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'Swingtime for Hitler' explores the Nazis use of jazz as a propaganda tool

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Degenerate. That's what the Hitler regime called modern art and jazz. Jazz was especially hated because it was considered music by Jews and Black people. So the Third Reich outlawed jazz, but they also tried to use it as a weapon to weaken British and American resolve. They took popular tunes, rewrote the lyrics to belittle British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt and, of course, to demean Black people and Jewish people. These songs were played on the radio broadcast to Britain and the U.S.

Scott Simon, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, has a new audiobook about how the Nazis repurposed jazz into propaganda. I love the title of Scott's audiobook, "Swingtime For Hitler," which is, of course, a play on the Mel Brooks comic production number "Springtime For Hitler" from his musical "The Producers." Scott was formerly an NPR reporter and reported from war zones and heard propaganda in those contexts, but nothing like Nazi swing songs. His new audiobook is available at scribd.com That's S-C-R-I-B-D dot com. Scott, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's so good to talk to you. It's been a long time.

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: So good to talk to you. Yes. Thank you so much, Terry. So good to be with you.

GROSS: I think we should start with a disclaimer about how offensive these songs are and why it's important to hear them anyway. I'm going to let you do that.

SIMON: I will. You know, and we had the advantage of having the legend, Bill Kurtis, give voice to our trigger warning at the very top, saying, the following songs you're going to hear are in many ways offensive and contain racial slurs. They are also tuneful and easy to dance to because, of course, it's jazz and swing music. But there is no getting around the fact that these lyrics are offensive.

GROSS: And why should we hear them anyway?

SIMON: Because I think it's very good to try and understand what Nazi propaganda was trying to do, at least in this case. It was not - it was different than some other propaganda efforts they had. Radio was considered to be just part of the war offensive by Dr. Goebbels. He considered it - I think he called it the most powerful medium in the world. And Germany was certain to have government-approved and government-manufactured radio receivers delivered to every German home, a fact that, by the way, was not lost on George Orwell when he sat down shortly after the war to write "1984" and put the telescreens screens into every home.

And the whole idea of the songs, jazz and swing orchestra music that they broadcast to Britain and the United States principally but became ironically or incongruously very popular in Germany, was less to convince than to sow doubt. They knew that there was a lot of accommodationist and isolationist sentiment in both the United States and the United Kingdom, both on the left and the right. And they thought that they could tickle this by broadcasting songs that would lampoon Americans and British people. They never said, we're broadcasting from Berlin. They never said, this is the German viewpoint. Instead, they broadcast songs that would that would say, you know, like, (singing) oh, the Germans are - the Winston Churchill - imitating Winston Churchill saying, (singing) the Germans are driving me crazy. I thought I had brains, but they shattered my planes.

By the way, my singing is bad. It perhaps is not as bad as Karl Schwedler, the actual singer who gave voice to these songs. And I just think it is so important to hear now. Firstly, it's utterly fascinating that that even the Nazis understood that they had to use one of the creations or more than one of the creations of what they called and considered degenerate culture to try and reach people really across the seas, that they couldn't broadcast what they consider to be Nazi and Aryan culture and have the same kind of appeal. And also, they really thought that this might be enough to massage that sore point that was - that existed both in U.S and British culture and be able to find allies.

GROSS: So OK, I want to play an example of this Nazi jazz. So the songs basically take the melodies and sometimes even the arrangements of the original jazz song, but with really lame but very insulting lyrics.

SIMON: Yeah. Repellent.

GROSS: Repellent.

SIMON: They're absolutely...

GROSS: Better word.

SIMON: ...Utterly repellent. Yes.

