Family was Albert F. Nussbaum’s source of happiness.
It may also have been his fatal weakness.
When the man who had been labeled one of the country’s “Most Wanted” by the Federal Bureau of Investigation was on the lam, hiding out far from Western New York, his thoughts turned to Buffalo – and to the young wife and baby daughter he had left behind.
Things came to a head in the autumn of 1962.
Nussbaum, an East Side schoolboy who in his teens had turned his prodigious mind to crime, had drawn the attention of the FBI after committing a string of bank heists in Buffalo, Washington, D.C., and New York City with his partner, a one-eyed ex-con named Bobby Randall Wilcoxson.
During one robbery, Wilcoxson blasted a bank guard with his Tommygun, killing him, so the men were wanted for murder as well as robbery.
Nussbaum knew the risks in returning to Buffalo, where FBI agents had been keeping an eye on his young wife, Alicia, and family. But he couldn’t help himself.
Nussbaum came back.
He talked his wife into meeting him in the middle of the night at the Statler Hilton hotel. When Alicia, 25, stepped through the lobby doors, federal authorities were waiting for her husband. A car chase through the streets of Buffalo, at speeds up to 100 mph, ended with Nussbaum’s car smashed by a police car.
Fifty years ago today – on Nov. 4, 1962 – Nussbaum’s criminal career came to an end.
But Al Nussbaum was ever a master at confounding expectations.
He spent 13 years in prison. When he got out, he moved to the West Coast, but not to rob banks. He became a successful author of crime fiction.
Today, Nussbaum’s family remembers him as a husband, father and friend. His story, they say, is one of redemption – and second chances.
And, for Nussbaum’s only child, the 50th anniversary of his capture by the FBI is something even more significant.
Alison Nussbaum said it is a chance to carry out a task she feels compelled to undertake: locating and republishing her father’s writing, as a way to carry his literary reputation forward to a new generation.
As she excavates his legacy, Nussbaum’s daughter is also seeking something more difficult to measure: A connection to the father she never had.
“Not a day goes by,” said Alison, “that I don’t think about [him].”
Here, after 50 years, is their story.
Buffalo wedding: July 1960
Albert Frederick Nussbaum wasn’t the likeliest choice of a husband for Alicia Majchorowicz, a young woman known as “Lolly” who had grown up in a Polish-American family on Buffalo’s East Side.
But he wasn’t the least likely, either.
They met in school, at East High, when Alicia was just 14. At East, “Al” was known as smart, almost brilliant, but hardly the academic type. Alicia, who grew up on Bailey Avenue near William Street, attended East for a year, then finished high school at Kensington.
By the time she was 17, Nussbaum was trying to talk the pretty brunette with gray-blue eyes into marriage.
She gave a tentative yes. “But then, I thought, I don’t think I want to be married at 17,” Alicia recalls. She is now in her 70s and lives in Western New York. “I was still in high school.”
They broke things off, and Nussbaum even left town for a few years. When he returned, they reunited. This time it stuck.
Al and Alicia got married on July 23, 1960, in a traditional morning ceremony in Visitation Catholic Church, looking like a picture-perfect bridal couple. Alicia, who was 23, wore a white gown with a voluminous skirt, which set off her tiny waist and petite frame. Nussbaum wore a suit with a white jacket. He looked older than his 26 years.
In photographs of the wedding breakfast, a Polish meal of ham, kielbasa, salads and sweets held in Alicia’s parents’ parlor, Al appears much more mature, more serious, than his glowing bride.
“He looked older, and he did act older,” said Alicia. “He never acted like a young, 16- or 17-year-old kid. I thought he was very old, back then. But he was only three years older than me.”
What the family didn’t know was that Nussbaum had already made his first forays into hard living. By the time of that July wedding, Nussbaum had been in trouble with the law – more than once – and had spent time in prison.
Many people in Buffalo who knew Nussbaum didn’t know that. He was good at keeping secrets.
He was keeping another big one. He had formed a fateful friendship – with Wilcoxson.
Criminal talents: 1934-1960
By many accounts, Nussbaum had started off all right.
He was one of three children in his Catholic East Side family, and told Alicia he came from German, French and Irish stock. Nussbaum had done well in school and had a talent for mechanical things, taking them apart, putting them together.
By his 20s, Nussbaum would be known to the FBI as a skilled locksmith, gunsmith, airplane mechanic and pilot, among other capabilities. Those interests started early.
But things also started going wrong by his teens.
Nussbaum was arrested for the first time when he was 17, when he showed up one January morning at a Bailey Avenue jewelry shop carrying a loaded .32-caliber revolver, a length of cord and ammunition, newspaper accounts reported.
The startled jeweler called police. Nussbaum, a high school senior, got off with probation, due to his youthful status – even though he admitted to police that he also had stolen a car a few months earlier.
Today, Nussbaum’s daughter wonders if her father’s life didn’t start to go wrong in that telling early moment.
