'American Hustle' Con Man: Mel Weinberg's Final Days (Guest Column)

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Mel Weinberg

Weinberg, portrayed by Christian Bale in the 2013 film about the FBI's Abscam investigation, died Wednesday at 93. "Getting caught was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.

Mel Weinberg wanted a sandwich.

I was sitting next to his bed in a nursing home near West Palm Beach, Florida, in mid-March. He specified: He wanted a corned beef with coleslaw from the nearby Jewish deli, like they made them back on his home turf in the Bronx.

I hesitated. At 93, he was largely confined to a wheelchair, legally blind and toothless. Would he even be able to eat it? I tried an evasive tactic: "Do they have you on any particular diet?" I asked. 

"I'm 93 years old," he said with a grin and a shrug. "What are they gonna do?" And that was that. Eating the sandwich presented certain aesthetic challenges, but he clearly relished it. 

I thought of that corned beef when I heard that Weinberg had died Wednesday in Palm Beach Gardens, leaving behind a daughter, Debbie Hughes; a son, Mel Weinberg Jr. (J.R.); his former spouse, Evelyn Weinberg; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was never one to shy away from going after what he wanted in life and never mustered much angst over the potential consequences. 

It's why he was a successful con man for decades. He was finally arrested in the mid-1970s and agreed to cooperate with the government to avoid the fallout. He and FBI agent Myron Fuller started up Abscam, the seminal FBI bribery investigation that led to the arrest and conviction of seven members of Congress and the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, among others. Christian Bale memorably played a role based on Weinberg (the character was named Irving Rosenfeld) in David O. Russell's American Hustle (2013), stitching his portrayal together from threads of the real-life Abscam and the book Sting Man.

  

If the use of a phony Middle Eastern sheikh wearing a keffiyeh to offer bribes to congressmen was mildly xenophobic, Weinberg couldn't have cared less. If he was criticized for being crooked, he was fine with that, and readily owned the label. The scheme helped lock up "a bunch of perverts, drunks and crooks," as he told Mike Wallace in a searingly unapologetic 60 Minutes interview in 1981. His worldview was brazenly unreconstructed — he was a guy who still referred to women as "broads" after the #MeToo era had dawned and would've been genuinely baffled if anyone called him on it. 

Born in 1924, Weinberg served in the Navy during World War II, then came home to help in his father's plate-glass business. "Help" in his mind entailed hurling rocks through storefront windows to amp up business. Later, he ran a scam called London Investors. The scheme was simple: People paid money upfront for him to secure a loan. But the investors didn't exist, the loan was never going to happen and Weinberg made off with the fee.

I met him in Florida in 2015 when I was working on Chasing Phil, my book about the FBI's first undercover foray into white-collar crime. Weinberg and Fuller play peripheral roles in that story, which spotlights a different con man, and Fuller, who had maintained a friendship with Weinberg that stretched more than 40 years, arranged the meeting. Weinberg was a profane, hilarious raconteur who provided real insights into the life and era. 

I returned to see him in March, a few months after he broke a hip. It was clear his time was running out. There were new stories in that pristine Bronx accent (the word "first" came out "foist"): Weinberg once took John Wayne to a Miami racetrack, where he had inside information; they won so much money that a track official had to run to a bank to pay them out. He talked about hanging with Frank Sinatra, who shared common mob connections. He explained that many of the FBI agents he worked with were as morally compromised as he'd been. Sitting bedside, I dialed on speaker phone so he and Fuller, the straight arrow in the bunch, could reminisce. 

Weinberg exerted a magnetic tug right up to the end. A writer and producer from American Hustle were coming to see him soon after I left, he said, to talk about another project. And Fox had been trying to reach him for an Abscam documentary. Mel told the producer he'd talk, but only if they donated $3,000 to the nursing home; the staff doted on him there. A couple of days later, Fuller sent me a text: "Fox is paying. I guess Mel still has some con left."

Weinberg cultivated his roguish reputation long after he left the game, but Abscam changed his life. He adopted J.R., now a police officer. He supported an extended family by running a chain of seven dry-cleaning stores, then worked for 15 years as director of security for Louis Vuitton after his FBI commitment wound down. 

For all his brash talk, the soft spots showed through. "Getting caught was the best thing that ever happened to me," Weinberg told me toward the end of my visit. "All the con men in those days died young."

Typical Weinberg. Always one step ahead of the game.

David Howard is the author of Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents With the World's Most Charming Con Man.