She went from being “Broadway’s hottest producer” to “one of the cleverest and most successful white-collar criminals in the history of this state.”
The Broadway producer Adela Holzer at her arraignment on fraud charges in Manhattan Criminal Court in 1989.The New York Times
In 1975, in the dining room of her East 72nd Street townhouse, Adela Holzer was interviewed by a reporter for The New York Times, who later declared her “Broadway’s hottest producer.”
The same year, People magazine described her as “a strong-willed 41-year-old Spanish-born redhead” (the age was quite a bit off) who “has what it takes — money, taste and, perhaps most important, a willingness to back new plays to the hilt, take a bath and still try again.”
The theater world was smitten. At a time when almost all producers were men, Ms. Holzer, a shipping magnate’s glamorous, self-possessed European wife, had two hits on Broadway: “All Over Town,” a farce by Murray Schisgal about a psychiatrist, directed by Dustin Hoffman, and “The Ritz,” Terrence McNally’s bathhouse comedy, which brought Rita Moreno a Tony Award. Ms. Holzer was also a producer of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest import, “Sherlock Holmes.”
Determined and confident about working only on worthy productions, she told The Times, “I have three college degrees, and I know if something is good.”
Two years later, Ms. Holzer was bankrupt. Two years after that, she was in prison, convicted of seven counts of grand larceny.
Over the next three decades, she spent a total of 14 years behind bars for schemes that involved European land deals, oil wells, international car dealerships, immigration scams and an imaginary marriage to a Rockefeller.
Ms. Holzer died on Sept. 1 in Boca Raton, Fla. She was somewhere between 90 and 95. The death, which was not reported at the time, was confirmed this week by her son Carlos Castresana, with whom she had lived in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.
The Wall Street Journal once compared Ms. Holzer to Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional social climber — mysterious, elegant and doomed. In 1979, a writer for The Washington Post had another author in mind.
“Adela Holzer might have sprung from a Harold Robbins novel,” he observed. “There is simply no other way to explain her.”
Ms. Holzer with Dustin Hoffman in 1974. She was a producer of “All Over Town,” a farce by Murray Schisgal, which Mr. Hoffman directed.John Soto/The New York Times
In the same article, Mark Tepper, who prosecuted Ms. Holzer’s 1979 case as an assistant New York attorney general, called her “one of the cleverest and most successful white-collar criminals in the history of this state.”
Ms. Holzer’s theater career began when she invested in the Broadway production of “Hair,” the blazingly original counterculture musical that ran for four years after its move from an Off Broadway theater in 1968. Magazine and newspaper articles recounted her good fortune, turning a $57,000 investment into more than $2 million. New York magazine later reported that she had put in only about $7,500 and earned $115,000 or so.
Whatever the exact numbers were, Ms. Holzer was inspired to do more theatrical investing. Her next shows included hits like “Lenny” and “Sleuth.” But she wanted to be a hands-on producer, not just a signer of checks. One of her first efforts, “Dude,” a 1972 musical by two of the creators of “Hair,” bombed with a vengeance, closing after 16 performances. But she persisted.
In 1975, she was riding high. Then she wasn’t. By the next spring, she had produced three new Broadway flops: The Scott Joplin opera “Treemonisha” held on for almost two months, but both “Truckload” and “Me Jack, You Jill” closed in previews. She followed those with “Something Old, Something New,”starring Hans Conried and the Yiddish theater star Molly Picon; it closed on opening night, Jan. 1, 1977.
At that point, theater was the least of Ms. Holzer’s problems. She had declared bankruptcy seven weeks earlier. She had been arrested on fraud charges over the summer and was free on $50,000 bail, awaiting the first of the three criminal trials that would shape the rest of her life.
The indictment, which finally came in 1979, was for a classic Ponzi scheme: paying her earliest victims “profits,” which were really just funds from her next group of investors, and so on. One of those early investors was Jeffrey Picower, who was later implicated in the Bernie Madoff scandal, a much larger Ponzi scheme.
Ms. Holzer was offering shares not in theater productions but in a Toyota dealership in Indonesia and real estate in Spain. At the time, she insisted that she could have cleared things up if she had been allowed to travel to Indonesia. (Her passport had been taken away.)
