It’s not hard to imagine her 65 years ago, in 1952, when she took to the burlesque stage as Hope Diamond. She was 17.
Framed black-and-white glossies of the “Gem of Exotica” line the staircase and have pride of place in her front parlor. Her Victorian home is an homage to that sparkling era when Vaudeville was still warm in the grave. In our virtual age, the glitz and glitter of high camp can seem as gray and cobwebbed as a set for the Munsters.
I’m standing on her front porch on a beautiful July afternoon because Leona Beldini is back in the limelight. On May 11 of this year, she’d resurfaced, making a guest appearance at the Kennedy Dancers Jersey City Follies 40th anniversary gala.
At the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre event, she offered a thumbnail sketch of her career in burlesque.
Yes, she was born in Jersey, but not in the “Snookie” mode that the phrase Jersey Girl evokes. The place? The Coppermine Farms. The family? Poor, alcoholic, and abusive. The dream? To get out of Dodge. “I started out with nothing but looks, guts, and a tremendous need to get free,” she says.
We sit in her kitchen at a high table. She suffers from sciatica and shows me a large plastic bag filled with medications to ease the pain. “I might have to lie down on the floor,” she says.
As I wade into her backstory, she waves a bejeweled hand at some typed pages. “It’s all there.” She’s accustomed to interviewers—and to blowing them off.
But I’m here, I remind her. We soldier on.
Soon after completing a modeling course at Grace Downs in New York City, she landed a job modelling coats and suits. She was so successful that a life-size cutout of her towered above Times Square. But what capsized her modeling career is what launched her burlesque career: “At only 5-6 with an hourglass figure, I was not lanky enough for fashion photography.”
She may not have been skinny, but she was seductive.
In 1952, she found herself on stage at the Hudson Theater in Union City after answering an ad for “Show Girls Wanted, No Experience Necessary.”
Almost immediately she was “standing on a pedestal, draped in chiffon.”
The whistles and shouts were “intoxicating.”
Latin Quarter choreographer Paul Marakoff “had me pick up a phone and put it back 1,000 times just to have fluid arm movements,” she recalls. “The first time he saw me walk across the stage he told me I walked like I had an oil can up my ass.”
That, apparently, was a compliment. The strut soon made her a headliner.
She worked Atlantic City’s Gayety Theatre in summers, “exposing as much as possible” when on the beach “to prevent suntan lines, for which we were fined.”
Neil Kendall of the Burlesque Hall of Fame says, “She was the classic peeler, a parade stripper who took her time to remove her wardrobe.” She was famous for her Rhapsody in Blue bubble bath routine. Hope Diamond soon was born, traveling from Canada to San Francisco and everywhere in between, “escaping from reality and becoming who I am today.”
Spouses and Houses
We skim over the highlights: Failed marriages and relationships offset by rewarding parenting. She was a single mother who raised two successful children.
Her years in burlesque prepared her for a career in business. “You have to show up on time and be professional.”
Owning a beach bar in St. Petersburg, Florida, didn’t do it for her, but owning houses did. She loves houses and owns two, including an 1860 gem in Bradley Beach. She went for her real-estate license and still collects rents on income properties in Jersey City.
In fact, as our interview morphs into a conversation, she relaxes enough to open her mail while we talk. It’s exciting mail. She stacks her rent checks like Monopoly money.
As the conversation turns to government, she asks my opinion of the current political scene. My answers aren’t important, but the fact that she’s interested in people and what they think says a lot about who she is and what she’s become.
A stint on Jersey City’s Rent Leveling Board led to a gig as deputy mayor in the Healy administration. Appointed in November 2004, her job was to represent the mayor at ribbon-cuttings, flag-raisings, and speaking engagements; to officiate at weddings, and work with the Women of Action awards. She served without pay on the city’s economic development agency. Her resume in burlesque and business prepared her well for this working-with-people job description.
She was also the treasurer for Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s re-election campaign.
