September 11, 1978 12:00 PM

In sunnier days she graced the pages of Glamour and Vogue, the covers of Cosmopolitan and Redbook. Blond, blue-eyed Melanie Cain was still a teenager who called Naperville, Ill. home when she moved to Manhattan and launched her modeling career. By 19 she was part owner and top star of her own small modeling agency and was soon earning $100,000 a year. Now Melanie Cain has suddenly changed venues again—from the fashion section to page one by way of a grisly murder.

It began last month when New York police discovered the body of Melanie’s fiancé, a balding, burly former pub owner named John Tupper, 34. Beaten, stabbed and shot seven times with a .32-caliber pistol, Tupper had been dumped into a packing crate that was set afire in a vacant lot in the Bronx. Charged with the killing was Howard “Buddy” Jacobson, 48, a onetime racehorse trainer who lived next door to the couple and who for four years had been Melanie’s business partner and lover.

If Melanie is the motive for homicide in the eyes of police, at least one friend sees her as simply “a naive Midwestern girl caught in over her head.” The eldest of six children, she was born in Virginia and spent much of her childhood on the move as her father, a copper-mining executive, transferred from job to job. As a 16-year-old in Naperville, “She wasn’t gorgeous, but she was cute and adventurous,” recalls drama teacher Burton Dikelsky, who coached her in a high school production of Bus Stop. “She knew how to go after the things that she wanted. For the play, she learned to sing, which she hadn’t done before, and she even learned to sing badly, which is more difficult.”

Although her only job experience had been as a carhop and a poultry packer, Melanie came to New York in 1973 with modeling photos her father had paid for. She was immediately hired by Ford Models, Inc., the largest and most prestigious agency in the city. Within a year she was being seen in ads for Clairol, Alberto VO 5 and Cover Girl cosmetics. Says Jerry Ford, agency president: “She was a pleasant, affable, quiet young lady—with poor taste in boyfriends.”

Among them was Buddy Jacobson, a blustery boulevardier who in the 1960s had saddled more winners than any other thoroughbred trainer in the country for three consecutive years. His role in a track strike at Aqueduct, however, and some financial misdealings got him banished from racing. By 1974 he was landlord of the Upper East Side apartment building that Melanie moved into. “He chased me around for six months, but I wouldn’t have anything to do with him,” she recalls. “And then I did.” The pair became roommates in Jacobson’s penthouse and partners in the My Fair Lady modeling agency in the street-level offices below. “It was a sugar-daddy situation,” says a model friend of Melanie’s. “She was very pretty, very naive. She definitely was not aware there are evil men out there.”

Buoyed largely by Melanie’s continued appeal to fashion photographers, the fledgling agency struggled to find jobs for its stable of models. As the business faltered, so did the affection that united its two founders. Buddy would later boast that he was “a womanizing man who enjoyed the company of many women.” Melanie, on the other hand, was a hardworking career girl by day and a homebody by night—”one who never moved with the Studio 54 set,” according to an acquaintance. “I left him many times,” says Melanie. “I basically didn’t want to spend any more time with him. We weren’t compatible.” Last July she split for good, moving down the hall into Tupper’s apartment. A man-about-town in his own right, he and Melanie had frequently jogged together. A few weeks later her new roommate turned up dead in the Bronx. (“Jack and I were going to be married,” a sorrowing Melanie says today.)

Held without bail in a Bronx jail, Jacobson last week awaited arraignment on charges of second-degree murder. Police claim witnesses saw him unload a crate from a late-model Cadillac, and they say bullets found in his apartment wall match those found in Tupper’s body. They are investigating the possibility that there may have been more between the two men than just Melanie—perhaps even a cocaine connection. Tupper, according to federal sources, was no stranger to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“I don’t realize he’s dead; it hasn’t hit me yet,” says Melanie sadly. Now a “star witness” in the case, according to the Bronx DA’s office, she canceled her modeling assignments when the grand jury began its investigation. Since then she has sought the seclusion of the New Jersey shore and the movie theaters of Manhattan. “When something like this happens, everything else is so incidental,” she explains. “It’s hard to go into a drugstore or look through a magazine or concentrate. My mind always goes back to this.” And what movie did she see first? “It wasn’t a very good choice,” she says with a sigh. “Heaven Can Wait.”

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