tv Book Discussion on Hustling Hitler CSPAN July 24, 2016 8:15pm-9:01pm EDT
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on behalf of the entire staff, welcome it is the pleasure to have you here. it's a pleasure to talk about hustling hitler. if you have noisemaking devices a please turn them off. walter will discuss his book for about 25 minutes on and take as many questions as we can fit into 20 minutes more. we encourage questions. please use the microphone in the center by the pillar. after the q&a please fold up your chair and place it against the bookshelf. thank you. the signing line will be here at the table and books are for sale at upfront where you walked inches and hustling hitler, walter, walter shapiro tells a story about freeman bernstein, vaudeville manager, boxing promoter, car promoter, car chart, writer of worthless ious in one of the con on the nazi government. of course he is his great uncle.
although walter does not have appeared to inherited his criminal tendencies, he did inherit a sense of hustling. he covered every presidential election since 1980 which makes 10. he has written for roll call, politics daily, usa today, time, newsweek, the washington post among others. has also served as washington washington post among others. has also served as washington bureau chief as a speechwriter the carter white house and as a lecturer at yale university. please welcome walter shapiro. [applause]. >> while. first first of all, i really want to thank politics and prose which is one of the world's great bookstores. i love independent bookstores. independent bookstores. i particularly love that politics imposes driving. now looking around i don't how many many of you are old enough to remember, the old, old
1950s tv tv show, this is your life. clapmac, will that is a little bit how i feel looking around the room is seen so many old friends. so let me start off by, this book really starts with my father. my father died in 2004 and he and he was a connecticut city planner. a mild-mannered city planner. in suburban connecticut who went to the zoning board meetings in the evening. were talking about a racy upbringing i had. but my father kept talking about his uncle, his uncle freeman. my grandmother's older brother and he kept saying he was a really big and vaudeville, he knew people like sophie tucker, he married a showgirl and ultimately he cheated hitler on
a nickel deal. wait a second. we are in a suburban connecticut living room, this makes no sense. it was like my father taking me my father taken me aside and sang, you know son, your direct descendent of sitting bull. back okay. after my father died, i didn't really think about freeman bernstein until 2010. that was when a visiting when a visiting cousin from paris showed up and the visiting cousin, second cousin was from a branch of the family i did not even recognize the name. we. we are not a close family. he is doing genealogical research, not for him but for his sister. so there we are, two guys, we can go out to lunch at bernie bring grass and we are desperately trying over eggs and onions which i recommend to everyone on the upper west side, we're desperately, desperately
trying to maintain conversation. it is slagging. how. how much can you talk about family among two people who don't care about family. after about 45 minutes minutes in, we are about to have sent to thoughtful silences, he says to me, you know the only interesting thing i ever heard about my family was that i had a great uncle who cheated hitler. wait. i had a great uncle who cheated hitler. so i was told. by very unreliable narrative narrator, my father. i took enough college anthropology to know there were two tribes on two islands in the pacific ocean, 2000 miles apart, and they both have religion based on the arrival of a white ship, there probably was a white ship. now we are about to deal with the first lucky thing and doing hustling hitler. that is that my great uncles
name was freeman bernstein. don't ask me working from. had he been his brother's name, sam bernstein, do you have any idea what it would be like to find the right sam bernstein. so let's be honest, i can brag about my research method but they really started off with mr. i typed the name freeman bernstein with quotation marks into google and i expected to only come up with up interest in minneapolis. maybe. instead, the the first clip that pops up what's from the los angeles times of february 20, 1937. metals broker denies it bilking hitler. it recounts how one freeman
bernstein metals dealer, jewel importer, and former vaudeville manager, had been arrested at midnight in the back of a chauffeured limousine, smoking a cigar having just left may west apartment. laughmac the charge that mr. bernstein was arrested on was, cheating the nazis on a nickel deal for scarce canadian nickel. he had been indicted from new york and this was a fugitive warrant in los angeles. okay, precooked and the story that just this point. the moment that really hooked me was the last paragraph of this 1937 on signed l.a. times story. mr. bernstein asked the visiting reporter for cigar and lost angeles county jail. when told there was no cigar, he settled first cigarette.
