tv Book Discussion on Hustling Hitler CSPAN August 6, 2016 11:15am-12:03pm EDT
but, he was kind enough to sign them. so we bought 50, 60, and the person that was putting on the dinner, he opened it up, and when i read i where write and he starts going through and he says, does b.s. mean what i think it means. [laughter] >> so sat there for something close to an hour -- and read the comments, on -- >> you put b.s. >> i can't remember what the. it may have been aimed at the character. >> you can watch this and other programs online, at bookt.v.org. >> on behalf of the entire staff welcome, it's a pleasure to be hosting walter shapiro, and talk about hustling hitler. if you have any noise making
devices please turn them off and walter will discuss his book for 25 minutes and then take as many questions as we can fit in. we encourage questions. after the "q and a" it's a great help if you fold up your own chair and place it against the book shelf. thank you. the signing line will be here and books are for sale upfront. >> he tells the story of freeman bernstein, boxing promoter, and card shark. and the man who pulled the conon the nazi government which resulted in one of many an effort. he is his great uncle. walter did get hustle.
he has covered every presidential election since 1980, and has written for roll call. time, "newsweek" and the washington post. he has served as bureau chief, as a speechwriter in the carter white house. is a lecturer. and we're pleased that he is here tonight. [applause] >> i want to thank politics and pros, which is one of the great bookstores. i love it. and i love that politics and pros, is delivering. and looking around. i don't know how many are old enough to remember, the old, old, 1950s t.v. show, this is your life. well that's a little bit how i feel, looking around the room and seeing so many old friends.
let me start off by -- >> this book really starts, with my father. my father, he died in 2004 was a connecticut city planner, mild-mannered city planner who went tom zoning board hearings in the evening. racy upbringing. but my father kept talking about his uncle. my grandmother's older brother and he kept saying, he was really, big in vaudeville and he knew people like sophie tucker. and he married a showgirl and he cheated hitler on a nickel deal. wait a minute. we're in a connecticut living room. it was like my father saying you know, son, you're a direct
descendant of the sitting bull. after my father died i didn't -- really think about freeman bernstein until 2010 when a visiting cousin from paris showed up and the visiting cousin was from a branch of the family, i didn't recognize the name. and he's doing research, not for him but for his sister. donna. so there we are, two guys, we go out to lunch and we are trying, over eggs and onions, we are desperately trying to maintain conversation. it is flagging because, how much can you talk about family, among two people who don't care about family.
after about 45 minutes in, 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 a minute. i had a great uncle, who cheated hitler so, i was told. i took enough college courses to know that there were two tribes, on two islands in the pacific ocean 2,000 miles apart and they have religion, based on the arrival of a white ship that probably was a white ship. now we are about to deal with the first lucky thing in doing hustling hitler, and migrate unexel's name was freeman bernstein.
it would be hard to find sam bernstein. so -- i went to -- all right. lets be honest, i can brag about my research methods, they started off with mr. google. i typed the name freeman bernstein, into google and i expected to only come up with a pod dietrist, in minknee ap bliss. it recounts how one freeman bernstein, metals dealer, and former vaudeville manager had been arrested at midnight in the back of the limo, smoking his
cigar, having just left me west's apartment. he was arrested for cheating the canadians. he was indicted from new york, and this was a fugitive warrant, in los angeles. okay, i'm hooked. but the moment that really hooked me was the last paragraph, of this 1937 unsigned, l.a. times story. mr. bernstein asked a visiting reporter for a cigar, in los angeles jail. when told there was no cigar available he settled for a cigarette. and blew a perfect smoke ring. i mean, forget the surgeon general for a moment.
