In 1936 a New York Jewish hustler named Freeman Bernstein swindled the Third Reich by selling the Nazis 35 tons of valuable Canadian nickel but instead delivering scrap metal and tin.
This anecdote and many others are recounted in Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer, a highly amusing new biography by longtime political columnist Walter Shapiro about his uncle, Freeman Bernstein. Bernstein, who went on to become a vaudeville producer, was a “con man with a heart of gold” whose exaggerated claims would put any current presidential nominee to shame.
Years after briefly landing in jail for the Hitler hustle, Bernstein was at it again, this time selling phony diamonds to his old friend, actress Mae West at her Hollywood apartment in 1937. But West was no stranger to fancy jewelry, real or fake. After pulling out her jeweler’s scale, she bought the rubies and sapphires but handed back the cheap zircon.
Bernstein’s reputation for jewelry imports had earned him the nickname “The Jade King of China,” and as West recounts in her own autobiography, Bernstein smuggled the jewels into the country by feeding them to his dog just before arriving at port, and retrieved them hours later—you can guess how.
It seems Bernstein himself paid the price for that trick.
Photo courtesy of Walter Shapiro