he blew a perfect smoke ring. i mean, forget the forget the surgeon general for a moment, what we are talking about, i wanted to be related to someone after 24 hours of l.a. lockup could still blow a perfect smoke ring. this got me started on the quest the next moment came when and the new york public library, i found a 50 page pamphlet that why do i feel like was not in heavy demand among the 4,000,000 bucks in the new york public library. it was a pamphlet by freeman bernstein entitled, was hitler's nickel hijacked? reading it i discovered that if you believe his story then somewhere on the high seas between canada and germany,
another boat came up with the exact same weight of the nickel and canadian scrap metal and substituted the cargo. okay. in the book there was one other thing that sort of got my attention. freeman bernstein, a jew born in troy, new york in 1873, claimed that he met with chancellor hitler. in freeman's telling, hair hitler spoke flawless english. a biographical detail that has been subsequently lost to future historians. laughmac. it's a it's amazing how sloppy it is when you have original sources. that was enough, in fact i was going through one of the's and downs in journalism and my wife was with me and i turned to her and said, i know they say in
times of trouble you can depend on your family. but this is ridiculous. one tip for all apprentice authors out there, it really helps to sell a book if you can get adolf hitler and may west into your opening paragraph and neither is a metaphor. [laughter] i spent five years researching the life of freeman bernstein. a person who variety in his 1942 oh oh but you are a called fabulous vaudeville character of yesteryear. because the nickel deal was just the end of a long career of both successes as a vaudeville manager and as a silent movie producer, object failures, and rather interesting approaches to honesty.
in fact, if it's into sort of the jewish framework in america, you have read all of the immigrants stories whether whether you're jewish or not. first generation immigrant rose his way across america, shows up speaking no english but inspired by the statue of liberty. work goes to work in a garment factory, works 18 hours per day, goes to school on saturday, only to put young david to medical school. we have already. periodically we have seen the stories of the jewish gangsters. the bugsy siegel's of this world. the people for who is submachine gun, better. the people for who a submachine gun, better not use weapon weaponry after this week. a gun is really not show us a part of their livelihood and dead bodies, the term.
there is a middle ground that nobody writes about. that is juice i really believe that honesty is the best policy if you are born a loss. if you are given membership in the union league club at birth. for them, for them, honesty works fine. for people without those advantages, honesty works only when it is convenient. anyway, that got me started on this road. i cannot retell all of freeman's life but i can tell you some high points. he was known in vaudeville for having the lobbyist voice, the biggest cigars, the most outlandish streams and the biggest reputation for not paying his bills. but he was successful enough, variety called him the biggest smalltime agent which meant he
booked vaudeville acts into places like scranton, pennsylvania, syracuse, new york. the towns not big enough for the orpheum circuit or the all the circuit in the east coast. he had relatively sometimes major figures on the way up. both george burns and his autobiography and actually may west also claims that he helped give her her start on stage. the point about all of this is he wasn't a nobody, but he kept his dreams always surpasses income. for example, in 1904 he had the dream, enough with the orpheum circuit, it's enough for a time
it's time for the bernstein circuit. so he went to places like scranton, harrisburg, places like that and guaranteeing them split week entertainment. two week entertainment. two shows per week. a bernstein production. it works like a charm. until he had to change acts. the fact is, then vaudeville, the only way to get people coming back like yuletide movies is there had to be something new each monday. the problem was the gate receipts were not big enough to book the second tier of good acts. so he had to book a second tier of very bad acts. very talentless people. eventually the gate receipts became such that there's only enough money for one train ticket out of town. i will let you guess who got it.
