BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. -- In America, no matter how many times you fail, no matter how many times you are thrown into the muck in disgrace, you can always try again to get rich. And Jeffrey A. Levitt is a living testimonial to that.
In the '70s, as a notorious Baltimore slumlord, he was convicted of housing violations over 500 times and sparked so much wrath that a tenant once fired a 12-gauge shotgun blast through his window and sent shards of glass into his buttocks.
In the '80s, as a garishly wealthy, overweight swindler, he sent his financial empire crashing to the ground in a scandal that landed him in prison for stealing $14.6 million from his own thrift, Old Court Savings and Loan. Panicked depositors staged a run on the institution, regulators froze $9 billion in S&L accounts throughout the state, and Levitt became despised by tens of thousands of irate Marylanders who couldn't get at their money.
And now, in the '90s, he sits with loafers and no socks in a small back room crammed with cigars. It's here, in a shop called Dan's News on Florida's Atlantic Intracoastal Highway, that Jeffrey Levitt is in the throes of his latest financial obsession.
"What do you need today?" he asks a tan, middle-aged man browsing among the cigar cases. "I just got some Bicentennial Maduros in here. They're gorgeous, they are absolutely your type of cigar."
The man, who knows nothing of Levitt's past, is impressed by the inventiveness of this small cigar shop proprietor who seems to be able to get anything.
"Jeff, I was shocked that you got those Casablancas for me," he says. "I was dumbfounded."
Levitt, 54, has been leaving people dumbfounded all his life.
This is the man who once rode a golf cart with a Rolls-Royce grille only to be later stalked in the street by enraged depositors. The man who once dressed as the king of England at a gala Baltimore costume party only to soon have his royal status stripped by an angry mob.
The man who bought four Rolls-Royces and a handmade German sports car. The man who knocked around golf balls on his personal $18,000 putting green. The man rumored to have eaten half a dozen desserts in one sitting.
In short, the man who came to symbolize the greed, overindulgence and opulence that fed the collapse of the U.S. savings-and-loan industry in the 1980s. The perfect poster boy for avarice.
Even now, 10 years after the Old Court scandal, he is haunted by his former pariah status. But one thing is certain: after losing his fortune, his freedom, his wife and his reputation, Jeffrey Levitt has survived. He has an afterlife. He's back, and he's breaking a decade of silence to talk about cigars, money and Old Court.
But it's a lot to tell and he's got a lot of places to go.
"It would take me years to explain everything," Levitt says, throwing up his hands while in the passenger seat of a car heading south toward Boca Raton on a recent Thursday night.
His destination is Club Boca, a glitzy pickup bar where lately he has been stocking the humidor with exotic cigars and making a tidy profit.
"I'm worried that I might just become a millionaire again," says Levitt, who is 40 pounds lighter, drives a Mitsubishi compact and lives in a modest condominium. "People back in Maryland would hate me for my success. They don't think I'm entitled to happiness anymore.
"But the details of what happened before, it's the past. If I wrote a book, I would justify what I did or didn't do. Right now, I want to focus on my life here, my business, my feelings now and not then," he said.
It is about a 15-minute ride to Boca Raton from Dan's News, an emporium of newspapers, cigars, greeting cards and candy bars that Levitt runs with a former girlfriend. Cigars are the specialty Levitt brings to the store, and he speaks about them as if they are his salvation.
"I sell an interesting product," he says during the drive. "It's a commodity. It fluctuates with the market, with supply and demand. It's kind of like bootlegging: It's not illegal, but there's a lot of wheeling and dealing. I look at cigars as beauty. It's art."
He got the idea for a cigar business in 1993, shortly after being paroled from the Maryland House of Correction. He had spent six years there after the Old Court scandal, then spent several months on home detention, during which a magazine caught his eye.
It was Cigar Aficionado, which often features movie stars and other high rollers on the cover smoking the cigars that have become a national fad. Jeffrey Levitt, who in the early '80s saw that "S&Ls" were about to take off, saw the same thing in cigars.
But his reminiscing trails off because the car is pulling into the parking lot of Club Boca.
"Wait'll you see this place," he says.
Club Boca bustles with chic young people sipping fruity drinks. There is dance music but no one is dancing, leaving a large, empty floor for Levitt to walk across as though he is making a grand entrance and everyone has cleared a path for him.