Photo by Waldemar on Unsplash

Harrowing history

October 11, 2023

Sometimes, when reading nonfiction, you still want to double check what you are reading as history can take very interesting turns, even enter that realm of “stranger than fiction.”

This summer, I read The American Way, a book first attracting my attention owing to the connections it would draw to the origins of comic books in the late 1930s.  

This era (1938 up to 1956) established many beloved comic characters, particularly those published by National Allied Publications, Inc., and Detective Comics, Inc., predecessors to the present-day DC Comics, owned by Warner Bros./Discovery.

The book’s subtitle certainly delivers in its exploration of “A True Story of Nazi Escape, Superman, and Marilyn Monroe” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2023). The three subjects interweave in some surprising ways, tracing seemingly disparate loose threads that come together.

With co-author Helene Stapinski, writer Bonnie Siegler shares the story of how her grandparents escaped the Nazis and made their lives in the United States. Their family’s likely very existence was tied to a financial sponsorship required to immigrate by a man who did not want the credit yet looms large (infamously so) in the history of early comics: Harry Donenfeld.  

Well acquainted with the Mob and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI (only the former among his friends), Donenfeld was in the publishing and distribution game, primarily in whatever illicit content he could sell without getting jail time for violating the obscenity laws of his day. He and partner Jack Leibowitz were Jewish immigrants from Romania and Ukraine, coming to America in the early 20th century as part of families seeking new lives yet encountering the same anti-Semitism they had fled. They fell into together in this publishing business, then about as “get rich quick” driven as bootlegging was during Prohibition.

By the late 1930s, Donenfeld and Leibowitz’s partnership had managed to keep Donenfeld one step ahead of his creditors or any law enforcement investigators. They built up a powerful newsstand distribution network, eventually getting into business with Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s burgeoning comic book business. Later, they ousted the Major just before their incredibly lucrative Action Comics #1, starring Superman—the creation of two Midwestern Jewish creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  

Picking up the Siegel and Shuster story out of the rejection slush pile, Donenfeld and Liebowitz benefited also from the “work for hire” agreement when they bought the story for publication. Siegel and Shuster spent the rest of their lives fighting DC Comics for a fair share of the millions generated to the present day.  

Along the way, Stapinski and Siegler tell the stories of other Jewish families, realizing the growing threat to their safety, if not their very lives, as the Nazis grew in power and their violent ways of enforcing their newly decreed laws.  

“The American Way: A True Story of Nazi Escape, Superman, and Marilyn Monroe” traces seemingly disparate loose threads that come together – largely connected by the complicated figure of comic book publisher Harry Donenfeld.

The love story of Berlin furrier Jules Schulback and his wife Edith is where the book shines, despite the cavalcade of recognizable names including director Billy Wilder, mobster Lucky Luciano, and Marilyn Monroe. The Schulbacks and other family and neighbors struggle with their diminishing freedoms and increasing peril. The stories of near misses and random luck meant some escaped their captors, while others were summarily shot or left to the grueling work detail or death in the concentration camps.

As the book hops between the European and American contexts, it can be jarring to see Donenfeld taking a moment from his shady day-to-day operations to agree to sponsor fellow Jews trying to flee to America. His wealth built upon salacious pulp magazines and four-color heroes, Donenfeld does not flinch from swindling Superman’s creators while also taking on this quiet work of helping those overseas escape certain death.

Again, one ponders how nonfiction books become surreal simply by reconstructing such history. The Schulbacks gradually work their way into some level of prosperity in New York. Donenfeld travels extensively with his mistress to tropical locations, usually out of town at the right time when suspicion of his activities heightens.

The authors connect Marilyn Monroe to the narrative, the tragic figure of one Norma Jeane Mortenson, whose career launched when some of her modeling work appeared in a Donenfeld-owned publication. Later, Donenfeld and Liebowitz would become Hugh Hefner’s distributor when his own infamous magazine started with photos taken years earlier of a then-unknown Monroe.

Monroe would be later filmed by Jules Schulback as he stayed up one night as one of the hundreds observing her film’s night shoot on the streets near Schulback’s fur shop. The family would later find footage when going through Jules’ house when the elderly man was relocating from his longtime family home.

Harry Donenfeld connected these moments in history: distributing magazines of questionable repute, riding the unexpected popularity and revenue of a now globally recognizable superhero, and taking no credit curiously for the most humane thing one could do—being part of saving people in desperate circumstances.

While highlighting the complexity of the past, Stapinski and Siegler demonstrate the plight and resilience of world-wearied people alongside those figures who could be left to history or casual memory as one-dimensional heroes or villains. 

It is ironic to note that without such willingness to see characters like Donenfeld in a new light, history would be written the same way the earliest comics portrayed characters—with little depth and often crudely drawn art.  

Harry Donenfeld was no saint. He was venal and hardened to righteousness more often than not. Yet moments of humanity can come through for any of us, if we dare to let them work through us.

Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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