in vaudeville he specialized in a subset of vaudeville called in those days, freaks. freaks. what weeks were, they were reality tv. if you are the other in the famous divorce case which ended with your notoriety, there is freeman trying to book you a $10000 a week. one of the people he booked regularly with someone by the name of may yogi. in the 1890s it was a american young actress who hit london and hooked up with the british royalty. particularly lord hope. the owner of the hope diamond. may yogi actually had the hope diamond for about seven years until she ran off was someone more attractive and decidedly
less wealthy. down on her luck freeman would stumble upon her onstage for $1000 per week. week. he did things like this. eventually vaudeville dried out, by 1914 silent movies were really killing the good days of vaudeville. he was broke. i mean he was really broke. i have to mention that he and his showgirl wife may ward had declare bankruptcy twice each. the only time he was embarrassed by this was may ward's first bankruptcy was on page one with a picture of new york world. three years later when she declare bankruptcy again in was in the new york world right next to a failed barrier. that was the only embarrassment. okay, so they they have to leave town.
they just have enough money to get to philadelphia. remember and stain was one of the most persuasive people around, he gets the local townspeople in germantown pennsylvania to stake into a silent movie production company. with his wife as the star. his first movie which was actually from the reviews pretty good, inspired by the birth of a nation, it was a reenactment of the battle of saratoga called continental girl. i know you did not see it when may ward clambered up a 40-foot flagpole to show the stars & stripes. it was just inspiring. the second film, it had a wonderful plot of may word as an innocent girl in a boarding
school abducted by white slavers and brought to new york to live out the bots wife only to be rescued by her loyal boyfriend from the school in pennsylvania. it was wonderful. except the sensors did not capture the mood of a movie called virtue and they focus too much on the scenes in new york in the middle and he was banned in philadelphia. he was banned in new york. he was banned everywhere. this of course led to the business necessity known in the annals of american business as the insurance fire. by the 1920s he had shall we say on a little more rolled. he and his wife who had retired from vaudeville loved ocean liners. freeman was a a card shark and what he was wonderful at is policing the passengers
with their money between new york and southampton. the best thing they did was something they called the anniversary hustle. it worked like this. first night out in the first class salon they walk in arm in arm and say tonight is our anniversary. there is free champagne for everyone, we want all of you to be a newfound friends and celebrate with us. there was no con the champagne was legit, if if low, it was good vintage stuff. the next afternoon, normally these wealthy people of first class would not like it when a stranger just suggests a little card game for fun. but remember and steam wasn't stranger, he was there close friend who had bought them shane champagne the night before. and verbally by the time the boat docked, freeman, freeman made
ten times the cost of the champagne in cards. by 1929, he was a little desperate so you look, i don't know if you can see this picture but he look like a freeman bernstein. however in 1929 at the boston garden, he organized an irish festival under the name of roger o'brien. i mean, it was authentic. the blarney stone was authentically dug up from behind the massachusetts bar. the irish razorback pigs came from the estate of someone named irish in new jersey. much more importantly the meals were provided by didn't see more. actually, the the placemats were stolen from ten to more. the irish stew was cooked up by an off-duty policeman at the irish fare. but but still, this
was a glorious financial success until and this will shock all of you, roger or ryan disappeared just before the performances were going to be paid. and this time the boston police and newspapers tracked him down and made a lot of attention to a man who they called mr. o'brien steam. it's my joke, it's the boston herald. i don't want to bore you with the sports book that did not exactly go right at the hotel new yorker in 1930 and the only way to pay off the gamblers was for freeman to write a few, i won't call them bum checks, i will call them hopeful checks which of the hotel cash. i have to say, freeman loved hotels because they had many exits.
he also loved to writing checks on obscure canadian banks. he loved them at the end of railroad minds because he figured it would take for 4 - 6 weeks for the checks to come back. asked after the second grand larceny indictment it was time to go. he moved to shanghai and crowned himself the jade the king of china. it was a very stirring in vest for sure, little like king arthur and the sword and the stone. but he actually traveled all over asia to get jewels. he developed, as mae west actually sketches out her autobiography, goodness had nothing to do with it. he had a novel way of smuggling jewelry. jewels.
