Hustling Hitler

The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer

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From acclaimed journalist Walter Shapiro, the true life story of how his great-uncle—a Jewish vaudeville impresario and exuberant con man—managed to cheat Hitler’s agents in the run-up to WWII.

All his life, journalist Walter Shapiro assumed that the outlandish stories about his great-uncle Freeman were exaggerated family lore; some cockamamie Jewish revenge fantasies dreamt up to entertain the kids and venerate their larger-than-life relative. Only when he started researching Freeman Bernstein’s life did he realize that his family was actually holding back—the man had enough stories, vocations, and IOUs to fill a dozen lifetimes. Freeman was many people: a vaudeville manager, boxing promoter, stock swindler, card shark and self-proclaimed “Jade King of China.” But his greatest title, perhaps the only man who can claim such infamy, was as The Man Who Hustled Hitler.
            A cross between The Night They Raided Minsky’s and Guys and Dolls, Freeman Bernstein’s life was itself an old New York sideshow extravaganza, one that Shapiro expertly stages in Hustling Hitler. From a ragtag childhood in Troy, New York, Shapiro follows his great-uncle’s ever-crooked trajectory through show business, from his early schemes on the burlesque circuit to marrying his star performer, May Ward, and producing silent films—released only in Philadelphia. Of course, all of Freeman’s cons and schemes were simply a prelude to February 18, 1937, the day he was arrested by the LAPD outside of Mae West’s apartment in Hollywood.
            The charge? Grand larceny—for cheating Adolf Hitler and the Nazi government. In the capstone of his slippery career, Freeman had promised to ship thirty-five tons of embargoed Canadian nickel to the Führer; when the cargo arrived, the Germans found only huge, useless quantities of scrap metal and tin. It was a blow to their economy and war preparations—and Hitler did not take the bait-and-switch lightly.
            Told with cinematic verve and hilarious perspective, Hustling Hitler is Shapiro’s incredible investigation into the man behind the myth. By reconstructing his great-uncle’s remarkable career, Shapiro has transformed Freeman Bernstein from a barely there footnote in history to the larger-than-life, eternal hustler who forever changed it.


"'Hustling Hitler' packs a real punch—a true story about a street smart New York promoter, whose activities seemed impossible to believe, but which are fully and carefully documented by Shapiro in this fascinating volume." —St. Louis Jewish Light


***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2016 Walter Shapiro



In February 1937, Freeman Bernstein was in the coin. After years of kiting checks, pawning his diamond cuff links, and putting the touch on old pals, Freeman was staying in the best hotels in California without worrying about being bounced if he couldn’t come up with the cash to square his account by Friday. A year ear‑ lier, Freeman didn’t even have the money to take the train from New York to Toronto without putting the touch on someone else to pick up his fare. Now he was traveling by limousine with his prized terrier, Benny, keeping him company in the backseat as he smoked his equally prized Corona Corona cigars. As Freeman himself would later write, looking back on this halcyon period, “I was now located in the most ideal spot in California . . . that place, as you know, is Hollywood, the city of glamour and what have you.”

He had been in California for seven months—and not a peep had been heard about that grand larceny indictment back east. It wasn’t like Freeman was hiding or playing hard to get. In fact, he was so public that he gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times while luxuriating in film‑colony splendor at the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs. As Freeman understood from his days hustling cards in first‑class salons on transatlantic liners, appearance trumps reality. So when he crowned himself the Jade King of China, no one questioned him about the details of the investiture ceremony. For Freeman, who was peddling jade, rubies, star sapphires, and a few iffy diamonds, nothing beat the free advertising from the Los Angeles Times headline: “‘Jade King’ Visiting in Desert Tells of Rich Burma Mines.”

When he moved on to Hollywood, an Oriental potentate like Freeman knew where to stay—the Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard. The stucco main house (originally built for silent movie star Alla Nazimova) and the twenty‑three secluded guest villas exuded high‑class cachet. Another attraction was the hotel’s anything‑goes reputation, symbolized by its well‑known disdain for hiring a house detective. Everyone in Hollywood had heard about the night an inebriated Tallulah Bankhead wandered around the pool nude and the time when a pixilated Robert Benchley was delivered back to his villa in a wheelbarrow. In fact, while Freeman was a registered guest at the Garden of Allah in mid‑February, Salvador Dalí arrived with his waxed mustache and his new wife, Gala, dramatically announcing that he had come to California to paint a portrait of Harpo Marx.

