When the Duke and Duchess of Windsor traveled to Texas, the Herberts received them with style. Josephine Herbert had royal jewels of her own. 

These were glory days in Fort Worth as well as Dallas. Oil had created a surge of millionaires in the state, successors to the cotton barons and cattle kings. These were men who believed that if they dared much and got lucky, they could move up the ladder to an upper-class berth, to the world of country clubs, luxury cars, and expensive women. In other words, the state was full of Gatsbys. 

Some handled the great wealth—and temptations that came with it—better than others. The Herberts settled quite nicely into a life of privilege. 

Though she had a regal bearing, Josephine Herbert didn’t grow up on Easy Street. She came from a family in Erie, Pennsylvania, that was prosperous enough to send her to a reputable boarding school, but when her father abandoned his family to seek adventure in South America, her mother was left with six children to feed. Instead of finishing her education, Josephine had to go to work. She got a job setting type on a Linotype machine, a clanking contraption that dwarfed her in size. It was a relief when she found a job as a secretary. Yet when her father returned from his South American escapade, he was furious, saying she had disgraced the family by working. She never spoke to him again. 

When a suitor from the prominent Pershing family came along, Josephine was more than ready to leave home. The couple went to New Mexico to go into the oil business. He struck out and the marriage did, too. Josephine decided to start over in Fort Worth, where her brother Parker was working as a geologist. 

In Texas, it was said, people could get a second act, reinvent themselves and begin anew. Both Josephine and Jack Herbert did. Before he came to Texas, Herbert had been married to a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl. Josephine later would tell writer John Bainbridge she was working as her brother’s secretary when she met dashing Jack Herbert: “And the next thing I knew, I was going through Europe with my diamonds and personal maid.” 

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, her near-golden life was upended. Herbert enlisted in the Army Air Forces at 42 and was assigned to a bomber squadron in the Pacific. While her husband was away, Josephine took over management of the Herbert oil companies. She went to the office every day and learned the business. 

A few days before Christmas in 1942, she sat down at her desk at home to go through the holiday mail. It was late and quiet in the house, a welcome time to catch up. To her surprise, Mrs. Herbert discovered a telegram in the stack of Christmas cards. It was from General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific. 

The telegram read: “The officers and enlisted men of the Third Bombardment Group join me in extending to you our deepest sympathy on the loss of your husband on November 24, 1942, while on a combat mission in New Guinea. Captain Herbert was one of our best officers, and we all share your sorrow.” 

Only later, after two surviving crew members made it to safety in New Guinea, did Josephine learn that her husband’s crewmates had pulled him from the shattered cockpit to the wing of the plane after it was shot down. He was so severely wounded that they could not save him. They had to leave dashing Jack Herbert with the plane. 

Josephine was left with two young daughters, Joyce and Joanne, and an oil business. The widow was now the principal owner. “I had prepared myself,” she said later. “I knew how to take over.” 

The business prospered in Josephine’s cool and capable hands. Debts were paid. New wells were discovered. Though she didn’t have a college degree, Josephine knew how to get things done. 

Five years passed before Josephine married again. This time, she chose Bruno Graf, an urbane European who pronounced his last name “Groff.” Though born in Berlin, he went to school in Switzerland and preferred to say he was Swiss since Germany’s reputation had been tarnished by two world wars. Bruno was no movie star, but he was good company and had the courtly manners needed for social circles. He kissed women’s hands. 

The Grafs drew attention wherever they went. Newspapers reported their Atlantic crossings on the Queen Elizabeth and Île de France. Society columns noted their dinners at the Colony Club in New York. They even mentioned the full-length, tourmaline mink coat that Josephine wore to a Fort Worth lecture, perhaps because it was the same tawny color as her hair, which she had magically transformed from brunette to blonde. 

However, it soon became apparent that continental Bruno Graf did not fit comfortably in Fort Worth. The city had an informal Western style and was proud of it. Cattle drives once brought droves of livestock from Texas ranches to the Fort Worth stockyards, where they were fattened up and shipped north to become steak dinners for the rest of the country. 