Ms. Holzer served two years (1981-83) in state prison. Her lawyer was Roy Cohn.
In the late 1980s, she attempted a comeback with “Senator Joe,” a pop opera about Joseph McCarthy. (Mr. Cohn had been his right-hand man in pursuing suspected Communists in government.) But the show never opened, partly because of financial problems.
She was soon arrested again, on grand larceny charges. It was revealed that she had told numerous associates that their investments — in oil and mineral deals — had been guaranteed by the banker David Rockefeller, to whom she claimed to be secretly married. That lie was bolstered by at least one fake marriage license and by a framed silver photo of him at her bedside. It was later reported that the photo had been clipped from a magazine.
When detectives approached her on East 43rd Street to make the arrest, she ran and had to be caught and pinned on a car hood to be handcuffed. She thought the three detectives were muggers, she said later.
As part of a plea deal, she acknowledged guilt on one count of larceny and was sentenced to four to eight years. She served four (1990-94).
Things had changed in 2001, when she was arrested yet again, this time charged with 39 counts of fraud. At the time, she was using a different surname, Rosian — she was living with a man named Vladimir Rosian on the Upper West Side — and the stakes were much lower. She had been charging immigrants $2,000 to $2,700 each, falsely telling them that she had influence on immigration legislation and could help them gain permanent resident status.
This time she was sentenced to nine to 18 years. When she was released in June 2010, she was in her 80s.
Even behind bars, Ms. Holzer sought the spotlight. In 1981 she acted as a spokeswoman for her cell-block neighbor Jean Harris, who was serving a minimum of 15 years for the murder of her lover, Herman Tarnower, known as the Scarsdale diet doctor. After a review of a book criticizing Ms. Harris appeared in The Times, Ms. Holzer wrote a letter to the editor vouching for Ms. Harris’s character.
Ms. Holzer’s resistance to truth telling apparently knew no boundaries. “If she told me the sun was shining, I’d go out to look — and I’d take an umbrella,” Michael Alpert, who had been her theatrical public relations representative, told Vanity Fair in 1991.
She was born Adela Sánchez (her middle name may have been María; she used it in more than one alias) in Madrid on Dec. 14 — possibly in 1928, although her death certificate said 1923. As New York magazine reported in 1989, her father, Felipe, was an engineer, not a rich industrialist, as she had told her new American friends. Her mother, Beatriz, was not a member of the Guinness brewing family, as Ms. Holzer had claimed.
Ms. Holzer always said that she arrived in the United States in 1954, alone and pregnant, escaping an early marriage, and that was true. Even the details, about having arrived on the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth and traveling first class, are documented. (According to Cunard’s records, she was born in 1926.) The part she didn’t mention was that the marriage — to Juan Castresana, an insurance company executive — had already lasted nine years, and that she was leaving her first three sons behind.
The story she told journalists about her early years in New York was that she had worked as an interpreter at the United Nations and taught Spanish literature at Columbia University, but no records of those jobs could be found. She later began dabbling in commodities — or so she said.
In 1955, according to The Washington Post, she was charged with grand larceny for forging a Spanish notary stamp on a $3,000 note. In 1963, according to Vanity Fair, she was arrested after offering sex to an undercover police officer for $25. The charges were dismissed in both cases.
That was after her second marriage (believed to have begun in 1957), to Walter Jan Duschinsky, a Czech physicist, with whom she had a son. She was widowed in 1961, when he died in an automobile accident. In 1968 she married Peter A. Holzer, president of his family’s shipping business. They divorced in 1979, the year of her first trial.
In addition to her son Mr. Castresana, her survivors include another son, Arnim Holzer.
“I think people care more for me than I care for them,” Ms. Holzer said matter-of-factly during the Vanity Fair interview. “People say I’m cold. I don’t think I’m cold.” She just didn’t let herself “get too close to people,” she said.
Ms. Holzer insisted that she never held grudges and that she had developed thick skin after her many difficulties. Her public behavior suggested otherwise, but it did evolve.
In 1979, at the end of her first trial, reporters mentioned that she was in tears as she was led away. In 2002, at the end of her third trial, The Associated Press reported that as Ms. Holzer left the courtroom she had one final message for the prosecutor:
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