Not long after Barbieri moved into the house in 1998, people started questioning Rothken about what he was doing. "I knew she was important to him, and I knew he got her a straight job where she didn't have to take her clothes off," says Laurence Gluck, a friend and business associate of Rothken's. "I certainly felt things were spinning out of control. There were rumors that they weren't having sex, but frankly, I didn't want to know. I thought it was odd when he bought her the house, that that took it to a whole new level. I feel terrible for his wife and kids, but this is the oldest story in human experience. It's simply a story of a guy falling in love."
Unrequited love, as it turns out. "I was nearly 40 when I met Kym," Rothken says. "So it's not like I was some adolescent who needed to get laid on the first date. I just rolled with it."In fact, he showed uncharacteristic restraint. It's not like he hadn't ever sought sexual gratification with other women who were part of his extracurricular nocturnal life. Still, with Barbieri, he says, there was always the promise of sex to string Rothken along and exploit him financially.
Barbieri denies this. "I never led him on," she told me from St. Louis, where she's now living again. "I know he had romantic feelings for me, but I told him many times that I only wanted to be friends. And he was my best friend, but nothing more." (Best indeed. It was very friendly of Rothken, for example, to pay for Barbieri's new breast implants when her old ones began to leak.)
"Trust me, as much of an idiot as I appear to be over this, I'm not that big an idiot," says Rothken. "There were lots and lots of things she said to me over the years that led me to believe this was going to be a permanent hookup. I thought we were spiritually and emotionally connected. And there was always the promise of sex and romance. But as it turned out, she was a liar who was playing me the whole time."
One year after Barbieri moved into the Westchester house, in the middle of 1999, her husband died. Rothken says he paid for the funeral, although she didn't want him there, and to fly members of her family in from St. Louis. Barbieri didn't want to see Rothken for a while following her husband's funeral. He was angry, but he figured she was going through a rough time. When they did start to see each other again after the summer, it was, for Rothken, the beginning of the end.
Perhaps he knew, at least on some level, that if his relationship with Barbieri was ever going to become a romantic one, now was the time. To cement their connection, Rothken agreed to indulge Barbieri in what he calls her lifelong dream -- owning a bar. Originally, it was supposed to be a small, neighborhood kind of place, but as the plans began to take shape, the project turned into a full-scale New York club.
Rothken found a space on St. Marks Place, and he began spending what would turn out to be more than $2 million on the club. He had an ownership agreement drawn up that gave him one third, and the other two thirds were evenly split between Barbieri and her mother. There were problems right from the start, of course, and by the end of the summer of 2000, Barbieri had thrown her mother out of the business (which hadn't even opened yet) and shipped her back to St. Louis.
Worse, however, from Rothken's point of view, was that Barbieri was telling everyone it was her club and creating the illusion that she was a rich girl from Westchester. "She was becoming the little darling of her own social circle and flirting and fucking around with all sorts of people," Rothken says.
Finally, in October 2000, shortly before the club was going to open, Rothken lost it. Accompanied by armed guards, he seized the bar at 6 a.m. on the day after Yom Kippur. He had the locks changed and served Barbieri with legal notice he was cutting her out of the business and personal notice he was cutting her out of his life. He opened Siren himself on November 4, and for a brief moment, it was actually hot. Zagat said, "This beautiful new supper club seduces the hip and trendy."
Rothken says that at this point, Barbieri became frantic, leaving him dozens of voice mails denying everything and telling him he had it all wrong. Within a matter of weeks, Rothken caved. She got him on the cell while he was at a Knicks game with his sons on a Sunday night. The next day, he made a date to see her.
"She said she knew she was wrong and now she wanted to give me everything I wanted," Rothken recalls. "She said she was ready for a monogamous adult sexual relationship and she wanted to go away together. Now she was chasing me."
Despite everyone's telling Rothken he was nuts if he gave her another chance, he didn't listen: "On a Monday night -- in fact, it was January 15, Martin Luther King Day -- I had her meet me at Siren. We went over our understanding, and I told her she couldn't betray me again. We had the best night ever. We were kissing and hugging all night long. We closed Siren and went out for breakfast. Then we went back to the apartment. We didn't have sex. She said she wanted to wait until we weren't wasted. She wanted it to be special. I really wanted to believe her."
They went to the Delano in Miami Beach for Valentine's Day, and it was a disaster. Nothing had changed. When they returned to New York, things began to unravel. A mutual friend told Rothken that Barbieri was involved with the manager of Siren, a guy she had persuaded him to hire. Rothken went insane, but he quickly had much more serious problems.
In April, he went with his family, as they did every year, to the Eden Roc hotel in Miami Beach for Passover. Shortly after arriving, he got a call from his bank. There was a problem with a check he'd written at a closing the week before: There were no funds to cover it. Then there was a second call to tell him there was an issue with several other checks as well.
"Suddenly, I knew I was in deep shit," Rothken says. "The kind of clients I deal with have little patience for this kind of thing. They're crazy about money. I told the bank I didn't know what the problem was but I'd straighten it out when I got back. But I didn't have to check the accounts. I knew I fucked up."