Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The homes of Bill Finger, part 2

Part 1.

I am not showing the homes of Bill Finger (chorus: uncredited co-creator of Batman) chronologically because I want to save my favorite Bill building (Billding?) for last. That building looks the coolest but this building has the funnier story.

According to the microfiched Manhattan phone book, Bill Finger began living at 125 W. 16th Street in 1950. Here is how that building looked on 8/9/06:


He moved here with his wife Portia and their only child Freddie (born 1948). After Bill moved out, he was something of a vagabond for his remaining twenty years. Portia remained here until her death at age 69 on January 2, 1990.

I went to this building on that mild August afternoon hoping to meet some of Portia's neighbors. Yes, sixteen years had passed since she had died, but she'd lived there for forty years and I was hoping longevity ran in the building. If so, I figured someone might still be there who would remember her.

Consider for a moment the credibility challenge of an independent researcher. I was there with no "official" authority, no familiar organization on my nonexistent business card, no backup of any kind. I was just hoping to stop people going in or out of the building and get out the following before they could say, "Sorry, I'm in a hurry, clean-cut crazy man":

"My name is Marc Nobleman. I'm a children's book writer you've never heard of researching a man you've never heard of named Bill Finger, who co-created Batman. He and his then-wife Portia lived
together in this building more than fifty years ago but she stayed here till 1990. I don't suppose you or anyone you know knew her?"

I deliberately started my stakeout at 5 p.m., when some people would begin getting home from work. The first person who passed was a professional woman not much younger than I am. She did not ignore me or call the police. Instead she said that every evening around that time a gaggle of older residents usually sat in beach chairs in the little front courtyard
in which we were standing. For some reason, however, they were not there then. Of course, I came around the one night in recent memory that they were no-shows.

She suggested I ask the superintendent and then said that, by chance, the building was having its annual summer party the next night in that very courtyard. She said I should come
—I would be able to meet a large number of the residents at once. I worried aloud that a non-resident would probably not be allowed in and she kindly said she would vouch for Clean-Cut Crazy Man.

Tempting as that was, both for research and for the possibility of free pigs in a blanket, I was determined to make any inroads that night. It would save me another train trip in.

So I buzzed the super. If getting a stranger to stop on a sidewalk and listen to you for more than four seconds is tricky, getting a super to listen to you through a crackly intercom for any length of time is four times trickier. Yet somehow I talked him into letting me in. And he promptly introduced me to the lovely ladies of longevity.

In seconds, I found myself sitting in an apartment across the hall from what had been Bill and Portia's place, chatting with the generous and effusive Ines (age: north of 70). She had lived in the building since 1968. She remembered Portia, described her as "flamboyant
"—a person who called everyone "darling," wore muumuus, and often strolled down the hall arm-in-arm with two young handsome men. (Not homosexual herself, at least not that anyone I talked to knows about, Portia was a fixture in the gay community.) When Ines's memory tired, she called over her equally kind neighbor Marybelle, who had lived in the building since 1964 and who arrived in her nightgown at 6 p.m.

Neither had photos of Portia (or Bill). Neither remembered (if they ever knew) Portia's maiden name. Both remembered Portia's twin sister but neither remembered her name
—I was so desperately hoping they would've remembered her name because that would've opened up a whole other branch of people to track down. In the end, both Ines and Marybelle said they'd buy my book and invited me to stay in touch. Ines also gifted me a handful of the dog grooming products she'd created and marketed, even though I don't have a dog.

Half a year later, when I did find Portia's maiden name and Portia's sister's family (stories for future posts), I called Ines and Marybelle. My Golden Girls were happy to hear that
—and, of course, said "That's right!" (Memory works so much better going backwards.)
According to my list of first appearances of notable Batman characters Bill had a hand in, none were created between 1950 and 1954—therefore none were created in this building. If I'm wrong, I know I can count on you to let me know.

Soon: a peek inside this apartment...specifically, an image I did not think even existed but an image invaluable for an illustrator of a picture book on Bill Finger...a photo of Bill Finger's writing desk. [9/3/10 addendum: That desk photo is from a different apartment.]

3 comments:

Bob said...

Trivia note: In Detective Comics #49 (March 1941), Bruce Wayne's fiancee, aspiring actress Julie Madison, changed her professional name to Portia Storme. A tribute to Bill Finger's wife, perhaps? (This may be an old observation, but I'm new around here.)

Colin Smith said...

Great story, Marc!

You really have done your research and taken some risks / chances to get to the story that needs to be told.

This is all really interesting - I know so little about Bill (I suspect this is probably the case with most of us), and any and all information is like gold-dust to this amateur Bat-historian.

One main thing that caught my attention. You stated that Bill lived 'something of a vagabond' for some years - this is rather sad. I had heard he had lived in reduced circumstances later in life, but didn't realise just how bad. This is such a shame for a man that gave the world one of it's most famous, enduring and beloved characters.

I hope this blog carries on until I have a copy or two of your book in my grubby little mitts to pour over!!

Can't wait - keep up the great work!

All the best,

Colin

Colin Smith said...

Just regards the characters possibly created whilst at this residence.

The Grand Comics Database (www.comics.org) lists Bill Finger as the writer on the story that introduced The King Of Cats (Selina Kyle's brother) (Batman #69 02-03/1952) and, potentially, being the writer that introduced Killer Moth (Batman #63 02-03/1951) and Mirror Man (Detective #213 11/1954).

Whilst none of these villains are on the same level as The Joker, Two Face or The Penguin, they're fairly note-worthy, especially Killer Moth.

All the best,

Colin

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