You Can’t Fight City Hall
The woman sitting across from me at her kitchen table, a little wry, a little distracted, opening mail, surfing the web, and strolling down memory lane is not the woman I saw in newspaper images in 2010, face lined, glasses tinted, bleached and bloated, grim and afraid, clinging to the arm of her bow-tied attorney.
In February of that year, she was convicted of bribery as part of a vast FBI investigation into political corruption. By April she was Prisoner No. 30118-50 at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Fort Worth, Texas, where she spent 28 months.
Back then, she refused an interview. I’d waited seven years to hear her side of the story.
The broad outlines of the sting, known as Operation Bid Rig, are well documented. Our own Hudson Reporter won awards for our piece, “Dining with Dwek.” Here’s the deal in a nutshell:
In July 2009, a number of high-level New Jersey elected officials were arrested. Hudson County officials included Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, Secaucus Mayor Denis Elwell, former Assemblyman and unsuccessful mayoral candidate Louis Manzo, Jersey City councilman Mariano Vega, and Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini.
After the arrest, Mayor Healy suspended Beldini from the $66,154-a-year deputy mayor gig.
This phase of the investigation was known as Operation Bid Rig III. Real-estate developer Solomon Dwek, after being arrested and charged with $50 million in bank fraud, agreed to be a cooperating witness for the FBI.
A Hudson County developer introduced Dwek to a slew of public officials, mayoral and council candidates, and their sidekicks.
Beldini, 74 at the time, was the first of some 44 people arrested to take her chances with a jury. Her trial was scheduled for Monday, Jan. 25, 2010.
She was accused of taking $20,000 in shadowy contributions as Healy’s campaign treasurer.
Five candidates were running for Jersey City mayor. It was a close race, and Dwek appeared to have deep pockets, with plenty of holes.
As part of the sting, Dwek claimed to be building a luxury condo project on Garfield Avenue and was looking for insiders who could streamline the approval process. He was wired by the FBI in meetings which took place in local diners.
According to transcripts, Dwek said he wanted a zoning change and did not want his application to go “to the bottom of the pile.”
The transcript has Beldini saying, “Well, we can flip the pile.” Authorities alleged that Beldini, in her capacity as Realtor, was angling to be the broker for the condominium project. Dwek states, “You’re my person.”
In these soda-jerk meetings, Dwek was offering thousands to the Jersey City Democratic Committee and to Healy’s campaign. Beldini is heard to say, “Perfect.”
Beldini retained noted Hudson County defense attorney Brian Neary. (We ran a profile of him in the Winter 2016/17 issue of this magazine.)
Neary filed a motion the week of Jan. 18, 2010, seeking to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the government’s investigative tactics were unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Jose Linares was having none of it. The trial went forward, and the rest is history.
She was sentenced to three years in prison—she served 28 months—and fined $30,000.
In attempting to avoid prison, Beldini told the judge that she was “afraid,” and Neary—who does not discuss his clients for publication—told the judge she was suffering from a number of health problems.
Again, no go. She surrendered on April 15, 2012.
Back at the kitchen table, Beldini says that the condominium project on Garfield that Dwek was supposedly developing “was too big a project for me. I couldn’t do it.” Beldini says she had worked in a “well-known mom-and-pop real-estate” outfit.
“I was thrown under the bus,” she maintains. “People in power should have protected me. It was a setup. People in government set me up.”
The Book of Jerramiah
A few years ago, a ramshackle bar stood at Newark and Sixth in the shadow of the NJ Turnpike overpass. The sign, “Sheila’s,” hung at a rakish angle from the roof. In 2011, Patrick Healy bought it; Healy’s Tavern became a thriving neighborhood watering hole.
That’s where I meet his father, former Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy. When I arrive, he’s drinking with a friend and buys me a cold one. Full disclosure: I’ve been known to frequent this friendly pub.
“She’s eaten up by the fact that she never took a dime,” Healy says of his former deputy mayor. Healy wants to put the whole Bid Rig III operation in context. “This was a vehicle for Christie to clean up state government,” he says. “Mr. Clean was going to rid the state of corruption, mostly Democrats.”
Christopher Christie was appointed to the U.S. Attorney for the district of New Jersey by President George W. Bush, serving from 2002 until 2008.
