The Soho House murder, told two ways

Today's tabloids, Dec. 10, 2010. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

The New York Post: On Tuesday, swimwear designer Sylvie Cachay told coworkers she'd broken up with her boyfriend of five months, Nick Brooks. The two were often seen on the town together but the relationship with the son of Oscar-winner John Brooks (who wrote and directed the movie You Light Up My Life and wrote its Oscar-winning song of the same name, and is awaiting trial on an 82-count sex-crime indictment) was called a rocky one by everyone interviewed about it. Nevertheless, the two were seen out together on Wednesday evening, and Cachay's West Village neighbors knew the couple were home Wednesday night. At about 10:45 p.m. Wednesday night, a neighbor named only Judy told the Post: "I heard them fighting and he yelled, 'You really hurt me.'"

"I heard her crying and him stomping around. Then I heard a loud crash in her apartment like someone was thrown on the floor. A few minutes later, I could hear her whimpering," said the neighbor, who's been interviewed twice by detectives working on the case.

About 15 minutes after the commotion died down the two arrived at the check-in desk at Soho House, the members-only club and hotel in the meatpacking district, where Cachay told the front-desk clerk that her boyfriend, a "stoner," had left lit candles behind the bed in her apartment and accidentally set fire to the bed as a result. Brooks said he came out of the bathroom to find a pillow and Cachay's hair on fire, and the two of them put out the blaze together. They told the front desk they wanted to stay somewhere else because of the smoky smell in the apartment and were given the keys to Room 20; Cachay's $1,800 annual membership fee gives her room-rental and -preference privileges at the club.

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Cachay also told the front desk she'd taken a lot of Xanax and could barely stay awake; the concierge had to help her to her room. As the front-desk clerk was leaving the two in the room, according to the Post, she heard Cachay shouting at Brooks "before abruptly going quiet."

A little before 2 a.m., the front desk received a complaint from a downstairs room that water was leaking through the ceiling; surveillance cameras show Brooks leaving the room about five minutes later, where he met someone to eat a meal and drink (possibly in the restaurant of Soho House, but it's not completely clear from conflicting accounts). While Brooks was eating, hotel staff entered the room and found Cachay floating face-up in an overflowing six-and-a-half foot oval tub wearing "only" a T-shirt and black panties, according to the Post (though, to us, that seems rather a surfeit of clothing than a lack, for soaking in a tub, no?).

Police declared her dead at the scene and found wounds on her neck that suggested strangulation, bleeding in her eyes and a bite mark on her hand. While police were still at the scene, around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, Brooks returned to the room. He's been held for questioning since and had not, at Post press-time, requested a lawyer.

Daily News: Cachay, 33, was a swimwear designer from McLean, Va. who studied at Parsons' Paris campus and got her start in New York after college with an internship at Marc Jacobs. She moved on to a job at Tommy Hilfiger, ultimately becoming head designer for women's swimwear before being poached in 2002 to head Victoria's Secret's swimwear line. In 2006, she struck out on her own with a swimwear line that got a lot of attention, but sometime after 2008 she ended up closing up shop, a move friends attributed to the tumbling economy, and went to work for swimwear designer Anne Cole, where she was still employed when she died.

Her relationship with Brooks was tumultuous, and public; even Cachay's publicist, Kate Godici, confirmed this to the News. Two weeks ago, Godici told the News, she received an email from Cachay: "The topic was her boyfriend, and it was not positive. He has a lot of issues, is all I can say. I don't think it was a healthy relationship. I just think he's unstable from what she's told me."

"She would always pay, they would always be fighting. They were shitfaced most of the time," an unnamed source at an unnamed West Village bar told the News.

Brooks grew up mostly in England, where his mother lives, but spent his summers in the Hamptons at a house belonging to his father. The family has had troubles recently: his father was arrested last year on charges he raped or sexually assaulted 11 women he lured to his East Side apartment between 2005 and 2008. According to then-District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, he would place ads on Craigslist and another talent web site offering movie roles to young actresses, invite them to his offices, serve them lots of red wine, sexually assault them and then intimidate them into silence. The case has not yet come to trial.

As for the younger Brooks, presently a resident of the East Village, his Facebook page is one of those that makes a point of his partying, with pictures of him drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels and smoking pot.

But nobody really accuses him of being mean-spirited, yet.

"He was just a joy to be around, a sweetheart, not a mean bone in his body," a family friend told the News. And while Brooks' building super, Roddy Rodriguez, doesn't seem to be a fan, his criticism extended only as far as the 26-year-old's powers of attraction. "She was way out of his league," the super said of the man he described as a "failed musician." "He just got lucky."

A source tells the News that when Brooks arrived back at the hotel room he'd rented with Cachay at around 3:30 a.m., he claimed to them that "she was alive, he left her at the hotel to get something to eat, and when he came back, she was the way she was."

Observations: I've constructed this roughly chronological account of the evening from both tabloids, trying to take the best from each, and it was a telling exercise. I found I could keep our usual format, because the best details from the Post concern the actions of the couple leading up to the finding of Cachay's body in the hotel room; background information on the two of them, however, was more rounded out in the News. That's interesting: I tend to think of the News' on-the-ground crime reporting team as the better one, and the Post's Page Six and society-reporter types as the better one for understanding and rounding out a story about Manhattan society. But upon reflection, it makes sense: Who's more likely to gain cooperation from the staff of an elite Meatpacking District club, and who is more likely to get an interview with Brooks' East Village super, and the victim's mother in McLean, Va.?

The Post spends twice as many pages on the story as the News, and in the long-run, this story will likely belong to the Post; given their status as the daily tabloid of record of Manhattan nightlife's upper-crust. You can expect the Post to play every possible angle on the story until it is well and truly dead, and to pick it up again once police are close to an arrest, if that doesn't happen very soon anyway.

Neither paper has a giant edge on the other this morning, though. And that could be as much about the two papers' different points of view as anything else. It's hard to imagine that anything dug up by the large teams assigned to the story at each paper has been left out, but the spin is different, and you can see it on the cover.

The Post: "Death at Soho House" is the rubric, in knockout white with drop-shadow on a red box along the top of the page; then, in knockout white on a black field, "BEAUTY IN THE BATH" runs alongside a large silho of Cachay credited to society photographer Patrick McMullan. Beneath all this, a text box carries the dek "Oscar-winner son grilled in club tub horror," and a lead paragraph of body text laying out the barest details of the story.

The News places the same silhouetted photograph (credited instead to a photo agency that probably syndicated the McMullan pic), and sticks with white knockout type on a black field reading "BEAUTY DEAD IN TUB: Shock & mystery at tony Soho House." A red box with white knockout type advertises the story-spread as pages 4-5.

There can't be much doubt about the winner in the category of the main hed. "BEAUTY DEAD IN TUB" is scarcely an effort. And while it's possible that all the extra bells and whistles on the Post cover could have cluttered the page too much, they didn't. This is a case where the more you know, the more you want to read. So the Post is right to get as much as it can on the front.

It's also worth noting the language: the News calls Soho House "tony," the Post assumes readers know of its cachet (sorry!) and use that to sell the story under the rubric "Murder at Soho House." They're each doing right by their readers, I think; the winner is really the paper with the best main hed.

Winner: The New York Post.