he and his wife did not have children, but they loved animals. he traveled with his beautiful white carrier and about three hours outside of port before facing u.s. customs, the dog was fed a mineral rich diets. and what could be cuter than this distinguished gentleman coming back from the orient, accompanied by this the beautiful little ball of fluff. with a slightly protruding stomach. all of this set up the great con which i will not go into too much detail on which was, he and a corrupt corrupt metals dealer got the idea for selling the nazis on bogus canadian nickel. nickel, turns turns out in the 1930s was desperately needed for military reasons like lining the insides of guns and armor plating. in fact, fact, if you intended to invade poland and
france you needed a call. canadian nickel was the only nickel available. however, the canadians were aware of the number of canadian soldiers who died in the trenches of world war i from guns fired by germans lined with canadian nickel. it was almost impossible to export canadian nickel. so freeman and his partner set the word out in new york that they had 200 tons of canadian nickel. they sparked the understandable bidding war, the germans represented by a fellow by the name of otto cosco. franz cosco first cousin. i am the only person who did a book on a trickster who took out the nyu library and academic volume called cost goes relatives. it's in the bibliography.
so all of them working together created this bidding war for canadian nickel. but they kept whispering. we can't label this when we exported as canadian nickel or the mounties will stop us. so we'll have to be canadian scrap metal. and wherever question was raised, we do it this way to hide what were doing from the mounties otherwise they will find out. of course the metal had to be inspected. all that meant is that the metals inspector had to be bribed and freeman, this entire deal was done with the 20 pounds of nickel. not 20 tons, 20 pounds that freeman bought a small metal shop. this was his constant sample case. it was injected at the top of barrels in toronto before the barrels were inspected. ultimately he had the good fortune if you're exporting
something from halifax in march and the temperature outside is minus 7 degrees, you can have pretty good hope that the cargo will not be closely inspected. freeman, from his days in vaudeville new went to get off stage. so as soon as he was paid hundred 50,000 dollars, dollars, he took off for the orient. when the boat landed in humber, instead instead of hard to get canadian nickel the nazis opened up hard to get canadian rusted tin cans, rusted auto bodies, hard to get canadian brake crumbs and in fact the junk metal dealer in toronto think it's it his number two bundles. he was indicted through the middle man in new york and we have left him locked up in l.a. lockup where he spent two months in jail.
he was backed by the hollywood jewish community who saw and he pertained himself as a martyr to the nazis when he wasn't quite claiming that the nazis that what they paid for. if you melt down what i gave you there some nickel in there somewhere. his lawyer turned out to be just on his way up, a man about town by the of greg bowser who is dating i think dating may be the slight word. liana turner. despite his sleepless nights he was a very good lawyer and by rallying the jewish community including a major producer by the name of joseph shank who was the cofounder of 20th century fox, the governor of california quickly figured there was more campaign contributions to be
made from keeping christine's friends happy rather than indicting him to the new york das office where there were no campaign contributions. a year later he was indicted again, arrested on a fugitive warrant from those checks in the new york it was a really hard to blame bum checks on the nazis though he tried. but the governor of california said he cannot be tried for the nazis nickel, he went back to new york after a day in the tombs he announced he would help the prosecutor convict his confederates. he did not prove to be that reliable witness and after about two and half years of supporting him the new york das office sent him back to california. i have done this as i've said with 2500 newspaper clips in 1500 pieces pieces of legal documents.
wonderful thing of the economy is you leave a paper trail. the only family paper i ever found was a telegram he wrote from hollywood to my parents in new york for their wedding in august tenth, 1941. 1941. the telegraph, all ten words promises sunshine galore and then it is signed, colonel freeman bernstein. [laughter] i have spent a lot of time staring at that telegram which i've found in my parent's papers and wondering why did he sign it colonel. i fathered new the only time he dealt with the colonel was when he was investigated by the war department for kickbacks of vaudeville shows and encampments after the war. presumably my mother would ask my father, so who is this military hero and the family and be set straight.
