In February 1953, the New York City police were called to prevent crowds from mobbing a visiting celebrity. The men in uniform pushed people back from a popular Manhattan shop window, where a silver-gray Toy Poodle sat upon a red velvet box.
Masterpiece was a famous poodle, the result of one man’s obsession with creating the perfect pooch. He was, at the time, dubbed the most valuable dog in the world. And soon, he would be the victim of a still-unsolved crime.
The Perfect Poodle
Masterpiece owes his rise to Alexis Pulaski, who was born in Russia in 1895. Pulaski served in the Imperial Russian Army until the 1917 Communist Revolution, after which he fled the country with much of Russia’s upper class. He arrived in the United States in 1925 claiming to be a count, but that title may have been self-given.
Pulaski was tall with silver hair and a dignified presence that contributed to his skills of persuasion. He had bred Doberman Pinchers in Russia, but after dogsitting a friend’s poodles in 1939, he set his sights on the breed. Pulaski rented out a former Manhattan speakeasy and opened Poodles, Inc., which provided grooming, boarding, and accessories exclusively for his new favorite breed.
In addition to the business, Pulaski became obsessed with winning dog shows. In 1946, a silver-gray puppy captured his attention [PDF]. This poodle, he decided, could be the first toy dog to win the trifecta of obedience, utility, and championship. After only eight weeks of training, he was registered with the American Kennel Club as “Pulaski’s Masterpiece.”
Masterpiece competed in regional shows, eventually achieving Pulaski’s dream of winning the trifecta. Pulaski decided that his prize dog might be destined for something greater than the usual competition circuit. He hosted cocktail parties with exclusive guests from all over the world, all of whom were entertained by Masterpiece’s tricks. In his most famous act, Pulaski would ask the dog, “Masterpiece, are you a Communist?” The dog would vigorously shake his head no.
As Masterpiece’s fame skyrocketed, so did his lifestyle. A former Bronx Zoo lion trainer was hired to teach him tricks, and he accumulated an entourage of a beautician, a bodyguard, and a professional traveling companion. His carrying case was designed to look like a giant picture frame with the dog at the center. At home, the 9-inch, 8-pound dog often rested on a green velvet canopy bed.
The largest chunk of Masterpiece’s income was as a stud dog—he earned about $11,000 per year from breeding and modeling—and Pulaski insisted that his poodle would shake his head at the suggestion of mating for less than $500. His offspring numbered over 300, with owners including Judy Garland, Gary Cooper, and Eva Peron.
Soon, Masterpiece was appearing in ads for hosiery, shoes, drapery, and telephones. Pulaski claimed he even inspired the curly “poodle cut” hairstyle women wore. His fame became so great that, according to the American Kennel Club, Pakistani prince Ali Khan offered Pulaski $25,000 (equivalent to almost a quarter of a million in 2020) to buy the dog for his wife, film star Rita Hayworth. Pulaski scoffed at the offer, but was nonetheless pleased by the valuation of his beloved poodle.
When not traveling or working, Masterpiece relaxed with Pulaski’s other poodles at Poodles, Inc., where the owner proudly flaunted that his dogs were so well-trained that they did not require cages or leashes to stay in the shop. He never imagined that someone might use that good behavior to their advantage.
A Lost Masterpiece
May 29, 1953 was like any other day at Poodles, Inc. Dogs, including Masterpiece, reclined on their cushions while a nightclub harpist provided background music.
Masterpiece was in town for an extended stay after modeling Easter ensembles at a fashion show. Shortly after one 1 p.m., Pulaski returned after briefly stepping out and called for Masterpiece to entertain a group of customers that had entered the store. The dog didn’t respond. Pulaski and his employees searched the building, but Masterpiece was nowhere to be found. They immediately called the police.
In the weeks that followed, police across 13 states were notified, and volunteers searched the city. A reward—which included another poodle—was offered for Masterpiece's return, no questions asked. The Gotham Hosiery Company, one of Masterpiece’s clients, distributed 3500 lost dog fliers. “Stealing a dog like that is like stealing the Hope Diamond,” Pulaski said. “He’s known around the world. Nobody can get away with it.”
But the thief did get away with it. Pulaski's precious poodle had vanished.
The only clue to the dog’s disappearance was a witness who told police they had seen an elegant, dark haired woman in a red coat leaving Poodles, Inc. with a small gray dog at her heels. The witness had found it odd that the poodle didn’t have a leash, but was following so obediently.
It is possible that Masterpiece left of his own will—he’d wandered out of Poodles, Inc. before (on that occasion, he loitered inside a nearby linen shop until the employees called authorities to return him home). When the dog failed to turn up, police waited for a ransom, but none was ever delivered. If Masterpiece was kidnapped, it's possible he spent the rest of his days as a secret, prized gem of a private poodle collection.
In the years that followed Masterpiece’s disappearance, poodle-mania gripped the upper class. Movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, and Katharine Hepburn showed off their dogs, making them the ultimate accessory for fashionable women. In 1968, the American Kennel Club employed 38 people just to register new poodles.