Even after the stockyard business dwindled, the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo remained one of the social highlights of the year. Men wore pricey boots and cowboy hats to watch the calf-roping and barrel races. Women showed off their turquoise jewelry from Santa Fe. It was great fun. 

But Bruno Graf preferred reading and playing the piano. He spoke several languages fluently, yet, as Josephine lamented, “There was nobody for Bruno to talk to.” He wanted to move to a bigger city. However, her business, home, and closest friends were in Fort Worth. They divorced, and Bruno returned to Europe. 

Josephine grew lonely in the mansion by herself. It was not proper to attend social events as an unattached woman—people would talk. Relatively young widows or divorcées like Josephine were in a bind because there were not enough widowers to go around. Constantly having to find a presentable escort was a chore. 

Josephine decided to join Bruno abroad. They remarried and lived in a penthouse in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was “a beautiful life,” she said later, but she missed the warmth of friends in the United States. Josephine sold her estate in Fort Worth so they could move to more worldly Dallas in 1958. They began construction on a house on Park Lane that would set a new standard for elegance. The modern showplace put the Grafs in the top tier of Dallas society—and into the path of a daring intruder. 

The Graf house in Dallas at night.
The Graf house in Dallas at night.Jason Franzen

On the night in 1959 that would prove so memorable, Josephine was looking forward to seeing her old friends in Fort Worth. The Jewel Charity Ball was held at the Ridglea Country Club because it had the largest ballroom in the area. Women wore their best jewelry, so the vast room sparkled with constellations of jewels. Jewelers such as Harry Winston and Cartier added to the spectacle by bringing their most precious wares to show off. Women were invited to try on the jewelry. “You wore the jewels sitting on a pedestal to have your picture taken with guards all around you,” one woman recalled. “People could come and look at you.” 

Because it was January and days were at their shortest, the sun was setting as the Grafs prepared for the ball. Though it was dark outside, their house was bathed in an ethereal golden light on the inside. The lighting was amplified all around by gold-veined marble floors, gold carpeting, shining ormolu sconces, and gold-anodized columns that held up pale-gold ceilings. The interior glowed at night. 

The house was a tour de force of modern architecture. Edward Durell Stone, the architect for the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., designed it. With typical frankness, Josephine proclaimed it was “a monument that Edward D. Stone built to himself—with my money.” 

The Graf house closely resembled the American embassy in India that Stone had designed. Like the embassy, the Dallas home was designed to deal with hot weather. The second story was shielded by what architects called a brise-soleil, a sniffy French word for a sun screen. Made of pure white terrazzo, the latticelike screen added to the house’s distinctive look. The Grafs’ bedroom was located behind the brise-soleil on the second floor. A ledge four and a half feet wide encircled the upper level. It was wide enough for a person to stand on while looking into the house, although no one anticipated that somebody would. 

The house was such a departure that newspaper accounts reported at length about its “Pompeiian splendor.” In awe, writers pointed out the master bedroom opened to a terrace three times the size of the bedroom itself. They marveled that the countertops in Josephine’s bathroom were white marble, and the walls were covered in pink silk fabric. A small kitchen adjoined the master suite, and several maid’s rooms were on the same floor. 

At a time when few people could afford swimming pools, the Grafs had an indoor swimming pool. Life magazine published photographs of the pool, pointing out that the water level could be lowered six inches to prevent dampening the furnishings when guests stepped in. The house became the talk of the town. 

By far, the most talked-about feature was the one-of-a-kind dining room. The dining table rested on a white marble slab surrounded by water four feet deep. The marble slab appeared to float miraculously on the water. 

Guests had to be careful not to make a splash as they walked to the table. But on many evenings, they did. According to one account, banker Fred Florence was helping the hostess to her chair when he backstepped into the water. His hosts borrowed a tux from a waiter so he could continue the dinner in good form. 

Falling into the drink at the Grafs’ became a status symbol. When oilman Clint Murchison tipped in one night, Effie Cain, the irrepressible wife of oilman Wofford Cain, jumped in to keep him company. 

