When Worlds Collide

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.

The Mad Scientist. Fleischer Superman cartoons. 1941

The Mad Scientist. Fleischer Superman cartoons. 1941

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.

From More Fun #8. February 1936

From More Fun #8. February 1936

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.

Detective_Comics_1

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.

Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz and Irwin Donenfeld, Harry's son.

Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz and Irwin Donenfeld, Harry’s son.

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.

Siegel and Shuster

Siegel and Shuster

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.

MWN by Finn Andreen. 1948. Written permission required for use.

MWN 1948. Written permission required for use.

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.

Sloppy Joe's Havana

Sloppy Joe’s Havana

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.

Hotel Nacional. Havana, Cuba.

Hotel Nacional. Havana, Cuba.

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.

480 Lexington Ave. NYC. Early DC offices.

480 Lexington Ave. NYC. Early DC offices.

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.

Unknown

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.

Gerard Jones, Harry Donenfeld, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, Laura Siegel. Comic Fest 2016. Photo by Michael Dooley.

Gerard Jones, Harry Donenfeld, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, Laura Siegel. Comic Fest 2016. Photo by Michael Dooley.

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!

Harry Donenfeld, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, Laura Siegel. Comic Fest 2016. Photo by Mike Hammersky.

Harry Donenfeld, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, Laura Siegel. Comic Fest 2016. Photo by Michael Hamersky.

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!

About Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson

Writer/Editor and Publisher for over 20 years with a Master's Degree in Classical Greek Mythology and Theatre. Perfect for writing about Comics!
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6 Responses to When Worlds Collide

  1. What a wonderful event! I wish I could have been there! Was it videotaped?

    • Hi Doc! Thanks. I believe it was and I’ll follow up on it and let you all know where it can be found. It was an amazing experience. Laura and Harry and I all had the same sensation of finding long-lost relatives. It was uncanny. We plan to continue working with one another so who knows where it will all lead! Cheers to you.

  2. Bob Hughes says:

    Wow! Just wow! I’ve been all over and up and down this pivotal year in comics and was never able to verify these meetings in Cuba. Just brilliant stuff! The relationship between Fox and Donenfeld is still unexplored to my mind. But its all perfectly clear to me that Liebowitz is the villain in the piece.

    • Hi Bob, David Lawrence has done a good bit of research on Fox as well as Chris Irving. I looked into it also and found all kinds of info about Fox and his early troubles with the Government during WWI and then later in the 20′s with stock fraud. Somehow he always managed to get out of it. I could never find a concrete connection to Donenfeld. David found Fox and Donenfeld on a plane manifest going from New York to Havana on March 1st 1937. Verrry, very interesting! Maybe that old story about Fox being involved with the accounting at DC has some truth.

  3. Mike Catron says:

    That sounds like a great moment. Only wish I could have been there! Yeah, I’d love to see the video, too.

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