GROSS: Utterly repellent. And a good example of that is their version of "Makin' Whoopee." So here's what I want to do. I want to start with the original recording by Eddie Cantor. It was recorded in 1928 or '29. It's a song that zillions of people subsequently recorded, including Ray Charles. And I want to play the original because, A, Eddie Cantor was Jewish, and, B, the Nazi version refers to the original Eddie Cantor version. So let's start with the Eddie Cantor version of "Makin' Whoopee."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKIN' WHOOPEE")

EDDIE CANTOR: (Singing) Another bride, another June, another sunny honeymoon, another season, another reason for makin' whoopee. A lot of shoes, a lot of rice. The groom is nervous. He answers twice. It’s really killin' that he's so willin' to make whoopee. Picture…

GROSS: So that was Eddie Cantor from the late 1920s, "Makin' Whoopee." Here is the Nazi version, same melody, but with Nazi lyrics, and you'll hear they refer to Eddie Cantor at the very beginning. And I remind you, Eddie Cantor was Jewish. And I remind you also, these lyrics are repellent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKIN' WHOOPEE")

CHARLIE AND HIS ORCHESTRA: The Jews of USA have asked Eddie Cantor to write a new version of his famous old-timer "Makin' Whoopee." In one of his latest programs on the air, he sang the following song. (Singing) Another war, another profit, another Jewish business trick, another season, another reason for makin' whoopee. A lot of dough, a lot of gold. The British Empire's being sold. We're in the money thanks to Frankie. We're making whoopee. Washington is our ghetto, Roosevelt our king. Democracy is our motto. Think what a war can bring. We throw our German names away. We are the kikes of USA. You are the goys, folks. We are the boys, folks. We're making whoopee.

GROSS: OK. So that was the Nazi propaganda version of "Makin' Whoopee" featuring Charlie and His Orchestra. And the Frankie in that song refers to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And that Nazi version was from 1942. Joseph Goebbels, who was the head of propaganda under Hitler, decided to ban jazz. What did that mean exactly? How was it banned? What was it banned from?

SIMON: You couldn't perform it in clubs. You couldn't play it on the radio. In theory, you couldn't even sing it in your own homes. And there were people who informed against their neighbors on that. This was all part of - they banned what they considered to be - what they called, at any rate - degenerate culture. So this was abstract art, impressionist art, anything spontaneous, surrealist, anything avant-garde, anything that they thought, you know, wasn't tilling verdant fields and smiling into a glowing fascist future. And, of course, jazz was largely the product of Black musicians and Jewish musicians and composers. And I think that certainly contributed something to it.

GROSS: If you had a jazz record collection, were you expected to dispose of it or else get exposed by your neighbors who would rat you out?

SIMON: You were expected to get rid of it. And it must be said that recording culture, recording technology at that point was a lot more cumbersome. So we weren't dealing with people that had hundreds of records. But, yes, you were - that was considered to be something that the state would purloin, along, by the way, with, you know, works by Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky and Georges Braque, anyone who was considered to be an aspect of degenerate culture.

GROSS: So the band that we heard, Charlie and His Orchestra, was a band that was partly created by the Ministry of Propaganda. So some of the members were the original members of a real band. The head of the band was Jewish, so...

SIMON: They overthrew him. The - a player in his orchestra named Lutz Templin, for reasons I haven't been able to discover, whose nickname was Stumpy, lead a coup to overthrow the leader of their orchestra. The reconfigured Lutz Templin Orchestra played - played, entertained, whatever the term of art would be - at the 1936 Olympic Games in Munich. And that became the core of what became known as Charlie and His Orchestra.

GROSS: Did anyone listen?

SIMON: Very few people listened. I think there were several reasons. One is, of course, if you're listening to music, shortwave is an iffy technology. It has whoops. It has whirs. It goes in and out. And people in the United States and the United Kingdom could listen to Bing Crosby. They could listen to Doris Day. They could listen to the stars that they wanted to, and they could hear the music that they loved. I think that was one reason. I think the other reason was the songs were just - how do I put this? Well, there's no need to put it nicely. They were curious. I think they were listened to as curiosities, but they didn't really ever generate a following.

So I think people might have tuned through the shortwave receiver if they were searching for some kind of news from overseas. But they probably dismissed the songs. You know, the songs didn't say, we're coming from Berlin. This is the product of the German state. We're talking to you people in America. We're talking to you people in Great Britain. There were propaganda broadcasters who did that, but not Charlie and His Orchestra. The whole idea of that was to kind of sow doubt. And I think they fooled themselves into believing that they would somehow generate a larger audience if what they did was simply play music they knew that people loved and slip in some kind of subtle message of dissent in their lyrics - or not so subtle.