Cocktail parties had become an integral part of socializing in Dallas. “There was a lot of drinking,” recalled one social insider. Tellingly, when party hostess Nancy Hamon lost a finger in a painful encounter with a blender, a prosthetic replacement had to be crafted. The designer asked what shape she preferred—bent, slightly bent, or straight. “Just make it look like I’m holding a drink,” she instructed. 

As the Grafs got ready for the Jewel Charity Ball, in Fort Worth, they had a “dressing drink,” maybe two, before heading downstairs. Their butler, a man of impeccable Swiss bearing, was waiting. He held open the door of their Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and eased the car out the side driveway. 

What the Grafs didn’t know as they pulled away from their golden home was that someone was watching from the shadows. A ten-foot-high wall protected the property, but apparently it was not high enough. 

That night, the Grafs stayed for the after-midnight dancing and drinks. By the time they got home, it was nearly three a.m. Because of the late hour, Josephine placed her jewelry in a dressing table drawer instead of the safe. She was tired. She went to bed. 

The next morning, Josephine Graf got up late. It was nearly noon. As she got dressed, she made a startling discovery: The jewels she’d worn the night before were not where she left them. They were gone. The best of her diamonds had disappeared. The diamond necklace. The earrings. The jeweled pin. And the 20.4-carat ring as big as the Alamo. 

The Graf’s famous floating dinner table.
The Graf’s famous floating dinner table.Jason Franzen

The thief apparently broke in while the Grafs were sleeping. To reach the jewels in her dressing area, he had to walk by their twin beds. He was close enough to hear the couple breathing. The intruder then tiptoed away with $215,000 in jewelry, the equivalent of $2.3 million today. 

When the Grafs called the Dallas police, word went hurriedly up the chain of command to Captain Walter Fannin, the head of the burglary and theft department. The minute he heard how much had been taken, Fannin put one of his top detectives—Paul McCaghren—on the case. 

A rising star, McCaghren had red hair and a John Wayne swagger. As a Marine in the Korean War, he survived the brutal battle at Chosin Reservoir in 1950. He didn’t like to talk about it; in fact, he wouldn’t talk about it. Records show temperatures plunged to more than 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The lubrication in rifles froze. Jeep batteries and radios failed. Syringes with morphine froze before the wounded could get relief. 

It was so cold that men huddled in front of the exhaust pipes of tanks to find warmth. The parkas and boots that the Pentagon had issued were no match for the sub-zero temperatures. When the men hunkered down under enemy fire or tried to sleep on the icy ground, their feet froze. Eighty-five percent of the soldiers who survived suffered from severe frostbite. McCaghren’s feet and legs were never the same, but police work seemed easy after that. 

When he made detective, McCaghren still had the build of a high school football player, with broad shoulders and big hands. He exuded raw masculine strength. If people asked how tall he was, McCaghren liked to say, “Seven foot five.” He actually was six foot three. He was a natural for police work because he had the kind of instinct a cop needs—a nose for larceny. And there was plenty of larceny around. 

McCaghren and Captain Fannin made a good team. Fannin’s no-nonsense demeanor tempered McCaghren’s bravado. At forty-five, Fannin had the wavy, silver-gray hair of a matinee star. His men called him Gray Top. He had started as a squad car policeman, which meant a lot of nights rounding up deadbeats and hopped-up soreheads who had knifed or shot somebody. In his nineteen years on the force, Fannin had seen life in the raw. 

His men generally respected and liked him. He had a seriousness that invited trust. Reporters described Fannin as even-tempered and well-spoken. One said he had a “gracious manner.” 

As head of the burglary department, Fannin insisted his detectives wear a suit and tie on the job. Some of the other departments allowed officers to wear Western string ties, cowboy hats, and boots. Not Captain Fannin. He wanted his detectives to look more professional. This was not easy for men who came from hardscrabble, rural backgrounds. They had to scrimp to buy suits on sale at Sears, often their first. 

Fannin was more fortunate. His wife, Betty, made hats at Neiman Marcus and was a gifted seamstress. She selected quality fabrics and hand-stitched new suits for him. He wanted to look like a man in charge, and he did. 

