WOULD YOU BUY A USED RESTAURANT FROM THIS WOMAN?
part 2 of 2
Chiffon began studying classical piano at age twelve, "kind of old to do a career in music," she says. But she loved it--and she excelled. "I did seven years' worth of lessons in two years," she says. "I can go to any city any time and get a job playing piano immediately. I am talented." And that's true. Her aptly titled, self-produced CD Moods reveals a pianist with a flair for drama--most of the songs have an ocean or rain-shower background--and a delicate, if somber, style.
This praise is echoed, albeit begrudgingly, even by those who feel Chiffon has done them wrong. "She is good. Too good," says Ann Williams, who let Chiffon stay at her apartment off and on for several months. "She would play my answering machine without my knowing it and steal gigs from me. But at least she always did a good job."
Williams teaches piano and is about to receive her master's degree in piano pedagogy from the University of Denver. She began studying classical piano at age four in San Francisco, a city she loved but left to come to Denver. Chiffon was the first friend she made in town.
They met in February 1993 at the Firefly Cafe, which at the time offered a free meal and a bottle of wine to anyone who played the piano for two hours. One night while Williams ate her dinner, she heard Chiffon playing Autumn Leaves. "I realized later that I had heard her play it before," Williams says. "I asked her if she'd ever played at the Brown Derby in Los Angeles, and she said yes. I couldn't believe it--my father had taken me to hear her play. I'll never forget her version of Autumn Leaves."
Williams says she and Chiffon hit it off immediately because of their shared music background. Since they knew some of the same people, they ran into each other frequently, but it wasn't until an unexpected snow hit in September 1993 that they became real friends. "It was freezing out, and Chiffon called me, crying," Williams recalls. "She said that she was out in the street with no place to stay, and she asked me if I could loan her some money. I told her I didn't have any money, which certainly was true, but that I did have a couch."
That time Chiffon stayed for five days, but gradually she moved in. "Chiffon is a whirlwind," Williams says. "She would be there for a few days and then I wouldn't hear from her for a week." In February 1994 Williams decided to buy a house with her fiance, and Chiffon said she wanted to take over the lease on the apartment. Not long after, Chiffon signed another lease, the one for the International building, and moved into its basement. It was then that Williams got a call from the phone company.
"Chiffon had stolen my Social Security number and used it to get a phone set up at a succession of apartments--places I've never lived at. She had the bills sent to a mail pick-up place on Garrison, so I never saw them. She ran up $1,700 worth of phone bills, and the phone company never got paid. But my name was on the bill, so they came after me," says Williams, who has since filed charges of criminal impersonation against Chiffon. "Now my credit rating is screwed."
When Williams confronted Chiffon about the charges, Chiffon wrote her a check for $450--on a closed account.
Today all Chiffon will say is that Williams gave her permission to put the phone in her name. And Williams admits that she agreed to let Chiffon put the apartment phone in Chiffon's name when Williams bought a house. But that's all she gave her permission to do, Williams says. "She knew I was going to use the lines," Chiffon reiterates. "She is going to get her money. First, though, I have to get some."
Money wasn't always such a problem for Chiffon. She was born July 27, 1934, on the island of Martinique, a French territory in the Caribbean, to an American father and a French mother. There is no mistaking the French nose--long, aristocratic--but the remnants of her once-harsh beauty have softened into sixty-year-old skin and the paunch of childbirth times four.
She comes to an interview the day after bonding out of Denver County Jail on first-degree-forgery charges--she served eleven days and managed to have her bail reduced from $5,000 to $2,500 because she is homeless--with three people. Randy Wren, a public-relations specialist for area fundraisers, is there as a character witness. He says that "Chiffon is generous to a fault. She is one of the finest entertainers I have ever known and, for that matter, one of the finest human beings. She is an asset to this state." Burt Weir, a friend of Chiffon's for many years, obviously is there to protect her. He says he finds the fact that Westword is doing a story on Chiffon "appalling." He has been identified by several people as Chiffon's "gofer," but both he and Chiffon deny that he has ever done any of her dirty work. The third person is Robert Allen, an attorney who may or may not defend her in the Fort Collins case--he's not telling.
