Sunday, November 8, 2009

Episode #95: Happy Birthday, Harry Donenfeld!

Harry Donenfeld is considered by many Superman fans the other villain, after Jack Liebowitz, in the legal saga of Superman creators Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster. Their story is the spine of the history of comic books in Gerard Jones' non-fiction book Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters And The Birth Of The Comic Book. The exact date of Harry's own birth is lost. Son Irwin could find no birth certificate or other immigration records when he search for his father's family history. It is believed he was born around October 16, 1893 in a Jewish family in Romania. They immigrated to New York's Lower East Side, the destination of many Eastern European Jews, where many pioneers of the comic book industry emerged from.

As a youth Harry floated among street gangs. He was short and chubby, but what he lacked in stature he made up with personality. Harry always had a tall tale to tell. He avoided the draft in 1917 because of his lack of a birth certificate. The next year he married Gussie Weinstein. Son Irwin was born on March 1, 1926 and daughter Sonja, called Peachy, in 1928. The couple opened a clothing store in Newark, New Jersey with a loan from Gussie's parents, but the store closed after the economic slump of 1920-21. Harry found work as a salesman and fourth partner of his brothers' Martin Press, and quickly became successful at his job. He was able to bring higher end print jobs to the company, and when a print job required more sophisticated printing techniques than his company possessed, would sub-contract with a company with the right presses but no sales force to land the job.

When Prohibition brought a rise of organized crime, Harry, as part of the printing industry, became part of the distribution network for the now illegal alcohol. Paper trucks bringing newsprint form Canadian paper mills also smuggled alcohol, and printing warehouses stored booze as well as paper. Harry would become friends with many gangsters, most notably Frank Costello, and would tell many stories about his mob friends. That would change years later when comic books were under public scrutiny, and such affiliations were not convenient for a comics publisher.

In 1923 Harry landed the job of printing six million subscription inserts for Hearst magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping. The family company, Martin Press, would move into a new twelve story building in the Chelsea district, complete with the latest printing presses. Two older brothers would eventually be driven out of the company and return to the garment industry, supposedly never to speak a kind word about their younger brother again. Brother Irving would reman minority partner and head printer. The company name would be changed from Martin Press to Donny Press.

His business contacts put Harry in a social level far higher than someone from the lower East Side could have imagined, and he lived the nightlife of drinking, gambling and womanizing. Donny Press would begin printing magazines in the 1920's, including the pulps, and by the late '20's become a publisher of pulps as well. Pulps were magzines filled with fictional stories of various genres and were the predecessor of modern paperback books. As mentioned in the previous episode Harry published sexy pulps called smooshes and art magazines called nudies because of the photos. His publishing company also grew when it took over titles from other publishers when they could not pay their printing or distribution bills to Harry.

Also mentioned in the previous episode, Jack Liebowitz would become Harry's business manager for his publishing company. Jack ran the business side while Harry was the public face of the company. He wined and dined clients and closed the deal. He would play gin rummy games with Jack at the end of the business day.

Harry expanded his pulp titles to include the crime genre, which were no less lurid than his smooshes. He was late to realize that the party of Prohibition was over after the election of Fiorello LaGuardia as New York mayor on a platform of cleaning out corruption. His distribution license was threatened to be pulled because some of his smooshes might be indecent material. Harry talked employee Herbie Siegel (no relation to Jerry apparently) to take the fall as publisher of Pep magazine, which was considered indecent. Herbie served sixty to ninety days in jail, and Harry kept his promise to take care of Herbie for life, as he worked for Harry for at least thirty years. One trick Harry would pull would be to dissolve one company and sell its assets to another company, which was actually a dummy corporation established in another state that Harry actually owned.

Harry began an affair with Sunny Palin, which would last the rest of his life. Son Irwin would comment in later decades that his Dad had a wife and mistress and cheated on both. Harry traveled the country for his distribution company Independent News, the establishment of which was detailed in the previous episode. He would meet and socialize with newsstand distributors around the country.

