A few years ago, prompted by a stray comment from a visiting relative from Paris, I did a few Google searches on my great uncle with the unusual name: Freeman Bernstein. But it wasn’t until 2011 — when I was briefly between engagements in my four-decade career as a political columnist — that I took up the quest in earnest. Buried in the stacks of the New York Public Library was a pamphlet that Freeman had written in 1937 (“Was Hitler’s Nickel Hi-Jacked?”) complete with outlandish claims that this Jewish vaudevillian from Troy, New York, had personally met with the Fuhrer. And, oddly enough, in Freeman’s telling, Hitler spoke perfect English.
When I found that pamphlet, which no one had looked at in more than 70 years, I knew I had to write this book. At that moment of discovery, I was reminded of the adage, “When times are tough, you can always depend on your family.” Somehow I doubt that whoever coined that line had a relative like Freeman Bernstein in mind.
After a lifetime of conducting interviews with political figures, I have been stunned by how much you can find in archives. New York City kept all the district attorney’s files on the case against Freeman — and I photocopied more than 1500 pages. I found more than 2000 newspaper clips on Freeman from descriptions of tenement fires in Troy in the 1880s to an Alaska obituary that mentioned that my great uncle sold jewelry to miners during the Klondike Gold Rush. Retrieved from a forgotten file cabinet in the Hollywood offices of Variety was a film treatment that Freeman wrote in 1935 — all about a con man like him who hits it big and finally pays everyone off. And buys a circus and a fight club along the way.
But most of all, this book is my posthumous gift to my father, Salem Shapiro, who died at 95 in 2004. He treasured his childhood memories of Freeman who arrived giving out star sapphires to the family when he was flush — and who slept on my grandmother’s couch when he was broke. On the wall in the apartment where my father died was a picture of Freeman taken in Ceylon wearing a pith helmet and a three-piece white suit. He is clutching a lit cigar in his right hand and looking warily to the side to make sure that nobody was creeping up on him. For a con man can never be too careful.
This 1930s photograph was next to my computer as I wrote “Hustling Hitler.”
Think of the great pairings of the twenties: Burns and Allen, Ruth and Gehrig, Gallagher and Shean, and Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis. Plus, of course, Herbert Hoover and Freeman Bernstein.
Not political by nature, Freeman grasped the biggest truth about presidential campaigns— millions of dollars flowed through party coffers with minimal accounting. That’s why he had tried to sell the Democrats in 1916 on paying him to produce a movie glorifying Woodrow Wilson. Now with Hoover running in 1928 against New York’s Democratic Governor, Al Smith, Freeman concocted a Jewish angle to pick up some Republican coin.
In normal times, Freeman might have been expected to gravitate to Smith, an anti-Prohibition “wet” whose campaign song was “The Sidewalks of New York.” Back in the days when he was running the Trocadero in Fort George, Freeman always went out of his way to ingratiate himself with the Democratic sachems down at Tammany Hall. Then there was his friendship with Wilson’s right-hand man, Joe Tumulty, whom he knew from his days in Bayonne. This history should have made Freeman a Democrat for life— as it did with his wife, May. She was so enraptured with Smith that she came out of retirement to make political speeches on Long Island.
While history recalls the Smith campaign as rich in symbolism (he was the only Catholic to be nominated for president before John Kennedy), the 1928 race at the time seemed as satisfying as a Prohibition-era dinner topped off with toasts of sarsaparilla. Columnist Walter Lippmann captured the political tedium: “The two platforms contain no differences which could be called an issue.”
The Jewish vote was in flux during the 1920s with affluent German Jews maintaining their traditional allegiance to the pro-business Republican Party while recent immigrants schlepped to the polls under the straight-ticket guidance of the big-city Democratic machines. As late as 1920, Republican Warren Harding won more than 40 percent of the vote in Jewish neighborhoods. Since Hoover basked in the glow of his humanitarian record directing postwar relief efforts to avert famine in Europe, Republicans nurtured hopes of at least equaling Harding’s share of the Jewish vote.
Freeman always lived on the hopes and dreams of others. Even though he was born in Troy and spoke unaccented English, Freeman convinced the Hoover campaign to think Yiddish. As Variety reported, “Freeman Bernstein, a Democrat by training, indulged in a little concession dough from the Republican National Committee during the campaign. Freeman got the hunch Jewish patriarchs who couldn’t read English might be interested in a little folder about Herbert Hoover in Yiddish.”
The Yiddish pamphlet was actually written by Abraham Burstein, a Manhattan rabbi with literary pretensions who published poetry and contributed doggerel to the Conning Tower column in the New York World under the pseudonym “Cleric.”
Burstein also had the prose style of a Soviet writer penning panegyrics to Stalin. He headlined the English portion of the bilingual four-page flyer, “The Modern Moses of War-Stricken Europe … HERBERT HOOVER … He led ISRAEL out of the SLAVERY of STARVATION and DESPAIR.” The accompanying drawing depicted the two biblical figures shoulder to shoulder— allowing astute voters to figure out that Hoover was the prophet without a beard. The back page of the handbill contained a final message for the wavering faithful: “THE JEW CANNOT AFFORD TO FORGET HIS FRIENDS.”
Freeman collected his cut from his Republican friends by arranging the distribution of millions of these election-eve handouts in Jewish neighborhoods in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. But that was the only thing that paid off. The original Moses may have carried the Sinai Desert, but the Modern Moses only received about one-quarter of the Jewish vote.
This passage has been excerpted from HUSTLING HITLER: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer by Walter Shapiro, published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Walter Shapiro.