In March 1934, Leon Lewis, a 44-year-old lawyer and former executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, invited 40 of Hollywood’s most powerful studio heads, producers and directors — men like Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg and Jack Warner — to a secret meeting at Hillcrest, the elite Jewish country club in Cheviot Hills. For nearly a year, Lewis had used a network of spies (including the son of a Bavarian general) to keep tabs on Nazis and American-born fascists in Los Angeles. Some in the group knew a bit about what Lewis had been up to, but few knew the full extent of his work. As the group settled into the Club Room after dinner, Lewis rose to share what he had learned: Anti-Semites had invaded their studios. Foremen sympathetic to the Nazi and fascist cause had fired so many below-the-line Jewish employees that many studios had “reached a condition of almost 100 percent [Aryan] purity.” Scarier still, Lewis told them his spies had uncovered death threats against the moguls.
He pleaded with them for money to continue his operations so they could keep track of not only how the Nazis were trying to influence the studios but also their plans for sabotage and murder in Southern California. Would the moguls help?
Thalberg promised $3,500 from MGM. Paramount production head Emanuel Cohen matched it. RKO’s David Selznick contributed and said he would canvass the town’s talent agents for additional contributions. By the end of the evening, the group had pledged $24,000 ($439,000 in 2017 dollars) for the spy operation.
Lewis was elated. The money would allow him to recruit more spies and continue his undercover operations. “For the first time,” he wrote an ADL colleague, “we have established a real basis of cooperation with the Motion Picture Industry, and I look for splendid results.”
Over the next decade, until the end of World War II, Lewis, whom the Nazis called “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles,” used the money raised from Hollywood to recruit World War I veterans — and their wives and daughters — to spy on Nazi and fascist groups in Los Angeles. Often rising to leadership positions, this daring group of men and women foiled a series of Nazi plots — from hanging 24 Hollywood actors and power figures, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Charlie Chaplin, Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, to blowing up defense installations on the day Nazis planned to launch their American putsch.
Even though Nazi plans for murder and sabotage failed, as with today, we need to take this homegrown extremism seriously. Lewis certainly did. While local and federal officials were busy monitoring the activities of communists, his operatives uncovered enough evidence of hatred and plotting to be concerned about the fate of Los Angeles Jews and American democracy. Were it not for Lewis and his spies, these plots might have succeeded.
As he paced his downtown office on Seventh Street waiting to meet his first potential recruit in late July 1933, Lewis reflected upon the events that had led him to embark on a new career as spy master. On the evening of July 26, 100 Hitlerites, many dressed in brown shirts and sporting red, white and black swastika armbands, held their first public meeting at their spacious downtown headquarters in the Alt Heidelberg building. Hans Winterhalder, handsome propaganda chief of the Friends of the New Germany, told the crowd of plans to unify the 50 scattered German-American organizations of Southern California and their 150,000 members into one body. It had been seven months since Adolf Hitler had become the Reich’s chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and five months since Berlin had sent Capt. Robert Pape to Los Angeles to build a Nazi organization in the area.
For Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, no American city was more important than Los Angeles, home to what he deemed the world’s greatest propaganda machine, Hollywood. Although many people in the U.S. and around the globe viewed New York as the capital of Jewish America, Goebbels saw Hollywood as a far more dangerous place, one where Jews ruled over the motion picture industry and transmitted their ideas throughout the world. And Los Angeles seemed the perfect place to establish a beachhead for the Nazi assault on the U.S. Not only did Southern California have a long history of anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism, but the Los Angeles port also was less closely monitored than New York (or “Jew York,” as Nazis often referred to it), which made it easier to use as the central depot for sending spies, money and secret orders from Germany.
What really frightened Lewis was a small paragraph in a Los Angeles Record story about the rally describing how Los Angeles-based Nazis had turned the Alt Heidelberg basement into a barracks for unemployed Germans who would be fed, bathed and housed at no cost other than being instructed in National Socialism. Lewis understood that this was not done out of kindness. The Nazis were raising an army from among the unemployed and discontented, especially targeting veterans, just as Hitler had done in the 1920s to fuel his rise.
There was little in Lewis’ background to suggest that the modest Midwesterner, 6-foot-1 with light brown eyes and black hair, would come to this. After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1913, Lewis, committed to the Jewish idea of tikkun olam (world repair), became the ADL’s first national executive secretary. In 1923, after serving in World War I, he added the ADL’s international division to his portfolio, and keeping track of Hitler and the threat he posed to Jews became an obsession. Within days of the local Nazis’ first meeting, Lewis, convinced American authorities were too obsessed with communists to take the Nazi threat seriously, started his spy operation from his small downtown law office.
