My father, a city planner in suburban Connecticut, loved to tell stories of his uncle Freeman Bernstein, who supposedly was a major vaudeville agent married to a showgirl who somehow in the 1930s cheated the Nazis on a deal for a hard-to-get Canadian nickel. But my father’s stories — which were missing details like a Monopoly set lacking Marvin Gardens and Park Place — didn’t make sense. And how could my mild-mannered father have an uncle who lived such a louche life? It was as implausible as him telling me that I was a direct descendent of Sitting Bull.But as I discovered a few years ago, my father only knew a small part of the story of Freeman Bernstein, who was a flamboyant Broadway character — immortalized in the pages of Variety back in the days when Damon Runyon was still a cub reporter in Denver. He was a silent movie producer, a boxing manager and, yes, an unapologetic con man. After a few grand larceny indictments (for example, he ran an Irish festival in Boston as “Roger O’Ryan,” who mysteriously disappeared with the gate receipts), Freeman took off for the Orient, where he crowned himself as the Jade King of China.
Below is an excerpt from “Hustling Hitler,” which describes a scene that occurs a year after the Nazi nickel scam, when Freeman is riding high in Hollywood.
In February 1937, Freeman Bernstein was in the coin. After years of kiting checks, pawning his diamond cufflinks, 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, Freeman didn’t even have the money to take the train from New York to Toronto without putting the touch on someone else to pick up his fare. Now he was traveling by limousine with his prized terrier, Benny, keeping him company in the backseat as he smoked his equally prized Corona Corona cigars. As Freeman himself would later write, looking back on this halcyon period, “I was now located in the most ideal spot in California … that place, as you know, is Hollywood, the city of glamour and what have you.”
He had been in California for seven months — and not a peep had been heard about that grand larceny indictment back east. It wasn’t like Freeman was hiding or playing hard to get. In fact, he was so public that he gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times while luxuriating in film-colony splendor at the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs. As Freeman understood from his days hustling cards in first-class salons on transatlantic liners, appearance trumps reality. So when he crowned himself the Jade King of China, no one questioned him about the details of the investiture ceremony. For Freeman, who was peddling jade, rubies, star sapphires, and a few iffy diamonds, nothing beat the free advertising from the Los Angeles Times headline: “‘Jade King’ Visiting in Desert Tells of Rich Burma Mines.”
When he moved on to Hollywood, an Oriental potentate like Freeman knew where to stay — the Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard. The stucco main house (originally built for silent movie star Alla Nazimova) and the 23 secluded guest villas exuded high-class cachet. Another attraction was the hotel’s anything-goes reputation, symbolized by its well-known disdain for hiring a house detective. Everyone in Hollywood had heard about the night an inebriated Tallulah Bankhead wandered around the pool nude, and the time when a pixilated Robert Benchley was delivered back to his villa in a wheelbarrow. In fact, while Freeman was a registered guest at the Garden of Allah in mid-February, Salvador Dalí arrived with his waxed mustache and his new wife, Gala, dramatically announcing that he had come to California to paint a portrait of Harpo Marx.
Freeman, whose formal education stopped around the fifth grade, was no intellectual. So it’s hard to imagine him devoting much brainpower to pondering Dalí’s obsession with Harpo Marx as a surrealistic icon. The blond starlets lolling around the pool were undoubtedly more alluring to Freeman, though at 63 years old, with a physique more resembling a table than Gable, his interest probably remained theoretical. Anyway, he had his eye on a different blonde, who was living four miles away in the Ravenswood Apartments. Freeman had precious, semiprecious, and, well, bogus stones to sell — and his target was the highest-salaried actress in Hollywood. Mae West had asked him to come up and see her sometime.
Their original connection has been lost in the greasepaint blur of the early days of vaudeville. In her autobiography, “Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It,” published in 1959, Mae West recalled being told by her agent that Freeman Bernstein “says you played in some of his theaters as a child actress.” That was pretty much what she scrawled that night at the Ravenswood on an autographed picture for the Jade King: “To Freeman Bernstein, who was my first agent at the age of 10 years old.”
When Mae West was 10 in 1903, Freeman had just opened his first office as a vaudeville booking agent on Broadway, south of Longacre Square (soon to be renamed Times Square), and was simultaneously managing the 1,200-seat Trocadero Music Hall in upper Manhattan, promising in his ads to bring “high class vaudeville” to an area struggling to become the Coney Island of northern Manhattan. He certainly knew from child stars, booking performers like 8-year-old La Petite Mignon and the youthful dancers Eva and Harry Puck, to the consternation of the do-gooders from children’s aid societies.
Mae West’s life did not lack for colorful characters, but even for her Freeman stood out. She lavished four pages of her autobiography on him, though it remains unknown what else she may have lavished on the Jade King when he came to call on the evening of Feb. 18. As she recalled, “He had a sandpaper voice, and a ludicrous habit of repeating words and phrases. ‘I’m known as the Jade King — the Jade King,’ he told me, ‘and I heard you are interested in precious stones — precious stones like star sapphires — star sapphires.’”
Freeman’s scam was to mix high-quality gems with the kind of gewgaws that you might find in a Cracker Jack box. Feigning ignorance about star sapphires, the Jade King warbled over the beauty of flawed white stones with off-color stars, while casually ignoring the fine jewels with the proper cornflower hue. After displaying his best rubies, Freeman offered to also sell her a shimmering diamond (okay, it was a $65 zircon he had brought back from Asia) for the rock-bottom only-for-you-Mae price of $10,000.
Mr. Shapiro adds: Mae West was probably the only actress in Hollywood who had her own jewelry scale. So as she told it, Freeman was forced to sell her only the best jewels at fair prices. (In her autobiography, Mae West also explained how Freeman, with the aid of a small terrier, smuggled the jewels through U.S. Customs).
Shortly after Freeman left the Ravenswood Apartments, he was arrested in the back of his chauffeured limousine as he puffed on a long cigar. The crime that sent my great-uncle to the slammer (until the governor of California refused to indict) was … yes, it was true … cheating the Nazis on a nickel deal.
In addition to chronicling the hokum and hustles of his con man great-uncle, Walter Shapiro has been covering his 10th presidential campaign. A columnist at Roll Call, Shapiro is also a fellow at the Brennan Center at NYU, and a lecturer in political science at Yale.
Excerpt 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.