GROSS: Did the musicians in Charlie and His Orchestra support the regime that outlawed their own music? You say the singer was a sycophant, but what about the other musicians?

SIMON: I think that's hard to say. And one of the many reasons is, of course, we're talking about - the records of the group were, I think, studiously and assiduously destroyed as the Allies got closer. I think the musicians - as you know, I did a book with the late Tony Bennett, and Tony, who in many ways got a second start in show business by singing with orchestras in the U.S. occupation in Germany and including some German musicians - there was talk that they - some of the musicians with whom he worked - played on propaganda broadcasts. But Tony always said it was, you know, (impersonating Tony Bennett) hey, kid, it was nothing they talked about 'cause they were afraid they'd wind up on the wrong end of a rope.

And so a lot of the records, I think, just are not visible. And I don't want to put myself in the position of knowing too much at all about what their psychology was. I think they had been deprived of their livelihood. I think they had what they must have seen as a golden and unexpected opportunity to play music that had been banned for a living and to do so rather than to be sent to the, as I say, the Russian front. So, yes, they supported the Nazi regime. But I think we must be critical of the decision they made, at the same time wondering, was it really a decision?

GROSS: Now, you covered, you know, wars and conflicts in Latin America, in Bosnia. You heard propaganda in those settings. How did what you heard when you were covering war and conflict compare with the kind of musical propaganda that we're hearing today?

SIMON: Oh, Charlie and His Orchestra was totally different when it comes to musical propaganda. What I have always heard in authoritarian governments overseas is something that's very strident, something that's very pedantic, something that flatters and adulates the great leader of one regime or another. Charlie didn't - they never mentioned Hitler. They never mentioned Goebbels. All they did was try and stick a pin in what they considered to be pompous Western leaders like Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So the other propaganda efforts that I heard were very strident and polemical by contrast. Charlie represented something different. And that's why I found it fascinating.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday and author of the new audiobook "Swingtime For Hitler." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBTE OF ANAT COHEN'S "NIGHTMARE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Scott Simon, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. He has a new audiobook called "Springtime For Hitler" that's about how Hitler's Nazi regime banned jazz and then at the same time knew the power of the music. So they repurposed it using the melodies of the original jazz tunes and writing Nazi propaganda lyrics and broadcasting that via shortwave to America and Britain, trying to weaken the resolve of the Allies. I want to play another example of a hateful lyric, and this one is set to one of the most famous American songs, and it's "St. Louis Blues." It was written by a Black composer...

SIMON: Yep.

GROSS: ...W.C. Handy.

SIMON: C. Handy. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So all the more reason to, like, use this song to ridicule Black people. And that's what the song does. And so I want to remind people, these are offensive songs, and that's why we're playing them, to illustrate how offensive this Nazi propaganda music was. So do you want to say anything before we hear it, Scott?

SIMON: I'll say this. What we hear in Charlie's treatment of "St. Louis Blues," were utterly repellent and utterly offensive. You see, the whole concentration is on they think that they can make Britons and particularly people in London concentrate on the bombing. They don't say we're Germans broadcasting this song that we've taken out of your culture. What they say is they make it sound like it's a broadcast somewhere, actually, coming from the United States of Britain and recognizing the fact that London was suffering terrible damage then and fixing the blame for that on Winston Churchill.

GROSS: All right. So let's hear it. And a lot of the Churchill songs were before America even entered the war. So it was easier and more relevant to ridicule Churchill than Roosevelt during those days. So this starts with a little spoken introduction. Here is Charlie And His Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. LOUIS BLUES")

CHARLIE AND HIS ORCHESTRA: A Negro from the London docks, sings the blackout blues. (Singing) I hate to see the evening sun go down. Hate to see the evening sun go down. 'Cause the German, he done bombed this town. Feeling tomorrow like I feel today. Feeling tomorrow like I feel today. I'll pack my trunk, make my getaway. That Churchill bad man with his wars and things pulls folks around by his apron strings. One for Churchill and his bloody war. I wouldn't feel as so doggone sore. Got the blackout blues. Yeah. Blue as I can be. That man got a heart like a rock cast in the sea. He just won't let folks live as they want to be. Doggone it.