i wanted to be related to someone after 24 hours, in l.a. lockup, could still blow a perfect smoke ring. this got me started on the quest, and the next moment came, when, in the new york public library, we, i found a 50 page pamphlet that, why do i feel was not in heavy demand? it was a pamphlet by freeman bernstein, was hitler's nickel hijacked. and reading it i discovered, if you believe his story, somewhere on the high seas, between canada and germany, another boat came up with the exact same weight of the nickel, in scrap metal and
substituted the cargo. in the book, one other thing, a jew born in 1873 claimed that he met with chancellor hitler. and, in his telling, hitler spoke flawless english. i mean it's amazing how sloppy it is, when you have original sources. that was enough, in fact, i was going through one of the ups-and-downs of journalism and my wife was with me and i said, "i know they say in times of trouble you can depend on your family, but this is ridiculous. win tip, it really helps to sell a book if you can get adolf
hitler and mae west into the 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, obituary called a cash ter yes, sirrer year. the nickel deal was just the end of a long career as successes as a manager and silent movie producer, abject failures and rar interesting approaches to honesty. [laughter]
>> rose across america, shows up, speaking no english and inspired by the statue of liberty, goes to work in a garment factory, and goes, to church, and only put young david through medical school. we have all read that. we have seen the stories of the jewish gangsters, and the people for whom a submachine gun. i better not use weaponry, a gun, is really not -- a -- a gun is part of their lively hood and dead bodies come with the turf. but there's a middle ground that no one writes about and that is jews who believe that honesty is the best policy, if you are born
a wasp, and if you were given membership in the union league club at birth. for them, it works fine. for people without those advantages, honestly works only when it is convenient. that got me started down this road, and i can't tell -- retell all of his life but, i can tell you, some high points. he started off, i mean he always, he he was known in sprawdville for having the loudest voice, biggest cigars extremes and not paying his bills. he was successful enough, biggest small time agent, he booked acts, into places like scranton, pennsylvania.
syracuse, new york. and towns not big enough. and he had relatively sometimes, major figures on the way up, and both george burns, and actually mae west also claims that he helped her, gave her, her start on stage. the point about all this, is he wasn't a nobody. but he kept his dreams always surpassed his income. [laughter] >> in 1904 he had the dream, enough with the surkit it's time for the bernstein circuit. he gathered together 17 theaters, in places like scranton, harrisburg, and guaranteed them split fee
entertainment. bernstein production and it worked like a charm until he had to change acts. the fact is, that in vaudeville, the only way to get people coming back, is there had to be something new each monday. and the problem was, the gate receipts weren't big enough to book a second tier of good acts. so he had to book a second tier of very bad eangts. [laughter] >> the gate receipts such, that there was only enough money for one train ticket out of town. [laughter] >> i will let you guess who got it. in vaudeville he specialized in a subset of vaudeville called, freaks.
and what they were, they were reality t.v. if you were the other woman, in a famous divorce case which ended, with your note tor righty, there's freeman trying to book you at $10,000 a week. may, in the 18 90s, was an american young actress who hit london and took up with the british royalty. particularly, lord hope. the owner of the hope diamond. and may actually the hope diamond for about 7 years, until she ran off with someone more attractive and decidedly less wealthy. so down on her luck, freeman would put her on stage for $1,000 a week. he did things like this.
it was a reenactment of the battle of saratoga called continental. you didn't see? may ward clambered up a 40 foot flagpole to show the stars and stripes? it was inspiring. the second film had a wonderful plot. may ward as this innocent girl in a boarding school, obstructed by white slavers and brought to new york to live a debauched life only to be rescued in the final real by her loyal
boyfriend from pennsylvania. it was wonderful. except the sensors did not capture the mood of a movie called virtue and focused a little too much on the debauched scenes in new york in the middle and was banned in philadelphia. he was banned in new york that he was banned everywhere. this led to the business necessity known in the annals of american business as the insurance fire. by the 1920s, he had gone a little more rogue. he and his wife who retired from vaudeville loved ocean life. freeman was a card sharp and what he was wonderful that was fleecing his fellow first class passengers with their money during the five or six days from
new york to southhampton or share borg and the best thing they did was the anniversary hustle and it worked like this. first night out in the first class saloon they walk in arm and arm and say tonight is our anniversary, free champagne for everyone. we want all of you to be our newfound friends and celebrate with us and there was no con. the champagne was legit. it flowed, it was good vintage stuff. the next afternoon, normally these wealthy people in first-class wouldn't like it when a stranger suggests a little card game for fun, but freeman bernstein wasn't a stranger. he was there close friend who was buying them champagne the night before. invariably by the time the boat docked, freeman made 10 times the cost of the champagne.
by 1929, he was a little desperate, looks like freeman bernstein, at the boston garden, he organized an irish festival under the name of roger oh ryan. it was authentic. the stone was authentically dug up. and the irish razorback cakes came from the estate in new jersey, and more importantly the meals were provided by demi moore. the placemats were stolen. irish stew was cooked by not duty policeman at the irish fair.
