January 16, 2019

The Jewish con man who scammed Hitler

“A con man with a heart of gold.” That’s how Variety described Freeman Bernstein in his obituary. The vaudeville manager, boxing promoter and fake-jewel salesman loved to tell wild tales, and his favorite was how he’d once swindled the Third Reich. He sold the Nazis 35 tons of embargoed Canadian nickel, but instead delivered scrap metal and tin.

Political columnist Walter Shapiro was told many such stories about his great-uncle by his father, but it all seemed so implausible. Shapiro’s father, a mild-mannered city planner who spent his evenings in zoning board meetings, described Bernstein with reverence. Shapiro treated the stories with skepticism.

After his father’s death, Shapiro began digging into newspaper archives and government files. He uncovered hundreds of files from the New York District Attorney’s office, several federal agencies and the State of California archives, as well as 2,500 newspaper clippings about his great-uncle. He found the stories were not just true, but more incredible than he had believed.

Shapiro’s new book, “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer” (Blue Rider Press), offers a deep dive into the debauchery of Hollywood’s early days, revolving around a man who loved to play fast and loose with celebrities and with his creditors. Sime Silverman, publisher and founder of Variety, once called Bernstein the “Pet of Broadway.” With his flamboyant style (Bernstein loved men’s fur coats), over-the-top pronouncements to the press and a knack for slipping out of the justice system’s grasp, it’s not hard to see why. 

Shapiro, a longtime political reporter and columnist for Roll Call, is in the midst of covering his 10th presidential race. He said in an interview with the Jewish Journal that on the book tour, he’s often asked to compare Bernstein to GOP nominee Donald Trump.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest difference is that my great-uncle Freeman Bernstein was good-hearted; went through life with a smile on his face, not a snarl; and ultimately wasn’t a hater,” Shapiro said. “He liked foreigners. He particularly liked those foreigners who had never heard his hustle, so he might be able to use some of his old ones on them.”

Bernstein claimed to have met Hitler, and that the Führer spoke flawless English. There’s no evidence such a historic meeting occurred, or that Hitler could speak any English at all. But Bernstein did travel to Germany in 1935, when it was still possible for Jews to visit Germany using a foreign visa. According to Shapiro, he probably attended High Holy Day services in Germany around the same time the Nuremberg Laws were introduced. 

Bernstein was born in Troy, N.Y., to Jewish immigrant parents. Shapiro couldn’t find any evidence in synagogue records that Bernstein had a bar mitzvah. He married a young, blue-eyed vaudeville singer of Irish-Catholic descent, May Ward. An Orthodox rabbi officiated the wedding, perhaps to assuage Bernstein’s parents. Or, as Shapiro writes in the book, the rabbi “was willing to work cheap, since he had been in America for less than two years and lacked a congregation.”

In one anecdote in the book, Bernstein was trying to provide a refuge for vaudeville actress Laura Biggar, who was wanted for inheritance fraud. “He had put a deadline that they have to be in touch with me by noon,” Shapiro said. “The deadline was there, we found out, because it was sundown of Rosh Hashanah.”

It’s not clear how deep his relationship with Judaism went. “He was conscious of being Jewish; he probably celebrated the High Holy Days, but it was certainly not a major priority in his life,” Shapiro said.

Bernstein’s name could be in the dictionary next to chutzpah. He once ran a vaudeville troupe through Outer Mongolia, accepting payment in furs. After jumping into the silent movie business, the struggling producer ended his business with an insurance fire. He later ran an Irish festival in Boston under the unlikely name of Roger O’Ryan, and disappeared with the gate receipts. The Boston press dubbed him “O’Ryanstein.” As recounted in Mae West’s biography, Bernstein smuggled diamonds into the U.S. by feeding his adorable little dog a “mineral-rich diet” three hours before arriving at port.

But his biggest scheme involved defrauding the Führer. Germany needed the nickel for lining guns, and there was a boycott on selling such goods to Germany. Bernstein was paid what today would amount to $2 million for the rusted car parts and tin cans he actually delivered to the Nazis. He later claimed in a pamphlet that the nickel was swapped on the high seas without his knowledge. But he also boasted of the scam to the press and tried to spin his actions as political, so what really happened is anyone’s guess.

One amusing anecdote in the book involves Bernstein trying to sell jewels to West at her Hollywood apartment in February 1937. The two had known each other since 1903, when Bernstein was a vaudeville booking agent in New York and hired the 10-year-old West as a performer in some of his theaters. 

The movie star was no stranger to jewels, real or fake. After pulling out her scale, she bought some rubies and sapphires, but handed the artificial diamonds back, telling Bernstein that if they really were such high quality, “then you should have no trouble selling them.”

The night ended just after Bernstein left West’s apartment. He was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department from the back of a chauffeured limousine. Through a middleman in New York, the Nazis had indicted him for grand larceny. Then-New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, at the request of the German government, issued the warrant. 

A major Los Angeles extradition fight followed the arrest. The Jewish community in Hollywood, including Al Jolson and film-studio executive Joseph Schenck, put together a Freeman Bernstein support network and successfully prevailed upon then-California Gov. Frank Merriam not to extradite him.

According to Shapiro’s research, the Los Angeles Times visited him for a jailhouse interview after he had been in jail for a day. As the unnamed reporter put it, Bernstein requested a cigar. When he was told no cigar was available, he reluctantly took a cigarette and blew a perfect smoke ring.

Shapiro’s book resurrects a lively character otherwise forgotten by history. His body lies in a nearly unmarked grave in a small Jewish cemetery just outside Los Angeles. 

“If this was a fictionalization,” Shapiro said, “I would’ve had a few happier elements at the end. But the point was, more than anything, he wanted to be in the game to the end.”

Bernstein died in 1942 after suffering a heart attack in the hotel suite of William K. Howard, a major Hollywood director. That suggests that “even in decline, even in being nearly broke,
he still was considered someone to reckon with, someone who could get a meeting,” Shapiro said.

Perhaps, in that final meeting, Bernstein was pitching his life story. It certainly would have made a riveting feature film.