GROSS: That was the Nazi propaganda song set to the melody of "St. Louis Blues" featuring Charlie And His Orchestra. Scott, that lyric is hateful, but they clean up the language. Like - it's like doggone instead of, you know, damn. And the lyric...

SIMON: You know, I just noticed that. Thank you, Terry. You're right. On top of everything else, by the way, I must note, nobody loved the songs that lampooned Churchill more than Winston Churchill. He would read the lyrics out to his war cabinet. And I think we have to note one thing that the Germans behind these songs badly miscalculated. Nobody makes fun of British leaders more than British people. You know, nobody makes fun of themselves - of Britons - more than British people. So I think they badly miscalculated the sentiment of the people they were trying to reach with these songs.

GROSS: Can I just point out how lame this lyric is? So the lyric to "St. Louis Blues" includes St. Louis woman with her diamond rings pulls that man around with her apron strings. So the Nazi version is that Churchill bad man with his wars and things...

SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Pulls folks around by his apron strings. I don't think they even comprehended the original lyric 'cause...

SIMON: No.

GROSS: ...The way they rework it...

SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Unless they're trying to say that oh, Churchill, he was so gay, he wore aprons. Like, is that...

SIMON: Yeah. I don't think they were trying to say that. I mean, you know...

GROSS: No, I...

SIMON: ...I - it's...

GROSS: ...Think they just don't comprehend the lyric and they don't know how to write a lyric.

SIMON: I think that's true.

GROSS: They're tone deaf.

SIMON: It's eighth grade...

GROSS: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Lyric writing, and...

GROSS: Yes.

SIMON: ...Young Stephen Sondheim in the eighth grade would have already been much better than that. It's interesting to me. British intelligence was convinced that they were using the songs to send messages to German spies in the United Kingdom, which we now know to be not the case. But they thought the lyrics were in fact so lame and so ridiculous they had to be written to send a message, not to try and catch the ear. But no, they were written to try and catch the ear, you know, largely by a group of people that had no particular songwriting talent.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday and author of the new audiobook "Swingtime For Hitler." And it's about the Nazi propaganda songs that were meant for the ears of Americans and the British during World War II. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "I DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT YOU (TAKE 1)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. He has a new audiobook called "Swingtime For Hitler" that's about the radio propaganda that was put out by the Nazis and by Japan during World War II.

You know, we've been talking about, like, radio propaganda during World War II. But, you know, the Nazis not only outlawed jazz and then repurposed it for their own propaganda reasons and broadcast it to the U.S. and America via shortwave - I guess that's shortwave, not literally broadcast.

SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: But they outlawed...

SIMON: Oh, good point. Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah. But they outlawed modern art, too. But the really just, like, incredibly stupid thing that they did was - to show how degenerate modern art was and non...

SIMON: They put on huge exhibits of all this degenerate...

GROSS: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Disgusting art. Yeah.

GROSS: Introducing people to this, like, horrible art that was, like, the most important art of the 20th century.

SIMON: Oh, they had huge - you know, huge exhibits in Berlin and Munich and I think Leipzig, in Vienna - you know, the Picassos, the Chagalls, the Kandinskys, all the stuff, you know, which, by the way, they had banned and stolen, and they put them up in these public spaces and - along with these absolutely hideous slogans - what is it? - revelations of the Jewish racial soul and nature seen as sick minds (ph), and more than 2 million Germans lined up to be disgusted by what they saw. That should have been some kind of signal then and there.

GROSS: Well, Scott, I want to change subjects here.

SIMON: OK.

GROSS: We've been talking about your new audiobook, "Swingtime For Hitler." I'm going to change the subject to Tony Bennett.

SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: So you actually co-wrote a book with him?

SIMON: I did.

GROSS: How did you get to do that? I'll preface this by saying I - you know, I really love his music.

SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: I interviewed him several times and was so - felt so privileged to be able to do that. How did you get to write a book with him?

SIMON: He liked my book about my mother's life and my last days with her called "Unforgettable." And he knew that I was from - my family was from a show business background, my father a comedian, my mother what we used to call a showgirl. And he wanted to do this book of memories and just thought that I might be a good candidate for it. And it was great. We worked on it very quickly. You know, he was of a certain age. I think we didn't...

