Common sense says a writer does his research before writing the book. I first visited Cleveland, the setting of Boys of Steel, in January 2007—nearly two years after I wrote (and sold) the book.
However, my mission was to gather photo reference for the illustrator. I wanted the images in the book to be as authentic as possible, though most readers would not know one way or the other. My first stop would be 10622 Kimberley Avenue—the address of the still-standing house where Jerry Siegel lived when he thought up Superman in 1934.
I wanted to get in to take photos so I didn't want to show up unannounced. I did not know that the family now living there regularly and kindly lets people in, nor did I know that certain comics professionals could have given me the family's name and phone number.
In advance, I wrote a letter to the unknown occupants, including my cell number. I planned to drive immediately from the airport to the house; if no answer, I'd leave the letter and hope they'd call me before my four-day research trip was over. (I'd mailed the house a similar letter in August 2005 and hadn't heard back, but that lacked urgency because I wasn't in town at the time.)
I landed in a snowstorm. I arrived at the house mid-afternoon. It was so cold my digital camera pretty much shut down. I didn't expect to see anyone outside, so I was happily surprised that a woman was scraping ice off her windshield right across the street from 10622.
I trudged up to her. "That's Superman's house," I said, pointing to the one painted red and blue and displaying numerous pieces of Superman merchandise in the first-floor windows. Yeah, dumb thing to say, for more than one reason.
"That's my house!" she said.
I introduced myself. Turns out this was Fannie Gray, around age 30, tutors kids in the neighborhood. She said it'd be up to her dad whether or not I could go inside, and as it happened, he pulled into the driveway right then. I am not embellishing.
Standing in shin-high snow on the front lawn not much bigger than a large picnic blanket, Jefferson Gray said I could come back on Thursday afternoon. It was Tuesday. Thursday was the day before I would leave. That was cutting it close—what if at the last minute they wanted to move the date? I would have almost no cushion. I asked if I could come anytime sooner but he didn't budge on Thursday.
So I came Thursday. The family, as has become legendary among Superman aficionados, was more than gracious. I spent at least 30 minutes in their house, taking photos with both a digital and a backup disposable camera.
I will see the Grays later this summer when the neighborhood commemorates both Jerry's former house and the site of Joe's former apartment building with some special markers.
In the meantime, here are a few photos of the attic where Jerry typed stories. Jefferson Gray shows up in one, pulling back a curtain so I can shoot the window. Pay attention to that window—you'll see it again.