“How does a kid get to this point?” wondered Alison, now 51. She was sitting in a Buffalo restaurant on a recent weekday, surrounded by old news clippings about her father. A lawyer, she lives in the Baldwinsville area but visits Western New York often.
“At an early age, he was coddled,” Alison said. “At an early age, he did something wrong, and it was like, ‘Oh no, my child would never do that.’ At 17, he committed a crime – and it was swept under the rug.”
After a stint in the Army, Nussbaum headed for the West Coast. He was arrested in California for possessing a machine gun and convicted of transporting the gun across state lines. After a break on those charges, in which he got probation and a fine, Nussbaum was again arrested on a weapons charge, newspaper accounts reported.
That time Nussbaum landed in federal prison, in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he befriended Bobby Wilcoxson.
“He always had a fascination with guns,” said Alison. “And it was the excitement. The excitement of the caper.”
The path home: 1960-1962
After Nussbaum was released from Chillicothe in early 1960, he returned to Buffalo to court and marry his high school sweetheart.
But then, the hard ways pulled him back. He and Wilcoxson became bank robbers.
Wilcoxson was from Oklahoma, had an artificial eye and looked the part of a 1930s gangster, a seedy Dillinger. In his “Most Wanted” picture, Wilcoxson, known as “Bad-Eye,” looks rumpled, down on his luck.
Nussbaum, though his hair was starting to thin, still looked like the guy he pretended to be, and in his own way likely was: a happily married man and devoted father looking to make his way up in the world.
“To look at him, you’d swear he was the young salesman in the new ranch house on the next block, the one everyone said was doing so well,” began one in-depth story about Nussbaum, published in Inside Detective magazine in 1962.
Alicia Nussbaum met Wilcoxson one evening around this time. She said she was not impressed.
“One night, somebody came to our door, and it was Wilcoxson. (Al) introduced me to him,” said Alicia. “He was somebody you didn’t forget, because of his one eye. They were bringing in all this stuff (to the apartment). I said, ‘What is all this stuff?’ There was a box of clocks, a box of keys ... To me it was a lot of junk. Then they went off in a room and stayed by themselves.”
The pair may have been plotting, or preparing. Shortly afterward, Alicia heard a report over her kitchen radio that a Buffalo bank had been held up, and thousands of dollars stolen. One of the bandits reportedly had one eye.
That, Alicia said, caught her attention. As soon as Al came home, she confronted him.
“Al came in, and I told him what I had heard,” said his former wife. “And he laughed and said, ‘Oh, are you calling my friend a bank robber?’ He thought it was hilarious.”
The scene with Al temporarily allayed Alicia’s concerns.
“I just kind of passed it off,” she recalled. “Because really, who does that kind of thing?”
Apparently, the same kind of guy who holds up a string of banks, netting more than $100,000 in Buffalo alone and more – some estimates reported around a quarter-million dollars – when other holdups around the country were factored in.
The Nussbaums, meanwhile, lived in relative simplicity in the apartment above Alicia’s parents’ home on Bailey Avenue. They didn’t go out often to restaurants or theaters, Alicia recalled. The biggest extravagance Al lavished on her, she said, was a Thunderbird of her own. He drove a station wagon. Other than that, Al paid the bills – and Alicia was given an allowance.
Nussbaum had one indulgence, according to his family.
“He did have to have custom-made clothing,” said Alicia, sitting in the kitchen of her small ranch home on a recent weekday. “He liked his shirts custom-made.”
Alison, from her perspective as a grown daughter, said she admires more than ever her mother’s courage during these years – most of which she spent alone, as Nussbaum traveled.
“It must have been really hard,” said Alison. “I can’t even imagine.”
Things began to worsen over the winter of 1961-62. In a robbery at a bank in Brooklyn, Wilcoxson and a third member of the gang who was hired for the job entered the bank while Nussbaum waited outside in a getaway car. Inside, Wilcoxson fired on a bank guard, 53-year-old Henry Kraus.
Kraus died on the floor of the bank. A second man, police officer Salvatore Accardi, was seriously wounded but survived. As Nussbaum and Wilcoxson no doubt knew, all parties to a robbery share the guilt for a murder committed in the course of a felony.
Nussbaum never mentioned any of this to his family at the time.
He and Wilcoxson were named to the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list.
Nussbaum’s role in the death of Kraus is something those closest to him still struggle to understand. Alison Nussbaum said recently that she would like to find members of Kraus’ family and tell them that she has thought about them often over the years.
“I don’t think he would have pulled the trigger,” said Alison, of her father. “But he picked the place. He came up with the job.”
Capture: Nov. 4, 1962
The end, for Nussbaum, came in the simplest of ways.
He returned to Buffalo, phoned his wife at around 9 on a Saturday night – Nov. 3, 1962 – and asked her to meet him on a street near her house.
