Sunday, June 11, 2017

Book Review: 'Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer' by Walter Shapiro

Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer
By Walter Shapiro

Review by David Wineberg
The original Teflon Man was Walter Shaprio’s great uncle, Freeman Bernstein. Shapiro researched for four years, finding all kinds of references to Bernstein in all kinds of newspapers, magazines, books and court judgments, from coast to coast. Because Freeman Bernstein was a character: a crook, swindler, con artist and all around risk to even know, let alone do business with.

This is the man who made famous the art of taking a show on tour and abandoning it, leaving the performers with the hotel bill and without pay or a ticket back. Sometimes they didn’t even get their clothes back and were simply stuck in some little town hundreds of miles from home. And it’s not like this was exceptional; Bernstein was all but amoral about it. He ripped off numerous struggling performers at the beginning of their careers. Names like Will Rogers, George Burns, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, as well as partners and backers. “He regarded defrauding performers as a victimless crime,” says Shapiro. When America was tapped out, he went to China, the Caribbean, Europe and South America, before his reputation did. He smuggled jade, ran vaudeville shows, theaters, and fairgrounds, managed boxers, produced films and never stuck with anything. He was also a terrible businessman, never knowing how much to charge to cover expenses. So every initiative failed and he ended up walking away - fast. Working capital was never an issue; he went without any (and bragged about how much he was spending to bring world class entertainment to town). Check-kiting was a way of life. Home was where he slept.

Shapiro is semi-embarrassed by his uncle. He is sarcastic about him, and lightens the load of guilt with witty puns, rhymes and cultural references of the era. Because the truth is Bernstein was a menace. He went from scam to scam almost daily. There are four hundred pages of them here. He is not a sympathetic hero. That he managed to scam the Third Reich over a shipment of nickel made him famous for a moment. Yet his con man partner siphoned off almost all of Bernstein’s share. He of all marks shoulda known better. It was not his fifth grade education that aided him; it was his evaluation of marks.

He reminds me of WC Fields’ character. Fields had to have known about Bernstein, working the carnivals and vaudeville as he did. In one film, a man asks Fields: “Want to make a few honest dollars?” and Fields replies: “Do they have to be honest?” That’s Freeman Bernstein. If there was no angle to exploit, what was the point?

And he recognized who he was. When Variety gave warning not deal with this man who owed $100,000 (in 1920s dollars) to an endless list of performers, Bernstein raked the editor over the coals for shortchanging him. He didn’t demand an apology; he claimed the real figure was over $250,000 and he wanted no part of being relegated to the minor leagues.

Eventually, even the law finally cottoned on. He spent a lot of time in jails awaiting extradition or trials, and phonebooks full of people sued him. He died as he lived, penniless, scrounging, scamming. Quite the story.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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