Donenfeld's biggest fortune would come from the three title comic book company he and Jack Liebowitz would buy from the bankrupt Maj. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (again, see the previous episode). At the very beginning comic books were just a small cog of his publishing company. After Superman and Action Comics birthed the superhero comic book, the road was paved for Harry and Jack's comic book company to dominate the industry for decades to come. In 1939 Harry hired press agent Allen Ducovny to publicize Superman in newspapers and magazines. Ducovny arranged to have reporters and photographers at Joe Shuster's bedroom studio in Glenvillle, Ohio, then co-created sample episodes of a Superman radio show with Robert Joffe (Bob Maxwell) that would be a radio hit until the rise of TV. The opening, "Look, up in the sky!" is credited by some to the radio show.

Another source of revenue for Harry came from licensing Superman. He put Ducovney, nicknamed Duke in charge of Superman, Inc. Superman was as big of a hit overseas as in the USA. Advertising rates rose for Harry's publications, and Jones, in Men Of Tomorrow, said that his research indicated that Harry's comic book business earned $26 million in fiscal year 1941. That amount did not include his other interests in publishing pulps, printing covers, paper and ink suppliers, printing presses or distribution. As mentioned in the previous episode Harry earned money from his comic book competitors by distributing their titles, which would eventually include Martin Goodman's Timely (later Marvel) Comics. After years involved in racy pulps and bootlegging, his biggest moneymaker came from kid's entertainment, the target audience of comic books for many decades.

Friends would greet Harry with, "Hey, Superman!" He began wearing a Superman t-shirt under his suit, and at the right moment, like a spilled drink or a woman alone at a bar, would rip his shirt open revealing the Superman "S" and say, "This is a job for Superman!" Like most comic book publishers at the time, and many decades to come, Harry enjoyed the success of the characters he published as if he created them himself. He eventually could afford to move his mistress Sunny into a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel on Park Avenue. Harry continued to meet with his distributors, but now traveled in his own Pullman car on the railroad. He lived and partied hard while partner Jack kept the company steady financially.

When Jerry and Joe began to feel discontent over their deal, Harry would smooth things over temporarilly by making vague promises that worked for a short while. there is even an unproven story, which Itwin believed, that Harry even paid for eye surgery for Joe on one occasion. When Harry turned 5o in 1943, a birthday card was commissioned as a comic strip, which ended with Harry putting Superman on his knee. He gave the Man Of Steel a spanking saying, "I'm 50 years old, but you're still taking orders from me." Superman replied, "And that's the way I like it." He also had a large Superman painting commissioned, which hung in the boardroom for many years. It was reproduced as the cover for the oversized Superman Collector's Edition #C-31 in 1974, which reprinted the Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson Superman origin story.

By the war years of the 1940's Harry had pulled out of his illegal rackets, due in no small part to the business practices of partner Jack Liebowitz. Harry did use his connections to keep his company amply supplied with paper during rationing. He was also in demand for bond drives and patriotic campaigns. This former bootlegger and publisher of racy pulps had become part of the establishment.

After the war Harry began to fade into the background as Jack Liebowitz seemed to exercise more control over the company. After the anti-comics hysteria of the 1950's Jack might have wanted Harry's mob and bootlegging roots buried as deep as possible in his desire to make the company as legitimate as possible. Harry's years of hard drinking and living began to take its toll. Son Irwin would join the company and be assigned some of his Dad's jobs by "Uncle Jack". After children Irwin and Peachy grew up and left home to live their own lives Harry moved in permanently with mistress Sunny at the Waldorf, even though wife Gussie would never agree to a divorce.

Gussie became ill and died in 1961. Later in the year National Periodicals Publications (as DC Comics was known then) made its first public stock offering. It looked like Harry would finally be able to marry his mistress, but it was not to be. Son Irwin found his dad laying in bed one day, breathing but unresponsive. He seemed to have fallen and hit his head on the corner of a piece of furniture and somehow staggered to his bed. Irwin called for an ambulance. Harry awoke the next day unable to speak and no memory. He would recover some function, walk, speak a few words, but never seemed to regain his memory. Irwin and his sister put their father in a care facility where Harry died in February 1965. And so this short, larger than life man died silent and empty.

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Thanks for listening to the Superman Fan Podcast and, as always, thanks to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know my great Uncle Harry had the same birthday as my best childhood girlfriend!


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