GROSS: How old was he when you worked with him?

SIMON: He was approaching 90 at that point. So he would have been 88, 89.

GROSS: He had already, you know, written a memoir. I don't know. I can't remember if it was ghostwritten or what. But, you know, he had a memoir that was already published. So how forthcoming was he with you? Did you talk to him about his...

SIMON: ...Signed autographs. She greeted U.S. soldiers. And it wasn't until she tried to come back to the United States that she got into trouble.

GROSS: Yeah, and the trouble meant prison. What happened?

SIMON: Yeah, she was put on trial for treason. And it's interesting because, of course, there are almost no recordings of the Tokyo Rose broadcasts, but she was convicted of one count of treason. The USS Indianapolis, which carried some of the guts of the atomic bomb out to the Pacific, was obviously on a secret mission - coming back from having delivered the elements of the bomb, it was sunk. It was a secret mission, so the U.S. Navy didn't announce it. She - Iva Toguri as Tokyo Rose or Orphan Ann...

GROSS: ...1945, have the Nazis - the Nazis are, like, about to lose at this point, right?

SIMON: Right, right. And as a matter of fact, French troops are advancing on them, and he's dead drunk along with his companions.

GROSS: So this is the end of his final broadcast, and his tone is a lot more serious in this, kind of grave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM JOYCE: Germany will live because the people of Germany have in them the secret of life - endurance, will and purpose. And therefore I say to you in these last words - you may not hear from me again for a few months. I say (speaking German). Heil Hitler, and farewell.

GROSS: So, Scott, do you know what happened to Lord Haw-Haw after the war?

SIMON: Yeah, he went on the run with some of the other people there who worked on his program. And they were - I mean, this is a story you and I should take to heart because they ran into British soldiers who were advancing in their sector, including a soldier who was a Jewish refugee from Germany. And even - he addressed them in German. But even when they replied in German, this soldier recognized that that was the voice of Lord Haw-Haw, William Joyce. And so he was arrested and ultimately put on trial for treason and ultimately executed.

GROSS: Among the many things I found, like, very strange about this story is that when Germany started losing the war, they drafted a lot of the Charlie musicians...

SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...'Cause they were drafting everybody they could and replaced some of them with Jews from the concentration camps.

SIMON: Yes. Evelyn Kunneke, a great German jazz singer who had performed with some of the musicians, had a memoir in which she said that eventually the Charlie musicians - they were French, Polish, Jewish musicians. I think she said Jews, Gypsies, which was the term used for Roma then, Freemasons, Jehovah's Witnesses, gays and communists. And they were people that they got out of the camps who played - very good musicians. And of course it was a way of them getting a new lease on life, at least for a little while.

GROSS: Do you know what happened to the Charlie musicians after the war? You said they scattered, but, like, what became of them?

SIMON: Yeah, they scattered, and the individual musicians were not eager to step up and say, this is something that I did. Remember, the Allies were in charge of postwar Germany at that particular point. They were consciously looking for people who had assisted the Nazi regime. So were - so was the new German government. So it was best just to be silent. We do know that, well, Lutz Templin - Stumpie Templin, the head of the orchestra - interestingly enough, he went on to a plausible career. He actually became head of Polydor Records in Germany.

GROSS: What?

SIMON: Yeah. He became - yeah, Polydor Records in Germany.

GROSS: Did they know who he was?

SIMON: Of course they knew who he was. Yeah, I mean, it was the Lutz Templin Orchestra. Well, he had - you know, the war was over. What can I tell you? The - it's - I think it was - they were - and I do not want to make any real comparison between Lutz Templin and Wernher von Braun, but obviously, there were a lot of people who had assisted the Nazi regime one way or another who were permitted to pick up some kind of career because at one - one way or another, they could be useful to the Allied occupation effort. And for that matter, people were convinced of the survival of democracy. So he was never made to stand any charges for it. The public opprobrium, I think, was small. He became head of Polydor Records and signed a lot of jazz musicians and swing musicians.

GROSS: All of the audio clips that we've heard has been German propaganda meant for the ears of Americans and British during World War II to weaken their will. What was German propaganda in Germany like as broadcast on the radio?

