The Grand Central Information Booth scam, 1929
Sometimes I stumble on stories that seem too good to be true and I bring this one to your attention with some trepidation as the jury is out as to whether it really happened or not. However, the New York Central Railroad attested it in their brochure about the architectural wonder that is the Grand Central station in the late 1960s and in the absence of anything to the contrary, that’s good enough for me.
The marks in this scam were two Italian entrepreneurs, Tony and Nick Fortunato (or not so, as it turned out) who ran the Fortunato Fruit Company. In early 1929 their premises were visited by a well-dressed man from the Grand Central Holding Corporation, called T Remington Grenfall. He had an astonishing proposition for them. The information booth that was in the central of the hall was going to be closed down and travellers would have to get travel information from the ticket desks. The reason, he cited, was that too many members of the public were asking stupid questions and the central position of the booth was disrupting the flow of people to the platforms.
What this meant was that there was an amazing piece of prime real estate available for rent to the first merchants who recognised the gold mine that the opportunity was. The Fortunatos fell for it, hook, line and sinker.
In order to secure the site which was directly underneath the Golden Clock, the Fortunatos had to come up with a year’s rent in advance, a cool $100,000. The next day the brothers visited the Grand Central Holding Corporation offices, next door to the station (natch), and handed over the money to the so-called President, one Wilson A Blodgett. In return they received a contract which stated that on 1st April 1929 (April Fools’ Day, note) they were entitled to take possession of the space.
When 1st April arrived, the Fortunatos, accompanied by a number of workers and a large amount of timber, walked into the hall of the station to take possession of their spot, as per the contract. Imagine their surprise, then, when they saw that not only was the information booth still in situ but that it was manned and operating as normal. The employees manning the booth refused to leave their posts and, worse still, the Fortunatos were requested to leave. Inevitably, the station denied all knowledge of any plan to rent out space in the hall and refused to honour the contract the increasingly frustrated Fortunato’s waved in their face.
Eventually, it dawned on the Italians that they had been had and their next recourse was to go to the police. Despite an exhaustive search, neither hide nor hair of Messrs Grenfall and Blodgett was ever seen and the Fortunatos were forced to write off their loss to experience. When something seems to good to be true, it generally is.
But Grand Central had not seen the last of the Fortunatos. Every now and again they would return to the station and intimidate the poor folk working in the information booths and shout at railway officials. So notorious was their behaviour that people would often go to the station on spec just to see whether the Italians would turn up and put on a show.