This is an interview with Dean Badolato, who was friends with Bill Finger’s first wife Portia and their son, Fred, for twenty years.
What was Portia’s opinion about Batman?
Portia respected all serious and legit art and artists. As [for] Batman, I know she was amused at the huge culture that it created. She probably thought it was pretty lightweight compared to the serious literature she enjoyed (she was an avid reader). Gore Vidal and Truman Capote are two authors she admired. She really loved Vidal’s Burr. She also read Mary Rennault’s series of books about ancient Greece like The Bull from the Sea.
Did Portia tell you any stories about Bill’s work on Batman?
I don’t recall anything too specific about Bill and his work on Batman.
Did you spend any time with Fred? If so, what was he like?
Fred returned from Oregon shortly after the explosion of Mount St. Helen’s. He had become quite a good upcoming nouveau chef. With wife Bonnie, he had opened and run a restaurant, I believe near Portland. He had sired a child, Athena, with Bonnie; at that time, I am not sure if Bonnie and Fred had split up yet. But their marriage did not last and Freddie was interested in opening a new restaurant in New York.
He worked at a couple of high-end restaurants as chef and we sampled his work on several occasions. He was really talented and would have competed well, I believe, with the most successful of today’s chefs. Not surprising since Portia was herself a great home cooker and we often were treated to suppers at Portia’s with fantastic, simple but excellent cuisine. She turned me on to really dark strong French roasted coffee! Also, Freddie and Portia would enjoy seeing us perform when we were lucky enough to be appearing in shows. Fred was a great guy who loved his family; a gentle kind of guy and quite hardworking.
Portia had friends in the gay community and Fred was gay himself. Which came first and do you think one affected the other?
Can’t really say which came first. Probably both evolved at the same time.
How did Portia respond to Fred’s homosexuality?
This is a really difficult one to answer. I believe Portia really wanted the very best for Fred in terms of having a loving, productive family life with the usual components of mom, dad, kids, etc. I think she felt he might have been able to have that kind of life, but at the same time she may have also realized that Freddie was living a gay life and actually seemed to be quite happy. There is a real paradox of thought here because Portia was a very liberal and progressive-thinking human. She also deeply believed in psychology and psychiatry and had a very important therapist in her own life. Despite this fact, I think she felt with a lot of hard work, Fred might have been successful in living a more conventional straight life. I know nevertheless that Portia loved and adored Fred, straight or gay, very much.
How did you find out that Bill died? If you were around Portia at that time, what was her reaction to Bill’s death?
This is a bit eerie: I hardly remember Bill’s passing because Portia barely mentioned it. In 1974 [the year Bill died], I was touring with the DC ballet, but I know she had no service. Honestly, I can say she never really felt good about the man (he had done some really crummy things to her friends) and I believe she felt that he was less than an ideal dad to Fred.
What happened with Portia and Fred after Bill died in 1974?
As far as I know, Fred and Portia’s life did not change much at all after Bill’s death.
How did Fred come to get some kind of royalty from DC Comics?
I’m pretty sure that when Fred returned from the west coast after Mount St. Helen’s blew, Portia urged him to go to DC Comics and let them know who he was and that he deserved royalties. I remember Portia saying that they had given a small token payment of about $500 but that was it. I never heard of any other payments going to the family.
What did Portia think Bill’s legacy should be?
Honestly, Portia never spoke of Bill in regards to a legacy. She always assumed that the truth would probably never be known. But she did know that he was indeed the real creator of the character. I’m telling you she was really, really angry at Bill for things he did.
Are you still in touch with anyone else who knew Bill or Portia?
I am in touch with Portia’s very, very, very favorite and dear friend, Shirley Hendrick. Shirley is well into her 90s and in an assisted living situation. My brother and I [recently performed] a dance concert for her and the other residents. Shirley was a brilliant oil painter and fast friends with Portia and family. Shirley has two sons, Vern and Gregory, who also knew Fred and the family. The two families lived close to each other in Manhattan and vacationed in the same Pocono area in the summers.
What do you do for a living?
I am a professional director/choreographer/performer, a lifelong career.
Have you seen any of the Batman movies?
As a kid, I followed Batman, like all the other kids. I’ve not seen the recent movies. At the ripe old age of 60, that stuff is quite honestly old hat for my taste. The stuff I saw Heath Ledger into when he played the Joker made me really, really sad. They went way too far into darkness for my tastes. I have a feeling Batman was a lot better in its earlier incarnations than today’s. I’m so sick of the massive violence in almost all the current cinema ventures today. We have enough violence in our real neighborhoods.
If you have seen my book, what was your reaction to it?
I haven’t read the book yet; looking forward to. Your trailer looks really good.
Anything else you’d like to share about the Fingers?
It was an honor and a gift to be a part of the Fingers’ lives. Portia was an incredible teller of tales and an educator of life’s lessons like no one else. She was full of love of life and art and joy and beauty. It was heartbreaking to see her and Fred struggle throughout their lives to make ends meet when they legitimately were deserving of so much credit and financial reward for the contributions to America’s (and the world’s, for that matter) popular culture that Batman made and continues to make to this day.
Thank you, Marc Tyler Nobleman, for caring enough to share with the world this most interesting and unusual story.