Because of Fannin’s strict dress code, his detectives resembled the cast of Dragnet when they walked up to the Graf house. On the TV show, tobacco-voiced Sergeant Joe Friday wore a suit and snap-brim hat as he tracked down criminals. Not to be outshone, the Dallas detectives wore fedoras with their suits and ties. They dressed like they thought cops were supposed to look, which meant they were easy to spot. 

Knowing they were in upscale territory, the cops nudged Lieutenant Tyree Leonard forward to ring the doorbell at the Graf house. They thought he would make the best impression because he had attended college for a few years and was a neat dresser. Besides that, he was good-looking, “like a tall Alan Ladd.” 

A man in a double-breasted suit answered the door. He had a foreign accent and a crisp, highly formal demeanor. After a confusing exchange about whether they were expected or not, Leonard wasn’t sure if he was talking to the owner of the house or the butler. He blurted out, “What are you?” 

“I’m Swiss,” Bruno Graf answered coolly. “What are you?” 

“I’m a lieutenant,” the flustered Leonard responded. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Swiss.” 

McCaghren winced as he remembered the moment many years later. “We were country bumpkins who didn’t realize that there was a society out there that was so strange to us.” 

And with that, the detectives crossed over the marble threshold of the Graf mansion and into a world that was nothing like the mean streets they usually patrolled.

Investigators Lieutenant Paul McCaghren (left) and Captain Walter Fannin on the hunt.
Investigators Lieutenant Paul McCaghren (left) and Captain Walter Fannin on the hunt. Jack Beers/Dallas Morning News

Josephine guided the detectives past the floating dining table, the eighteenth-century Chinese Fu dogs, the Ming lacquer armoire, and the Mondrians. Lieutenant Leonard, who had a habit of saying “Lovely, just lovely” about everything, whether it was a flat tire or a good meal, fell back on his favorite phrase as they walked through the house. 

Josephine took the detectives up the spiral staircase to her bedroom on the second floor. “They were right there,” she said, pointing to the dressing table. “Not all my jewels—just $215,000 worth—and now they are gone!” 

At the time, it was the biggest jewel theft in Dallas history. The most valuable item was the 20.4-carat diamond ring. The big stone was flanked by two large, square-cut diamonds. When one of the detectives heard how big the center stone was, he whistled and said, “That’s not a diamond, that’s a skating rink!” 

The burglar also took her platinum pin shaped like a bird on a twig. It contained 14 marquise diamonds and 269 other diamonds. On top of that, he grabbed several earrings and chokers, all studded with diamonds, plus a bracelet with 44 marquise diamonds, 114 diamond baguettes, and 7 round diamonds.

At first, police assumed the thief came in through the tall sliding glass doors on the first floor. Yet there was no sign the doors had been jimmied. Instead, to their surprise, the police found faint marks that showed the intruder had pried open a bathroom window on the second floor, near the Grafs’ bedroom. 

But that seemed impossible! To reach the window, the thief had to climb the ten-foot-high wall around the house and make a running leap to the ledge on the second floor. It was a remarkable feat. Yet waffle-sole shoe prints on the top of the wall confirmed someone had indeed run along the narrow wall, then vaulted through the air to the ledge. 

The intruder appeared to have carefully removed his shoes before entering the house. Vacuuming the carpet produced not a single trace of dirt. The thief must have walked through the master bedroom in his stocking feet while the couple slept nearby. 

The police could find no fingerprints. The burglar apparently wore gloves. He was as precise as a saboteur—and knew exactly where to look for the jewels that Josephine had taken off. She told police that she did not have on her hearing aids at the time, so she didn’t hear the thief, but she had a feeling he was inside her closet when they went to bed. 

“Isn’t that odd?” she said to no one in particular. 

McCaghren asked to use a phone so he could call Captain Fannin. This was no ordinary burglary. 

Rena Pederson is an award-winning journalist based in Austin. Her latest book, The King of Diamonds: The Search for the Elusive Texas Jewel Thief, is available April 9.