“The media was complicit,” Healy says, claiming they gave the “Hudson County sweep a pat on the back.”
I ask if he thinks Beldini got a fair trial. He says that the media fed the jury pool the narrative that “elected officials and politicians were filthy and corrupt.”
He says there should have been a change of venue. “The publicity went beyond Hudson County to the United States.” I can attest to this. Lawyers in my family were calling from Boston and Denver to ask me about it. “It was a terrible time to go on trial for political corruption,” Healy says. “There was hysteria. It was a media circus. It was like the Salem Witch Trials, like McCarthy and the Communists.”
You Have the Right to an Attorney…
Healy himself is a criminal defense attorney. At the time, Beldini asked his advice. She could cop a plea or go to trial. Insisting on her innocence, “She wanted to control her destiny and go to trial,” Healy says.
In the current political climate, incendiary comments by Donald Trump and his minions have been spun as jokes. Short-lived Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci blew off his profanity-laced tirade to The New Yorker as a joke, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders characterized as a joke Trump’s challenge to cops that they treat prisoners roughly.
That’s how Healy sees Beldini’s “top of the pile” remark, noting that she was laughing as she said it, and, “She had no power to grant what he was seeking. She was not on the Board of Adjustments. She was in no position to deliver any of that.”
Beldini floats the notion that her dapper, high-profile lawyer “did a lousy job. He never prepped me for the judge, and he was grandstanding for himself.”
Healy disagrees. “Neary is an experienced, successful lawyer who did the best he could,” he says. “It was an uphill battle, and she was strung up in the media.”
Neary managed to get her acquitted of four of six charges; she was found guilty of taking bribes.
Life in the Big House
Beldini’s prison term was longer than that of many of the other defendants. “Everybody else worked out deals,” Healy says. “Most gave information to the feds. Leona got 28 months at taxpayers’ expense; they took an individual off the streets, she closed her business, she was in her 70s and on ice for almost three years, and she’s a felon who can’t vote.”
Beldini did jail time, he says, for an ethical violation, not a federal one.
Prison, Beldini says, was “horrible. It was hard on my family and me. I was hospitalized three or four times for heart problems. All I cared about was that I would not die in prison.”
The digs sounded like those in the hit slammer-rama Orange is the New Black. “It was a room with about 12 or 15 cubicles,” Beldini relates. “I have two beautiful homes, and I was living in a cubicle. It was one long room with a bed against a locker.”
But, like another high-profile, white-collar inmate, Beldini did good deeds in prison. While Martha Stewart taught her fellow cons how to knit afghans, Beldini was “a mom to so many girls. It was so sad. The kids there were young. They didn’t come from much, and I would try to counsel them.”
The three-squares were not much to write home about, either. “I ate very little,” she says. “I’d buy food in the commissary. I lived on tuna fish and hard-boiled eggs. I got through one day at a time. I read 200 books. I read anything I could get my hands on. My daughter would send books; my niece sent magazines.”
One of Beldini’s prison mates was another well-known Stewart: prominent defense attorney Lynne Stewart who landed in the slammer for, among other things, providing material support to terrorists, in this case her client, “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, convicted for his part in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Stewart worked pro bono for girls on the inside.
Back on the Boards
Diane Dragone, artistic director of the Kennedy Dancers, reports that Beldini was “gorgeous, poised, and professional” in her champagne gown at the Loew’s. The audience was rapt and gave her a standing ovation. “Older gentlemen” wanted to get to know her better.
While Beldini told me that “men in politics suck,” that’s not her last word on the “intoxicating” business of politics. Dozens of politicians took the stage that night. Jerry Healy harmonized with Tom DeGise and Billy O’Dea on the 1930s hit, “I Found a Million Dollar Baby.”
“I don’t want to be angry anymore,” Beldini says. That’s the Beldini I witnessed—an elegant woman of a certain age, at peace with past, present, and future.
A memoir is in the works. She asks me if she should call it “No Experience Necessary” or “Saving Hope.”—JCM.