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The American Way

A True Story of Nazi Escape, Superman, and Marilyn Monroe

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About The Book

In this “necessary and beautifully told story of struggle, compassion and serendipity” (Forbes), the publisher of DC Comics comes to the rescue of a family trying to flee Nazi Berlin, their lives linking up with a dazzling cast of 20th-century icons, all eagerly pursuing the American Dream.

Family lore had it that Bonnie Siegler’s grandfather crossed paths in Midtown Manhattan late one night in 1954 with Marilyn Monroe, her white dress flying up around her as she filmed a scene for The Seven Year Itch. An amateur filmmaker, Jules Schulback had his home movie camera with him, capturing what would become the only surviving footage of that legendary night. Bonnie wasn’t sure she quite believed her grandfather’s story…until, cleaning out his apartment, she found the film reel. The discovery would prompt her to investigate all of her grandfather’s seemingly tall tales—and lead her in pursuit of a remarkable piece of forgotten history that reads like fiction but is all true.

A “fast-moving American epic with a cast of refugees and starlets, publishers and bootleggers, comic-book creators and sports legends” (The Washington Post), The American Way follows two very different men—Jules Schulback and his unlikely benefactor, DC Comics publisher (and sometimes pornographer) Harry Donenfeld—on an exuberant true-life adventure linking glamorous old Hollywood, the birth of the comic book, and one family’s experiences during the Holocaust. It’s an “amazing” story told “with grace, verve, and compassion” (The Jerusalem Post) of two strivers living through an extraordinary moment in American history, their lives intersecting with a glittering array of stars in a “colorful” and “punchy” (The New York Times Book Review) tale of hope and reinvention, of daring escapes and fake identities, of big dreams and the magic of movies, and what it means to be a real-life Superman.

Excerpt

Prologue PROLOGUE THE TEN-BLOCK WALK NEW YORK CITY, 1954
JULES SCHULBACK LEFT HIS THIRD-FLOOR apartment around midnight and stepped onto the sidewalk at Lexington and Sixty-First Street in Manhattan, carrying what looked like a black lunch box with chrome around the edges. He surveyed the familiar view, glancing at an upstairs window across the street that belonged, strangely, to a doll hospital. Its lights and red neon crosses had been turned off for the evening, hiding the buckets of miniature heads and arms and various doll parts that would spook visitors when they peeked from his apartment window in the daylight. But Jules found the doll hospital mildly amusing, as he did most things. He panned his gaze a few doors down and crossed the avenue to his fur shop.

Its treasures were locked up for the night. Jules inspected the darkened window, as he always did when passing by, partly to admire his display—frozen mannequins posed in the latest minks and fox stoles—but also to check that everything was all right in his absence. And it was.

Since it was a Tuesday night, the streets of Manhattan were mostly deserted, Jules’s shadow one of the only ones cast by dim streetlamps and a moon that was just past full. The Chrysler Building loomed in the distance, only a few of its offices lit, the bright moon reflecting off the spiked metal helmet of its tower.

The temperature was in the fifties, chilly for early fall. In Jules’s version of the story, a story he would retell again and again over the decades, a few Checker cabs flew by, a few crawled, looking for a fare, but Jules walked. Two blocks, then three, past shuttered drugstores and dry cleaners, past silent newsstands and grocery stores. Past a single bored cop on the beat, to whom he gave a respectful nod but didn’t stop to chat up. Jules loved to chat and loved to spin a good story. But tonight he was a man with a mission, not just an insomniac out on a late-night stroll in the greatest city in the world. He did not have an American dream; he was already living it, right now, right here on these streets.

As he grew closer to his destination—East Fifty-First Street—Jules sensed a strange charge in the atmosphere, as if the molecules were being rearranged somehow, and a distant hum, even before he saw the crowd. He passed the all-night coffee shop with its pink neon and the onion-shaped green copper domes of the Central Synagogue on the corner of Fifty-Fifth Street—so much like the one he had left behind in Berlin. And sure enough, three blocks away he could see it: a bright glow up ahead.

As he drew nearer, the lights were brighter than daylight, the crowd deeper than those on the Forty-Second Street subway platform during the evening rush. His heart beating faster with each step, Jules realized there was something strange about this crowd. He couldn’t identify it right away. It took a few beats. But then it hit him—there were only men here, their families and wives tucked safely into bed back in their apartments.

Like Yankee Stadium under the floodlights, men in hats and jackets and a smattering of ties stood around, excited for the game to begin. Some stood on fire escapes and the roofs of cars, perched on lampposts and atop traffic lights, all trying to find a good spot to glimpse the coming attraction—the American dream made flesh, with all its promises and curves. One of the Yankees was even here, Joe DiMaggio, shaking hands and working the growing crowd of photographers and cops, loiterers and fans.

