‘Hustling Hitler’: Runyonesque, ribald and rollicking

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The old expression, “don’t let the facts get away with a good story” is turned on its head in the book, “Hustling Hitler:  The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer” by journalist Walter Shapiro.  

Shapiro has spent four decades covering politics and public affairs, and is currently a columnist for Roll Call, covering his 10th presidential campaign. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and a political science lecturer at Yale. Shapiro worked as a speech writer in the Carter White House, and perhaps most relevant to his high-octane humorous writing style, he performed stand-up comedy at clubs in New York.

Throughout his life, Shapiro was regaled with stories about his notorious great-uncle Freeman Bernstein, who was a vaudevillian, burlesque house and brothel manager, and aggressive booking agent (his clients included Mae West).  Among Bernstein’s greatest con-jobs, according to family lore, was a bait-and-switch scheme that could not have been perpetrated on a more deserving target: Adolf Hitler himself.

Bernstein’s far-flung shady enterprises included shipping precious metals and other embargoed materials to regimes against which the United States had clamped embargoes, including imperial Japan, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. “In the capstone of his slippery career,” writes Shapiro, “Freeman had promised to ship 35 tons of embargoed Canadian nickel to the Fuhrer; when the cargo arrived, the Germans found only huge, useless quantities of scrap metal and tin.”  The bogus shipment, for which Bernstein was arrested by federal agents on Feb. 18, 1937, “was a blow to (Nazi Germany’s) economy and war preparations — and Hitler did not take the bait-and-switch lightly.” Freeman Bernstein was not part of the big-time “Jewish Mafia” of major organized crime figures like Meyer Lansky, Louis Bukhalter, Bugsy Siegel or Mickey Cohen. But he knew how to navigate the gray waters between legitimate businesses and those that were fronts for the Mob.

Shapiro obviously had fun writing about this larger-than-life, real-life character.  His style in “Hustling Hitler” is truly Runyonesque, the mimetic New York-ese perfected by Damon Runyon and celebrated in his works like “Guys and Dolls.”

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Bernstein knew both abject poverty and periods of great wealth, as noted by 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 earlier, Bernstein didn’t even have the money to take the train from New York to Toronto without putting the touch on  someone to pick up the fare.  Now he was traveling by limousine with his prized terrier Benny keeping him company in the back as he smoked equally prized Corona-Carona cigars. ”

“Hustling Hitler” invites comparison to the classic Charlie Chaplin movie “The Great Dictator,” in which Chaplin plays a Jewish tailor who is an exact double of Hitler and takes the tyrant’s place to assure the downfall of his evil regime.

Yes, Bernstein was a wheeler-dealer, who trafficked in sleazy and sometimes outright criminal activities.  At the same time, he was an artist at what he did, and his brilliant shipment of rusted scrap metal to Hitler’s regime was the hallmark of his career.

Naturally, self-promoter that he was, Bernstein tried to capitalize on his bilking of Hitler by publishing a pamphlet boasting of his actions.  He agreed to extradition from California to New York on the condition that he would not be charged for “putting a plug nickel in Hitler’s nickelodeon,” as Shapiro notes.  After serving some jail time  on other charges, Bernstein was granted probation for which he expressed personal thanks to then New York District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey.

“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.