The Curious Case of Joseph and Nicholas Brooks

Photo: Newscom (Joseph Brooks); Steven Hirsch/Splash News (Nicholas Brooks). Illustration by Gluekit

When they met one night last June, Nicholas Brooks and Sylvie Cachay should not, their friends say, have been attracted to each other. Sylvie was an ambitious designer, once divorced, who sought out serious relationships with similarly driven men. Nick had recently dropped out of college, had never held a job for more than a few months, and had dated many women.

“They had nothing in common,” a friend of Sylvie’s says.

“Sylvie wasn’t typical for him,” a friend of Nick’s says.

But they did fall for each other, and by July, they could be seen around Sylvie’s West Village home, walking her miniature poodle or eating at the Little Owl. Nick, 24, and Sylvie, 33, were regulars at Employees Only and Cafe Cluny. They both dressed well and shopped at Sucre.

In the fall, the relationship turned volatile, and they repeatedly broke up and reconciled. On the evening of December 8, while in Sylvie’s apartment, Nick gave her some medication, possibly Xanax, according to a report he would later give police. She became groggy. Either he or she knocked a candle onto her bed, singeing her hair and lighting a small fire. At 12:30 a.m., to escape the smell, they left, then checked into Soho House, where Sylvie was a member. She reportedly told the desk clerk that she was “really tired” and incoherently complained about Nick. The desk clerk then helped her into the elevator and to Room 20, on the fourth floor. After Nick finished checking them in, he met Sylvie in the room. A staffer reported hearing Sylvie yelling at Nick.

A few hours later, guests in the room below called the front desk to say that water was coming through the ceiling. Nick would later tell police that, in the interim, he’d left Sylvie, who wanted to take a bath, and went upstairs to eat in the lounge. There he met a man he didn’t know. Surveillance footage indicates that Nick last left the room sometime after 2:00 a.m. After that, he would tell police, he and the man went to Employees Only and then to the man’s house, where they did cocaine. Nick returned to Soho House at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of December 9 to find a cordoned-off crime scene. According to authorities, Nick’s account is accurate save for one detail: At some point during the night, they allege, he took Sylvie by the neck, forced her underwater, and strangled her.

Sylvie’s body, clad in underwear and a T-shirt, was found submerged faceup in Room 20’s overflowing bathtub around 3:00 a.m.

After Nick pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder at his January arraignment, Sylvie’s brother told reporters gathered outside the Manhattan Supreme Court building that “it was truly horrific and terrible to see this disgusting individual” who “has absolutely no respect for anyone at all, or the law, or life, or my sister, or my family.” Nick’s sister, however, called him “a wonderful young man,” and his freshman-year roommate at the University of Colorado told me he “always had a smile on his face” and “he’d always talk a lot about how much he loved his dad and sister.”

Which raises this case’s longest shadow: Nick’s father, who was not present at his son’s arraignment, possibly because he and Nicholas have a painful history. Or it might be because in 2009, the Manhattan district attorney indicted Joseph Brooks, a onetime composer and director and an Academy Award winner, for serial sexual assault.

Raised in New York, Joe, now 72, first made his name in the sixties as a composer of ad music. He wrote, among other jingles, Pepsi’s “You’ve Got a Lot to Live” and Maxwell House’s “Good to the Last Drop Feeling.” (His brother, Gilbert Kaplan, an amateur Mahler scholar, founded Institutional Investor magazine in his twenties.) By his thirties, Joe was very wealthy, but he hadn’t achieved the same level of fame that his music had. So he attempted to woo Hollywood with a series of makeshift and increasingly bizarre films.

He managed a single hit, 1977’s You Light Up My Life, which he wrote, directed, scored, and financed, but “he really didn’t know what the hell he was doing. He was an egomaniac,” recalls one of the film’s actors, Stephen Nathan. Nonetheless, Joe won an Oscar for Best Original Song for its title track (a Debby Boone version also topped the Billboard chart). Flush with success, Joe went on to co-write, direct, score, and produce his next film, the obscure flop If Ever I See You Again, about a rich ad-jingle writer with dreams of breaking into Hollywood. He insisted on starring in the movie, too, despite suffering from a severe stutter. As the Times’ Janet Maslin observed in her review of the film, Joe’s semi-autobiographical protagonist “is an ambitious egomaniac whose immodesty knows no bounds.”