Jules dove straight in. He’d never been a timid man; if he had been, he wouldn’t be here walking the Earth. Gently pushing his way through the crowd using his free hand and a few German-accented “Pardon mes” and “Excuse mes”—he was a gentleman after all—he got as close as he could to the commotion. There was the gaffer he had met yesterday, who tipped him off about tonight. They nodded in recognition.

Then the movie director flitted past in his fedora, nervously eyeing the growing throng. His name was Billy Wilder. They were both from Berlin, Jules knew, both escaped Jewish refugees. He caught Wilder’s eye and held it for a moment, long enough to think that maybe Billy, too, knew what they had in common. As if Jules was marked somehow with invisible ink that only the fellow wounded could detect. Billy walked past, and Jules was suddenly reminded of his purpose here tonight. He squeezed his black box between his legs, screwed around with a few knobs, wound a small crank, knelt down into a narrow free space between bodies, and then placed the box up to his right eye. His Bolex 16 mm camera.

It was September 15, 1954, and it was no accident he was here. Jules was a thoughtful man who had always planned everything very carefully. Befriending that gaffer was just one of many steps that brought this furrier and amateur filmmaker to the front row of one of the most iconic moments in twentieth-century film history, one that he—and he alone—would save for posterity in living, moving color.

Jules looked around the artificially lit New York City street corner. Always so much life, so much to capture. He had tasted the bitterness of life, but this, this was the sweet part. He peeked through the lens of his Bolex, focused on Billy Wilder and the crew in front of him.

And suddenly, as if she knew he was coming, out stepped Marilyn Monroe. And… Action.

For Jules, staring the glamour of Hollywood in the face took more than a ten-block walk. His long, complicated journey to New York City, like those of most immigrant Jews during World War II, had taken bravery and cunning. But, against all logic, here he was, front and center, smack in the middle of the waking dream that was America.

Jules had almost not made it there that night. Had almost not made it to America. The odds had been against him, really. On dark nights when he couldn’t keep the sorrow at bay, he would think of the family and friends he had left behind, many of them dead.

His story included not one but two escapes from Nazi Germany, of lies quickly imagined and creatively told, of ocean liners and fake identities and magic—the never-ending, never-tarnished magic of Hollywood. Some of those who came in and out of Jules’s story—Clark Gable, Billy Wilder, Joe DiMaggio, and Marilyn Monroe—were real, of human flesh, with flaws and imperfections. Like Jules, each had escaped something, wearing a mask to survive, creating an alternate identity, using the powers that they, and only they, possessed. Dreaming and remaking themselves in a country that not only allowed reinvention but demanded it.

Others in his story were not real, like Superman, a fellow refugee—from another dying planet—whose incredible powers helped shine a light on the very horror that Jules had escaped, a horror so many had willfully ignored. Superman, too, needed an alternate self, a stuffed-shirt newspaper man—a regular guy. Those who created Superman had their own journey, too, sons of survivors, riding the first wave of an art form—the comics—that would one day crash into the Hollywood that Jules so loved.

And finally there was the man who Jules never really spoke to, the man who gave him life—and gave life to Marilyn and Superman as well.

Harry.

He was just a few blocks away from here, living his own American dream, with all the complications and grit that entailed. The early Mob connections, the bootlegging, and the girlie magazines had all given way to respectability, fortune, and fame. But on this night, this very same chilly autumn night when Marilyn stepped into the camera lights, Harry’s life would start unraveling. A series of events was set in motion that would change Harry’s life, leaving him—for the few years he had left on Earth—a mere observer of a world he’d created.

So many strands. So many stories. All crisscrossing and colliding into one another. The starlet. The king of Hollywood. The superhero. The publisher. The ballplayer. The filmmaker. And Jules. All traveling together through this extraordinary time. This night beneath the klieg lights was like the tip of the needle stitching those intricate threads together, but to truly see it, you have to go back in time.

Rewind the film, turn back the colorful page of panels, and start at the beginning.

Reading Group Guide

1. When we meet Jules Schulback, he’s a young man in love, beginning his career in the city he loves. He’s still filled with the same exuberance as an old man living on the Upper East Side. How did Jules maintain his vitality and playfulness over the course of his life, in spite of life’s trials and the terrible atrocities committed against his family?

2. The authors paint a vivid picture of Harry Donenfeld: newsboy, teenage gangster, bootlegger, and successful printer and comic book publisher. “He was not just a mensch, but a macher—a mover and shaker taking charge and getting things done.” (Pg. 47) How do you weigh the tactics Harry used to get ahead in life with the generosity he showed towards Jules and his family?