Alicia dashed out, and found Al waiting for her in a car. The couple drove around, from Buffalo to Niagara Falls and back again, for the next hour or two, talking. Al told Alicia he was hungry. In later newspaper reports, Alicia said Al seemed thin, older, worn down. He was too nervous about being recognized to go into a restaurant, so Alicia ran into one place and brought out coffee.
During their drive, they talked of many things. One was running away. Al wanted Alicia – and little Alison – to escape with him to South America.
“Now, I think, why did he come back to see me, given what his situation was?” wondered Alicia.
She remains troubled by the choice she was being asked to make – between Al and the world beyond, or Buffalo, her family and home.
“He wanted me to take (Alison) and go to South America,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t think so.’ How could I do that?”
“He’s obviously guilty, by this point,” Alicia recalled, slipping into the present tense as she relived the moment in the car with Al, which she has not spoken of publicly in 50 years. “Is he going to change? How is he going to make a living without bank robbery?
“I couldn’t do that to her – to Alison.”
Nussbaum couldn’t talk his wife into South America. But he did talk her into meeting him again, later that night.
They set a time and place – the Statler Hilton. In case she was being watched, Alicia was to drive to the Central Terminal first, then take a series of cabs to the hotel on Niagara Square.
But when she got home, FBI agents were there. Her mother, worried over Alicia’s disappearance, had called them. (Her mother later collected a reward offered for information leading to Nussbaum’s capture. Alicia said she held no grudge; she understood why her mother did it.)
Alicia talked to the agents and made her decision. When she left for the Statler later that night, she was followed by the FBI.
The marriage of Al and Alicia Nussbaum ended in annulment after he went to prison.
After his release in the mid-1970s, Nussbaum moved to California and, with the help of mentors and friends such as Dan Marlowe, author of “The Name of the Game Is Death,” became a working writer.
Nussbaum was as prolific in that career as he had been as a criminal. His specialties were crime and adventure stories, although he did also write stories for young readers, inspirational pieces, essays, criticism, reviews and TV scripts. Nussbaum also seems to have left the manuscripts of two unpublished novels, his daughter said.
He published short stories in magazines like Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine so frequently – sometimes several pieces in one issue – that he had to write under a slew of different pseudonyms.
“Besides being so smart, he was very quick,” Alison said. “And he was arrogant. His writing is very tight.”
She laughed. “He probably would have made more money if it wasn’t as tight. He probably got paid by the word.”
Alicia’s life after her husband’s arrest was difficult. Photographers followed her and snapped her picture as she waited at curbs; national magazines ran “interviews” with her that she never gave. For a while she even changed her last name, to avoid the talk and harassment.
Alicia remarried a few years later. Her new husband adopted Alison, and the couple had two more children.
Al Nussbaum died at age 61, in 1996.
Alison Nussbaum started the website www.albertnussbaum.com and has begun a Kickstarter campaign (www.kickstarter.com/projects/nuttree/turning-sentences-into-words) to fund her book project. She wants to collect and preserve as much of her father’s writing as she can.
Alison said that for years she resisted the idea of republishing or retelling her father’s story until she realized that if she didn’t do it, for herself and her son, then somebody else would tell the world about her father and his life. And she would have no say in how her father was remembered.
“I decided that if the story was going to be written, I was better off ... ensuring the facts were correct,” said Alison.
She said her motivations in doing the work are to restore her father’s literary reputation – and bring the second, redemptive half of his life into public view.
She has already culled upward of 100 of his stories from publications ranging from Women’s World to The American Scholar – and she has found much of her dad’s unpublished material, as well.
She plans to publish an anthology of some of his short fiction pieces; the working title is “Turning Sentences Into Words: An Anthology of Short Stories by Albert F. Nussbaum.” She expects it to begin as an e-book, likely selling for around $25.
Choosing which stories to include in the volume has been difficult. She decided to focus on pieces in which she saw glimmers of her father’s life.
“I started reading stories I had never seen, and rereading stories I have not read in years,” Alison said. “I started to see biographical elements I had never before noticed and in some cases, even though the stories are fiction, they started to fill in the blanks.”
She said the experience has brought her closer than ever to the father she wishes she had known better.
It is, in a unique way, like “getting to know my father,” Alison said.
“Good and bad.”
DOSSIER ON AL NUSSBAUM,“Most Wanted” criminal by the FBI
Real name: Albert Frederick Nussbaum
Aliases: Karl Kessler, Al Nest, Al Nussbaum Jr., and others
Birthplace: Buffalo, April 9, 1934
Marriage: 1960, to Alicia Majchorowicz, in Buffalo’s Visitation Catholic Church
Criminal charges: A 20-count indictment including bank robbery and murder, plus possession of a machine gun, interstate transport of unregistered weapons.
Buffalo address: Bailey Avenue, near William Street
Apprehended: Nov. 4, 1962
Imprisonment: Sentenced to concurrent terms amounting to 40 years; spent a little more than 13 years in prison before parole
Legitimate career: Prolific writer specializing in crime and mystery fiction
Death: Jan. 6, 1996, at age 61
– Charity Vogel