Chiffon is wearing a bright-red blouse and a multicolored scarf and carries a leather pouch stuffed with papers. It's easy to see why so many people have fallen for her stories--she is tolerably brash, quick-witted and, despite the fact that her French accent is hanging on for dear life, eloquent. She also is adept at retaining just enough of the truth to be believable. "This is all that I have left," she says, patting the pouch. "I've been reduced to this." Just prior to being arrested, she had been staying at the Cascade Hills Motel in Cascade; a motel spokesman says she left all her belongings behind and owes them $350. "I am no stranger to hard times," Chiffon says. "I have been homeless before. When I was first divorced and I had my children, we slept on the floor."
That was a long way from her childhood. Chiffon's father was a wealthy businessman and the American vice-consul to Martinique from 1926 to 1937--or at least, some man named Schausten was; her mother is a French marquise who lives in Versailles. A former close friend of Chiffon's who asks to remain nameless--she's one of several people who say they fear retaliation from Chiffon if they are identified in this story--suggests that while Chiffon's childhood was rife with material rewards, it was lacking in love. Chiffon, however, paints a happier picture. "As a child, I grew up with the best. I had the best and I'm used to the best," she says. "I was driven to school by a chauffeur. I had everything I wanted. I was very fortunate that, because my parents were in this wonderful position, I had the education that I had."
The family traveled extensively because of her father's work, and they threw frequent parties. "My parents would entertain four, five, six hundred people every night," Chiffon says. "And because of his position, he was entertaining the world. That is where I learned the food business." As a youngster she spent her evenings darting in and out of the kitchen watching the preparations, her curiosity pushing her to pester the cooks and beg them to let her help.
"I became a good chef, too," she says. "And I can make a lot of money doing that. I learned to cook in many countries. I've lived in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, North Africa. My father passed away in 1943, my mother remarried, and my stepfather ended up being a vice-admiral in the French navy. So we traveled the world.
"I was very, very fortunate. Very fortunate."
Just when things changed for her is unclear. Chiffon moved to the United States, to Chicago, in 1958, married and bore four children. That first marriage ended in divorce; she then married Prager, who would not allow his first name to be used in this story. He says they divorced "fifteen or sixteen years ago" and adds that they were married and divorced twice. "When I met her, she could charm the bird off a tree. My, she was charming. Of course, you don't know about a person until you live with them," Prager adds.
He's since spent a lot of time thinking about Chiffon and wondering why she turned out the way she did. "I believe her problems started because she wanted her children to have it all," he says. "Our years together weren't easy. I helped her raise those four children, and it's sad, because I know two of them won't talk to her anymore. Really, she's a hell of a woman, and she loves her children. She was as good a mother as I've ever heard of.
"She had a good life as a youngster," he adds, "and then kind of fell on hard times after her first marriage. The thing is that when most people are in that kind of situation, they tighten their belts and eat beans until it passes.
"Chiffon would never eat beans."
Prager thinks that writing bad checks became a hard habit for Chiffon to break, and he says many people who loved her--including himself--tried to get her to seek psychiatric help. But she never did, even though she admits she has a problem. "I blame the system," she says. "You have your Alcoholics Anonymous, you have your drugs anonymous, even rapists get rehab in jail. But there is nothing, nothing for bad-check writers.
"When I got out of jail, it was, `Goodbye, Chiffon, don't write any more bad checks.'"