3. The book traces Marilyn Monroe’s journey from struggling actress Norma Jeane to movie star and global icon. As her fame grows, so does her unhappiness and anxiety. How does the public persona of Marilyn Monroe prevent her from building the life and career she desires?

4. There are varying reactions among Jules’ family and friends to the rapid rise of the Nazi Party and its antisemitic policies. Why did some, including Edith’s parents and Golda and Simon, believe money or God would diminish Hitler’s influence? What fears did Hitler prey upon that led to Germans turning against their Jewish neighbors and friends?

5. Discuss the evolution of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman character from super villain to Earth’s savior. How did Jerry and Joe draw from their own experiences to create the iconic superhero?

6. Superman’s motto is “truth, justice, and the American way.” What is the American way? Based on the lives of the people in this book, does it always lead to prosperity?

7. Discuss the symbols that appear throughout the book: Metropolis, the stone boys above the school entrance on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, Clark Gable, the car Superman lifts above his head. How do these symbols connect the characters over the years, and how does their meaning change over time?

8. In the early Superman comics, the hero fought “the good fight in Jerry’s socially conscious plotlines—fighting corporate evil, political corruption, and gangsters.” (Pg 128) Why do you think it was important to Jerry, Joe, and Harry for Superman to address the social and political struggles of the time? How do you think these plotlines contributed to the comic’s success?

9. The book is filled with the heroics of everyday people, including Jules, Ushi, and even Harry. How do you think about their bravery and generosity in light of Jerry Siegel’s comment about Superman: “he represents what the plain ordinary, crushed-by-reality person would like to be but can only be in his wistful daydreams, because we are what we are”?

10. Jules believed that “[s]tories...are what bind us together not just as Jews, but as humans...[i]f you dug down deep enough, your story was intertwined with every other person’s story.” (Pg 317) If we’re all a part of each other’s stories, what do we owe each other? How were each of the character’s responsible to and for the people they crossed paths with?

11. Reflect on your own family and the stories you share. What stands out to you when you think about your family lore? Is there anything you would want to ask your relatives (or wished you had asked)?

About The Authors

Lisa Bauso

Helene Stapinski is the nationally bestselling author of three memoirs: Five-Finger DiscountMurder in Matera, and Baby Plays Around. She writes regularly for The New York Times; her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, New York magazine, Travel & Leisure, and dozens of other publications. She teaches at New York University and lives in Brooklyn.

Ryan Christopher Jones

Bonnie Siegler is the founder and creative director of award-winning, multi-disciplinary graphic design studio Eight and a Half. The author of Dear Client, a guide for people who work with creatives, and Signs of Resistance, a visual history of protest in America, she taught design in the graduate schools of Yale University and the School of Visual Arts for many years. She lives in Connecticut.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 14, 2023)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982171667

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Raves and Reviews

The American Way reads like a Michael Chabon novel inspired by a Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch movie, only all the more remarkable because every bit—the plot twists and coincidences, the thrills and chills—is true. It's a fresh, intimate tale of immigrants reimagining their lives, the invention of superheroes, resistance to fascism, and sketchy mid-century bebop glamour. Such a pleasure!”
—Kurt Andersen, New York Times bestselling author of Fantasyland

“In this vivid, surprising, and entertaining book, Helene Stapinski and Bonnie Siegler take us straight into the heart of what Henry Luce called ‘the American Century’ in an improbable but true tale of the rise of comics, of Hollywood, and of New York, a tale of immigrants and Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Illuminating and engaging, The American Way is a story you couldn’t make up—but thankfully, you don’t have to, because here it is.”
—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of America

“A necessary and beautifully told story of struggle, compassion and serendipity that reaches out to us across the generations.”
Forbes

“A fast-moving American epic with a cast of refugees and starlets, publishers and bootleggers, comic-book creators and sports legends.”
The Washington Post

“Warmhearted and lyrical, Stapinski and Siegler trace a refugee family from Nazi Berlin whose narrow escapes, clever deceptions, hard work, dumb luck, and bottomless dreams are as iconic as the great American myths they touched.”
—Sarah Rose, national bestselling author of D-Day Girls

“Colorful.... Punchy.... Stapinski and Siegler stitched together a cast of… figures and events from several recurring threads: Jewishness, New Yorkiness and, as their title indicates, a singular, striving, midcentury Americanness.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A sweeping, factual saga that reads like an adventure novel.”
—ABC World News Now

“Inventively structured, ceaselessly surprising and ultimately spirits-boosting…. [Stapinski and Siegler] write with a zippiness and awe befitting tales of superheroism by the caped and capeless alike.”
Shelf Awareness

“Amazing... stories are told here with verve, grace and compassion.”
The Jerusalem Post

“An extremely fun read.”
—PRINT Magazine

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