Walter Shapiro’s new memoir on his con-man great uncle’s finest swindle
By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 19, 2016 8:21 p.m. ET
Many believe they have a family memoir inside them begging to be published; to show the world that while every family is unique, some are more unique than others, theirs in particular.
Walter Shapiro harbored no such conceits. “I thought my family was boring,” he said. “Why do we have to be a Jewish family living in the suburbs? Where’s the dramatic tension in that?”
Alas, the Shapiros weren’t as boring as he suspected. If nothing else, they were redeemed by Mr. Shapiro’s great uncle Freeman Bernstein, the subject of Mr. Shapiro’s new book, “Hustling Hitler” (Blue Rider Press).
Mr. Bernstein was a vaudeville manager and more than occasional con man who apparently didn’t try very hard to hide his tracks.
Oh, and he also swindled Hitler.
The book’s cover PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.
His father had told him about his uncle because of the Hitler connection—how many people can be said to have fooled Führer?—but also for a more practical reason: Salem Shapiro missed out on his share of the family jewels because Freeman Bernstein, who fashioned himself the “Jade King” and trafficked in stones, not all of them precious, had given sapphires to Salem’s older siblings—three boys and two girls.
Unfortunately, he’d run out by the time he reached his young nephew. “I must have heard that story 50 times,” Mr. Shapiro said.
Indeed, the book’s opening scene involves a visit Mr. Bernstein paid Mae West in Hollywood in 1937. The two enjoyed an acquaintance dating back to 1903, when Mr. Bernstein, at the time a vaudeville booking agent working out of an office on Broadway just south of what was shortly to become Times Square, hired the 10-year-old to perform in some of his theaters.
However, their friendship didn’t extend as far as Ms. West, who knew a thing or two about diamonds, entirely trusting the swindler when he visited her in Hollywood with a bag of baubles. “The actress, who had written and starred in ‘Diamond Lil,’ knew her way around paste,” slang for fake jewels, “as well as pasties,” Mr. Shapiro writes in the Runyonesque prose appropriate to his subject and to the newspapers of that era, for whom Freeman Bernstein equaled good copy.
Author Walter Shapiro PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.
The idea for “Hustling Hitler” was born at Barney Greengrass, the Upper West Side restaurant and sturgeon specialist, where Mr. Shapiro took a French cousin, in town to do some genealogical research, to lunch.
“We’d run out of things to talk about,” Mr. Shapiro recalled last week as he dug into his standard order—sturgeon, scrambled eggs, and onions. “He said, ‘The only interesting thing I heard was about an uncle who cheated Hitler.’ I’d heard that, too.”
Curiosity compelled Mr. Shapiro to do a Google search. He was astonished by the hundreds of newspaper clippings he discovered that documented Mr. Bernstein’s colorful career, as well as his 1937 arrest—the Los Angeles cops cuffed him as he was leaving Ms. West’s apartment the night of the jewelry sale—for selling Hitler rusted auto bodies and tin cans when he’d promised the Führer 35 tons of scarce Canadian nickel for his munitions.
Mr. Bernstein became something of a cause célèbre among the Hollywood Jewish community, the likes of Al Jolson contributing $200 to his defense fund.
After two months in the slammer, the con man was freed and the case dropped when the governor of California refused to extradite him to New York to stand trial.
Perhaps Mr. Shapiro’s only regret about the book is that his father never got to read it and learn the whole, true story about his mythological uncle, who died broke in California in 1942. Salem Shapiro died in 2004.
“Most of those clips I couldn’t have found” when his father was alive and the internet less comprehensive, Mr. Shapiro said. He attributed his initial investigatory success to the fact that Freeman Bernstein was an uncommon name. He might have given up if his uncle’s name had been Sam.
The author grew nostalgic as he discussed an era when New York City could produce a personality as larcenously appealing as his uncle, as well as more than a dozen newspapers to document his foibles and follies.
“It was so much fun,” he said. “I’d go back in a minute if I could bring antibiotics with me.”
Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org