ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Walter Shapiro grew up hearing stories about his great-uncle Freeman Bernstein, incredible stories - stories about Bernstein's friendship with the Hollywood sex symbol Mae West, stories about how he fleeced Nazi Germany in a scam deal for Canadian nickel.
Shapiro, who has written and reported for USA Today, Time, Newsweek, Esquire, Salon, The Washington Post - he now writes for Roll Call - trained his ample research and reporting skills on this figure of family legend and produced the book "Hustling Hitler." It's the story of Freeman Bernstein. Welcome to the program.
WALTER SHAPIRO: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: First the lead - the stories you grew up on turned out to be true (laughter).
SHAPIRO: And it's something I could not believe. My father was a Connecticut city planner going to zoning board hearings. When he told me some stories about his uncle, my great-uncle, born in Troy, N.Y., I couldn't believe it. It didn't make sense. It was like him taking me aside and saying, you know son, you're a direct descendant of Sitting Bull.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) I'm trying to imagine your great-uncle's resume - amusement park owner, seller of fake jewelry, vaudeville producer, boxing promoter, card shop - horse race fixer and writer of bad checks and all around bon vivant.
SHAPIRO: A bon vivant and a man who once organized an Irish Festival in Boston under the name of Roger O'Ryan. Mr. O'Ryan disappeared with the gate receipts, and the Boston papers had a wonderful time tracking down Mr. O'Bernstein.
SIEGEL: The full title of your book about your great-uncle Freeman Bernstein is "Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer." So tell us the gist of the Hitler story.
SHAPIRO: My uncle cheated Adolf Hitler in a nickel deal. In 1936, Canadian nickel, which you need for lining guns, particularly if you want to invade Poland and France, was impossible to get on the market. There was a de-facto boycott to Germany.
And Freeman and his corrupt metals dealer partner in Toronto sent the word that they had Canadian nickel, but it had to be labeled as scrap metal. Once people agree to a fake bill of lading, every single part of the scam would work.
And when the cargo arrived in Hamburg, the Nazis were not happy. Through the middleman in New York, they got him indicted for grand larceny. My great-uncle Freeman immediately took off for the Orient where he had crowned himself the jade king of China.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) Yes.
SHAPIRO: It was a very stirring investiture. And a year later, he was arrested in Hollywood at midnight in the back of a chauffeured limo having just left Mae West's apartment.
SIEGEL: But the key point was since he was scamming the Nazis by selling them scrap metal, he really wasn't selling them nickel, so he wasn't violating a ban.
SHAPIRO: No, that - which is how the cargo got out of Canada. As near as I can tell, Freeman Bernstein never possessed more than 20 pounds of nickel. It was very high-grade nickel. It was bought in a small shop in lower Manhattan, and this was salted on the top of the cargo. So whenever the cargo inspectors looked after being given $5,000, they would always look at the top of the right barrel and write a glowing report.
It helps that you're exporting nickel from Halifax in March of 1936 where the temperature is 7 below zero, which sort of cuts into your incentive to inspect the cargo closely.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) Or to do anything else for that matter. You are writing about your great-uncle Freeman Bernstein from the safe perspective of a few decades. I wonder whether you come away really wishing that you could have known him or whether this is the kind of person who just might have driven you nuts had you been part of the family in those days.
SHAPIRO: Oh, no, I would have loved to have known him. In fact, I would have killed to spend an hour talking with him because he was charming and there was a sense of fun about him. He loved inventing scams for just the artistry of inventing them. He talked about a dating bureau - that nobody should be lonely when Freeman Bernstein is around - back in 1912 in Variety.
SIEGEL: The numbers of lonely men and women in New York he calculated and felt he could bring them together.
SHAPIRO: Exactly. I mean, in 1916, shortly before the insurance fire that ended his career as a silent movie producer, he tried to sell the Democratic Party on doing a movie boosting Woodrow Wilson's reelection called "Prosperity." Had it been produced, it would have been the first political commercial in American history.
SIEGEL: How did his life end?
SHAPIRO: It ended sadly but also characteristically. He was broke. He was living by himself in Hollywood in 1942. And he was in the office of a major movie director, and he was felled by a heart attack. The sad thing is, I visited his grave in a small Jewish cemetery right outside of Los Angeles. I had to move about two feet of debris, dead leaves before I found this paperback book-sized footstone that said F. Bernstein.
He didn't even have money for Freeman Bernstein, and I needed to say something. And I'm not religious, so I couldn't say a Jewish prayer. So I said probably the words that I thought this famous, flamboyant grifter would like to hear from the great beyond. You are remembered.
SIEGEL: Walter Shapiro, thanks for talking with us.
SHAPIRO: Thanks so much.
SIEGEL: Walter Shapiro - his book about his great-uncle Freeman Bernstein is called "Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.