this was a glorious financial success and this will shock all of you. roger oh ryan disappeared just before the performers were going to do that. this time, the boston police and pasta newspaper tracked them down and made a lot of attention to a man they called mister oh ryanstein. not my joke but the boston herald. i don't want to borrow the sports book that did not go right in the hotel new york in 1930, the only way to pay off the gamblers was for freeman to write a few. and the hotel cashed, and freeman love hotels, and love writing checks in canadian
banks. at the end of railroad lines, four to six weeks for consultants. the second grand larceny indictment was time to relocate. freeman bernstein moved to shanghai and crowned himself j king of china. it was a stirring investiture a little like king arthur and the sword in the stone but he actually traveled all over asia to get jules, and mae west sketched out in his autobiography, goodness had nothing to do with that. he had a novel way of smuggling jewelry. tools. he and his wife didn't have
children. he traveled with this beautiful white carrier. and three hours outside of port before facing us customs the dog was fed a mineral rich diet. what could be cuter than this distinguished gentleman coming back to the orient accompanied by this beautiful little ball of fluff with a slightly protruding stomach? all of this set up the great con i will not go into much detail on which was he and the corrupt metals dealer got the idea for selling the nazis on bogus canadian nickel. it turned out nickel in the 1930s was desperately needed for lining the insides of guns and armor plating. if you intended to invade poland and france you needed nickel and canadian nickel was the only
nickel available but the canadians were keenly 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. 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 and sparked the understandable bidding war, the germans represented by a fellow named otto costa, franz kafka's first cousin. i'm the only person who did a book on a drifter who took out of the nyu library and economic volume called kafka's relatives. it is in the bibliography. so the -- all of them working together created this bidding
war but they kept whispering we can't label this when we export it as canadian nickel or the mounties will stop us so we need canadian craft metal and whenever a question was raised, doing it this way to hide what we are doing from analysis or they find out. the metal had to be inspected. all that meant was the metal inspector had to be bribed and the entire deal was done with 20 pounds of nickel. not 20 tons, 20 pounds, a small metal shop in lower manhattan, this was his constant sample case, injected at the top in toronto when the barrels were inspected. ultimately he had the good fortune if you are exporting something from halifax in march and the temperature outside is-7
° you can have pretty good hope that the cargo will not be closely inspected. freeman from his days in vaudeville knew when to get off stage so as soon as he was paid $150,000, about $2 million today upfront, he took off for the orient. when they both landed in hamburg, instead of hard to get canadian nickel the nazis opened up hard to get canadian tin cans, hard to get canadian auto bodies, hard to get canadian discarded break rooms and the middle dealer in toronto called in his number 2 bundles. he was indicted through the middleman in new york and locked up in la lockup where he spent two months in jail.
he was backed by the hollywood jewish community. he portrayed himself as a martyr to the nazis when he wasn't claiming the nazis got what they paid for, melt down what i gave them, there is some nickel in there somewhere. 's lawyer turned out to be on his way up, a man about town named greg bouncer who was dating, dating might be the polite word, the 17-year-old lana turner. during -- despite his sleepless night, he was a very good lawyer and by rallying the jewish community, including a major producer named joseph shank who was cofounder of 20th century fox, the governor of california quickly figured there was more campaign contributions to be made from keeping freeman bernstein's friends happy rather
than indicting him to the new york da's office where there were no campaign contributions. a year later he was indicted again, rested on a fugitive warrant for bum checks and the hotel new yorker, was hard to blame on the nazis so he tried. the governor of california was staunch, said he couldn't be tried, he went back to new york after a day in the tombs, announced he would help the prosecutor convict his confederates. he didn't prove to be that reliable a witness and after two years of supporting him the new york da's office sent him to california. i have done this as i said with 2500 newspaper clips and 1500 pieces of legal document. the wonderful thing about being a con man is you leave a paper
trail. the only family paper i ever found was a telegram freeman bernstein wrote from hollywood to my parents in new york for their wedding on august 10, 1941, and a telegram, all 10 words promise sunshine galore and it is signed colonel freeman bernstein. i spent a lot of time staring at that telegram which i found in my parents papers and wondering why did he sign it colonel? my father knew the only time he dealt with the colonel was when he investigated the war department, and incumbent after the war, presumably my mother would ask my father who is this military hero and be set
