The world trembles to the tune of Don the Con’s latest outrages. Nobody likes him, everybody hates him, most people want him to go and eat worms. But his escapades got me thinking about con jobs nearer to home. Most of my regular blog followers know that my partner, John’s granny was Fanny Brice, the 30s/40s/50s megastar, whose life story was played out on the silver screen in ‘Funny Girl’ and ‘Funny Lady’. It’s quite a blast when your grandparents are portrayed by Babs Streisand and Omar Sharif. But the portrayal of Grandaddy, Nicky Arnstein was seriously diluted by Sharif … ‘cos ‘Slick Nick’ Arnstein was a real big time con man who carried out his own daring but ultimately unsuccessful Wall Street caper.
Devilishly handsome and very tall, Nick spent most of his twenties as a trans-Atlantic shark preying on the rich and gullible. Hopping aboard luxurious ocean liners, he swindled his way through the upper and lower decks, hosting card games and gambling tricks. He came from New York upper crust, middle class stock and although articulate, well mannered and beautifully dressed, was the black sheep of the family. But like many plausible conmen, he was incredibly charming. One of his wealthier victims, when warned of his character proclaimed, ‘I don’t give a damn. He’s better company than anyone else aboard ship.’
After a number of clumsy minor swindles and bigger adventures with the gambler and racketeer, ‘The Brain’ Arnold Rothstein (who conspired to fix the 1919 World Series), Nicky met and fell in love with Fanny Brice. Married at the time, he was happy to be Fanny’s ‘kept man’.
Arnstein spent most of 1916 in jail in Sing Sing on a swindling conviction. Fanny visited him weekly and they married on his release. In the Autumn of 1919, $5,000,000 in bonds (a HUGE amount of money then) was stolen through a series of hold-ups of Wall Street messengers carrying securities from one brokerage house to the other. Arnstein was said to the one of the ‘masterminds’. Fanny thought this was hilarious stating, ‘Mastermind! Nick couldn’t mastermind an electric bulb into a socket!’
Arnstein went on the run, not even Fanny knew where he was. His later surrender was a ‘performance’ worthy of any Hollywood star. He hired a chauffeur driven limo to follow a big parade down Fifth Avenue, smiling and waving at the crowd lining the streets, then drove straight into the police HQ. Nick was finally sentenced on Federal charges and Fanny stood by him, singing her infamous song, ‘My Man’ at all her shows in his honour.
On his release from Leavenworth jail he rewarded his loyal wife with numerous extra-marital affairs and Fanny eventually divorced him and later married the impresario Billy Rose.
In 1964, a year before his death, a frail but still dandy Nicky Arnstein slipped into the Broadway opening night of ‘Funny Girl’ to see himself as he hoped others would remember him … a charming but essentially benign chancer.
I’ve told John that I hope the ‘con’ gene doesn’t run in the family, (although the massive conk does!) Think I’m safe so far – although I wouldn’t be adverse to some of the Sharif glamour rubbing off …
Omar Sharif plays ‘Slick Nick’