Freeman, whose formal education stopped around the fifth grade, was no intellectual. So it’s hard to imagine him devoting much brain power to pondering Dalí’s obsession with Harpo Marx as a surrealistic icon. The blond starlets lolling around the pool were undoubtedly more alluring to Freeman, though at sixty‑three years old, with a physique more resembling a table than Gable, his interest probably remained theoretical. Anyway, he had his eye on a different blonde, who was living four miles away in the Ravenswood Apartments. Freeman had precious, semiprecious, and, well, bogus stones to sell—and his target was the highest‑salaried actress in Hollywood. Mae West had asked him to come up and see her some time.

Their original connection has been lost in the grease‑paint blur of the early days of vaudeville. In her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, published in 1959, Mae West recalled being told by her agent that Freeman Bernstein “says you played in some of his theaters as a child actress.” That was pretty much what she scrawled that night at the Ravenswood on an autographed picture for the Jade King: “To Freeman Bernstein, who was my first agent at the age of 10 years old.”

When Mae West was ten in 1903, Freeman had just opened his first office as a vaudeville booking agent on Broadway south of Longacre Square (soon to be renamed Times Square) and was simulta‑ neously managing the twelve‑hundred‑seat Trocadero Music Hall in upper Manhattan, promising in his ads to bring “high class vaudeville” to an area struggling to become the Coney Island of northern Manhattan. He certainly knew from child stars, booking performers like eight‑year‑old La Petite Mignon and the youthful dancers Eva and Harry Puck to the consternation of the do‑gooders from children’s aid societies.

Mae West’s life did not lack for colorful characters, but even for her Freeman stood out. She lavished four pages of her autobiography on him, though it remains unknown what else she may have lavished on the Jade King when he came to call on the evening of February 18. As she recalled, “He had a sandpaper voice, and a ludicrous habit of repeating words and phrases. ‘I’m known as the Jade King—the Jade King,’ he told me, ‘and I heard you are interested in precious stones—precious stones like star sapphires—star sapphires.’”

Freeman’s scam was to mix high‑quality gems with the kind of gewgaws that you might find in a Cracker Jack box. Feigning ignorance about star sapphires, the Jade King warbled over the beauty of f lawed white stones with off‑color stars, while casually ignoring the fine jewels with the proper cornf lower hue. After displaying his best rubies, Freeman offered to also sell her a shimmering diamond (okay, it was a $65 zircon he had brought back from Asia) for the rock‑bottom only‑for‑you‑Mae price of $10,000.

The actress, who had written and starred in Diamond Lil, knew her way around paste as well as pasties. She had furnished her living room to enhance her beauty (a curved floor‑to‑ceiling mirror subtly increased height and reduced heft) and her sense of drama (three white polar‑bear rugs on the floor). But when it came to gems, Mae West craved reality, not illusion. Whipping out her own jewelry scale, she accepted Freeman’s price for the rubies and the best sapphires. “Aren’t you going to take the white ones?” Freeman asked dejectedly as she wrote the check. “Everyone likes them the best— the best.” Mae West, who gave herself the last word in her autobiography, replied, “Then you should have no trouble selling them.”

Still, when Freeman left the Ravenswood around midnight, he must have been basking in the bejeweled luster of his night at Mae’s. He had her autograph on both a photograph and a much‑ needed check. Sure, he was momentarily stuck with the f lawed white sapphires and the authentic zircon. But Hollywood was his kind of tawdry town, filled with gullible actresses and the gift‑ giving men who loved them—and neither group was known for conducting negotiations armed with their own jeweler’s loupe. Freeman had his limousine, his chauffeur, his dog, his Corona Corona cigars, and the heavenly bed that would eventually be awaiting him at the Garden of Allah.

