‘American Hustle’s’ fun D.C. connection

December 26, 2013
Lee Lescaze, at left, conferring with Harry Rosenfeld at The Washington Post - photo from The Washington Post
Lee Lescaze, at center left, confers with Harry Rosenfeld, center, at The Washington Post. (The Washington Post)

Like many of you, I went to the movies this week to check out the David O. Russell film “American Hustle.” Loosely based on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Abscam sting operation in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it’s a flashy film that explores the lines of morality in the world of corruption and con men. It also has a couple of very particular D.C. connections.

For one, early in the movie, Amy Adams and Christian Bale’s characters bond over Duke Ellington. It seems somewhat strangely out of place, that two hucksters living in Long Island would find love in sharing what they considered to be the most elegant of all forms. Nearly 40 years after his death, the D.C. native’s music is still looked at as a marvel of musical sophistication. You walk away from the film with the significant feeling of “I should be listening to the Duke more often.”

Secondly, there’s a matter that doesn’t come up in the film, but plays a significant part in the back story of the actual events it’s centered around. During the investigation, the FBI used a home in Washington as a place where they’d tape public officials who they were trying to entrap in a bribery scheme. (You can see the late John Murtha talking in that house here.) That place is described as a townhouse on W Street NW, a tony area off of Foxhall Road.

But the specific house was at 4407 W Street. It was the home of a man named Lee Lescaze. That man happened to be a reporter for The Washington Post. He was stationed in New York when an offer to rent his house came to him. He didn’t think much of it, even though the individual’s references were slightly off-kilter.

Let’s rewind for a second, though. In an investigation in which federal officials were trying to ensnare public officials in a scam that they themselves dreamed up, they chose the home of a reporter at the paper of record in the capital of the United States of America to base a major part of their operations. The Abscam scandal in later years has been described as a trumped-up entrapment scheme, in which critics said no real crime would have ever been committed had the FBI not put people up to doing them. And these officials took the risk of getting the whole operation getting blown open, based on their choice of safe house. It sounds like, well, a Hollywood movie.

Even better, Lescaze actually wrote about the experience. In a story that ran Feb. 4, 1980, titled “Scamlord: Reporter Finds FBI Eager to Make Improvements,” he hilariously describes his tenants.

“The FBI is a good tenant. It pays the rent on time. It also like to make improvements.”

Lescaze died in 1996 at age 57. His career in journalism had taken him back to New York, where he was when he died. In a New York Times story about a memorial held for him at the Harvard Club in Manhattan after his death, he was described as chivalrous. He’d been a foreign editor, a national editor and worked for Style at The Post. He went on to the Wall Street Journal.

Beyond that, a newsroom tryst he had with author Lynn Darling is documented in a memoir she wrote in 2007 titled “Necessary Sins.” A review of the book in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Osnos describes the relationship. “Ms. Darling describes how a flirtation with Lee — then a married man with three children — turned into an affair. It is clear from her account that both were quickly aware of the dangers of what they were doing. They obviously felt intoxicated by the good fortune of their having found each other and thrilled by their new-found love. But the stakes were high,” he wrote.

What a life.

When you see American Hustle, it’s easy to get sucked in by the glorious soundtrack, funny dialogue and incredible ’70s-inspired costuming that puts you in a fun but unpredictable land of people who lie to make a living. But remember: The most interesting character in the entire story, for my money, isn’t in the movie at all.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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Clinton Yates · December 24, 2013