On the afternoon of the New Hampshire primary, in a motel just outside of Manchester, I wrote the final paragraph of my book, Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer. Until then, Goffstown, New Hampshire had not been renowned as a literary inspiration, but the Courtyard Marriott was all the muse I needed.
For the prior four years, I had been a time-traveling double agent shuttling between the heyday of vaudeville in the early 20th century and the knock-about spectacle known as the 2016 campaign.
Political journalists, of course, routinely write works of popular history. But my compatriots favor serious excavations like doorstop biographies of Millard Fillmore and re-examinations of the tariff issue in the 1892 presidential campaign. In contrast, I wrote Hustling Hitler, the story of my con-man great-uncle Freeman Bernstein, dreaming of Zero Mostel of the movie version of The Producers playing the title role.
Born in 1873 in Troy, New York, the son of an immigrant peddler, Freeman Bernstein was famous as a leather-lunged vaudeville agent, an ill-fated silent-movie producer, an inept horserace fixer, skilled card-sharp, artful jewel smuggler and, ultimately, the man who nicked the Nazis in a 1936 nickel deal. Variety lovingly chronicled the exploits of this Broadway character (who pre-dated Damon Runyon) calling him "The Pet of Times Square."
My attraction to Freeman Bernstein had little to do with family genealogy, a topic that normally interests me as much as Gregorian chants. But ever since I came upon my first news clip about my great-uncle (a 1937 Los Angeles Times story headlined, "Metals Broker Denies Bilking Hitler"), I was hooked. Especially since the Los Angeles Times article mentioned that Freeman Bernstein was arrested in Hollywood on a fugitive warrant from New York after he left Mae West's apartment at midnight.
Life lesson: If you can mention Adolf Hitler and Mae West in the first paragraph of a book proposal, you're probably in good shape.
I have covered the last ten presidential campaigns, following White House dreamers across the country. I even wrote a book, One-Car Caravan, about the early skirmishing for the 2004 Democratic nomination. But in reconstructing the life of Freeman Bernstein, I had no one to interview, since he died (broke, of course) in 1942.
Today's digitized newspaper archives allow a researcher to find specific names in publications that were never indexed. As a result, I unearthed about 2,500 clips on Freeman Bernstein and his vaudeville star wife, May Ward. Reading bygone newspapers like the New York World, the New York Sun and the Morning Telegraph, I realized that—despite segregation and economic injustice—the first three decades of the 20th century were for many a glorious time in America.
Show business sparked from vaudeville (my great-uncle booked fledgling performers like Al Jolson and George Burns) to Broadway (George M. Cohan, Eddie Foy, and the Barrymores were all on stage in a typical week in 1912). Competitive newspapers trafficked in exposés, gossip, humor, and great writing. America radiated a sense of hopefulness, a collective belief that progress was on the march, which lasted until the 1929 stock market crash.
In short, I'm ready to go back, if I can take antibiotics with me.
Publishing a biography of a colorful grifter while covering the 2016 campaign has prompted many people to ask, "Was your great-uncle Freeman similar in nature to Donald Trump?"
Admittedly, Freeman did jail time while he was successfully fighting extradition from California over the Hitler hustle. It is true that he was banned from racetracks in three countries—and you had to work hard to be judged too unethical for Tijuana. Honesty also compels me to mention that Freeman Bernstein ran a very successful Irish Festival in Boston in 1929 under the unlikely name of Roger O'Ryan. Alas, my great-uncle (soon called "O'Ryanstein" in the Boston papers) was indicted for grand larceny after his Irish alter ego unaccountably disappeared with the gate receipts.
Despite this checkered legal and financial record (including two bankruptcies), Freeman possessed a big-hearted generosity of spirit lacking in a certain bilious billionaire.
After a rare big payday, my great-uncle flashed a $100 bill to pay for a $2 breakfast at a Times Square hotel. The moment the waiter handed my great-uncle $98 in change, a down-on-his-luck acquaintance asked to borrow $75. Without hesitating, Freeman gave him most of most of his current net worth. As Variety declared in its obit, "Bernstein had the native ability to borrow cash and his credit was considerable because when he was again in the chips he paid off."
Freeman embraced foreigners—and, unlike Trump, not just rich ones or international beauty-contest winners. Whenever my great-uncle traveled (and he was politely escorted out of many countries), he relished the chance to try out his cons on new unsuspecting audiences.
But Freeman also could be fearless—trying to get an actor out of Russia in the midst of Lenin's early purges and visiting Nazi Germany as an American Jew in late 1935. He even ran a circus tour in Outer Mongolia, accepting furs as the admission fee.
For the most part, my great-uncle steered clear of partisan politics. Sure, he tried to sell the 1916 Woodrow Wilson campaign on commissioning him to produce a full-length movie called Prosperity. And he arranged for the distribution of millions of copies of a Yiddish pamphlet boosting Herbert Hoover as a "Modern Moses" in 1928. But these were business propositions—not Trumpian bids for power.
Freeman carried out his hustles with a smile on his face and the hope that his marks would come back for more. After he abandoned a vaudeville troupe in the Dominican Republic, the American vice counsel in Santo Domingo wired the FBI to arrest Bernstein when his ship docked in New York. The diplomat pegged Freeman perfectly as he warned the government agents not to believe "any suave story he may tell" because he "has a gift for making black look white."
Freeman Bernstein may have been a jail-bird, a bankrupt, and a con man. But he also had a code of honor, a beguiling honesty about himself and an appreciation of the foibles of his fellow man. He was willing to let the cards fall where they may, though he would have preferred to cut the deck. In short, I am proud to say that my grifter great-uncle, the Pet of Times Square, was nothing like Donald Trump.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is covering his tenth presidential campaign. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. His new book, Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer, is published by Blue Rider Press.