so i like to picture of remembrance teen with a flower in his boutonniere, charming the western union woman as they send off the telegram by signing it colonel freeman bernstein. he died in 1942 in december, in the hotel room of a hollywood producer by the name of william k howard. he is a pretty major 1930s producer. what i would like to imagine is that freeman, when he had the fatal heart attack was pitching william k howard on his life story. the. the story i called in hustling hitler. probably here's tried to borrow $5. where in l.a. a few years ago i visited freeman's' grave. it is a little jewish cemetery now in a latino neighborhood outside of l.a. but was to buy a plants,
hydrangea plant, no one in the flower shop spoke english. the cemetery had a combination lock. there is no office on site. i had to call and get the combination. i was told that his grave was wrote 22 grave number 34. i get there and i find and i find pro 22 but around grave number 26 the graves stop. there is just debris. i call the cemetery office and i am told, i said said what is the real number, there is no number 32. they said it's under the leaves. so i have to remove about this much debris, leaves, old cardboard and ten years of being unkempt and uncared for. finally i find a foot stone, not as large as this book but as
large as a paperback book. my wife and i had a bottle of water in the car i wouldn't with kleenex and a little bottle of water we tried to clean off the footstone. it says, after bernstein. there is not enough money to give his full name. it is f bernstein, 1942. there was not enough money to edge the year of his birth, 1873. as i'm standing over this neglected grave, i'm not religious, it would've been hypocritical for me to give a blessing even if i knew one. so instead, i looked down and i tried to find words that might bridge eternity. words that the soldier might want to hear. and i say, you are remembered. thank you. [applause].
>> we have about 20 minutes for questions. >> i guess i have to pretty closely related questions. it seems like a really great book and a great book to make a movie of. i'm wondering wondering if you are thinking along those lines? the related questions, a story that someone else might have come across, someone other than a relative or maybe another relative and so you spend five years writing a book. for their points in time when you are concerned that someone else would get to this before you did? >> so many questions embedded in that. first of all, i was not exactly feeling like i was in in a race with six other family members. we are all freeman and steen
biographers. also, i did not care about being first-come i just wanted to be the best. i think think there are many reasons why freeman bernstein had been forgotten for 70 years. i was not worried about the competition. i was worried, i will be honest, if i delay too much longer because i was also covering politics at the same time. the publisher make it a little antsy but i was never concerned about another book. as far as a movie, and this is one of the things that, yes believe it or not, there have been a lot of hollywood interest and if anybody has more interest i can give you my details of the agents. the bidding war will start soon. seriously, there has been interest and as far as casting it, i had the perfect figure to do freeman bernstein.
in writing the book i saw zero must tell in the producers as remember and stain. in a pinch i will take nathan laying and i know there are five words that could change my life. george clooney is freeman bernstein. [applause]. >> am i supposed to adjudicate questions? >> don't be shy. >> well a some of you know i'm walter's wife but there is one thing that you didn't mention in your talk and that is his relationship with friday magazine and his script.
>> okay, think i have a prompter. one of the things that made the book possible is that silverman, the founding editor of variety fell in love with freeman bernstein is a broadway character. remembered steen was when david runyan was a cover reporter in denver still learning to drink. as a result, variety would run freeman bernstein's monologues about about every three weeks for 15 or 20 years. a typical one would start off with three members she was rubbing lemons over last year's panama hat. ain't it a shame he said, i can't afford a new bonnet. i have have to fix up last year's bonnet myself. would be off in a rambling discussion of freeman
bernstein's money problems. now he and his wife even before jiggs and maggie the comic strip always had running disputes over money. one night at the top of hammerstein's ballroom freeman was the only person not wearing a text data. and silverman of writing comes up to him and says, what, you can afford a talks a tax? he said no i have a tux at home. and then he tells a story about how mei was after him because he knew he gotten hundred dollars fee and he was knocking to give her the money and he knew if he ever took office close she will go through them in the middle of the night. so he's a lot better not to where the talks. then there is a time when he was spied walking down broadway in early march in the spring a stay wearing her coat and a shabby
coat over it. and was asked freeman, what are you doing? he said if they come home if i leave the code at home they will attach the coat. if i wear it so people can see it they'll take the coat. this is the the only way i can keep the coat. i mean he loved inventing scams. beyond that hotdogs rights on grants to one day he decided he would sell his top idea to restaurant tours, how they could get away with small portions. plates with magnifying glasses at the bottom. variety also charges his efforts at race fixing which often did not work out exactly the way he wanted them. as they they put it, his forces were overeducated. they went around the far turn and they always looked at the tote board.
