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Foreign News: The Plug-Ugly American

5 minute read

The plot read like the scenario of an old Sydney Greenstreet movie, but the main character was all too real. Rugged, soft-voiced Ted Lewin, 52, is an American ex-prizefighter with a taste for dark shirts, penthouses, air-conditioned Cadillacs and shadowy wheelings and dealings. In and out of Manila, in the past two decades, he has turned many a fast peso.

Born Theodore Lieweraenowski in New York City, Lewin was a man who had had several brushes with the law but no convictions when he set out in 1939 to promote wrestling matches and open a cabaret in Manila. When the Japanese attacked the Philippines, Lewin, no man to duck a fight, enlisted and was captured on Bataan. At the Cabanatuan prison camp he proved his organizing ability by setting up a food delivery from outside that kept the P.W.s from starvation and the Japanese guards in pin money.

Back in Manila, proudly wearing MacArthur’s Medal of Freedom, Lewin opened a cabaret and became the city’s leading sports promoter (including the world’s bantamweight boxing championship match in 1947). But he hit the really big money with a gambling joint called the Key Club off Manila’s Dewey Boulevard. He was also a generous spender who won friends by donating $15,000 to a polio clinic and giving freely to orphans, lepers, war refugees.

He also knew how to do favors for the powerful. In 1949 the daughter of Vice President Fernando Lopez divorced her American husband, who got custody of their two-year-old son. Lewin helped her kidnap the boy in New Mexico, make it to San Francisco after a breakneck car-and-plane chase, and eventually reach safety in Manila.

According to Philippine records, Lewin deposited a total of $6,521,000 in Reno’s First National Bank of Nevada between 1951 and 1953. But when the U.S. tried to collect $501,755 in taxes, Lewin successfully argued that he could not be assessed for income earned outside the U.S.

Floating Court. One Filipino who wanted no part of Ted Lewin’s doings was the late President Ramon Magsaysay. After taking office, Magsaysay tabbed Lewin “an undesirable alien,” barred him from re-entering the country.

Lewin, away from the Philippines when the order was issued, turned up briefly in other spots—gambling joints in Tokyo, in Guatemala City—but was determined to get back to Manila by hook or crook. One day a small Panama-flag freighter named Maria Ines sailed into Manila harbor, ostensibly to pick up a cargo of fruit for Australia. But Magsaysay’s alert FBI-style National Bureau of Investigation had been tipped off that Lewin owned the ship, had signed on its crew and was aboard himself. They found him listed as second mate and refused to let him land. For the next two months Manila witnessed a bizarre spectacle. Lewin protested that he was being heartlessly separated from his loving wife in the Manila penthouse, eventually earned a hearing. Day after day Judge Bienvenido Tan journeyed out to Lewin’s ship to hold court aboard, at last ruled that Lewin was undesirable and could not enter the country. Off sailed the Maria Ines, but that was not the last Filipinos were to see of Ted Lewin.

Renewing the Visas. When President Magsaysay was killed in a plane crash, Carlos Garcia—an old friend of former Vice President Fernando Lopez—moved into Malacanan Palace, and things began going better for Lewin. On the ground that the Philippine government wanted him for $68,450 in back taxes, President Garcia allowed Lewin to get a temporary visa. Eagerly Lewin moved back into business, opened a fancy new Manila nightclub. Each time his temporary visa expired, Lewin managed to get it renewed—first by the President’s Cabinet, then by the President’s executive secretary, then by the Foreign Office, the fourth time by the President personally. When his time ran out early this year, Judge Tan—the same one who had once barred him as undesirable—ruled that Lewin was entitled to the status of permanent resident.

But one man was determined not to let Lewin get away with his activities. The chief of the National Bureau of Investigation, Lieut. Colonel Jose G. Lukban, an old Magsaysay man, wrote a letter to the Deportation Board citing Lewin as “a dangerously undesirable alien” guilty of 1) black-marketing in currency, 2) running illegal gambling, 3) harboring a Chinese wanted for murder, 4) “corrupting public officials and frustrating the present administration’s efforts to eliminate graft and corruption in government.” On the strength of these charges, Lukban got a warrant issued for Lewin’s arrest.

Fortnight ago, as Lewin lolled in his penthouse in natty dark blue sports shirt and slacks, NBI agents burst in to haul him off to jail. He thought he could get out on bail easily—”Goddamit,” roared Lewin through the cell door, “don’t let me sleep here tonight”—but Lukban saw to it that Lewin spent the night in his cell. Next morning, as the fur began to fly. Garcia’s Secretary of Justice Alejo Mabanag announced that NBI Chief Lukban would be fired “for the good of the service,” and Lewin, free on bail, sped away in his air-conditioned Cadillac.

The question in everyone’s mind was what President Garcia would do. Lewin’s friends in high places had saved him before. But Garcia was still smarting from last month’s election defeat (TIME, Nov. 23), in which charges of corruption figured heavily. Would Lewin get off, or would he be deported to show how untrue all the charges of scandal in government were? Awaiting a hearing next week, Lewin sat in his penthouse and complained, “I’m just the little guy being persecuted.”

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