If he were back in New York, Freeman would have headed for Lindy’s, the Hotel Astor, or some other Times Square joint to see who was around, what the gab was, and who might be impressed by his embellished tales of Mae West. In early‑to‑someone’s‑bed Los Angeles, the land of the six a.m. studio call, the Brown Derby at the corner of Hollywood and Vine was virtually the only round‑ the‑clock, see‑and‑be‑seen spot. That was where Freeman was heading when his limousine attracted the attention of two refugees from a Raymond Chandler novel—plainclothes detectives Johnnie Erickson and Jack Koehn of the fugitive squad of the Los Angeles Police Department.

You can just picture them in bruised fedoras, ketchup‑dotted ties, and shiny, ill‑fitting suits with cigarette ash on the lapels and conspicuous bulges underneath to show they’re packing heat. Erick‑ son might have been complaining about his ulcer again—the one that nearly killed him back in ‘35. Or been bragging about the tip that sent him to that rooming house on South Main where he nabbed George Mortensen, the pickax killer from Utah, without firing a shot. Koehn, even though he was pushing forty and was a detective lieutenant just like Erickson, was the junior partner on the team. Still, it was almost the one‑year anniversary of Koehn’s big‑ gest collar—using tear gas to smoke out Abraham Redlick (known in the papers as the “Frisco Kid”), who was on the lam from a jewelry store stickup in Pittsburgh.

Career criminals wanted for armed robbery and berserk murderers cowering in crummy rooming houses fed the headline‑ grabbing prominence of the Los Angeles fugitive squad. But why were Erickson and Koehm tailing Freeman Bernstein, whose only violent act ever was to yell into a telephone? Who had tipped them off where the Jade King of China was holding court?

Maybe, as they claimed, the two detectives got lucky in arresting Freeman by tailing a limousine that was cruising through Hollywood in a suspicious manner. The police may have been quietly monitoring Mae West’s apartment building in gratitude for her outspoken 1934 court testimony attacking thieves and racketeers preying on the motion‑picture industry. It is conceivable that the Garden of Allah, for all its promises of privacy, had a bellhop or two who dished the dirt to the cops. Or Erickson and Koehn could have been tipped off by one on Freeman’s many creditors back in New York, especially Stephen Meade, a bankrupt metals dealer who had hired private detectives to try to get his money back.

But the most likely explanation was that Freeman Bernstein— whom Variety once described as “the small‑time agent with the big time nerve,” who promoted his extravagant hustles on four continents, who believed in the P. T. Barnum power of bunkum and ballyhoo—simply couldn’t hide in plain sight. Finding Freeman in Hollywood required about as much detective work as locating Lou Gehrig at first base at Yankee Stadium.

A veteran at being handcuffed, Freeman submitted to arrest peacefully, but not quietly. His time‑tested strategy at these moments was to drop every name he could. He bragged to Erickson and Koehn that he was coming from Mae West’s apartment and told them, “I put Mae on stage thirty years ago,” brandishing the signed photograph as evidence of his VIP status. Looking up at the towering neon sign at Hollywood and Vine heralding Pantages movie palace, Freeman proudly informed his police escorts that he used to be a vaudeville booking agent for Alexander Pantages him‑ self. Of course, what Freeman didn’t know was that on the night that this Hollywood theater opened in 1930, Pantages, facing sexual assault charges, was reduced to listening to the red‑carpet festivities on the radio from the Los Angeles County Jail. Which was also where Freeman would be spending the night.

From the moment that Erickson and Koehn waved a fugitive warrant in his face, Freeman must have been asking himself, “Which fugitive warrant?” He thought that he had cleared up that business in Boston about the Irish festival, a fellow named Roger O’Ryan who looked suspiciously like him, and the missing gate receipts. And was it really Freeman’s fault that he had cashed someone else’s bum check because he ran short of funds running a sports book at the New Yorker Hotel? Anyhow, he was on probation for that one. Or maybe it was that bogus Canadian nickel deal with the Nazis that the New York DA’s office had jumped on like they were getting a second helping of pork chops at a boardinghouse. Freeman had an air‑tight alibi for that one—or, at least, when viewed in a certain light, a pretty good explanation. And, anyway, who’s going to get arrested in Holly‑ wood in 1937 for bilking Adolf Hitler?

In Freeman’s mind, the origins of the fugitive warrant were a coin f lip. But it turned out that it was the Nazi nickel that bounced off his limousine and landed him in Erickson and Koehn’s custody for a little ride downtown.

