In November 1972, a legless panhandler named Eddie Bernstein rolled himself to The Washington Post to complain about a recent article in the paper that had painted him as rich.
“If I had money and property, do you think I’d be sitting out in the cold all day?” Eddie said. “That guy who told you those stories was pulling your leg, to say the least. If you think begging’s a good life, just try it.”
Seven years later, the 79-year-old Bernstein died in Pensacola, Fla., the city he’d grown up in, lost his legs in (to a freight train at age 11) and spent half the year in.
When papers were filed in D.C. Superior Court, it emerged that Bernstein had an estate of $691,676. That included: $16,200 in cash, tens of thousands of dollars deposited in banks in Florida and the District, a home in Pensacola worth $45,000, a group of commercial buildings valued at about $80,000 and $364,000 in a Merrill Lynch bond account.
Panhandling had been very good to Eddie the Monkey Man.
That’s what Washingtonians called Bernstein. Last week in this space, Answer Man wrote about Bernstein’s early years and how he’d position himself near Reeves bakery on F Street NW looking for a handout. Bernstein had trained a capuchin monkey — Gypsy — to collect proffered coins and drop them into a box.
The pair were some of the most interesting characters to ever grace downtown Washington, and it was only after Bernstein’s death that some of the facts of his life emerged.
For 20 years, Bernstein had deposited his alms in McLachlen National Bank. “On a given day, he could make as much as $100,” the bank’s Fred Lott told The Post. “He took the contributions he received from the corner and invested wisely. He apparently studied the stock market and he had good brokerage contacts.”
Bernstein had good contacts everywhere. In 1953, he began placing Gypsy at the National Zoo whenever he returned to Florida or went on vacation. (Bernstein traveled regularly to Europe and Israel.)
In 1965, the zoo’s director, Theodore Reed, wrote Bernstein and asked him to collect Gypsy. The zoo needed the cage space.
Bernstein wrote to President Lyndon Johnson and explained that a weakness in his left arm left him unable to hold Gypsy’s leash. He asked LBJ to “please use your influence to bring pressure to bear so [the zoo] will continue to keep my animal indefinitely.”
The plea was successful. Presidential aide Paul M. Popple wrote back that the zoo’s Reed “will be willing to keep your monkey as long as you wish.”
You can imagine how thrilled the zoo must have been.
But Bernstein had a way of getting what he wanted. A Pensacola business partner, George Overby, remembered taking Bernstein to the Greyhound bus station every April for his annual trip north to Washington.
“He would tell me, ‘Watch this,’ ” Overby told The Post, “and I would put him on the bus and he’d go up to the person in the first seat and say, ‘Please, please, give me the seat. I have no legs.’ ”
Bernstein was as distinctive a figure in Pensacola as he was in Washington, but for entirely different reasons. In Florida, he wore prosthetic legs and drove a Cadillac. He was the sharpie who owned three bars, including one called the Red Garter, a gay bar that billed itself as featuring “the South’s finest in the art of female impersonation.”
In Pensacola, Bernstein did not talk about his life in Washington, and he did not want people to know how he earned his money there. Not that he considered himself a beggar.
“He told me that he didn’t beg, but that he just sat there and people gave him money,” a D.C. lawyer named Albert Brick told The Post. “He thought he was doing all these people a service because all those people came to him. He said, ‘They’re my clients.’ ”
Bernstein is buried in Pensacola’s B’nai Israel Cemetery next to his sister Sadie. He was predeceased by his monkey, who died in 1976 at the National Zoo. Bernstein was an Orthodox Jew and wouldn’t allow Gypsy to be cremated, so he paid $292.50 to have the monkey buried at Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery in Silver Spring.
The monkey’s grave was recently discovered under a layer of soil by the cemetery’s unofficial historian, Julianne Mangin. The flat stone features an engraving of a capuchin and the legend “Gypsy. Pet of Eddie Bernstein for 39 years.”
Gypsy’s funeral was attended by Bernstein, a National Zoo Monkey House keeper named Carl Graham and Evening Star reporter John Sherwood.
“Listen, I’m a landmark in Washington,” Bernstein told Sherwood. “More people have seen me, and know who I am, than any other person in this town. I tell you, they love me. They love Eddie Bernstein.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.