"I wish all I had was a few bad checks from her," says Denise Hovey, who owns Hollywood Hair Design on East Exposition Avenue. At one time her operation was big enough for her to employ a skin therapist named Jay, who refused to talk with Westword. Hovey says Jay met Chiffon at Butterfield 8 and invited her to the salon. Last July 2 Chiffon appeared with a friend and asked Hovey to cut and color her hair; the friend had her skin treated. Chiffon paid for both services with a check from a closed account. Before Hovey discovered that, though, Chiffon had already given her a story about an uncle in Chicago who made investments. "She told me he said things were going well, and that he had a sure thing," Hovey says. "She said I would be able to double my money in fifteen days. I've always worked so hard for everything, and she seemed to know what she was talking about.
"All my life I've worked seventy, eighty hours a week to make ends meet. At the time when I met Chiffon, I was trying desperately to think positively. So when she said she could invest my money, I thought, `Why not me?'
"And why not me, damn it?"
Hovey withdrew a $5,000 cash advance from her Visa in two increments, giving Chiffon checks each time. Chiffon signed a note saying she would pay Hovey $10,000 on July 17. Hovey has yet to see a dime. "The reason Chiffon gets away with this shit all the time is that she does that `two for one' deal, and no one will come forward because they're afraid they'll get caught doing something illegal. But mine wasn't that way--her uncle was supposed to be an investor or something, and he was good at it," Hovey says. "Now my life is all messed up.
"One time I asked Chiffon if she was my angel, and she just looked at me and said, `No, I'm just the opposite.' It's the only time Chiffon ever told me the truth."
Hovey has had to downsize her business, cutting the shop she owns into thirds and taking in rentals. She was almost unable to buy a car because her credit card was maxed out; she has spoken with the police, who told her the case was civil, not criminal. But she doesn't have the money to pay for a lawsuit.
"Do you know how fast interest charges accumulate on a $5,000 cash advance?" Hovey says. "The worst part is, I totally lost my self-respect for being so stupid. I'm determined to make 1995 the complete opposite of 1994."
Hovey did try one last time to get her money back--the day Chiffon was arrested at the International. When she arrived at the restaurant, Hovey met Gottdenker and Richter, who were watching Chiffon being taken away. They looked like they had just been shot. "We started to talk to each other," she remembers, "and then all of us realized maybe one of us was on Chiffon's side. So we stopped talking. Then we looked at each other again and realized we had all been screwed."
The International wasn't Chiffon's first restaurant. "I had a restaurant in Miami, and I had some financial problems," she says. "People were stealing out of the restaurant, and I ended up having out $2,800 in checks that I couldn't cover. They hit the district attorney's office all at once, and--bam! There I was, in trouble again."
According to the Metro-Dade County police department in Miami, Chiffon was arrested thirteen times--sometimes only months apart--from March 1976 through July 1982 for issuing worthless checks. She was convicted in 1980 for felony forgery and served a twelve-month sentence. Six months later she was arrested again, this time for 52 counts of writing worthless checks, for which she received a felony conviction and a ten-year sentence.
Chiffon now claims the whole problem rested with her probation officer, who she says never posted her restitution, which led the judge to throw the book at her. "I am glad this is finally coming to light," she says. "Judge [Bruce] Levy gave me six months' probation, during which time he said I had to make restitution. I paid the whole amount in three months. But the court clerk told him he had not received a penny from me, and the judge said `ten years.'"
Five of those years were for violating probation on the 1980 conviction, and five were for failing to make restitution. But Chiffon served only seventeen months.
"Thank God for the State of Florida," she says. "They have a fantastic system. They have what's called `incentive time,' where if you work eight hours a day, they reduce your sentence." She never filed a complaint against the probation officer, Chiffon adds, because it would have taken three years. "I had just served seventeen months. What did I need to waste my time on that for? The whole thing came down to, if I hadn't been arrested, then the restaurant would have been a success. That's always the problem."
And the problem arose again a few years later after Chiffon moved to Colorado and hooked up with a restaurant in Lakewood. Her felony conviction in 1987 for attempted forgery and fraud stemmed from incidents at the former Borquez Mexican Restaurant, at 9822 West Girton Drive. According to the Jefferson County Court case report, Chiffon, using the name "Marjorie Stoughton," signed a contract with the owner, James L. Borquez, to purchase the restaurant within six months of October 3, 1985, and to manage it during that six-month period.