Once delivered to the hall of justice, Freeman, like the two thousand other prisoners housed in the county lockup, began his incarceration by being booked, fingerprinted, and mug‑shot on the tenth floor. His jailers took away the wad in his wallet and the Mae West check, but they returned $5, which, given the way that Free‑ man played cards, was more than enough. A jailhouse trusty then escorted Freeman to the supply room where he was given a mattress, blankets, a miniature pillow, a small chunk of homemade soap, plus the aluminum cup and spoon featured in all prison movies. Okay, it wasn’t the Garden of Allah. But to Freeman, it certainly beat that

1921 mix‑up in Brussels when he was led through the streets in handcuffs and left to rot for three days in a dungeon known as “the Tunnel.”

The next morning, wilted from a night in the cells, Freeman— still in his dark suit and patterned tie, and desperately needing a shave—met with the boys from the papers in a flurry of flashbulbs. The L.A. police put on a show like they had just nabbed Ma Barker and her boys.

Captain Jack Trainor, who headed the fugitive squad, played the Hitler card, claiming that Freeman Bernstein had defrauded agents of the German Reich out of $272,000. The supposed scam was that Bernstein had promised the Nazis high‑grade Canadian nickel, but instead delivered to Hamburg scrap metal in the form of old tin cans, rusted railroad tracks, and discarded bailing wire. Reveling in the latest triumph of the fugitive squad, Trainor dramatically declared that Freeman Bernstein “had been sought far and wide—throughout the world—for six months at the insistence of the German buyer.”

Trainor fantasized about headlines like “Capt. Trainor’s Fugitive Squad Nabs Swindler After Worldwide Manhunt.” But those front‑page dreams vanished as soon as the reporters got a crack at the prisoner. Freeman’s performance was a cross between W. C. Fields and Fibber McGee with a little bit of Sydney Greenstreet thrown in for class. After introducing himself as a longtime vaudeville booking agent for the likes of Alexander Pantages and John Considine, after casually mentioning that, yes, he first put Mae West on the stage, Freeman proudly announced that all over the Orient, from Manila to Shanghai, he was known to one and all as “the Jade King.”

Then Freeman Bernstein, in a voice like a fog horn, gave the lowdown on that Hitler thing: “When I was in Germany last year,” he boomed, while puffing a borrowed cigar from behind a desk at police headquarters, “Adolf Hitler was on bended knee begging me to help him get some nickel which was so terribly hard to get in that country. Goering, one of his chief aides, did some pretty hard begging. And I promised to do the best that I could to do what they wanted and I did.”

Freeman may have sensed from the quizzical expressions and eye rolls by the newspaper boys that he was going too far with the Führer‑is‑my‑friend braggadocio. So Freeman adopted a new role as the aggrieved international businessman, claiming, “Adolf Hitler got just exactly what he paid for in that deal—scrap steel and nickel, and I’ll prove it.” Swearing that he would never sign the extradition papers that would send him back to New York, Freeman ended with a variant of a line that he had frequently resorted to through‑ out his checkered career: “Hitler ain’t got a thing on me.”

They certainly hadn’t a thing on Freeman when it came to publicity. Thirty‑five years in the limelight—all those interviews with Sime Silverman for Variety, all those stunts like announcing a match race for Man o’ War in London and an exhibition bout for Jack Dempsey in Mexico City—had made him a hit‑maker of the headlines. And the first paper to hit the streets with the story, the Friday, February 19, edition of the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express, set the tone for all subsequent California press coverage of Freeman, Adolf Hitler, and the ersatz nickel.

“Bernstein’s Deal with Hitler” was the headline. But it was the over‑banner in bold type that told the story Freeman’s way: “Embarrasses Der Fuehrer.” What could be funnier than an American guy named Bernstein with multiple chins pulling a fast one on the Nazis? That comic‑strip story line appealed to the makeup editor of the Herald and Express, who laid out the front page with a picture of Freeman on the left (“Adolf Hitler Got Just Exactly What He Paid For!”) and a frowning photo of the German chancellor on the right (“Fuehrer Adolf Hitler ‘Hooked’ in Buying Nickel from Mr. Bern‑ stein, Claim”). In this Hollywood yarn, it wasn’t hard to figure out who to root for.

