Lewis rightfully predicted that his agents could best hinder the Nazis by working in secret. His men were able to foil plots before they got off the ground, and there were no dramatic stand-offs or shootouts. Lewis was not always believer in the ponderous gathering of courtroom evidence through surveillance; he thought it best to never allow a Nazi plot to develop past the planning stage. Lewis would risk dumping information and exposing his spies only when it could permanently damage a hate group.
The story of this courageous anti-Nazi espionage — based in Los Angeles, no less — has been recounted in two new studies: Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America by Steven J. Ross and Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles by Laura B. Rosenzweig.
In the early 1930s, fascist groups began to reach out to disgruntled World War I veterans (one-third of them resided in Southern California) who felt like they hadn’t received their promised benefits. While the population in Los Angeles was climbing, so was the poverty rate. In addition, a large portion of Angelenos began following nationally known hatemongers like radio personalities Gerald B. Winrod and Father Charles Coughlin, whose program had a reach of 14 million. Also on the rise: A fascist organization known as the Silver Shirts, headed by former Hollywood screenwriter William Dudley Pelley.
The popularity of fascism led Pelley to run for president in 1936, forming his own party only to get shellacked. Six years later, Pelley would land a 15-year stretch in prison for sedition. Pelley wasn’t the only concern, as the soul of Los Angeles was in jeopardy of being taken over by any number of radical leaders hoping to prey on those eager to belong in a city quickly becoming a melting pot.
Identity was also a concern for Hollywood, which became a booming industry over the previous decades and drew a wide range of newcomers to the city. Many of the studio’s founders were immigrants from Europe. The film studios migrated from New York to Southern California as a way to dodge Thomas Edison’s patent attorneys and to enjoy weather that allowed for year-round filming. Assimilating into the United States culture was not easy for many of the Jewish moguls who worked to keep their faith under the radar of rising anti-Semitism. By the 1930s the West Side of Los Angeles had a large Jewish population, including the Hillcrest Country Club in Beverly Hills — one of the only safe places for Jews to meet in the area. For these Hollywood Jews, the desire to belong to their heritage as well as a newfound identity as an American was an inner struggle for many in the film industry.
No one was more aware of the rising threat to Jews in Los Angeles than Leon Lewis. His law office on 626 West 7th street was only blocks away from several fascist hangouts for groups like the Silver Shirts, American Warriors, American Nationalist Party, and the KKK. Lewis recruited a team of volunteers from the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee (LAJCC) to keep an eye on them.
Lewis had been involved in faith-based causes before: he worked for the Anti-Defamation League, founded B’nai B’rith Magazine, and helped create the Hillel Foundation to help Jewish kids on college campuses.
His first spy, John Schmidt, was both a former German military cadet and former US Army captain. Schmidt had a perfect background to fool Nazi sympathizers as a disgruntled veteran, though he had to keep a tight lid on his feeling that Nazis “ought to be lined up against the wall and filled full of lead.”
Schmidt, along with his wife Alice, joined the Friends of New Germany (FNG) in 1933 and quickly gained the confidence of the pro-Nazi crowd. Schmidt regularly hung out at the Deutsches Haus, a mansion on 634 W. 15th street, which held the Aryan Bookstore and was a FNG hub of activity full of anti-Semitic books and magazines. They quickly learned that the FNG was a pro-Nazi paramilitary outfit.
Alice Schmidt was invited to become a secretary at the Aryan Bookstore, where she “typed key documents, overheard key conversations, and then went home and typed reports to Lewis on what she had observed.” Lewis gathered proof that the FNG’s real agenda was to help take over the United States. Germany sent regular orders through the ranks to get maps of armories and to dump anti-Semitic pamphlets in highly populated areas (commonly referred to as “snow storming”).
Lewis arranged for two other spies (Bert Allen and Carl Sunderland) to “betray” John Schmidt so that he could testify against the FNG and expose their real motives. But crucially, it wasn’t a criminal case. Lewis arranged a civil suit that would pit several German organizations against the FNG, which could in turn allow Lewis to call Schmidt to testify on his findings. Motivated primarily by publicity, the courtroom proceedings were heavily covered in the papers and made the Nazi conspiracies in Los Angeles public in spectacular fashion.
On the fifth day in court, Schmidt was listening to another testimony when a man sat down next to him. “We’ll kill you Schmidt, you son of a bitch,” he said before leaving the room. It was clear that Lewis’s work was far from over.
Lewis knew regular funding would be a major hurdle, and turned to his friend Mendel Silberberg, who mined his Hollywood contacts and organized a gathering at the Hillcrest Country Club for dozens of the film industry’s most powerful figures. Attendees were shown copies of Liberation and Silver Ranger, venomous anti-Semetic publications made and dispersed by Silver Shirts that attacked Hollywood Jews. Warner Bros. and MGM soon chipped in thousand of dollars. MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer appointed a committee to oversee continued financing of Lewis’s work, which included Emanuel Cohen, Jack Warner, and Harry Rapf. Radio star Eddie Cantor and Warner Bros. stars Paul Muni, Al Jolson, and Edward G. Robinson sought funding from actors and actresses around town.
