Early in her autobiographical account of a life of crime, Doris Payne seems to telegraph that she is an unreliable narrator. “To this day, any confessing I was going to do would be in order to make things better for myself,” she writes.
Then she concludes her book with this wink to the reader:
“Did I imagine some of this, make it up, elaborate it, polish it like a good diamond, make you want to look at it — make you smile? You have to decide.”
Fiction or fact, Payne, 88, knows how to spin a yarn.
Born a coal miner’s daughter in Slab Fork, West Virginia, Payne is a transplant to Atlanta, where she came to write “Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief.”
She made an impression on local law enforcement shortly after arriving. Arrested and charged with stealing a $2,000 necklace at Von Maur in Perimeter Mall in 2016, she was allowed to remain under house arrest for health reasons.
Then, while wearing an ankle monitor as a condition of that arrangement, she was arrested again in 2017 and charged with shoplifting at a Chamblee Walmart.
Payne explained that she simply forgot to pay for her items, though a security guard testified that he saw her loading pharmaceutical and electronic merchandise into her purse before walking out.
Previous to that she had been held for several days in a Fulton County jail, charged with shoplifting a pair of $690 Christian Dior earrings from Saks Fifth Avenue at Phipps Plaza.
Her modus operandi has always remained the same: dress beautifully, engage the shopkeeper in flirtatious conversation, and utilize the sleight-of-hand and misdirection of a close-up magician.
Those skills served her in a career that lasted 60 years and took her to the finest jewelry stores in Europe and Asia. Payne knew early on that she would need fine clothes to pull off her schemes, and she engaged the help of her mother who was a seamstress, though she didn’t explain why she needed the outfits. “I couldn’t tell her I was begging her to make me a jewel thief costume,” she writes.
In one extended caper from 1974 she palms a 10.5-carat diamond ring at a Cartier’s in Monte Carlo but is stopped by airport police on her way back to the U.S. While she’s being searched she secretly sews the ring into the hem of her skirt, where it stays while she’s being held for 9 months.
Payne’s story has made her life irresistible to movie-makers and headline writers. She is the subject of the 2013 documentary “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne,” and her book is currently being adapted for a Codeblack film, starring Tessa Thompson, who played a Valkyrie goddess in the 2017 Marvel film “Thor: Ragnarok.” Thompson’s blurb on Payne’s book jacket reads, “Doris Payne is an unapologetic badass. I love her.”
“I don’t have any regrets about stealing jewelry,” Payne told her documentarian. “I regret getting caught.”
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