Before the six months were up, however--and after Chiffon had changed the restaurant's name to La Casserole--Lakewood police arrested Chiffon for investigation of writing worthless checks that totaled $5,013.12. On February 16, 1986, Richard Israel filed a report with the Lakewood Department of Public Safety, relating how he had been told by Marjorie Stoughton that Borquez was willing to sell his restaurant for $5,000 in cash. Stoughton asked to borrow the money, Israel reported, saying she could repay him when funds arrived from France. He gave her the money in exchange for a contract she signed stating that "in the event that payment is not made within 5 days of due date Marjorie Stoughton agrees to transfer licenses including liquor license of the Borquez Restaurant to Richard S. Israel for payment of loan." In his statement, Israel said that Stoughton gave him two checks, each for $2,500, that were drawn on closed accounts. He also said he had tried repeatedly to collect and was finally told that since Stoughton did not own the restaurant and Borquez had never received the money, he would have no recourse but to take Stoughton to civil court. Israel is on record as having identified Chiffon as Stoughton in a photographic lineup.
Neither Israel nor Borquez could be reached for comment. Chiffon would say only that she often signs things that are put in front of her without reading them. "I never look at what I sign," she says. "It's a very bad thing I have done my whole life. I happen to trust people, and then look what happens." What happened in the Borquez case was that Chiffon skipped bail two days after her arrest and resurfaced several months later in New Jersey, where she was arrested and convicted in Jefferson Township for various misdemeanor forgery and theft charges. She was then sent back to Colorado, where she was sentenced to eight years and served four.
Chiffon came off parole in May 1993. She spent several months delighting customers with her piano playing at the Radisson, but she couldn't get restaurants out of her system. And so she opened the International in April 1994. "I can make restaurants work, I am telling you," Chiffon says. "Yes, I know I have done some bad things. I am bad and I am good. In all of these instances I have written bad checks, but I tried to make them good.
"I don't write bad checks with the intention of hurting anyone. And I always pay. All of these people, they will get their money. They will be paid."
Gottdenker and Richter have given up any hope that they will ever see their $18,500 again. "We are just trying to keep our relationship going," Richter says. "We've been through a lot with this whole ordeal, and while we're not sure how we're going to replace that money, we're also worried about working things out between us."
After Chiffon was arrested, the couple had plunged in and tried to make the restaurant a success. They changed the name to B.J. Dunwoody's, after the famous Denver soap manufacturer, and Richter took another $50,000 out of her retirement account to make such improvements as painting the walls, upgrading the kitchen equipment and replacing the furniture. Gottdenker worked sixty-hour weeks overseeing the operation, and Richter spent every spare minute outside of her regular job at the restaurant. But in the end, they could not keep it up, and on December 23 the Original Chubby's took over the lease.
"Now we just want to see justice done," says Gottdenker.
So does Fort Collins deputy district attorney Mitch Murray, who is prosecuting the case for Mary Davis, the elderly woman who thought she was buying an interest in Lautrec's. Murray says that once he gets a conviction on that case, he intends to try Chiffon on Colorado's habitual-criminal law, which ups the ante for those with three felony convictions in the state. In Chiffon's case, this would carry a 36-year sentence. "That would put her at age ninety," Murray says. "Which could mean the end of all this."
Chiffon, however, isn't worried. "If the Man Up There doesn't want me in jail," she says, rolling her eyes heavenward, "then no jury, no judge, no one is going to put me back in jail. But if that's where He wants me, that's where I'll go." At the moment, she's more concerned about Moods, the compact disc she just recorded of the music she's spent many years writing. She fears that publicity about the upcoming trial will erase her chances at stardom. "I can get this going and sell a million copies easily," she says.
"All I need is $2,900."
end of part 2
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