K.J. Howe: History, intrigue, spies—and then throw a few lawyers into the mix! Need a sensational book that will transport you to another time, allow you to learn about a fascinating period, and let you live inside the mind of a brilliant spy? Check out Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope series. Absolute brilliance. Welcome to Rogue Women Writers, Susan.
Many Americans take comfort in believing Nazism and fascism “couldn’t have happened here” during the second World War.
Yet, it did — almost.
Nazism and fascism found a foothold in 1930s Los Angeles with the German American Bund, the Silver Shirts, and the America First movement, among many, many others. It was also one of the strongest centers for the Ku Klux Klan outside the South.
This Los Angeles is the world of The Hollywood Spy — Maggie Hope’s tenth outing. Even in the summer of 1943, well after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Southern California was still a hotbed of racism and anti-Semitism. I was first tipped off to this little-known bit of American history by the Pulitzer Prize-finalist book, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America, written by Steven J. Ross, a professor at the University of Southern California. The book traces the chilling rise of Nazism in Los Angeles—and the Jewish leaders and spies they recruited who stopped it.
Ross’s non-fiction book reads like The Man in the High Castle — except it’s true. American fascist groups plotted to terrorize and kill the city’s prominent Jews and Jewish supporters: plans existed for hanging twenty prominent Hollywood figures including as Al Jolson, Charlie Chaplin, and Samuel Goldwyn. There were plots to drive through the mostly Jewish area of Boyle Heights and machine-gun as many Jews as possible. The fascist groups also planned to sabotage the nation’s military installations — blowing up defense installations and seizing munitions from National Guard armories along the Pacific Coast.
Leon Lewis, a lawyer and founding executive secretary of the Anti-Defamation League, came up with a plan to stop these American terrorists. Lewis wasn’t with the police or FBI—those institutions were more concerned with catching communists than fascists. No, he was a private citizen, a World War I veteran who’d worked in Naval intelligence, Lewis saw that nothing was being done to stop the rise of fascism in Los Angeles, eerily similar to how things had happened in Germany in the early 1930s. As Ross states in his book, “Nobody watched Hitler more closely during those years than Lewis.”
Lewis, along with Joseph Roos, organized a spy ring. He focused on the same people the Nazis were hoping to recruit: dissatisfied German-Americans vets. Just as Hitler had channeled the frustration of World War I veterans and struggling people in Germany to help elect him, his supporters in Los Angeles hoped to stir up feelings of resentment among those who were disgruntled by cuts to their veteran benefits during the Depression.
Some of these veterans joined fascist organizations, while others became Lewis’s network of spies. Many were German Americans who used their backgrounds to infiltrate the fascist groups. Once installed, they worked to build trust with the leaders, reporting back to Lewis on what was planned—including, in a chilling precursor to the gas chambers of the Nazi concentration camps, a fake fumigation company intended to kill Jewish families. And Hitler would have known about these plans; although they were drafted by local fascists, Ross explained, “[they] would have undoubtedly told officials in Berlin, most likely by handing over sealed letters to the Gestapo officer who accompanied every German vessel that docked in L.A. from 1933 until 1941.”
Lewis and his spies were able to break up these plots through a variety of means: by getting certain seditionists deported, entangled in lawsuits, or arrested. After Pearl Harbor, when the FBI belatedly became involved with Lewis’s organization, thirty seditionists went to trial for charges of violating the Smit Act of 1940, which set criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government by force or violence.
What was incredible to me, a novelist reading Hitler in Los Angeles for research, was how many of Lewis’s spies died in mysterious circumstances. It’s almost a throw-away in the book, but a number of the secret agents who were to testify in court died in “accidents” — falls, non-existent epilepsy, car crashes. Even the judge in the 1944 Federal Sedition case in Washington, D.C. died mysteriously; the case ended in a mistrial.
Were they murdered? To this day, no one knows for certain.
After reading Hitler in Los Angeles, I just knew I had to set a book in southern California. Luckily, Maggie Hope’s former fiancé—a RAF pilot now working on wartime propaganda for Walt Disney—the perfect draw. There are many cameos in The Hollywood Spy — yes, Mr. Disney, as well as Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, George Balanchine, Igor Stravisnky—but none is nearer my heart that a character who only makes a brief appearance. His name is Ari Lewis, my fictional stand-in for the very real Leon Lewis.
While Maggie Hope may solve the mystery in The Hollywood Spy, Leon Lewis, Joseph Roos, and their band of German-American spies are the real-life Nazi-fighting heroes of Los Angeles.