Left, Sylvie Cachay in September 2010. Three months later, Nicholas Brooks, right, is led from the 6th Precinct.Photo: Patrick McMullan (Cachay); Bryan Smith/Zuma Press/Newscom (Brooks); Michael Allin/New York Magazine (Soho House). Illustration by Gluekit

Robert Lifton, a former producing partner, agrees with the characterization. Lifton says he dissolved their partnership after Joe broke contract and withheld residual monies from him. “Joe was focused on what he’d like to do, and what other people wanted didn’t matter much to him,” he says.

The walls of Joe’s Upper East Side office were lined with Clio Awards that he had won for his jingles. “And he has his Academy Award and People’s Choice Award on his desk,” says Paul Carafotes, who starred in another Brooks production, Headin’ for Broadway. “And between those awards was Joe Brooks’s head.”

According to the director Martin Davidson, a former colleague, “when Joe latches onto you, he doesn’t let go. He’s so needy, of friendship, of support, it becomes unbearable to the person he needs.” Joe would leave things at Davidson’s apartment so that he could stop by uninvited. When they ate out, he would order everything on the menu, then only take a few bites of each dish. After Joe took money from one of their films in order to record his own version of its soundtrack, Davidson told the producers, “It’s me or him.” Joe was fired.

In the late seventies, Joe married Susan Paul, a model and actress who appeared in All That Jazz and posed on the cover of the September 1978 issue of Playboy. She gave birth in 1981 to a daughter, Amanda, and, five years later, to Nicholas. The family lived in New York and then London. From the start, says one of Joe’s former assistants, he was unfaithful. “He was trying to live the Hollywood myth of director, Oscar, casting couch. Some actresses would think that getting a role requires them to sleep with a director. This isn’t anything he invented.” After trying to leave him repeatedly, Susan filed for divorce in an English court in the early nineties and won custody of the children.

According to Amanda Brooks, the demise of her parents’ marriage didn’t seem to affect Nick at first. He was, she recalls, a naturally sweet child. “He was always giving things away. His toys, chocolate,” she says. “If he saw someone on the street who looked badly off, he’d give them his pocket money.”

After the divorce, Amanda and Nick had regular contact with Joe and would visit him during the holidays in New York. When she was 12 and Nick 7, they lived with Joe for a portion of the summer, but during the trip, Joe sued Susan for custody in a New York matrimonial court and refused to send them back to London. Joe was convinced that Susan had been mistreating the children. According to Amanda, “he had always said that if our mother left him he would destroy her, and he knew the only way to do that was to take us.” Joe even checked himself and the kids into hotels under assumed names and hired bodyguards, and mercilessly disparaged Susan in front of them. “My father is a bully and very scary and very intimidating,” says Amanda, now a 29-year-old actress living in Los Angeles.

Despite all of this, Joe was able to win custody of the children (Amanda claims that Susan couldn’t afford adequate representation and that Joe persuaded them to criticize their mother in court). Once Amanda and Nick settled into their new life in New York with Joe, she says Joe became increasingly abusive toward her. Nick was still too young to protect his sister, although that didn’t stop him from trying. So Amanda began reaching out to her mother over the phone, and when she was 13, flew to London for a visit with Joe’s permission. But shortly before she was scheduled to fly back, she received a letter from her father: He instructed her not to return to New York. “I was dead to him. He has never spoken to me since,” Amanda says. For years, she sent letters and tried to call her father but received no response. She and Nick would not see each other again for over a decade. “He was dealt such an unfair hand and was tortured his whole life by [Joe],” Amanda says. “He missed out on having a mother and a sister for fourteen years … and I missed out on having a brother who I was always very close to and loved very much.”

After moving to Hawaii and then Los Angeles (where Joe made his last film, the unreleased Sara’s Life Before It Became a Movie), Joe and Nick returned to New York, where Nick attended Horace Mann for his junior and senior years of high school. According to a classmate and close friend, Nick had little interest in academics, and Joe didn’t encourage him to study. But people liked Nick. He was confident, charming, tall, and attractive. “He got girls extremely easily. They just loved him,” his friend says.