German conspirators were not the only problem. Los Angeles Police Captain Jesse Hopkins and Los Angeles County Sheriff James Foze were both suspicious of Jews and felt they were all communists. Each man made anti-Semitic comments to Lewis employee Robert Carroll, such as Foze saying “all Jews ought to have their nuts cut out and kicked out of the city.” Communists, rather than Nazis, were the law enforcement obsession of the day. The newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) put their focus largely on Reds.
By the mid-1930s, anti-Semitism was mainstream in the United States. In September 1935, Los Angeles Times readers opened papers to an anti-Semitic flyer titled “The Proclamation.” The flyer pushed for a boycott of all things Jewish: “BUY GENTILE! EMPLOY GENTILE! VOTE GENTILE.” Three years later, Hollywood residents saw a flyer announcing, “Hollywood is the Sodom and Gomorrah where international Jewry controls Vice-Dope-Gambling,” and “where young gentile girls are raped by Jewish producers, directors, [and] casting directors who go unpunished.”
Rosenzweig cites a national poll from Fortune magazine that showed up to 65 percent of respondents felt “Jews had too much power.” During the 1930s, pro-Nazi propaganda was distributed in major cities. As my own research shows, the first Hollywood blow to Germany occurred in April 1933 when Warner Bros. pulled their product from the lucrative foreign market in protest. However, the Jewish-run Hollywood studios still had difficulty making films that even mentioned Jews.
One man who made this difficult was Georg Gyssling, the German consul to Los Angeles, who played a complicated role. He had been sent to Los Angeles in 1933 by Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels to pressure the film industry into making German-friendly films. Any film that presented Germans in a negative light would not be imported to Germany, a lucrative market for Hollywood films. But he was no lover of the Nazi Party himself, and he outsourced most of the dirty work to an American.
The Production Code Administration (PCA) hired the anti-Semitic Joseph Breen as their attack dog. Breen was a perfect useful idiot for the Nazis, a passionate Catholic who felt Hollywood Jews were “the scum of the Earth.” Using the PCA rules against defaming other nations or religions, Breen could get the studios to bend.
Not even HUAC could continue to ignore the Nazi presence in Los Angeles. One of Lewis’s top spies, Neil Ness, told the committee in October 1939 that he had infiltrated the German American Bund and went with him to shipyards to pick up flyers, money, and orders from Germany. Now on the national stage, the German American Bund was declared by Ness “an arm of the German government.”
The late 1930s also saw the rise of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL), a group destined to connect with Lewis. And they fought using the powerful celebrity of Hollywood elite players like Eddie Cantor and John Ford, and by regularly broadcasting anti-Nazi satire and news through the Warner Bros.’s radio network. While Lewis’s spies worked underground, the HANL members drew massive crowds at events featuring anti-fascist speakers.
Warner Bros. also began producing more directly anti-fascist films, such as Black Legion, about the rise of Midwestern hate groups, and They Won’t Forget, based on the infamous lynching of Jewish factory owner Leo Frank case. Most prominently, Warner Bros. released Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939. The film was the first to formally go after Nazis and its release day, Ross argues, was the day “Warner Brothers Studios declared war on Germany.” The film was a watershed moment for anti-Nazi filmmakers.
The next year, Charlie Chaplin released the masterful fascist satire The Great Dictator (1940) through United Artists, Fox released I Married a Nazi (1940), and MGM produced the powerful The Mortal Storm (1940). For isolationists in the US Senate, these films were proof that foreign interests in Hollywood were trying to “rouse us to a state of war hysteria.” These accusations led a Senate subcommittee to investigate the film industry; movies were not then considered a protected form of free speech.
The motion picture propaganda investigations are not new to film historians, but Ross uncovered an ugly new detail. When North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye spoke of Hollywood and read the names of several moguls to the crowd, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, Jack Warner, and so on, an audibly intoned “Jew” could be heard after each name. As an admirer of Nye, Joseph Goebbels couldn’t have been happier.
The anti-Semitic rhetoric of these investigations shows how prominent and passionate the isolationist movement was. Harry Warner gave an impassioned defense to the Senate, arguing that their new films were no different than their previous films — each production mirrored the world in one way or another. Wendell Willkie, an attorney for the film industry, went as far to write Nye a letter detailing that the accusations of his committee had no legal bearing.
The investigations were ultimately dissolved in the aftermath of December 7, 1941, when the United States had the next World War at its Pacific doorstep. By then, Lewis had helped the LAJCC land a powerful roster of sympathetic executives from MGM, Warner Bros., RKO, and Paramount Studios, and the Nazi influence on Hollywood had been broken for good.
Hitler in Los Angeles and Hollywood’s Spies expose a buried story about underground plots waged by Nazis against major Hollywood figures as part of a plan to win over the United States. The quiet heroism of Lewis and his allies is a too-long-neglected tale about the power of volunteers and activist citizens to make a difference in frightening times.
Chris Yogerst, PhD, is assistant professor of communication for the University of Wisconsin Colleges and is author of Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros. (2016).