As the Friday afternoon edition of the Herald and Express was rolling off the presses, Freeman finally got his day in court. By the luck of the draw (and clearly someone other than Freeman had cut the cards), the case was assigned to the biggest prig on the municipal bench, the Honorable Clement D. Nye. Just four months earlier, in September 1936, Judge Nye wielded the gavel the night they raided Minsky’s, or, at least, the Los Angeles edition of the travel‑ ing burlesque troupe. Calling the production “revolting,” Nye sentenced the manager of Minsky’s to 180 days in jail without bail. When Alice Kennedy, one of the ecdysiasts from Minsky’s, began sobbing melodramatically in the courtroom, the judge fined her $300 on the spot. In short, Judge Clement D. Nye was not the kind of guy you wanted to be standing between you and the electric chair.

Despite Freeman’s top billing, he barely had a speaking part in court. After the prisoner formally refused to voluntarily return to New York to stand trial, Judge Nye, in a burst of punitive ferocity, set bail at $50,000, the equivalent of more than $800,000 today. Freeman’s lawyer, John E. Ford (not the film director who had just released Mary of Scotland with Katharine Hepburn), protested and the judge grudgingly agreed to reduce the amount to a still hefty $25,000. “That ought to hold anyone arraigned for anything short of murder,” Ford said. “Besides, Bernstein’s good friends Joseph Schenck and John W. Considine will guarantee the bond.”

Three decades earlier in Manhattan, Schenck had built the Fort George Amusement Park as a rival to Coney Island. Free‑ man’s Trocadero Music Hall adjoined the sprawling attractions at the end of the Amsterdam Avenue trolley line. Now Schenck had been reborn as Hollywood royalty after launching 20th Century‑ Fox with Darryl Zanuck. In fact, the night of Freeman’s arrest, Schenck had given a dinner with Zanuck in honor of Admiral Byrd—the Antarctic explorer temporarily stateside and getting no closer to frostbite than baked Alaska—featuring guests like Doug‑ las Fairbanks, Charles Boyer, Eddie Cantor, and Ernst Lubitsch.

Considine, though in his mid‑seventies and ailing, was more Freeman’s kind of guy. As Joe Laurie Jr. wrote in his misty remembrance, Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace, “John Con‑ sidine was one of the most colorful characters in show business. He could handle a gun like Wild Bill Hickok and could play pool like Hoppe.” Not to mention the minor detail that Considine had shot and killed the corrupt former police chief of Seattle in a drug‑store brawl in 1901—and got off on grounds of self‑defense. Running one of the few independent first‑class wheels in vaudeville, the Sullivan‑Considine circuit on the West Coast, he first hired Free‑ man as a booking agent in 1906. And Considine proved to be Free‑ man’s most loyal friend through the coming legal ordeal.

But even $25,000 bail, marked down from $50,000, couldn’t be easily raised on a Friday afternoon. Especially with Schenck on the road to Palm Springs to attend a dinner with a shipwreck theme at the Racquet Club along with Ralph Bellamy, Paul Lukas, and Freeman Gosden. And Considine was resting at home with heart problems. So Freeman was still stuck on the wrong side of the jail‑ house bars as he met a reporter from the Los Angeles Times.

When a man knows he’s going to spend the weekend in Los Angeles County Jail, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. Freeman had spent the prior twelve hours perfecting his patter. “I should’ve sent Hitler a carload of papier‑mâché,” Freeman groused. “Actually, he got what he bought. Scrap iron and nickel. Not much nickel, but some.” The Jade King also expressed his fears that he would be shot if he returned to Nazi Germany and hinted that retirement might be a safer course of action. But first there was that small misunderstanding with the New York City district attorney’s office. “I’ll fight them,” Freeman thundered. “They haven’t got a case.”

His performance over, Freeman begged the gentleman from the Los Angeles Times for a cigar. It didn’t have to be a Corona Corona; any cigar would do. Disconsolately, he accepted the reporter’s cigarette instead. Lighting up, Freeman Bernstein concluded the inter‑ view by blowing a perfect smoke ring.