Amanda Brooks, photographed in 2008 on a red carpet in Los Angeles, hasn't been in contact with her father since 1994. Joseph Brooks, right, shown holding his Oscar for Best Original Song ("You Light Up My Life"), in 1978. In the backdrop, Amanda and Nicholas's mother, Susan Paul, on the cover of the September 1978 issue of Playboy. Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images (Amanda Brooks); Ron Galella/Wireimage/Getty Images (Joseph Brooks with Oscar). Illustration by Gluekit

Nick’s popularity soared when, at the end of his junior year, Joe rented Nick his own apartment at the Carnegie Park building on East 94th Street. At that point, his friend says, “all sense of accountability was lost.” The apartment was stocked with plates and silverware, but because Nick didn’t like cleaning, he just threw them away when they got dirty. The apartment quickly became a party destination, and though Nick realized certain Horace Mann kids were taking advantage of his hospitality, he didn’t mind. If a friend liked a jacket or a sweater of his, Nick would give it to him. If friends were having trouble at home, they were always welcome. “He never closed his door to me,” his friend says.

When people asked him how he managed to get his own place, Nick simply explained that he and Joe had agreed it was best if he lived on his own. “He loved his dad and tried to make the relationship work,” his friend says, “but they clashed a lot.” When it came to Joe and women, he adds, “something was off.” Nick’s friends knew that Joe dated much younger women and used escort services, although Nick seemed to have a sense of humor about it (“He realized Joe was a rich old man”). Nick would eventually admit to his friends that he had begun hiring prostitutes, too.

With some of the women, he allegedly placed his Oscar in their hands. “This could be you holding this Oscar,” he’d say. “If you do what I say.’’

He also told friends that his father had taken a restraining order out against his mother, but with reason—Nick seemed to believe that Susan had been a drug addict and unfit to raise him, as Joe had told him. Nick even showed people the Playboy cover. Joe also went to great lengths to keep Nick away from Amanda, telling him that if he ever dared to contact his sister or mother, his access to his trust fund would be cut off. A woman who was once involved with Joe says this was typical of his treatment of Nick. “Joe would blow up at him all the time. He didn’t talk, he screamed. He was very emotionally abusive toward Nick.” As a result, she says, Nick often seemed “blank and numb.” He “seemed really lost.”

After graduating from Horace Mann, in 2005, Nick didn’t immediately go to college but instead stayed in New York. “He didn’t really have a plan,” his friend says. Eventually, in January 2008, he enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But according to his freshman roommate there, Ron Knabenbauer, Nick didn’t do a lot of studying. Not long into the semester, “everybody knew Nick Brooks at a party, and if you didn’t know him, you would soon.”

“He has a presence when he walks in the room,” says another friend from Boulder. “He’d sometimes show up with a bottle of Jack and give everyone shots.” And as they had in high school, girls gravitated toward him. “All different kinds of women were interested in him. He wasn’t picky, and they weren’t picky either,” Knabenbauer says. A female classmate describes him as “a kindhearted person whom I trusted and was able to confide in.”

Soon after Nick moved to Colorado, Amanda found him on Facebook and e-mailed him. After some hesitation, he wrote back. They started talking on the phone regularly. “The connection was instantaneous. It was very emotional,” Amanda says. “We discovered similarities in our senses of humor, the movies we like, our taste in food.” (Among other things, they found that at restaurants they both had the odd habit, like their father, of ordering many dishes and having just a few bites of each.) Nick quickly grew devoted to Amanda, but also felt guilty about going behind Joe’s back. “He was scared of what my father would do to him if he found out,” she says.

Amanda flew to Boulder, where she and Nick saw each other in person for the first time in almost fifteen years. “It was as if no time had passed,” she says. They hiked and cooked and talked for hours on end. She reminded him of how he once gave her hamster a bath and then, when he tried to dry it with a hair dryer, accidentally electrocuted the animal. They recounted singing along to U2 and Bon Jovi in front of the bathroom mirror.

When Nick visited Amanda in Los Angeles that fall, Susan flew in from London. She saw her son for the first time since he was 7. Initially, the reunion felt overwhelming and awkward, Amanda says. Nick had spent years believing the worst about his mother, and she was overcome with feelings of guilt for not being in his life. On their last night together, Amanda found them holding each other on her bed, crying. “She said she’d looked for him and tried to find him and had always loved him. He said how much he missed her and how he couldn’t understand where his mom and sister had gone and whether he’d done something wrong,” Amanda says. “It was heartbreaking.”

