Full-length documentary needs to be encyclopedic in length to cover Greenspun's span

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 QUESTION PERIOD—Brian Greenspun and Scott Goldstein listen to a question
posed by an audience member at San Diego Jewish Film Festival Tuesday, Feb. 16, at Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla, California
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By Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO — Where I Stand: The Hank Greenspun Story introduced to attendees of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival a man who in Las Vegas and among influential people in Israel had been a legend during his lifetime.  Publisher of the Las Vegas Sun until his death in 1989, Greenspun seemed to interact with 20th century American history the way the fictional movie character Forrest Gump did—although with a big difference.  Events somehow just happened to Gump, bringing him into contact with the rich and famous.   The real-life Herman “Hank” Greenspun, on the other hand, made events happen. 

Greenspun was a larger-than-life figure in Las Vegas, a public relations man with a talent for recognizing opportunity and a man who perceived a wide gap between the “law” and “justice.”  While he sometimes violated the former, he risked his life and reputation in pursuit of the latter.

That, at least, is the take on his life by film maker Scott Goldstein, who won a pair of Emmy’s as the producer of television’s “L.A. Law” Series.  But while Goldstein’s film, financed by the late publisher’s family, provides good material for the historical record, it is far from the last objective word on Greenspun’s life.  Far more digging is required.

Although the documentary covers numerous chapters in Greenspun’s life, none resonated more with the Jewish film festival  crowd than the extensive coverage of Greenspun’s efforts—in violation of American law—to obtain and smuggle arms to the Haganah during Israel’s Independence War of 1948. 

Working under future Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek and with future Israel Aircraft Industries founder Al Schwimmer, Greenspun stole machine guns and tons of other weapons from a poorly-guarded military depot in Hawaii, shipped them first to Los Angeles and later to Mexico, and in the process threatened to kill an American and a Mexican boat captain who balked at smuggling the contraband.  He did not have to follow through, no doubt not only to their relief, but his as well.

So soon after the murder of the Six Million in the Holocaust, Greenspun fervently believed that the cause of Israel was just, even if support of the beleaguered Jews in the newly declared nation violated America’s neutrality law. Eventually, the FBI and the Justice Department decided to make an example of him and Schwimmer, bringing charges against them while dropping charges against lesser figures in the illegal gun-running operation. 

Schwimmer, a former American military officer who based his airplane-smuggling operations in Czechoslovakia and later moved to Israel, remained out of reach of the FBI, but Greenspun was put on trial and convicted.   However, the judge decided not to give Greenspun any prison time, opting instead to fine him $10,000 and to strip him of his citizenship rights.  As much as he loved politics, as a convicted felon Greenspun could not vote until he was pardoned for his actions by President John F. Kennedy.

This wasn’t in the documentary, but Schwimmer, interestingly, never wanted a pardon, arguing that to ask for one would suggest that he believed he had done something wrong.  Greenspun’s son, Brian, helped obtain one for Schwimmer anyway by appealing to President Bill Clinton, who had been the younger Greenspun’s classmate at Georgetown University.  

In describing the invaluable service that Greenspun had provided to the brand new state of Israel, its President Shimon Peres  practically choked up with gratitude during an interview in the documentary.  Hundreds if not thousands of Israeli soldiers would have died, had it not been for the weapons that Greenspun had helped obtain for Israel, Peres asserted,

Two years before Greenspun died, the American Jew  Jonathan Pollard was arrested for transferring classified secrets to Israel.  Many felt the former U.S. intelligence agent had done nothing more than deliver to Israel the kind of information that was rightly due to an American ally.  Others cast Pollard as nothing more than a profit-seeking opportunist, one who was ready to sell U.S. secrets not only to Israel but to other countries as well.  Although there was a plea bargain with prosecutors, Pollard was meted out a life sentence by the judge.

As moderator of the film festival presentation on Tuesday, February 16, of  Where I Stand, I was able to alternate with audience members in posing some questions to the younger Greenspun—who has succeeded his father as publisher of the Las Vegas Sun and director of a large Nevada media and real estate empire—as well as to Scott Goldstein, the movie maker. 

Given that both Pollard and the elder Greenspun had put their concern for Israel ahead of the laws of the United States, I asked what position Hank Greenspun had taken on the Pollard case. Brian Greenspun responded that he didn’t recall for certain, but suspected that his father believed people who break the law in pursuit of a moral  principle have to do so with a willingness to pay the price.  

Brian Greenspun related that during the time of the Vietnam War, when some protesters fled to Canada rather than be drafted, his father accompanied him to a college campus where there were recruiting stations for both the Army and Air Force reserve officers training corps.   The father told the son that it was likely he would have to serve in the military, and if he did, it was better to be an officer.  But if Brian couldn’t bring himself to do that, he should be willing to go to jail rather than to Canada.  He should stand up for what he believed, in other words.