SIMON: Oh, it was - I mean, it was it was Adolf Hitler 24/7 in many ways on German state radio. It was the Fuhrer's speeches. They also had - oh, they also had home programs, which gave recipes to German families that they could make under the restricted diet and market availability during - under rationing. They had antisemitic programs about how dangerous Jews all over the world had been. And yes, they did have music, but it tended to be German, Aryan music, Wagner and lots of other favored German composers. And it was nothing like Charlie And His Orchestra, which is interesting because, of course, the Nazis had outlawed any radio receiver that wasn't state approved.

The state-approved radio receivers they put into every home could only receive German state broadcasts. But a lot of Germans kept the radio receivers they had before the Nazis took over to listen to shortwave broadcasts, to listen to foreign broadcasts, because even though they supported the Nazi regime, even though they made their lives under the Nazi regime, there were a lot of Germans who knew that if they were going to hear something approaching the truth about the war, they would have to hear it from the BBC, later, the Voice of America and perhaps Radio Vatican. And they also got to hear the broadcasts of Charlie And His Orchestra because they loved jazz and were perhaps indifferent to the lyrics.

GROSS: So interesting. Well, we have to take a short break here. When we come back, we're going to talk about Tokyo Rose and propaganda attempts from Japan during World War II. So let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. My guest is Scott Simon, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. His new audiobook is called "Swingtime For Hitler." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "SKYLARK")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Scott Simon, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. He has a new audiobook called "Swingtime For Hitler" that's about how Hitler's Nazi regime banned jazz because they saw it as the music of Blacks and Jews. But then they repurposed jazz with new Nazi lyrics as propaganda to be heard by Americans and people in Britain.

So I want to ask you about Japanese radio propaganda and Tokyo Rose, 'cause this is a similar but opposite approach.

SIMON: Similar but opposite. Well said, Terry. Tokyo Rose was actually the name that U.S. sailors hung on the voices of eight or nine women who broadcast for Radio Tokyo who called themselves Orphan Ann. The woman who ultimately became identified as Tokyo Rose was named Iva Toguri. She was an American college student from Northern California who was in Japan at the time of Pearl Harbor. She was staying with family, couldn't get out, couldn't get back to the United States, so she went to work in the propaganda ministry. Somebody, of course, noticed that she had an American accent and she got drafted into being one of the voices of Orphan Ann who became known as Tokyo Rose. And she played music. She read news bulletins, typically written by Australian POWs. And when U.S. forces came to Tokyo after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender, a lot of American servicemen remembered and were fascinated by Tokyo Rose, and they began to look for her. And...

GROSS: But can I stop your second? So on her broadcast, she played real jazz recordings, not...

SIMON: Yeah. She...

GROSS: ...Japanese propaganda versions, she...

SIMON: No.

GROSS: ...Played the real thing. So even though it was supposed to be Japanese propaganda, the soldiers - the American and English soldiers loved listening to her because...

SIMON: Yeah. It was the real stuff.

GROSS: ...She spoke English...

SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And she played real songs. And it was, you know, it was music that they loved.

SIMON: Yep. They - she played the real, authentic music, and it was music that the sailors and the Marines of the United States and Britain and Australia loved. And she - they - but she became very popular, you know, and she would read bulletins about war news, invariably favorable to the Japanese, but didn't take the kind of swipes at Americans and Britons that obviously we - and certainly not Jews - that we heard in Charlie And His Orchestra. So when U.S. forces came to Tokyo at the end of the war, a lot of American soldiers really wanted to find Tokyo Rose And Iva Toguri, who was American, kind of understood our celebrity culture, and she was pleased to play the role. She signed autographs. She greeted U.S. soldiers. And it wasn't until she tried to come back to the United States that she got into trouble.

GROSS: Yeah. And the trouble meant prison. What happened?

SIMON: Yeah. She was put on trial for treason. And it's interesting because, of course, there are almost no recordings of the Tokyo Rose broadcasts. But she was convicted of one count of treason. The USS Indianapolis, which carried some of the guts of the atomic bomb out to the Pacific, was obviously on a secret mission. Coming back from having delivered the elements of the bomb, it was sunk. It was a secret mission, so the U.S. Navy didn't announce it. She, Iva Toguri, as Tokyo Rose or Orphan Ann, said, on Japanese radio - she said that the USS Indianapolis had been sunk, and she said, orphans of the Pacific, you are really orphans now - a line written for her. And that got her sent to prison for treason.

