Crises of a confidence-man

The Man Who Conned the World: Victor Lustig

Christopher Sandford, The History Press, 2021, 300pp, £20

DEREK TURNER is forced to admire a brilliant rogue

Christopher Sandford is an acknowledged expert on the cultural history of the twentieth century, who has written to scintillating effect on subjects from the Rolling Stones to Arthur Conan Doyle, and cricket to Roman Polanski. But Victor Lustig may be his favourite subject to date – a man of boundless energy, ingenuity and resource, all of which were unfortunately expended entirely to society’s detriment, and ultimately did not even do him any good. The result is an engrossing, funny and wise account of the wasted (or worse than wasted) life of an extraordinary con-man, and a reflection on the constancy of human credulity.

Lustig was born Robert Miller/Molnar/Mueller in 1891 in Hostinné, presently in the Czech Republic, but historically part of battled-over Bohemia. This seems a suitably indeterminate birthplace for a Mitteleuropaïscher on the make, who during his fifty-six years on earth would use no fewer than forty-five aliases as part of his constant effort to separate marks from their money, and extricate himself from the criminal justice systems of several countries.

If he was frequently fortunate, he also made his own luck, and like the U.S. G-men and T-men who doggedly pursued Lustig during his 1930s and 1940s heyday as arch confidence-trickster (a C-man, perhaps), Sandford is compelled to admire Lustig’s intelligence, resilience and supreme self-belief. So are we, as we read about such exploits as the sale of the Eiffel Tower to a scrap-metal merchant, his elegantly carpentered “Rumanian box” which made hundred dollar notes, and his unique achievement in cheating Al Capone out of US$7,000, and living to brag about it. How can we not marvel at a man who forged a “newly discovered tale” by Mark Twain, and who when belatedly asked about its provenance by the suspicious magazine (that had already published it), not only talked his way out but managed to sell them a handwritten poem by “Walt Whitman”?

Gullibility is perennial in human history, a proposition famously proven by Charles Mackay in his 1841 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and encapsulated by the notorious aphorism usually attributed to P. T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute!” But Lustig was lucky in the period in which he started practising his sociopathic skills – the turbulent, badly-governed and later wounded world of the immediate pre-Great War and then interwar periods, when both Europe and America over-brimmed with charlatans, frauds, hoaxers, hucksters and showmen who knew how to capitalize on crises of civilizational confidence and economic volatility.

Some hoaxes were harmless. Virginia Woolf and several friends embarrassed the Royal Navy in 1910 by donning blackface and dressing gowns, and touring HMS Dreadnought as visiting Ethiopian royals. In 1912 came the fossil ‘Piltdown Man’, a sensational ‘missing link’ between apes and men, a science-upturning skull from Sussex which had in fact been confected from a medieval human, an eighteenth century orang-utan jawbone, and twentieth century baboon teeth. In 1917, two little girls cut out drawings of fairies and took photographs of them in their Yorkshire garden, which convinced Arthur Conan Doyle that there really was another reachable dimension in which fairies (and his war-fallen son) might co-exist. 

Other hoaxes were crueller, rooted in what Wolfgang Schivelbusch calls the ’culture of defeat’, that swept over much of Europe after 1918 – an umbrageous mood characterised by seething class and ethnic resentments, millions of displaced persons, cultural crazes from manic dancing to miracle cures and spiritualism, and desperate navel-searching for meaning, purpose and security. Even the victorious Allies had their Bright Young Things and frantic flappers, possibly overcompensating for the deep sorrows of older generations, whose complacent pre-war universe had been bespattered with the mud and blood of their sons. America, which had come best out of the conflict, and was about to enter the ‘Roaring Twenties’, was filled with restless excitement, and examples of real-life get-rich-quick schemes that many aspired to emulate.

