In every good comic book story there’s a moment when worlds collide, stars line up, and the evil doctor’s death ray machine threatens to blow everyone to hell and back. This is just such a story.
In 1934 my grandfather, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson began publishing comic books with original art and scripts. He was one of the founding fathers of the modern comic book industry publishing New Fun, New Comics and More Fun Comics. He promptly hired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to produce comics for these magazines upon seeing the Superman drawing they sent him along with the strips “Henri Duval” and “Dr. Occult.” It’s no surprise that the Major, from his experience as a creator and leader of men, could see the potential in the abundant creative expressions of Siegel and Shuster.
At the height of the Great Depression “the Major” had a vision of all original comics and scripts in a brand new medium. In that financial climate, Wheeler-Nicholson required money to keep his unique vision alive. Harry Donenfeld, his printer, seemed to have access to funds. Where those funds came from during a time when most people were struggling just to buy food wasn’t too closely examined. In late 1936 Harry advanced money for a new magazine, Detective Comics, the only stipulation being that the Major must partner with Jack Liebowitz, Harry’s accountant. And thus the players in the drama of Detective Comics, Action Comics and Superman all came together.
What happened after is a great tale. It doesn’t have a happy ending for most of those involved. Wheeler-Nicholson was maneuvered out of his own company, Nicholson Publishing Inc. through a forced bankruptcy proceeding based on questionable accounting and tactics. It’s not clear how he was pushed out of Detective Comics but by September of 1938 Harry Donenfeld appeared to be the sole owner. In the process Siegel and Shuster lost the rights to Superman and some years later the Donenfelds also lost their majority stake in the empire that was built on the backs of these early creators. The only person who appeared to continue to hold all the cards throughout is Jack Liebowitz.
In all the family stories the names Siegel and Shuster and Donenfeld and Liebowitz were foremost. About 20 years ago I began a more formal academic approach in researching my grandfather’s life. It took at least 10 years to locate the legal papers from the bankruptcy case and along the way I discovered the lawsuits of Siegel and Shuster vs. DC. Each lawsuit had a different rendition of Wheeler-Nicholson’s part in the story. Donenfeld and Liebowitz were rarely specifically named and the vs. was a faceless corporate entity.
Gerard Jones, my co-author, wrote extensively about Harry Donenfeld in his book Men of Tomorrow and in spite of the fact that Harry was a partner in my grandfather’s loss of DC, I found him to be an intriguing character. I suspect he and my grandfather enjoyed one another’s company and more than a drink or two at whatever local watering hole was near the publishing enclave in the 42nd Street area of New York City.
Every good comic book story needs at least one exotic locale and Havana, Cuba is perfect. Photos of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson with his elegant wife Elsa at the bar in Sloppy Joe’s seated next to Vin Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth tell the tale. Supposedly Harry Donenfeld sent the Major, Sullivan and Ellsworth to Havana at the end of March 1937 on a working vacation to organize the new comic magazine, Detective Comics and begin working on Action Comics.
I had the opportunity to travel to Havana in January of this year and it appears that the DC group most likely stayed at the Hotel Nacional where Meyer Lansky, a known crime figure had his casino. Donenfeld was a frequent visitor to Havana. He had been there at the beginning of March 1937 with his friend Victor Fox who later was involved in a lawsuit with DC over his character Wonder Man. Donenfeld and Lansky shared a mutual friend in Frank Costello reputed to be a member of the mafia.
March 1937 was a pivotal month for all the players involved including Jerry and Joe who visited New York in March 1937 just prior to the Wheeler-Nicholsons trip to Cuba. While in New York Siegel and Shuster met with the Major as well as Jack Liebowitz. The Major did not seem to be aware of that meeting and it’s not known if Harry was involved.
With the drama of the Cuba trip fresh in my mind, I headed to San Diego last week for San Diego Comic Fest organized by Mike Towry, one of the early founders of San Diego Comic Con. Comic Fest is an old-fashioned comic con in the best sense. Sometime in the fall Mike mentioned that Laura Siegel, daughter of Jerry Siegel might be persuaded to attend. Later Gerard Jones told me that Harry Donenfeld, the grandson of Harry the first had been in touch to talk about his grandfather. It seemed a possibility that he might be able to attend Comic Fest as well. In an unbelievable chain of events it all came together—Wheeler-Nicholson, Siegel and Donenfeld in one place at the same time.
Never having met one another and carrying our respective family baggage we arrived at Comic Fest. Did worlds collide? Well, in a way, yes but instead of the death ray it was more of a kaleidoscope where the separate pieces coalesced into one clear image. The fans adore Laura and with good reason—she’s a lovely, smart woman who knows her history, not just from the family but from her own research as well. We felt an immediate kinship. Harry has inherited the charm of his grandfather and Laura and I instantly liked him. He is warm, funny and smart. Like me, he didn’t know his family history until he was an adult and like Laura and me he’s done his own research.
We spent as much time together as possible talking non-stop and learning from one another. Each of us carries a piece of the historic pie and listening to one another’s stories helped make sense of things unknown. The fans and even long-time comic book industry people were awestruck. At one point when we were all onstage with Gerard moderating, I looked out at the audience and I swear everyone’s mouth was wide open. We went into one of those obsessive discussions over a minute detail that only true blue comic book aficionados can appreciate. It was huge fun!
What happens from here, who knows but as Harry said, with the three of us coming together and connecting so strongly there was a definite ripple in the force!