“Diamond” Doris Payne has lived a life of intrigue and infamy—the kind of story on which one could base an international crime thriller. Since coming of age amid the coal mines of segregated Slab Fork, West Virginia in the 1930s and ‘40s, to evading police in Rome, Paris, and London, Payne has been a jewel thief of the highest order. For six decades she traveled the world, causing a commotion in world-famous jewelry stores and masterfully slipping away with a suspected $2 million in precious stones.
Now, in her first tell-all memoir, Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief (Amistad; September 10, 2019; $25.99), Payne tells captivating tales that range in drama from hanging out with gangsters in Chicago to getting busted stealing groceries at an Atlanta Walmart. Her only regret: she got caught.
On October 10, 2019, Payne will turn 89 years old. Stories of her capers have been featured on NPR, BBC News, and in TIME magazine. She was even the subject of Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond’s award-winning 2013 documentary The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne. Payne brings to life the thrill of getting away with a heist and the taboo urges that live deep down in our psyches. On the rare occasion when she did get caught, Payne viewed jail time as an inconvenience—a chance for dental and medical care courtesy of the State.
Still, she avoided prosecution by cunning means. In one chapter, Payne tells the story of being apprehended in Monte Carlo in 1974, after stealing a 10.5-carat diamond ring worth $550,000. Authorities held her in custody for nine months, but never found the diamond. Turns out she’d chucked the metal band into the river and sewn the stone into the hem of her dress where nobody bothered to look. Eventually, she was set free, although she’d spent the entire time plotting more jewel heists.
Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief also sheds light on Payne’s personality, techniques, and the dark drives that defined her remarkable life. She relives memories of childhood destitution, alongside her siblings in the South, and the tension between her brash father and her elegant mother. Early in life, she honed the power of gaining people’s trust by using southern charm and the art of distraction while taking whatever she wanted. She scouted out high-end fashion magazines to find the most well-stocked jewelry stores around, and tricked store owners into thinking she was, in her own words, “a well-to-do, married moneyed, woman of class.” It was a means to pull off countless diamond robberies.
Payne’s story has a place alongside the greatest heist stories ever told—The Thomas Crown Affair, The Pink Panther, and Catch Me If You Can. With the arrival of the book comes word that Halle Berry has acquired the film rights to Payne’s story.
Catch her in conversation with AJC news and feature writer Bo Emerson at this year’s AJC Decatur Book Festival.