We are introduced to, or reminded of, the existences of John ‘Maundy’ Gregory who sold peerages on behalf of David Lloyd George’s government – Stephane Otto who masqueraded so convincingly as a Belgian royal that she pinned the Order of Leopold onto the officer commanding the American troops on the Rhine – and Jerome Tarbot, a decorated combat veteran and respected lecturer on the Somme, who had in truth spent the war years stealing cars in California. In 1919, the fraudster Arnold Rothstein fixed the baseball World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. In 1920, came the collapse of Carlo Ponzi’s pyramid-buying scam, entailing an estimated loss to investors of some US$500 million in today’s terms, and giving the world a new, unwelcome word.

‘The world’ of course did not learn from these experiences. Most of us have naïve blind spots, and people can always be found to hearken to hucksters, and give credence to quick-thinking, respectably-dressed people who tell them what they most desire to hear. Some victims of confidence-tricksters become so ensnared that they remain loyal to them even after they are exposed, so reluctant to face up to their initial bad decision they make themselves double gulls.

Lustig was just one of many 1910s-1940s flim-flam merchants who knew how to present themselves convincingly, and proffer tantalizing easy answers, quick fixes and ‘sure-fire’ schemes. But he was almost certainly the most systematic, devising his own conventional morality-mocking ‘Ten Commandments of the Con’, which include such cold-blooded prescriptions as ‘Be a patient listener’, ‘Never look bored’, ‘Never boast’, ‘Never get drunk’, and letting the other person reveal their political or religious views and then agreeing with whatever those happen to be.

Lustig was also the most expert, thanks to his very considerable level of culture. He was able to speak five languages when still at school, and would later be an opera buff, and a competition-level chess player. With such acuity allied to unscrupulousness, he could pass himself off easily as millionaire, sober businessman, leading banker, insurance company executive, senior civil servant, medical expert, medium, art dealer, theatrical impresario, or displaced aristocrat.

Such a man could clearly have succeeded in many legitimate ways, but legitimacy would never be enough for this inveterate seeker after excitement and novelty. He said in later life that he had never wanted ‘a timid but steady progress [towards] the grave,’ and by the age of sixteen he was already cheating at billiards, running horse-race betting scams, hanging out in bars with what German police files called ‘louche and mutant types,’ and in rented-by-the hour rooms with prostitutes. Details of his early escapades are scanty and unreliable, revealed only by such police dossier vignettes and his own fragmentary and self-serving diary, and reminiscences to his daughter Betty, or to US federal agents at the end of his career.

Lustig always emphasised his hardships as a young man living by card-sharping, magical illusions and larceny in Vienna, and frequently portrayed himself as an understandable rebel – a kind of struggler against an unjust system, blaming his criminal transgressions and cynical worldview on abysmal examples set by society. He expressed support for women’s suffrage, and sympathy for black Americans. But all such pretensions to a social conscience were rarely, if ever, given practical effect. If sometimes he swindled people who were themselves swindlers, he never made any Robin Hood-style restitutions. When one of his schemes resulted in many working-class bank account holders in Kansas losing all their life savings, Lustig’s only recorded comment was ‘fools.’ As Sandford notes, ‘…he was really in the business of wealth redistribution for himself.’ He skated through life, largely unheeding of anything outside himself; on a day in October 1915 when the London press were reporting 60,000 British casualties at Loos, the then London-based Lustig’s diary contained three words: ‘Cleared another £400.’

He spent whatever money he accrued almost immediately, hedonistically on women, but also tactically on expensive clothes, luxurious accommodation, cars, chauffeurs, lavish sweeteners, and other appurtenances that allowed him a semblance of sleek respectability to facilitate his next con. He segued un-snobbishly from high society to low, and back again, along the way bumping into extraordinary people. He once gave a generous tip to, and had a pleasant conversation with, a young Indo-Chinese dishwasher working in London’s Carlton Hotel, who would later become Ho Chi Minh. He consulted Carl Jung about his dreams – ‘an odd juxtaposition,’ as the author notes, ‘the one man intent on revealing the inner psyche and the other one equally determined to conceal it.’ There is a story (unfortunately unprovable) from the FBI files that Lustig met his contemporary Adolf Hitler in Vienna, at that time like Lustig a charismatic and restless drifter in search of some kind of opportunity. He admired Lucy LeSueur’s ‘wide, hurt eyes’ and ‘great maternal orbs’ – assets which would prove useful in her later incarnation of Joan Crawford. Rudolph Valentino told him he should try for a Hollywood career.

He was almost always at least one step ahead of the harried Feds, and became an object of obsession for more than one lawman, most notably his eventual nemesis, the remorseless and tough Peter Rubano, a war veteran and mobster-buster of whom it was said ‘when he shook your hand, it stayed shook.’ Lustig’s slipperiness was legendary; he had a fine instinct that always allowed him to leave his hotel at just the right moment, sometimes in a swiftly-donned disguise, or shinning down drainpipes to join his chauffeur waiting out the back, perhaps literally with the engine running. Even when he was apprehended, he always managed to oil his way out, right up until the end of his career – through smooth argumentation, judicious bribes, jumping bail, or by simply promising to leave town immediately to save local blushes. Once, after being questioned for passing fake currency in Connecticut, he persuaded the judge that it was a case of mistaken identity – and was asked by the apologetic local police chief to lecture his officers on how to recognize forged notes. 

Victor Lustig

There is sometimes a tendency to view con-men as almost lovable rogues – “social anarchists”, to use Sandford’s phrase – whose crimes are ‘victimless’ because they prey chiefly on institutions or the rich. But he left a trail of anger, betrayal, disillusionment, embarrassment and financial ruin behind him as he moved from Europe to America, and then endlessly within his unlucky adopted country. His two wives, and daughter, were only the most obvious victims of his peripatetic, selfish and thrill-seeking mode of existence. He was even a victim himself. As the author notes;

At heart, the confidence man really deals in the disintegration of lives, his own as well as his victims.

His daughter said the first words she was taught were ‘Never speak to the police’ – a sad remembrance, which hints at the endless effort and sheer tension involved in a life like Lustig’s, who could never really relax. At times, even he showed signs of tiredness, like in a diary entry for 1935, just before Peter Rubano finally caught up with him:

We struggle. We reach. And what is there at the end? A clod of dirt flung down upon the coffin lid.

Nor could he ever really be himself. Did he even have an ‘himself’’ – any real feelings behind all those masks? Was he more than just a bundle of ingenious stratagems? A Times obituarist noted of another notorious fraudster, Horatio Bottomley, that he was ‘more a set of public attitudes than a person’ – and a similar sense of insubstantiality clings to Lustig. It is possible almost to feel sorry for him, a friendly man without friends, a restless and lonely whirligig whose superlative gifts in the end amounted to less than nothing.

But then we think again of the real victims – and of the irrepressibility of the man himself, who even after his arrest played games with Peter Rubano, and enraged FBI boss Edgar Hoover by his last great exploit – escaping spectacularly in the middle of the day from Manhattan’s maximum security prison, climbing down a rope made of sheets, watched by hundreds of passers-by.

By December 1935, he had been recaptured, and was sentenced to twenty years – fifteen for counterfeiting, and five for the escape. The following March, he was sent to Alcatraz, where he beguiled his ever-restless intellect by making vexatious medical requests (about one every three days). When the war broke out, he began writing long geopolitical screeds, and offered his services as an assassin, saying that if he could be airdropped into Germany he would make his way to Berlin and poison Hitler’s pastries – an offer inexplicably declined.

By the time he died, alone in a prison hospital in March 1947, this ultimate freewheeling individual had been largely forgotten. He had just over $93 in his only known bank account, and a few notebooks as personal possessions. But a strange kind of tribute came at his funeral, when the only mourner other than his daughter were two men from the Prison Bureau, as if the authorities were ensuring that this wasn’t just one last trick. It makes an apposite end to this story, of a man even now an enigma.