Off the Shelf: A superhero, a movie star, refugees and more

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The real life cast of characters list that opens “The American Way: A True Story of Nazi Escape, Superman, and Marilyn Monroe” by Helene Stapinski and Bonnie Siegler (Simon and Schuster) is three pages long and divided into three parts: the Schulback family and friends; Harry Donenfeld, his family and business connections; and Marilyn Monroe, her husbands and others connected to her career. “The American Way” shows how these very different people intersected in sometimes unimportant and, at other times, profound ways. 

For Jewish readers, two characters will be of greatest interest: Jules Schulback, who escaped from Berlin with his wife before World War II, and Donenfeld, a former gang member turned printer who’s stayed friends with the mobsters of his youth. Schulback worked in the fur business, both designing furs and selling them first in Berlin and later for his own business in New York City. He was a family man and an upstanding citizen. Donenfeld cheated on his wife and swindled his business partners: he’s perhaps best known as the man who helped finagle the creators of Superman – Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – out of the profits deriving from the Man of Steel. Yet, Donenfeld is the more interesting character because of his many contradictions: when Jewish family and friends came to him, he found them jobs and helped their children. He quietly supported Jewish causes and charities. And, without Donenfeld, Schulback might never have escaped from Europe.

“The American Way” tells of how Schulback and other Jews, including filmmaker Billy Wilder, escaped from Europe. Unfortunately, many members of their extended families were unable to leave in time. These stories are told in juxtaposition with the trials of Siegel and Shuster, who never truly recovered after losing the rights to Superman, and the life of Monroe, whose success as an actress was matched by the difficulties of her personal life. Joe DiMaggio, the baseball player who was also a big fan of the Superman comics, left much to be desired as Monroe’s husband.

If it seems difficult to understand all the connections “The American Way” makes, that’s because some of them are very slender. For example, Schulback and Monroe never actually met. Their only connection is the film Schulback shot of Monroe when she was in New York City in 1954 filming “The Seven Year Itch.” That story became a family legend and the book ends with members of the family finding the footage, something that may strike readers as an anticlimax since in the grand scheme of the story it has little importance other than to tie together some loose ends. 

“The American Way” is well written and easy to read. Those interested in tales of Hollywood, the comic book industry or escapes from Nazi Europe should enjoy this book. While the connections don’t always seem relevant, the individual stories are fascinating and this review only covers a portion of them.