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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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U.S. indicts George Burns, Jack Benny, December 14, 1938



1938_1214_burns
It could have been a scene from a Paramount film called "The Big Trial of 1938": A lavish dinner party is underway in the Park Avenue apartment of a New York Supreme Court justice and his wife when the conversation turns to the European crisis. The guests, who include half a dozen film stars and studio executives, begin criticizing Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

At that moment, the maid stands at the door to the dining room and says:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I am a true German. I love Adolf Hitler. If you don't stop talking against Hitler I will stop serving the diner right now. It is up to you." 

Supreme Court Justice Edgar Lauer fired Rosa Weber on the spot, and the Nazi maid promised to get revenge. 

Within days, federal customs agents were searching the Lauers' apartment for expensive clothes and jewelry that had been smuggled into the country by a charming, debonair con man named Albert N. Chaperau.

At least that was his name at the moment. Investigation revealed that his claims of being a Nicaraguan diplomat, his ploy for getting baggage through customs without inspection, were utterly false. In fact, Chaperau was born Nathan Schapiro and under that name had served 18 months in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary after being convicted of mail fraud in 1919. Box Office magazine lists him as an associate producer of "Mayerling," and imdb gives him credit on "L'Affaire du courrier de Lyon," but one might wonder whether any of that is true.

Quite a few stars of the 1930s were questioned in the investigation, including Sophie Tucker, Katharine Hepburn and Kenny Baker (he's the love interest in the Marx Bros. "At the Circus"). But the main figures were radio comedians George Burns and Jack Benny.

Burns was indicted on charges of smuggling two bracelets and a ring valued at $4,885 ($71,206.15 USD 2007). Faced with 18 years in prison and a fine of $45,000, Burns pleaded guilty, saying that he didn't know the items were smuggled.

1939_0111_benny Elma Lauer pleaded guilty, as did Chaperau, who turned against his Hollywood friends because they wouldn't help bail him out of jail, The Times said.

Unlike the others, Benny pleaded not guilty and went to trial on charges of buying $1,200 in smuggled jewelry for his wife, Mary Livingston.

In the end, Burns was fined $8,000 and given a suspended sentence. Benny was fined $10,000 and also received a suspended sentence. The judge told him: "Sometimes men who are prominent in pictures and radio are just easy marks for smart people. But you should have been smart enough not to fall in with such a plan."

Elma Lauer was fined $2,500 and and served three months in jail. Her husband resigned from the New York Supreme Court. Sentenced to five years in federal prison, Chapeau was pardoned by President Roosevelt after he helped prosecute other gem smugglers.

And the Lauers' Hitler-loving maid? Rosa Weber was paid more than $8,000 for acting as a government informant. It's tempting to speculate that her Nazi sympathies soon got her in trouble with the law, but The Times never wrote about her again.



 
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Comments (3)

Fascinating. Since this was a New York story, it's not all that surprising that a minor character like Rosa Weber, who presumably never stepped foot in LA as of 1938, would not be mentioned by the LA Times once the film and national radio celebrities were no longer in the picture. But I wonder if a New York newspaper (there were an awful lot of those back in the forties) ever followed up Weber and her Nazi sympathies post-1942.

Didn't this play into Jack Benny and George Burns' decisions in 1948 to jump from NBC to CBS? That when NBC launched contract negotiations with the two stars, the network hired a lawyer who had been involved in the smuggling case against them, and that Benny and Burns were so insulted, it played into their decisions to take Paley's offer at CBS.

You can find the FBI file associated with George Burns, and this incident, at http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/georgeburns.htm.


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