The tale of Freeman Bernstein, a Broadway grifter who scammed Nazi officials on the eve of World War II.
Roll Call columnist Shapiro (One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In, 2003), Bernstein’s great-nephew, first heard of his relative’s coup as a bit of family lore. Research proved it to be the capstone of a long career of dirty deals, including bankruptcies, jail time in at least two countries, and many unpaid bills. Born in upstate New York in 1873, Bernstein was the son of Polish Jews who came to the U.S. five years earlier. His first scrape with the law came at age 13, when he was nabbed for lifting $10 from a swimmer’s unguarded pants. Freed on a technicality, he took the lesson that there’s always a way to beat the law. A long string of scams and scuffles followed. He gravitated to the horseplayers and sharpers of the Saratoga racing season and took to booking acts in local burlesque theaters. He soon developed a reputation for stiffing the performers, and he became a well-known Broadway character, with frequent appearances in the pages of Variety. A bright spot was his marriage to May Ward, a minor vaudeville star whose taste for the finer things of life matched Bernstein’s. Shapiro chronicles Bernstein’s career in depth, thanks in part to his frequent mentions in Variety. But after a while, Bernstein’s exploits lose appeal; few of the ways to stiff the innocent inspire admiration. Shapiro deploys a wise-guy style reminiscent of the showbiz columnists of Bernstein’s heyday, but this also wears thin. Reader interest is kept alive awaiting Bernstein’s crowning coup: bilking the Nazis by delivering scrap metal instead of the valuable nickel they paid for. Occasional glimpses of better-known showbiz figures provide color—Bernstein crossed paths with Mae West, Will Rogers, Sophie Tucker, and other real stars of the era—but nothing can really make Bernstein himself likable.
An intermittently interesting look at a character who was undoubtedly raw material for Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon.