The Daily Heller: Orbiting Around Marilyn Monroe

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Write what you know, and then follow where that takes you. If you’re lucky, some of those bits will become an exciting reading experience. That may have been the formula that authors Helene Stapinski and Bonnie Siegler used to write The American Way: A True Story of Nazi Escape, Superman and Marilyn Monroe (Simon and Schuster).

The book started as a frequently told family tale that was recently discovered to be true, and ultimately intersected with a handful of incidental discoveries and historical facts. It is an extremely fun read, but this lively patchwork of disparate family anecdotes, historical mysteries and a few shady characters is held together by one overarching question: How did the sum of these parts fuse together into the whole?

Cover design: Bonnie Siegler

Spoiler alert: The American Way is not about graphic design nor is it an unusual graphically designed book. It is rather an entertainingly enjoyable, often revealing, narrative—a little like a collage of interwoven blog or Wiki entries. The book began to germinate when Bonnie Siegler, formerly a partner of the New York design duo Number 17, and now sole proprietor of the Connecticut-based Eight and a Half, found among the belongings left by her German-Jewish-American grandfather Jules Schulback—a furrier and avid home movie maker—a lost 16mm reel of candid footage that he often bragged about making but had somehow misplaced. The mythic clip was of Marilyn Monroe in 1954 on set near an uptown Lexington Avenue subway station in an early (unused) take of the most famously racy cinematic moment in Billy Wilder’s 1955 romantic comedy The Seven Year Itch.

Jules Schulback

This was known as “the shot seen around the world”—becoming one of the most memorable scenes in the history of American cinema. In the movie, Monroe is a gorgeous summer sublet tenant who flirts with a typically frustrated and suppressed bachelor-husband downstairs neighbor, played by Tom Ewell. But that’s enough plot description—I’m sure most of you have seen the film (or will now), but if not, the movie still (frequently sold as a poster blowup) of Monroe basking in the joy of subway breeze is in many film histories. This book is only tangentially about the rediscovered home movie, anyway.

Harry Donenfeld

Finding this footage unlocked a Pandora’s box of narratives. It was the rationale for Stapinski’s delightful 2013 story in The New York Times that unlocked the memories of Schulback’s 1938 escape with his family from Nazi Germany and the generosity of Harry Donenfeld, a shady “girlie magazine” publisher who was Schulback’s anonymous financial sponsor to the U.S. But Donenfeld was most famous for publishing Superman comics and famously cheating the character’s Jewish creators, the writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, out of their rights, leaving them to earn a pittance while he pocketed millions from the American “Man of Steel.”

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

The book is also about baseball great Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, who was so angered upon his surprise visit to the Lexington Avenue movie set where he watched his wife, Monroe, revel in her immodesty with skirts a-billowing, apparently became so furious that he inflicted abuse on her that night back at their hotel.

The American Way is a nuanced jab at the famous patriotic motto. But the book is not a political comedy. It is, however, a means to show how interconnected we all have become in countless overt, covert, surprising and improbable ways. It is Siegler’s homage to her grandfather’s unique life and her inherited passion for storytelling. It is Stapinski’s zeal for reporting, weaving together the most incongruous of facts into a compelling tale. Most of all it is a lesson in pulling strands of data together and how to envision the raw material of varied lives, drawn from disparate facts, memories and anecdotes, into a page-turning experience.

Posted inThe Daily Heller