Wild, Wild West

On a steamy Manhattan day in August 1977, a 36-year-old business wunderkind arrived at the liquidation auction of Robert Hall clothing stores defiantly mod in his lemon-yellow suit and open-necked, black shirt. At his side was a bodyguard whose wrist was chained to a briefcase. As onlookers gawked, Steven West told anyone who would listen that the case contained $2 million in cash and that he intended to buy not one outlet but the whole chain. After ten minutes, West's bid had reached $3.5 million -- "too much money for a bunch of stores that were stinkers" one bystander remarked -- and the erratic newcomer had captured national attention. Only later would the big spender admit that the briefcase contained mostly loose pieces of paper that were covered by several thousand --not million -- dollars in cash.

At the time of the Robert Hall auction, West was fresh from publishing his latest book, How to Live Like a Millionaire on an Ordinary Income, and intent on following his own advice. The volume came complete with a collection of dummy letterheads and business cards that West termed a "Millionaire Image Building Kit." The book, a do-it-yourself text for corner-cutters, offered advice on how to get cars, office space, and various services for free. "After you have played the part [of a tycoon] for a while, you will actually become the part you're playing," reads page 21. "You will, by that time, have developed an aura of power and success.... People will respond to you as though they were hypnotized and, to a certain degree, they will be."

But by fall 1977, West's world began to splinter. An October 28, front-page story in the Wall Street Journal described his antics at the auction under the headline "Illusionist, Merchant, and Slow Payer of Bills." In that article, the Journal noted, "Indeed, depending on whom you talk to, Steven West is a budding business genius, super-promoter, enlightened author and executive. Or he is a hopeless dreamer whose company has been sued by at least eight suppliers for failure to pay its bills.... One thing at least is clear. Mr. West's recent notoriety isn't coincidental, nor will it be short-lived if he has anything to do with it.... Steven West is a master illusionist, and proud of it."

Fast-forward 25 years. Visit the corporate headquarters of West Worldwide Industries, the West Group, and other Steven West ventures and you have to wonder whether the illusionist followed his own advice. He operates behind the door of executive suite 319, in an anonymous building at 1000 W. McNab Rd., just off I-95 in Pompano Beach. When the door to the office swings open, it nearly hits Rachel, a perky girl with springy blond hair. There is no reception area; rather, the cramped room holds four women, and all except Rachel are busy reading telemarketing scripts off computer monitors and into telephone headsets. They obviously aren't accustomed to visitors.

Rachel jumps up and asks if she can help. When a request is made to see West, she says she'll check with him. But before she has a chance, he emerges from an adjoining room. Somewhat handsome in pictures from the Robert Hall days, West now looks rundown. His approximately five-foot, nine-inch frame is sagging and pear-shaped, as if his pectoral muscles got tired and decided to rest around his waist. His paunch is nearly camouflaged by an attractive black suit, crisp white shirt, and conservative tie. He looks something like a used-car dealer in an Anne Rice novel might -- an effect accentuated by his meticulous if unusual coif. Ungodly amounts of hair gel hold four separate spiky points of blue-black hair tight to his forehead, as if a giant eyelash has been inverted and glued to his skull.

As quickly as he materializes, West disappears into his office. Rachel follows him only to return a few seconds later to say, apologetically, that West is on a teleconference and can't be bothered. However, he chooses that exact moment to emerge and linger a few feet behind her while she asks the reason for the visit. Told that New Times is preparing a story about West, Rachel's face lights up and she seems genuinely pleased. Her boss's expression is markedly different. Rachel says that she's sure he would love to talk but that his day is divided into 15-minute segments and that day's slots are full. She suggests calling to make an appointment. West says nothing and glances around before returning to his office.

West's response might be explained by his résumé for the past quarter century. It includes one federal fraud conviction and more than $1 million in federal tax liens. Though once a rising star who wrote five books and bought a chain of department stores before turning 40, he is now recently divorced from his partner in crime and relegated to hawking telemarketing services from a two-room suite in Pompano Beach. At age 61, West's net worth is a half million dollars less than he claimed to hold in his briefcase when he was 36.

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Rebekah Gleaves