Amazing tales of a con man who circled the world. Biography of a scoundrel

The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln, by Bernard Wasserstein. New Haven: Yale University Press. 332 pp. $12.95. IGNACZ TREBITSCH LINCOLN (1879-1943) was a self-absorbed international adventurer and con man whose greatest con was becoming the subject of this book.

His ex post facto accomplice is Bernard Wasserstein, a serious scholar who has chosen to thumb his nose at scholarly conventions by skimming this intellectual Frisbee across the high table, as he blends the British delight in eccentrics and scholars with the American interest in personalized and highly spiced history. Is it People magazine that Wasserstein is following? Or some individualistic agenda?

First, the book itself.

Trebitsch's (he added Lincoln in 1904 to enhance his credibility in Britain) ``career'' requires few words. Born in Hungary, he was dazzled by Budapest's glitter and by gold watches, not necessarily his own. He emigrated (fled?) to Britain, was converted from Judaism to Christianity, joined missionary enterprises to the Jews in Montreal and elsewhere, and - because of his language skills and golden chatter - became a research assistant and prot'eg'e of a wealthy, reform-minded British industrialist.

Having gained a taste for the great world, Trebitsch was briefly elected to Parliament in 1910, with his patron's close backing. With World War I, Trebitsch - who always needed cash - plunged into espionage and counterespionage, trying to play the British and Germans against each other, and writing some wildly sensational (and completely untruthful) memoirs in the process.

The byproducts of his adventures were fraud, brushes with the American and British law, three years in a British prison after 1916, a family sired and then abandoned, occasional mistresses, and a much-publicized anti-British vendetta that led to dabbling in extreme right-wing politics in Central Europe during the chaos after World War I. Then it was on to the warlord China of the 1920s, to involvement with Buddhism as an abbot of a tiny sect of European converts, and to death in Shanghai in 1943.

Though close to important events, Trebitsch never influenced them, not even during his intimate involvement in the failed Kapp Putsch of 1920 in Berlin. Instead, he spent his life as an unscrupulous fabulist and supersalesman, scratching up cash, then blowing it while romping from one city to another, one hotel to another, one continent to another. The money came from ordinarily hardheaded public figures and businessmen, but Wasserstein explains neither their gullibility nor Trebitsch's amazing powers of persuasion.

How did he do it? Too little data are available regarding Trebitsch's inner self to help us understand his bizarre scurrying and scheming, and Wasserstein is strangely uninterested in the anti-Semitism that dogged Trebitsch - despite his conversion to Christianity - and that illuminates the racist world of his time.

In a graceful foreword, Wasserstein excuses his fascination with a scoundrel so unpromising, so insignificant, so lacking in any redeeming social interest as to defy all historiographical tradition. Scholars are, after all, expected to address big issues. Wasserstein has not; why? We can only speculate. Trebitsch in fact represented evil, which can fascinate even the most solid of citizens, as the 19th-century romantics well understood. In Trebitsch we find precisely the qualities that home, school, and all of society teach us to reject, but that nevertheless survive, too often finding expression in the uprooted world of war and revolution.

Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.

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