straight? i like to picture freeman bernstein with a flower in his boutonniere charming the western union woman as he sent off the telegram by signing with a flourish colonel freeman bernstein. he died in 1942 in december, in the hotel room of a hollywood producer named william k howard, a pretty major 1930s producer. what i would like to imagine is freeman bernstein, when he had the fatal heart attack, was pitching william k howard on his life story, the life story of hoodwinked hitler. probably was trying to borrow $5. when we are out in la a couple years ago, i visited freeman's grave, a little jewish cemetery in a latino neighborhood outside of la. when we stopped to buy a little plant, no one in the flower shop
spoke english, the cemetery had a combination lock, there was no office on site, i had to call and get the combination and was told it was grave number 34. i get there and find road 22 but around grave number 26, the grave stopped and there is just debris. i call the cemetery office and i am told -- i said what is the real number? there is no grave number 32 and they said it is under the leaves. so i have to remove about this much debris, and 10 years of being unkempt and uncared for. and i find a footstone not as large as this book but as large as a paperback book and my wife
and i had a little bottle of water in the car with kleenex and a bottle of water, clean off the footstone and it says f bernstein. there wasn't enough money to give his full name. it is f bernstein 1942, there wasn't enough money to etch the year of his birth 1873 and as i stand over this neglected grave, i am not religious, it would have been hypocritical to give a blessing even if i knew one, so instead i looked down and try to find words that might bridge eternity, words that this old drifter might want to hear. i said you are remembered. thank you. [applause] >> we have 20 minutes for
questions, ask what you like. >> i have two closely related questions, seems like a really great book and a great book to make a movie of. i wonder if you are thinking along those lines. the related question, seems like a story someone else might have come across other than a relative, maybe another relative. you spend five years writing the book, were there points in time you were concerned someone else would get to this before you did? >> so many questions. first of all i wasn't exactly feeling i was in a race with 6 other family members. we were all freeman bernstein biographers.
also i didn't care about birds. i just wanted to be the best. there are many reasons freeman bernstein had been forgotten for 70 years. i was not worried about the competition. if i delay much longer, i was covering politics at the same time. the publisher might get a little antsy but i was never concerned about another book. as far as a movie, this is one of the things that yes, their -- not believe it or not, there has been a lot of hollywood, if anyone has more interest i can give you details of my agent. as far as casting, i had the perfect figure to do freeman bernstein.
in writing the book, i saw the romance still in the producers as freeman bernstein. in a pinch i will take nathan lane, and there are five words that could change my life. george clooney is freeman bernstein. >> am i supposed to adjudicate questions? >> don't be shy. a planted question. >> as far as you know i am walter's wife. thank you. one thing you didn't mention, his relationship with variety magazine. >> thank god i have a proctor. one of the things that made the
book possible, the founding editor of variety fell in love with freeman bernstein as a broadway character. freeman bernstein was run eunice quinn damon runyon was a cub reporter in denver still learning to drink. variety would run freeman bernstein's monologues every three weeks for 15 or 20 years and a typical one would start with freeman bernstein was running lemon over last year's panama, isn't it a shame, he said, i can't afford a new bonnet, i have to fix it last year's bonnet myself and we would be off on a rambling discussion about freeman bernstein's money problems. he and his wife, even before
jason and maggie of the comic strips always had running disputes over money. one night at the top of the ballroom, freeman was the only person not wearing a tuxedo. silverman comes up to him, says haven't you accorded a tux? he said i got a tux at home. then he tells a story how may was after him because he knew he had gotten $100 fee. he was not going to give her the money and if he ever took off his clothes, in the middle of the night, was a lot better not to wear the tux. then there was the time he was spied walking down broadway in early march on a spring day wearing a men's for code and a shabby coat over it. what are you doing? if i leave the code at home they
will attach the coat. if i wear it, people can see it, they will take the coat. he loved scams. beyond the hot dog at grant's tomb, he decided he would sell his top idea to restaurant errors, how they could get away with small portions, plates with magnifying glasses at the bottom. a variety charted his efforts at race fixing which often didn't work out exactly the way he wanted them. as variety put it his horses were overeducated. as they went around the far turn they looked at the coat board.