His initial recruits to his spy ring included an unlikely array of non-Jews. He wanted experienced soldiers (and their wives) who would not be prone to fear or exaggeration so government agencies could not accuse Lewis of engaging in Jewish paranoia. First to join was John Schmidt, the German-born son of a Bavarian general who had moved to the U.S. around 1903, joined the Army and been wounded in World War I. After Lewis appealed to his patriotism and promised the cash-strapped veteran a modest monthly stipend, Schmidt — who operated under the code names Agent 11, 74 and Elf — agreed to pose as a Nazi sympathizer, and his wife, Alice (Agent 17), joined him, becoming president of the FNG’s Ladies Auxiliary. Others followed, including Charles Slocombe, a former Long Beach KKK member who penetrated deep into the leadership ranks of the Klan and fascist groups like the anti-Semitic American National Party, Silver Shirts and the American Labor Party’s military wing, the Lode Star Legion. Lewis also enlisted Neal Ness, an engineer turned journalist turned spy who became the American right-hand man and confidant to FNG leader Herman Schwinn.
As millions of Americans prepared to welcome in the New Year on Dec. 31, 1935, Slocombe warned Lewis of an outrageous plot to assassinate a number of Hollywood’s leading figures. Ingram Hughes, a failed attorney and founder of the ANP, was working closely with local Nazi leader Schwinn to rid the nation of its “Jewish menace.” The 60-year-old fascist planned to assassinate 20 prominent Angelenos, including Busby Berkeley, Superior Court judge Henry M. Willis, entertainment lawyer Mendel Silberberg and Lewis himself. “Busby Berkeley will look good dangling on a rope’s end,” the ANP leader quipped. Hughes hoped the hangings would spark a nationwide uprising against Jews. He recruited Nazi propagandist Franz Ferenz (distributor of German films and newsreels on the West Coast), four Nazis from the FNG and several other trusted accomplices.
This was no hasty killing fantasy but a carefully planned terrorist plot. To hide their identities, he ordered the kidnappers to wear cotton gloves and heavy wool socks over their shoes. “Every man will have a perfect alibi,” Hughes explained, and “several weeks will be spent in developing the minutest details to the nth degree.” The police, Hughes’ friends on the force had assured him, “will not interfere but will give a sigh of relief.”
Lewis knew all this because Slocombe had penetrated the ANP. Lewis’ spy impressed Hughes at their first meeting when he insisted the KKK and Silver Shirts “were not militant enough” and that he “wanted to have action and not a lot of talk.” The 28-year-old Long Beach water-taxi driver soon became the fascist’s most valued assistant.
Hughes’ slaughtering of Jews did not proceed as planned. He and Schwinn suspected that Lewis’ spies had penetrated the operation; they just did not know who was spying for the Jews and did not wish to risk being arrested for murder until the traitor was revealed. “We must watch our step as we proceed,” Hughes confided to Slocombe. Fearing Lewis’ reach, Hughes postponed the killings.
Another plot surfaced a year later, hatched by the British fascist Leopold McLaglan, the estranged brother of 1936 Oscar winner Victor McLaglen (Leopold changed the spelling to differentiate from his brother). The 53-year-old World War I veteran had turned to teaching martial arts to rich Californians and Nazis (he had once taught at Scotland Yard) after his brother blackballed him from acting. Schwinn’s crowd loved McLaglan; not only had he built a fascist organization in England, but he was teaching Nazis and White Russians “how to kill through jiujitsu.” Soon after they met in September 1937 at the Nazi-run German Day Celebration (which attracted a crowd of 3,000), McLaglan invited Slocombe, longtime fascist Henry Allen and prominent Hollywood photographer and Silver Shirts leader Ken Alexander to dinner at his favorite restaurant, the House of Sullivan. Over Tom Collinses and scotch and sodas, McLaglan shared his “bloody good idea.” And bloody it was. To garner “worldwide publicity, we are going to have to do a wholesale slaughtering here in the city of plenty of the leading Jews.” He planned on targeting Jewish studio execs, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Christians who aided them. “I can get the Nazi boys and the White Russians who would do this for us,” he promised. White Russian leader George Doombadze, he added, has a “psycho” fellow “who does this stuff for him all the time.”
Slocombe sent Lewis 24 names on McLaglan’s killing list, which included some of the most famous people in the world, including Cantor, Chaplin, Goldwyn, Jolson, Jack Benny, James Cagney, Fredric March, Paul Muni, Joseph Schenck, B.P. Schulberg, Gloria Stuart, Sylvia Sidney, Donald Ogden Stewart, Walter Winchell and William Wyler. As they reviewed the hit list, McLaglan revealed he had spoken to FNG leader Schwinn about the assassination plot “many times.” Schwinn told McLaglan that his Nazi allies “were particularly interested in eliminating” the key leaders of the Anti-Nazi League.