In December 2009, Nick left Boulder after just four semesters. This may have been because a few months earlier, his father had been arrested. The indictment, which runs to 127 counts and includes thirteen victims ranging in age from 18 to 30, claims that Joe used Craigslist and casting websites to lure aspiring actresses and singers to New York with the promise of auditions. He allegedly handed them a script in which they played the role of a prostitute, and insisted they get warmed up by drinking as much wine as possible and then disrobing. With some of the women, authorities say, he placed his Oscar in their hands. “This could be you, this could be you holding this Oscar,” he’d say. “If you do what I say.’’

The woman who’d been involved with Joe (but who is not a part of the indictment) said he took a similar approach with her. “He claimed he had a role that was perfect for me. I kept saying, ‘No thank you.’ He kept saying, ‘Do you realize who I am? I’m an Academy Award winner. This is an opportunity of a lifetime for you.’ ” Soon into their relationship, she says, he began threatening her with violence. He would claim he’d done favors for the Mafia and that he could have anyone he wanted killed. “I felt that if I left him, he’d come after me.”

But Nick may have had another reason for leaving Boulder. In early 2010, he and Joe got into a heated argument in which Nick revealed that he, Amanda, and Susan had reconnected. Joe threw him out of the house for a period and cut off Nick’s access to his trust fund. By that point, Joe may have needed whatever money he could get. Last June, he was ordered by a Washington judge to pay one of his victims $2 million in a civil suit. That was shortly after a Broadway investor who’d lent Joe money sued him for $2.4 million; which was after Joe’s bail increased to $1.25 million; which was after he settled his suit against a fiancée, who he claimed never told him she was already married; which was after he borrowed $500,000 from that same woman to raise bail (after giving her a gift of $1 million).

The Upper East Side apartment where Joe lived has been the center of a less official expenditure. According to Kristin Davis—the so-called Manhattan Madam who last year ran for governor—Joe ordered escorts from her on over 100 occasions between 2005 and 2008. He sometimes ordered two in a single night, at a cost of $1,000 to $1,200 per call. He started out as a good client, but after he repeatedly rejected women because he thought they looked too old, or refused to pay them, Davis blacklisted him. She says: “If I could have sent him a girl under 18, he would have been thrilled.” Davis says Joe would hand some of the escorts a film script he’d written and tell them to read the part of his lover. They were to tell him how handsome he was, how much they loved him. He promised them parts in his next film. And if he particularly liked them, he allowed them to hold his Oscar.

One night early last summer, a friend of Nick’s called him in an effort to persuade him to go out. By that point Nick and Joe had begun talking again, and Joe had apparently restored Nick’s access to his trust fund. Nick had moved into an apartment on Second Avenue in the East Village. He had recently broken up with a girlfriend and didn’t feel like carousing. But he finally agreed. That night he met Sylvie Cachay.

Raised in Virginia by a doctor and artist who’d emigrated from Peru, Sylvie knew what she wanted to do from a young age. She’d attended Parsons design programs as a teenager, and after graduating from college had moved to New York to work for Tommy Hilfiger. She’d been hired by Victoria’s Secret to revamp its swimwear line, then in 2006 had launched her own line, Syla, from her loft on Lispenard Street. “It was a perfect storm of insane talent, bringing something new, and a sparkling, magnetic personality,” says Lesa Wright McHale, Sylvie’s former publicist and friend. Though she drove her staff hard and could be dramatic, McHale says, Sylvie was always funny and self-deprecating. “She never took her beauty too seriously.”

Before Nick, Sylvie had never been known to date younger men and had been partial to the ambitious—or at least the steadily employed. In 2003, she married her college boyfriend, who works in finance. They divorced three years later but remained close. After her divorce, she dated and become engaged to a photographer. They didn’t marry but also remained close.

The night they first met, Nick and Sylvie ended up talking for hours. She told Nick how Syla had abruptly folded, after her backers had pulled out, just as she was breaking up with her fiancé. She’d had to give up her loft and move into a studio. Now she was working as a head designer for Anne Cole Collection swimwear, in a job she did not enjoy. She described her love for animals, and told Nick how one of her miniature poodles, Jazz, had died. He told her about the case against Joe, about his childhood, about reconnecting with his mother and sister. He loved his father, he told her, but also resented him and was embarrassed by him.

“He came off as this very sensitive, sad guy,” says Alicia Bell, who attended Parsons with Sylvie and remained one of her closest friends. “She likes to take care of people. She has a big heart. I really think he played with that.”