what i found, the most miraculous find in writing this book, that was in 1935 just before the scam freeman was down on his luck, he had no money, and he had typed on the back of borrowed stationery from acme liquor and wine on w. 57th st. a movie treatment, his idea of a movie treatment. it involved a con man with a heart of gold who pulls off a racetrack sting where his horse comes down 50:1 and he marries the widow of a steel broker who falls in love with him and suddenly has more money than knows what to do with, and has taylor's coming in and out of his hotel suite and also pays
off every single person he owes and this is really important because freeman bernstein was tremendously generous when he had money which was not terribly often. and then left with all this money he buys the three things you and i would buy if we had unlimited wealth. a circus, a fight club, and the hotel in the cuffs. freeman in 1935, variety maintained of vaudeville registry service, if you had a doctor skip that ended did with the doctor hitting the patient over the floor for the mallet, but sent it to variety, timestamp and put it in a filing cabinet and five years it later in buffalo doing the same act, you could complain to buffalo.
and registered the script five years earlier. this died with the writers guild and the death of vaudeville and rise of movies. when variety move their main offices from new york to los angeles, with the registered scripts went with it. in 2012 as variety was moving, the motion picture academy worked out with emerson college that anything of historical interest from variety we will pay for if emerson will catalog it and that is how freeman's script blue money in the name of the horse, managed to survive pulp and miraculously appeared in 2013 and was sent to me by emerson college and it is the
closest thing i can have in freeman bernstein'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 that i shouldn't, i have gone through this process for a long time but if anyone here is a writer or anyone is a researcher, the most challenging thing to me as you went through this is all the details and research. how do you organize this? when you find new things, were you in despair because the material never stopped? how do you write something so research intensive? >> this was only made possible by character recognition software and the fact that newspapers that never had an index are indexed.
had i done this when my father was alive, of those newspaper clips probably 400 would be found. number one, that was the great beneficiary. number 2 the city of new york throws nothing out. they are like variety in that all the district attorney filings from freeman's nickel case were sitting at a warehouse in brooklyn since 1941 when the charges were dropped. i also found much of the extraditions were well charted by the government of california and my favorite find and most frustrating find worthy state department archives. in 1921, freeman bernstein left vaudeville behind in santa
domingo dominican republic. they couldn't hitchhike home. and the us consul wired the federal bureau of investigation in new york, stop freeman bernstein when he arrives and added these words, don't believe any suave story he may tell you. he is a man who could tell you black is white. and i really thank moran of the state department but the other question is i organized it, the state department in 1945, i still don't know, stop responding to the freedom of information request, they were busy declassify inc. the
secretary of state. >> i'm told this is the last question. how did he get people to work for him after stranding people in cuba and all around the western hemisphere? >> he was an unbelievably persuasive guy. don't believe any suave story he may tell you, the fact is he often would have people working for him who did, he still owed money from his last time around. he liked to brag, he got upset when variety said -- what are you trying to ruin my credit? i earn 250,000 but he also was proud of the fact that he was the only person who could gamble daily on the horses for nothing in your new york. he was so deep with the bookies.
and came galloping home, they could take his winnings. he was a wonderful charlatan, wonderful flimflam artist and like the best con man he often believed his own cons. he believed the show was going to work. thank you so much. [applause] >> thank you for coming. fold up your chair and put it on the right-hand side and get your book signed, thanks again. >> welcome to port huron, michigan, on booktv, located 60 miles north of detroit in the easternmost part of the state, the city sits at the juncture of st. clair river in lake huron and its bridge is one of the
busiest crossing points between the us and canada. with the help of our comcast partners over the next 60 minutes, we will travel around the city of 30,000 to talk with local authors about the history of the area including the role steamships played in the great lakes region in the 19th century. >> a steamboat was constructed in black rock, new york, near niagara falls and that vessel ran from black rock or buffalo and detroit for three years before it was wrecked. that was the beginning of the steamboat age. they didn't travel fast but they traveled reality. >> we will visit the thomas edison depot museum to learn about the importance of the railroads in the development of michigan's some region. >> when the railroads first came into the county into the some region, most of the life was centered on the