Monday, March 8, 2010

Episode #116: Happy Birthday, Irwin Donenfeld!

This episode is almost a week late. I apologize, but I was working on a project and trying to get it done by this past weekend. While I didn't siucceed, I did make progress, and should be able to discuss it in the near future. Meanwhile I want to catch up on the podcast, and this week will be a double feature as a result. Also, this upcoming weekend, March 12 - 14, 2010, will be MegaCon in Orlando, Fl,, and I will be attending all three days for the first time. I went there in 2005 and 2006, but only on Saturday.

Irwin Donenfeld was born on March 1, 1926, and died on November 29, 2004 (one day after what would have been my mother's 66th birthday). His parents were Harry and Gussie Donenfeld. Harry was one of the founders of DC Comics. Refer back to episodes 94, 95 and 108 about the key founders of DC, and episode 113, which contains a story Irwin told of his son and Curt Swan. A lot of the information about Irwin comes from Gerard Jones' book Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters And The Birth Of The Comic Book, with some other info from Mark Evanier's website about Irwin's passing,

He had one sibling, his sister Sonia, born in 1928 and known as Peachy. His godfather came from his father's mob ties in Prohibition, being none other than mob boss Frank Costello himself. Irwin had a sad childhood in some respects because he did not have a close relationship with his dad. Harry spent most of his time, apart from business, with his mistress Sunny Palin. Irwin once remarked that his father had a wife and mistress, and cheated on both. He also remembered his parents arguing over Harry's philanderings.

As a boy Irwin had a closer relationship with his father's chauffeur, Frank Moschello. Frank had been a street kid and booze-runner, and had taken the fall for one of Harry's rackets, and was given a job for life as a reward. While his father would leave after a couple of innings, Frank would stay and watch all of Irwin's Little League games, and talk baseball with him on the drive home. At night, Frank would drive Harry to all of the night clubs. Irwin described Frank as more of a father than Harry was. But, like any son, Irwin still had an admiration for his biological father, desribing him as a real dynamo. Other than baseball, Irwin's other interest was in boxing.

As a teen, Irwin got an after-school job at Independent News, which was owned by his father and Jack Liebowitz, who mentored Irwin in his usual gruff manner. Irwin would even see his father's mistress at the after-hours gin rummy games Harry and Jack would have with Independent News' other executive Paul Sampliner. Sunny would be a part of the card games as well. Irwin described her as slightly overdressed, and a little taller than his father. He knew that she was more a part of his father's life than he was.

At the age of 18, Irwin joined the Army and entered pilot training, but never faced combat. He remained at Keesler Army Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi for the duration of his enlistment. Harry visited his son once when Irwin was about to fight for the base championship. Irwin told his father he couldn't arrange a dinner with the base officers when Harry asked. A few days later Irwin was ordered to report to the Colnel's office. While he wondered what he had done wrong, his father appeared, having somehow arranged an Army limo from the train station, and dinner with the officers. Decades later, Irwin marveled at how his father could make everyone like him.

After his Army service, Irwin graduated from Bates College in 1948, and began working at DC Comics. He would work his way through the company. Irwin would work in the production department, readying the pages for printing. Jack Liebowitz would also assign Irwin to take over his father's duties in distribution. As Irwin became an adult himself, and entered his father's world, Harry Donenfeld was retreating. The years of hard living, and the pressures of a wife and mistress, were beginning to take its toll. Plus, Jack Liebowitz may have wanted Harry to fade into the background, and take his old mob history with him.

Irwin would eventually become head of the editorial department. He would leave the daily realationships with writers and artists to the individual editors. His concentration was gathering sales information from Accounting, studying trends, and deciding what boosted sales. Irwin's concentration was on the covers. He left the editors to worry about the content, and tried to figure out what on the covers would hook readers, from colors to dinosaurs or apes. Eventually, he put a limit on how many times apes could appear on the cover. One of his more infamous ideas was the checkerboard that appeared on DC titles in the mid-1960's (I remember them from my own childhood).

Irwin was involved in the development of the DC title Showcase, during a time when the comic book publisher struggled to stay in business. The title would play a key role in the birth of the silver age of comic books, giving birth to, among others, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Lois Lane's own title. Around 1964, Irwin signed a distribution deal with a small publisher who had gotten the rights to publish a fan magazine about a British music group. It was published soon after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the group's name was, of course, The Beatles. As part of management, Irwin held the company view of the ongoing legal battle with Jerry Siegel over the rights to Superman.

In 1967, DC Comics was bought by Steve Ross, who owned Kinney Services. Irwin left the company in 1968. He felt promises were made to him that were not kept. He left the comic book industry entirely, bought a marina in Westport, Connecticut, and published a boating magazine. Irwin and his wife, who I could find no information on, had six children, Rita Lynn (a real estate agent who died on November 24, 1990 in Kissimmee, Florida), Amy, Mimi, Ben, Harry and Luke. Luke was the son I mentioned in episode #113, the Curt Swan Toast, about the sketch he received from the Superman artist.

Next episode Superman On The Cover Of Time Magazine!

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