At the end of their first date, Nick and Sylvie were walking home from dinner with her two remaining poodles, Pepper and Lolita. When Pepper darted into the intersection of Hudson and Charles Streets and was run over by a car, Nick took charge, picking up Pepper and hustling him into a cab. They rushed to an animal hospital, where Nick stayed with Sylvie through the night. He was there when the veterinarian put Pepper down. Sylvie disintegrated, and Nick held her. For days, she was beside herself with grief, and Nick was there for her. After that, they were inseparable for much of the rest of the summer.

Nick told Sylvie during their first month together that he loved her and wanted to marry her, according to Bell. He gushed about her to his sister, too. For the first time in a while, “he seemed very happy,” Amanda says. After not meeting a man she liked for years, Sylvie “was finally hearing things from a guy that she wanted to hear,” Bell says.

But their differences were glaring. Nick, who was not working, liked to keep Sylvie out late. She was constantly exhausted as a result. She didn’t smoke pot, but he smoked a lot of it, and she often asked him to quit. What troubled her most, however, was Nick’s history with escorts. Nick was open about it, and they broke up repeatedly over the issue, only to get back together. When Bell last saw Sylvie, in October, Nick was supposed to join them for dinner, but when Sylvie arrived at the restaurant, she announced they’d split again. The issue, again, was escorts. Sylvie last saw her family over Thanksgiving in Cancún, where she told them she planned to end it with Nick for good.

On December 7, Nick and Sylvie were back together, but had another contentious night. The last text message Bell ever received from her friend was sent at 1:30 a.m. on the morning of December 8. “I know ur slpn, but what a night … i will try to call u tmrrw … luv u xoxo” it read. Bell knew it meant that they had been arguing again, and she could guess the reason.

Nick slept at Sylvie’s that night, and they had breakfast at Cafe Cluny before she went off to the Anne Cole offices. On this morning, she did so with a greater sense of excitement than usual. Sylvie and McHale had been discussing the relaunch of Syla. With the economy recovering, she was attracting new investor interest, and in her spare time had been designing a new line. That evening, Nick met Sylvie at her apartment. He would tell police the next day that they rented a movie, had sex, and then had an argument, this one over a letter he’d written apologizing for the escorts. Sylvie wasn’t convinced by the apology. A little after midnight they checked into Room 20 at the Soho House. Its employees were, aside from Nick, presumably the last people to see Sylvie alive.

When news of the arrest broke, Nick’s friends were shocked. “I’ve seen him get dumped, I’ve seen him cry and get angry, but this is obviously something I’d never expect,” his Horace Mann friend says. “We’ve asked each other, ‘Could we ever have suspected he could do something like this?’ No. Definitely not. Of all my crazy friends, I’d not even put him at the top of the list.”

When NYPD detectives drove him to court, Nick didn’t seem to grasp the gravity of the situation. According to police reports, he asked, “How long can I get for something like this?” and “How long have you been a cop? Have you ever shot someone?” Then he thanked them for not parading him in front of the press at the courthouse on Centre Street.

Since late December, Nick has lived in a cell at Rikers Island. Amanda flew to New York before Christmas and visited him there several times, and in early January, Susan flew in. Even at Rikers, Amanda says, Nick seems to be popular. They speak on the phone often. “I believe 100 percent in his innocence,” she tells me. “As much as I’m affiliated with him, as he’s my brother, I’m a smart enough individual to be able to dissociate myself from my emotions to know the truth.” Of her father, she says, “I am grateful to know he is finally facing the consequences of his actions and that there is some justice in the world.”

On the evening of January 7, Alicia Bell, Lesa Wright McHale, Sylvie’s ex-husband, her former fiancé, and several other longtime friends gathered around a large table at Lil’ Frankie’s, one of Sylvie’s favorite restaurants, to celebrate what would have been her 34th birthday. They passed around iPads with slide shows of Sylvie. They ordered her favorite dishes, toasted her with wine and shots, and told stories about her. It was recalled how, ever since childhood, Sylvie had a knack for finding the wounded, from dogs to people, and taking them in.

In the last week of January, the Manhattan D.A. revealed that twelve more alleged victims of Joseph Brooks had stepped forward. Nicholas is being represented by his father’s attorney, but according to Amanda, Joe has not visited his son or contacted him since his arrest.

The Curious Case of Joseph and Nicholas Brooks