A recent New Yorker profile of contemporary pickpocket Apollo Robbins briefly mentioned another theatrical thief who has since slipped into obscurity: Dr. Giovanni, a Hungarian Jew hailed as the most entertaining pickpocket of the 1930s and ’40s—and who tried to pass as Italian.
Born Adolf Herczog in Budapest, Giovanni became legendary for stealing a stickpin from Prince Edward at a London nightclub, a watch from President Franklin Roosevelt, and suspenders from J. Edgar Hoover. In his book Cutting Up Touches, pickpocket David Avadon declares Dr. Giovanni “the snaffler of all snafflers.”
Giovanni had the charm and comedic presence of Chico Marx, but with a pronounced accent that lent him an air of exoticism that no doubt served his craft. On 1950s TV, he matched wits with Steve Allen and Groucho Marx. He was so popular that his face and catchphrase – “No funny business!” – were featured on a promotional deck of cards for Palmolive shaving cream.
Incidentally, Jewish pickpockets like Giovanni influenced the very language of American pickpocketing. “Cannon,” the term for a top pickpocket, actually stems from the Yiddish word for thief, “gonif,” which to American ears sounded like “gun.” So a pickpocket became a “gun” – and the best pickpockets, like Dr. Giovanni, were called “cannon.”