Another chapter in the film dealt with Greenspun’s abortive efforts in the 1970s to be a peacemaker.  When Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was in the midst of his historic negotiations with Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin for an Israeli-Egyptian peace, Greenspun tried through Adnan Khashoggi (who later became familiar to Americans who followed the Iran-Contra affair) to influence the Saudi Royal Family to give Mideast peace their blessing.  According to an interview with Hank Greenspun  included in the documentary, the Saudi family agreed, provided that Saudi Arabia be given sovereignty over the Temple Mount, where both the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque are located.  As Hank Greenspun told the story, the deal would have gone through—save for Saddam Hussein of Iraq raising such a fuss about it that the Saudi Royal Family backed away. Other, published, accounts say it wasn’t Hussein, it was  Prime Minister Begin who scuttled the deal: He reportedly was opposed to giving up Israel’s sovereignty over the place revered by Jews as the location of the first and second Temple.

As the documentary’s two chapters on Israel are exciting, and yet, are far from definitive history, so too are other chapters in the documentary not much more than slices of intriguing information that really need to be fleshed out by historians.   I don’t fault filmmaker Goldstein for this, he would need to do a many-part series of documentaries to cover these various chapters in depth.  He deserves credit for opening up the mine and showing us the veins of historical gold.

There are stories needing to be elaborated  in the documentary about the  mob’s impact on Las Vegas, and Greenspun’s relationship with some of the most notorious underworld figures.    We see him, a young, ambitious former Broadway New York public relations man, coming to Las Vegas, publishing a small magazine about Las Vegas entertainment, and encountering Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel on a stairway.  Pleased that Greenspun never called him “Bugsy” in print, instead identifying him by his given name of “Benjamin,” Siegel eventually offered Greenspun a job as public relations director for the Flamingo Hotel.  Greenspun knew whom he was getting into bed with, but decided to take the job anyway.

Siegel subsequently was murdered, the documentary explaining that the mob didn’t take kindly to all the money Siegel had lost on the Flamingo.  Later, during the Israel gun-running episode, when Longshoremen in New York threatened to reveal what cargo they really were loading, they were persuaded by members of the mob from Detroit that it would be better to load the material without extra pay, then to not load it with broken knee caps.  That this is included in the documentary at all hints that Greenspun had something to do with the mob connection.  Greenspun, meanwhile, as a part owner of the Desert Inn, found himself on the outs when a new owner – mobster Moe Dalitz—took it over.  Becoming publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, Greenspun campaigned against mobbed-up hotels, but according to Brian Greenspun, the mob tolerated him—at least most of the time.

In the documentary, Greenspun’s children tell of growing up with friends who were the children of mobsters, making them think that everyone’s father, except their own, had “the” as a middle name – as in “___ the lip” or “___the blade.”  One time, a gentleman who came to the door—and who was let into the house by the kids—turned out to be a mob hit man with a contract on Greenspun.  The publisher recognized him, and ascertaining that he was a family man, told the mobster he shouldn’t kill him in front of his children, but should wait until the following morning.  The hit man agreed, Greenspun made some phone calls, and the matter went away.  In Tuesday’s question and answer session, Brian Greenspun elaborated that the hit was due to a misunderstanding between different branches of the mob—apparently a dispute in which Greenspun wasn’t an essential ingredient.   Obviously there is more digging to do into this chapter, as there are in other chapters.

We see in the documentary stories about Greenspun’s clash against red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy; Greenspun’s successful backing for racial integration of Las Vegas casinos;  and Greenspun’s luring of Howard Hughes to Las Vegas, where the eccentric aircraft pioneer purchased a half dozen hotels from the mob as playthings.  

There is also a  bizarre chapter which played out in the Watergate hearings leading up to the resignation of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, in which the “plumbers” who broke into Democratic National Headquarters also planned to break into a safe Greenspun had in his office.

The Nixon operatives were concerned that papers in the safe  may have dealt with the question of whether Howard Hughes had funneled cash directly to Nixon and his family.  In Tuesday’s question and answer session, Brian Greenspun said actually the Hughes papers had to do with far more mundane matters, but that because Nixon had been embarrassed by a Hughes loan in the 1962 California governor’s race, his operatives feared history might repeat itself.  He said that Watergate figure E. Howard Hunt shared that information with him and his father after Hunt was released from prison.

In its effort to cover so much ground, the documentary had to gloss over many issues – including  how Greenspun had amassed his fortune in real estate by buying up Paradise Valley and his early approval, and later opposition, to nuclear testing in Nevada.  Members of the publisher’s family believe that exposure to above-ground testing may have triggered the cancer to which Greenspun succumbed.

While the documentary is far from complete – it skipped over entirely, for example, Greenspun’s unsuccessful run in 1962 for the Republican nomination for governor of Nevada – it is stirring, imaginative, and eye-opening—not the end , perhaps, but a significant beginning in the measurement of the impact one man can have on a society.

Goldstein said he hoped that the 2008 documentary, now making the rounds of Jewish film festivals, eventually will be seen by a larger television or cable audience,  although he said outfits such as the “History Channel” now seem to prefer “reality-style” programming rather than serious documentaries.  To my eyes, the documentary seems tailor-made for airing over the Public Broadcasting System. 

It deserves to be seen … and discussed.

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

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