but what i found in this is the most miraculous find in writing this book, that was a 1935, just before the nickel scam freeman was really down on his luck. he had no money, he had typed on the back of borrowed stationery from liquor and wine importers on west 57th street, a movie treatment. for his idea of a movie and involves a con man with a heart of gold. he pulls off race at tracks string where his horse comes in 50 - 1 he then marries the widow of a steel broker who falls in love with him and suddenly has more money than what he knows what to do with. he has tailors coming in and out of his hotel suite.
he also pays off every single person he owes. this is really important. freeman wasn't tremendously generous when he had money it just was not terribly often. and then, left with all of this money he buys the three things that you and i would buy if we had unlimited wealth. a circus, a fight club, and a hotel in which he had been staying in. freeman, 1935 did not know what to do with his script. variety had maintained a vaudeville registry service back in the days of vaudeville's if you had a dr. skit that ended with the dr. hitting the patient over the head with his mallet, you would write it down and send it to friday, they would
timestamp and put it in a filing cabinet. if you heard that an act five years later buffalo was doing the same act you could complain to variety and they would publicize that you registered the script five years earlier. this died with the writers guild and the death of vaudeville and the rise of movies. he sent it off to variety and there the scripts that. when friday moved their main offices from new york to los angeles, the file cabinet at the registered script went with it. in 2012 is right he was moving to smaller quarters motion picture academy worked out with emerson college that anything of historical interest from variety we will pay for if emerson will catalog it. that is how freeman script blue money, the name of the horse, managed, managed to survive being pulled and miraculously appeared in 2013 and 13 and was sent to me by emerson college.
it is the closest thing i can have in freeman's own voice to the wish fulfillment of a con man who really wanted to be a success and pay everybody off if only he had the money. anything else? >> i have a question, really shitty because i've been going to this process with walter for a long time. if anybody hears a writer or anybody as a researcher, the most challenging thing to me as he went through this is all of the detail and all of the research. how do you organize this and when you would find new things was that good? were you in despair because the material never stop? how do you do you write something that is a research intensive? >> as i said, this this by the way the book was only made possible by character recognition software. the fact that now newspapers that never had an index or
index. that had i done this with my father was alive, of those 2500 newspaper 500 newspaper clips probably 400 would be found. number one, that was the great beneficiary. number two, the city of new york, bless its heart throws nothing out. they are like variety and that all the district attorney files from freeman's nickel case had been sitting in the warehouse in brooklyn since 1941 when the charges were dropped waiting for me. i also found much of the extradition of two extraditions were well charted by the government of california. and my favorite fines and my most frustrating find with a state department archives.
in 1921 freeman shockingly announced the left left of the vaudeville behind and sent to domingo, dominican republic. this time they cannot hitchhike home. the u.s. council wired the federal bureau of investigation in new york, stop remembered state when he arrives on uss -- and he added these words. do not believe any swab story he may tell you. he is a man who can tell you that black is white signed -- the state department. i really thank him. but the other question is i organized it on every note and why the state department pull freeman's passport in 1935, i still don't know. because the state department stop responding to my freedom of information requests.
for those of files their busy declassified secretary of state stuff. >> i'm told this is less question. how did he get people to work for him after straining people in cuba and other places all around western hemisphere? >> i mean, he was an unbelievably persuasive guy. the fact is he often would have people working for him who did. who he still owed money from his last time around. he like to break, he actually got upset when friday said he owed 150,000 he said what he tried to do for my credit? i own 200,000. he also was really proud of the faha