The Current

Hitler in L.A.: How private Jewish spies foiled a Nazi Hollywood takeover

Murder plots, secret spies, and big sums of money. In his new book, professor Steven J. Ross tells the unbelievable story of how Nazis intent on affecting America culture almost co-opted Hollywood.
Historian Steven Ross reveals Hollywood's secret undercover war against Nazi terror on U.S. soil. in his book, Hitler in Los Angeles: (National Archives of Canada/Heinrich Hoffmann/CP)

Originally published on February 14, 2018.

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It's a story that sounds like something out of a Hollywood thriller: a Jewish spy ring, financed by big movie moguls, carries on a secret war of infiltration and disruption against the Nazis — who are secretly plotting a revolution and murder on U.S. soil.

It's truth that's stranger than fiction.

Author Steven J. Ross unravels the untold history of Nazi efforts to co-opt American culture in his book, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.

Leon Lewis 

The Nazis plot might have worked, if not for Leon Lewis. Lewis was a World War I veteran, a lawyer, and an activist with the Anti-Defamation League. 

With the election of Hitler in Germany, Lewis became worried about meetings of brownshirts in L.A., where he was living. 

The first rally in L.A. was held in the summer of 1933. At the time, the FBI and local police were more concerned with watching communists than tracking the Nazis. 

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels sent German consul Georg Gyssling to Hollywood to make sure no film was being made that attacked or mocked Hitler. (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"No one in [positions of] authority seemed to be taking the Nazis seriously…[Lewis] was afraid Hitler was trying to duplicate the same strategy in the U.S. as in Europe …The Nazis wanted to build an army of unhappy war veterans," Ross told The Current's guest host, Laura Lynch.

So, Lewis recruited his own WWI veterans who shared his fears about the meetings. These vets and their wives went to the Nazi gatherings, but concealed their true perspectives and affiliations. These people would become the first in a larger group of Lewis' amateur spies.

You can't make this up

When his network collected enough information, Lewis reached out to police and the FBI, warning them that they should be paying more attention to the Nazis. The official reaction was not what Lewis expected. 

"The police chief stopped him and said 'You dont get it. Hitler was only doing what he has to do to save Germany from the Jewish problem … the real threat is not the Nazis. The real threat are all those Jews and communists who live in Boyle Heights,' — which was then the Jewish neighborhood." 

That antisemitism couldn't stop Lewis. He and his team continued monitoring the brownshirts, and a year later, Lewis arranged a crucial meeting with some of the most powerful Jewish leaders in Hollywood.

Read an excerpt from Ross's book describing that secret gathering:

"In March 1934, Leon Lewis ... 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 ... 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."

- Hitler in Los Angeles, How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots against Hollywood and America

"[The Nazis] were going to kidnap 20 major Jewish figures, including the director Busby Berkeley," Ross said about one the Nazi murder plots Lewis unveiled at that pivotal dinner.

"They were going to bring them to abandon park and hang them, and as they were hanging and dying — they were going to shoot the bodies with machine guns so that the bodies would be destroyed. And in the morning when people came and found the bullet-ridden bodies hanging, it was going to lead other antisemites around America to rise up and create blood baths."

When Leon Lewis found out that Nazis planned to blow up the homes of 24 major Hollywood figures, Charlie Chaplin was among them because he was believed to be 'too close to the Jews.' (The Associated Press)

After those powerful players heard how they were being targeted, the group pledged $24,000 US for the spy operation. Lewis continued his work and eventually foiled the Nazis plot, acquiring the title 'the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles' by the fascist regime.

But not all of Lewis' spies were Jewish-Americans. In fact, Lewis had roughly two-dozen spies, and only one was Jewish.

"They thought of it as an American cause," Ross said of Lewis' team.

"They were upset with a group of Nazis and fascists wielding hate against Jewish-Americans, Catholic-Americans, black-Americans ... What they understood is that in these hyphenated identities, everything that came before the hyphen was an adjective, and that the only thing that mattered was the noun. That they were Americans."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page, where you can share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.