Doris does decoding — again

By Mary Reinholz

Volume 78 / Number 17 – September 24 – 30, 2008

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Finding out more about a neighbor after her murder

Maybe no one knows anyone in this town. I certainly didn’t know Arlene Coffey except to recognize her in passing as an older bohemian babe dressed to the nines and wearing heavy makeup. She always seemed to be smoking a cigarette when we passed on the street. Because she was petite and had kept her girlish figure, looking good in tight Levi’s and a leather jacket, I vaguely wondered if she had a younger lover stashed away on the side.

And although I lived two doors down from her for more than 20 years, I never knew until Sunday afternoon Sept. 14 that she had a middle-aged son David, a would-be writer who police are now said to be believe may have killed her and then himself with a .22-caliber handgun.

When Arlene spoke to me for the first time four or five years ago it was in tones of disapproval during a meeting of a few tenants concerned about preserving affordable, rent-regulated apartments in our trendy neighborhood near Union Square. I was annoyed that Arlene was so conciliatory toward the landlord’s agent, a man I felt was hellbent on removing the lot of us. She asked me: “Who are you to consider yourself morally superior to him?” She added: “He’s not a writer, just a guy doing his job.” But with a laugh she said of him and his goatee: “He does look a bit like Mephisto.”

At the time, I did not know that this flamboyant and intelligent woman, age 72 at her death, had been a costume designer and wardrobe mistress. She worked on “The Sopranos” and several films, including “The Cotton Club” and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. In 2000, she became the widow of the renowned cinematographer Joe Coffey, who worked on films like “Kramer vs. Kramer” and with Mel Brooks on the original version of “The Producers.” Her son David, 52, lived with her in the second-floor apartment they shared in a brownstone. Their bodies were discovered by Carlos Flores, son of the building superintendent, who lives directly below them on the first floor. The Daily News quoted Carlos as describing David Coffey, the presumed perpetrator of the apparent murder-suicide, as a “quiet man.” Other neighbors recalled him as a decidedly strange, often wearing latex gloves.

“He always stopped to talk to me, but he was an odd duck, very fey and eccentric,” said Eleanor Bennett, a retiree who often sits outside her brownstone to read. “He was short with pasty white skin. He had grown a beard and dressed poorly. And he always wore a floppy hat. David said he took care of the house. But I never saw him walking with [Arlene] or speaking with her.”

Bennett used to chat with Arlene after spotting her pushing a shopping cart toward Food Emporium on E. 14th St., sometimes wearing a wig, and recently looking a “little frail.”

A New York Post article claimed that Arlene Coffey was “stricken” with cancer, and quoted sources who suggested that son David may have killed her first and then himself because he was “distraught” over her illness. But that notion is open to question.

“Her cancer had been in remission for two years,” said a Westchester niece of “Uncle Joe” Coffey who was close to Arlene Coffey, her aunt by marriage. “But David always had his problems. He wasn’t working and he was on medications.”

Several reporters who were camped outside the death scene that Sunday afternoon and into the evening wanted to know how I “felt.” 

“Do you feel safe in this neighborhood?” asked a reporter for Channel 11, who apparently believed that possible murder-suicides could be life-threatening to others. 

The next day, a twentysomething tenant in my building said she had been “a little scared” by news of the tragedy but relieved to learn “that it wasn’t a random act.”