GROSS: What did she do, like six years in prison?

SIMON: Yeah, six years in prison, as a matter of fact. And I must say, as I write in the audiobook - I don't know if you want me to go into this - but I had the privilege to know Iva Toguri.

GROSS: Yeah, I want you to tell that story. But first I want to say that, you know, one of the, like, real horrible ironies of this story is that, you know, Iva Toguri wanted to come back to the U.S. but she wasn't allowed to. So she was kind of drafted, it's my understanding, to be...

SIMON: Yep.

GROSS: ...Tokyo Rose. It's not what she wanted to be doing. She wanted to be back in America. Meanwhile, her parents, who were in America, were in a Japanese American internment camp. And I think her mother died in the camp.

SIMON: Her mother did die in the camp. And when she got out of prison, the family had relocated to Chicago. That's how I happened to grow up with a lot of Japanese American kids on the north side of Chicago. And she ran Toguri Mercantile, which was a - essentially a paper goods and little souvenir shop on Clark Street in Chicago.

GROSS: So tell the story of how you met her.

SIMON: I met her because I was a long-haired student radical and running an underground newspaper with a circulation of about 25 or 26. And I would walk up and down Clark Street and Lincoln Avenue and would go into stores and try and convince them to buy ads. And Iva Toguri, bless her, would buy ads in this underground newspaper - small, little, like, quarter-page ads. And it wasn't until I was in physics class - my physics partner, Paul Hashimoto (ph) from a Japanese American family, was taking a look at the newspaper. And he pointed at the ad and he said, you know who that is, man, don't you? That's Tokyo Rose. I had no idea. And I never took it upon myself to ask her about this. My wife asked me, I can't believe you student journalist. You never asked her about being Tokyo Rose.

And I'll put it this way. On the north side of Chicago, at our high school - Senn High School - there were a lot of Japanese American kids, a lot of Black kids, a lot of Hispanic kids, a lot of kids from Jewish families. And the kids in Jewish families, many of them had been caught up in the Holocaust, and many of them - I - was the first time I ever saw a tattoo from a concentration camp was when the parents of one of my friends pushed some Coca-Colas over to us after school. And I think there was this unspoken affinity between some of the Jewish kids and some of the Japanese American kids that not that long before, in the active lives of our parents, they had lived through something horrible and just felt lucky to be alive and to know each other. And the whole idea was not to talk about those years.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Simon, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. His new audiobook is called "Swingtime For Hitler." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALEXICO'S "PRASKOVIA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. He has a new audiobook called "Swingtime For Hitler." That's about the radio propaganda that was put out by the Nazis and by Japan during World War II.

You know, we've been talking about, like, radio propaganda during World War II. But, you know, the Nazis not only outlawed jazz and then repurposed it for their own propaganda reasons and broadcast it to the U.S. and America via shortwave - I guess that's shortwave, not literally broadcast.

SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: But they outlawed...

SIMON: Oh, good point. Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah. But they outlawed modern art too. But the really just, like, incredibly stupid thing that they did was to show how degenerate modern art was and non-representative...

SIMON: They put on huge exhibits of all this degenerate...

GROSS: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Disgusting art. Yeah.

GROSS: Introducing people to this, like, horrible art that was, like, the most important art of the 20th century.

SIMON: Oh, they had huge - you know, huge exhibits in Berlin and Munich and, I think, Leipzig and Vienna. You know, the Picassos, the Chagalls, the Kandinskys, all the stuff, you know, which, by the way, they had banned and stolen. And they put them up in these public spaces and - along with these absolutely hideous slogans. What is it? Revelations of the Jewish racial soul and nature seen as sick minds. And more than 2 million Germans lined up to be disgusted by what they saw. That should have been some kind of signal then and there.

GROSS: Well, Scott, I want to change subjects here.

SIMON: OK.

GROSS: We've been talking about your new audiobook, "Swingtime For Hitler." I'm going to change the subject to Tony Bennett.

SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: So you actually co-wrote a book with him.

SIMON: I did.

GROSS: How did you get to do that? I'll preface this by saying I - you know, I really love his music.

SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: I interviewed him several times and was so - felt so privileged to be able to do that. How did you get to write a book with him?

SIMON: He liked my book about my mother's life and my last days with her, called "Unforgettable." And he knew that I was from - my family was from a show business background - my father a comedian, my mother what we used to call a showgirl. And he wanted to do this book of memories and just thought that I might be a good candidate for it. And it was great. We worked on it very quickly. You know, he was of a certain age. I think we didn't...

GROSS: How old was he when you worked with him?

SIMON: He was approaching 90 at that point. So he would have been 88, 89.

GROSS: He had already, you know, written a memoir. I don't know - I can't remember if it was ghostwritten or what. But, you know, he had a memoir that was already published. So how forthcoming was he with you? Did you talk to him about his own life?

SIMON: Yeah. And he was forthcoming. He had had some problems with drinking and drugs. He had had some problems with celebrity, which he thought was all caught up with drinking and drugs and becoming a celebrity in America and people offering you blandishments and getting caught along in a certain tug, in a certain tide for celebrity, which he thought, looking back on it, had sometimes made him distanced from certain members of his family and certainly the music which he loved. And he just - to remind us, we can all do it, or I hope we can all do it, he had a midcourse correction. He just decided enough of this. And he came down on the side of his music, the music that he loved and the family that he loved.

GROSS: Had he talked about drugs and alcohol as being a problem in his life before the book?

SIMON: Don't think so. I don't think so. I don't want to say he never did it if he was on with you, but I don't think so.

GROSS: Oh, no, he didn't talk about that with me. But, you know, I remember reading - I think it was in The New York Times obituary - about how he had, you know, written in his book about drugs and alcohol. And I thought - 'cause I had read his memoir and interviewed him for that, you know, the first memoir. And I thought, could I possibly have skipped over that part, you know, 'cause I don't remember reading that? And I realized, oh, it's your book.

SIMON: I think he wanted to talk about it. I think that's one of the reasons why he wanted to do the book. I think he wanted to talk about it. I - he loved his son and his daughter. I think he felt a great gratitude, let's say, for example, to his son Danny, for helping him through that period. I think he wanted there to be some kind of public recognition of how they had helped him out of the valley that he was in, to find someplace better.

GROSS: And Danny recalibrated Tony Bennett's career. I think it was...

SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...His idea...

SIMON: Brilliant manager. Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: ...Yeah, to reach a younger audience through, like, duets and stuff like that.

SIMON: Yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

SIMON: Absolutely brilliant management decisions that Danny made. Absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah. Do you think that Tony Bennett talked to you about drugs and alcohol in part because what did he have left to lose? I mean, he was already - like, he and Sinatra were the kings of American popular song. And Tony was the one who survived, who was still alive. And his career was nearing its end. His life was nearing its end. So it couldn't really be held against him anymore. And he'd been sober for, you know, a long time, right?

SIMON: A long time, yeah. No, I think that probably had something to do with it. But I - again, I come back to just the personal sense I had of the man, that he also wanted to thank his family.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: And, you know, I think he'd reached the point in his life where nothing was more important than that.

GROSS: Well, Scott, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thanks for doing this, and congratulations on the audiobook.

SIMON: Terry, a real pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Scott Simon hosts NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. His new audiobook is called "Swingtime For Hitler." It's published by Scribd at scribd.com. That's scribd.com. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Leslie Jones. She's written a new memoir chronicling her life and rise to fame. She holds the distinction of having become the oldest person ever to join the cast of "Saturday Night Live" when she was 47. For years, she worked odd jobs to get by while doing comedy shows and clubs big and small throughout the country. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DAY YOU LEAVE ME")

TONY BENNETT: (Singing) On the day you leave me, it still will be spring. Roses will be blooming, and robins will sing. Subways will be running. Doorbells will ring. And all in all, the sky won't fall. The sun won't suddenly grow colder without your arm around my shoulder. On the day you leave me, there still will be stars, fog in San Francisco, rockets to Mars. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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