Boasting that he “could get all the dynamite he needed through the police,” McLaglan would provide two dozen Nazi and Russian assassins with the bombs and the names and addresses of their targets, all of whom would be murdered on the same night. Knowing that they would likely fall under suspicion, McLaglan suggested they spend the night of the killings in Santa Barbara to have “a perfect alibi.”
The plot unraveled when Slocombe convinced Allen and Alexander that McLaglan planned a double-cross in which he would pin the murders on them. So they double-crossed first, striking a deal with District Attorney Buron Fitts: sworn statements implicating McLaglan in return for immunity. Evidence in hand, the police arrested McLaglan on Oct. 26, 1937; but instead of charging him with attempted murder, the D.A.’s office covered up police involvement in the murder plot by charging the British fascist only with extorting money from millionaire Philip Chancellor (who had hired McLaglan to conduct an undercover operation). When the trial began six weeks later, McLaglan, dressed in a dapper suit and sporting a monocle, pleaded not guilty, but a jury found him guilty of extortion. Sentenced to five years in prison, McLaglan received probation on the condition that he take the first ship back to England.
Having saved Hollywood Jews a second time, Lewis and his spies turned to getting Schwinn deported. In September 1938, armed with evidence provided by Lewis and Ness, the U.S. Department of Naturalization and Immigration began steps to revoke Schwinn’s citizenship. Nine months later, federal judge Ralph Jenny ruled that Schwinn had perjured himself by providing false information on his application for citizenship. Although Schwinn told the court he had made “an honest mistake,” the judge, insisting that the Nazi was not of “good moral character,” revoked his citizenship. Two hours later, Lewis’ informant Jimmy Frost gave him more good news: The immigration service had begun deportation proceedings against the Nazi.
Despite their success, Lewis and his spies never received the recognition they deserved. It was not until after Pearl Harbor that the communist-obsessed FBI acted against Nazi spies. In the days and weeks after the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, J. Edgar Hoover’s men received nationwide acclaim for the speed and efficiency with which they rounded up Axis spies and fifth columnists. Yet, as Lewis’ assistant Joseph Roos later noted, the Los Angeles FBI “had scant security information of their own.” Government intelligence agents simply retyped the list of suspected German agents and subversive fifth columnists sent by Lewis and claimed it as theirs. As far as the FBI was concerned, its job was done. On Oct. 3, 1942, the L.A. bureau filed what it believed was its last report on Schwinn: “As no further investigation is contemplated … this case is being closed.”
The FBI may have closed its case on Schwinn and the Bund, but Lewis knew that the fifth-column movement remained alive and that hatred of Jews had grown stronger since Pearl Harbor. With the FBI focused on rounding up suspected foreign agents, it was up to him to expose any threats to the city’s Jewish community. Over the next several years, he relied on the mother-daughter spy team of Grace and Sylvia Comfort to keep tabs on — and foil the plots of — anti-Semites. One member of the California Women’s Republican Club told Sylvia Comfort that all Jews should be “hung from lampposts within five years,” while another complained, “that was too slow.” Knowing it would take only one crazy person to carry out these threats, Lewis and his operatives continued watching over the city with an eye to protecting Jews from Nazis and anti-Semites.
There are many ways to fight an enemy, not all of which require guns. The actions taken by Lewis and his allies require us to change the way we think about American Jewish resistance in the 1930s. From August 1933 until the end of World War II, with few resources at their disposal, Lewis and his courageous undercover operatives continually defeated a variety of enemies — Nazis, fascists and fifth columnists — bent on violence and murder. Without ever firing a weapon, they managed to keep Los Angeles and its citizens safe.
Lewis and the men and women who aided him were heroes who never sought glory. He died of a heart attack at age 65 in 1954 mostly unrecognized, except by a few, and what happened faded from memory.
In the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the rise of neo-Nazi activities across the country, Lewis’ story offers a guide to what happens when hate groups move from the margins into the mainstream of American society and when an American government seems complacent or, as some would argue, complicit. Lewis understood that democracy requires constant vigilance against all enemies, internal and external. He and his network of spies showed that when a government fails to stem the rise of extremists bent on violence, it is up to every citizen to protect the lives of every American, no matter their race or religion. Only in a “unified America,” he said after the war, could the nation and its citizens achieve the true “realization of the American democratic ideal.”
Adapted from Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America. Copyright © Steven J. Ross, 2017. Published by Bloomsbury USA. Order here.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.