Book Jacket: From acclaimed journalist Walter Shapiro, the true life story of how his great-uncle a Jewish vaudeville impresario and exuberant con man managed to cheat Hitler’s agents in the run-up to WWII.
All his life, journalist Walter Shapiro assumed that the outlandish stories about his great-uncle Freeman were exaggerated family lore; some cockamamie Jewish revenge fantasies dreamt up to entertain the kids and venerate their larger-than-life relative. Only when he started researching Freeman Bernstein’s life did he realize that his family was actually holding back-the man had enough stories, vocations, and IOUs to fill a dozen lifetimes. Freeman was many people: a vaudeville manager, boxing promoter, stock swindler, card shark and self-proclaimed “Jade King of China.” But his greatest title, perhaps the only man who can claim such infamy, was as The Man Who Hustled Hitler.
A cross between The Night They Raided Minsky’s, Guys and Dolls, and The Sting, Freeman Bernstein’s life was itself an old New York sideshow extravaganza, one that Shapiro expertly stages in Hustling Hitler. From a ragtag childhood in Troy, New York, Shapiro follows his great-uncle’s ever-crooked trajectory through show business, from his early schemes on the burlesque circuit to marrying his star performer, May Ward, and producing silent films-released only in Philadelphia. Of course, all of Freeman’s cons and schemes were simply a prelude to February 18, 1937, the day he was arrested by the LAPD outside of Mae West’s apartment in Hollywood.
Grand larceny-for cheating Adolf Hitler and the Nazi government. In the capstone of his slippery career, Freeman had promised to ship thirty-five tons of embargoed Canadian nickel to the Führer; when the cargo arrived, the Germans found only huge, useless quantities of scrap metal and tin. It was a blow to their economy and war preparations-and Hitler did not take the bait-and-switch lightly.
Vaudeville manager, boxing promoter, stock swindler, card shark and self-proclaimed “Jade King of China,” Freeman Bernstein was a master of exuberant excess and no stranger to the hard-hand of the law. But the charges he was arrested for on the evening of February 18, 1937, outside of a Hollywood starlet’s home, were more serious than those he had ever encountered before. The most powerful and feared man in the world–Adolf Hitler–claimed that Bernstein had committed fraud against the German government. While living in Shanghai in 1936, Bernstein had been asked to procure a large quantity of nickel for the Germans. Nickel was essential to make stainless steel for armaments, and impossible at that time for Germany to openly buy on the international markets. When the shipments arrived from Canada, bearing Bernstein’s stamp of approval, the Germans found only huge, useless quantities of scrap metal and tin: a huge blow to their economy and war preparations.
Shapiro’s easy narrative naturally evokes Bernstein’s colorful world: from the smell of the grease paint backstage in a seedy turn-of-the-century vaudeville house in Bayonne, to the roar from the ringside seats of a top-rated 1923 middleweight bout in Mexico City, and the ominous sense of what it must have been like for an American Jew to be arranging shady business dealings in Germany in 1936. A thrilling and page-turning read, Hustling Hitler is the untold story of the larger-than-life, eternal hustler who changed the course of history.
Told with cinematic verve and hilarious perspective, Hustling Hitler is Shapiro’s incredible investigation into the man behind the myth. By reconstructing his great-uncle’s remarkable career, Shapiro has transformed Freeman Bernstein from a “barely there” footnote in history to the larger-than-life, eternal hustler who forever changed it.
Bio. Walter Shapiro has covered the last nine presidential elections. Along the way, he has worked for two newspapers (USA Today and the Washington Post), two news weeklies (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and the Washington Monthly), and two online magazines (Salon and Politics Daily). He is also the author of “One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In,” a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the presidential nomination, published by Public Affairs in November 2003. Shapiro is a lecturer in political science at Yale. His book on his con-man great uncle, “Hustling Hitler: How a Jewish Vaudevillian Fooled the Fuhrer” will be published in 2016 by Blue Rider Press. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
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