Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Alvin Schwartz previously unpublished interview, 6/6/06; part 1 of 3

Alvin Schwartz was a writer most associated with Superman and Batman; he penned the first Bizarro story. I interviewed Alvin for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.

Alvin was the only person I talked to who allegedly knew why Bill was declared 4-F during World War II, but to respect the privacy of his friend, he would not reveal the reason (and the official military record doesn’t, either). 

He passed away in 2011. 

Here is how Alvin responded when I asked if I could interview him:
From: Alvin Schwartz
To: Marc Tyler Nobleman
Sent: Saturday, June 03, 2006 7:14 PM
Subject: Re: Hi Alvin - Bill Finger (the award and the man)

Dear Marc:
Before I allow myself to be interviewed, understand that I knew Bill very well. You will discover this if you go to the second reference in my currently running column which offers a detailed, if relatively short, review and analysis of Bill. It contains about all I can freely tell you, unless you can convince me that you have the skills and capacity of a good biographer and can understand the deeper motivations that made Bill what he was and not merely because it would be timely to write a Finger biography. There are depths to his relationship with Freddie that I know about that go beyond his taking his son to the zoo and other sentimental hogwash like that. Bill was not a good father. He had problems being a grownup himself—expressed in some ways by his never having owned or driven a car and other details. But read my column and you’ll understand my reluctance to discuss Bill with a potential biographer who may not be equipped to do the job. Besides, I don’t think there’s any kind of children’s story in this. Understand—I’m not being grumpy—just protective of a very good friend.

Alvin Schwartz

Somehow I did manage to convince Alvin.

The interview is transcribed (and slightly edited) from a recording, as I did with all the interviews in this series (Jerry Robinson, Shelly Moldoff, Lew Sayre Schwartz, Alvin Schwartz, Joe Kubert, Arnold Drake, Carmine Infantino, Irwin Hasen).

Tell me about Bill and Bob.

I suddenly remembered that I knew Bob Kane way back in elementary school, my first class, 1A. My mother sneaked me in early, I was under six. And there was this tall, handsome kid, who was as dumb as hell, was always occupying the dunce seat, sitting in front of the class on a dunce stool with a dunce cap on his head. His name was Robert Kahn at that time.

And that was in New York?

That was in P.S. 28, in the Bronx, the west Bronx.

I understand that you also went to DeWitt Clinton. Is that right?

I did.

Did you know Bill in high school?

No, I didn’t. I didn’t know him in high school. I was really separated out. I was part of the Clinton News and Magpie, the literary magazine. I don’t think Bill would’ve [been?] there at all. Or had any connection. They were very literarist, T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein and the European literati and the critics.

How would you describe Bill’s personality?

His normal personality was affable. He was pleasant. I would say very positively. There was nothing about his personality that turned people off. People didn’t dislike him for anything that I know about. He was always friendly, helpful, almost too much so. I’d see him angry but he’d tend to get more petulant, like a… He could never really express true anger in a manly way. He seemed very much the exploited kid, exploited by his parents, he never really got over that. And mostly…you know what passive-aggression is? Bill’s withholding, his lateness, to go back to a very discredited Freudian idea, it was a proposed explanation for a certain kind of constipation, for example. His inability to get work out on time, his diddling with it instead of actually sitting down and working with it, his inability to act independently other than in his fantasy life. For example, the fact that he didn’t drive a car. He never had a driver’s license. The only thing that he ever did was play golf.

How did he get there?

I don’t know that story but it wasn’t very hard where we lived. There were links in Van Cortland Park that didn’t cost very much. It wasn’t a fancy club. It didn’t require any membership fees. And Bill, I don’t know how good he was, but he certainly had the body and the shoulders for it.

What did he look like?

I used to say Bill was built like a top. He had very broad shoulders. He was a short man. I’m a short man. He seemed to taper to small feet.

So he was kind of developed?

He seemed kind of developed, yes. But I don’t think he was an exercise nut. The only thing he did was play golf.

Would you describe him as handsome?

No. He wasn’t handsome. He wasn’t unattractive. There was something not male enough about him. I’m not saying he was gay or anything like that. He wasn’t. He was more infantile than anything. Ultimately, I mean his behavior—he didn’t behave in an infantile way normally. He was affable, as I said, he was friendly, he was intelligent in that he had acquired amount of cultivation and interest in the arts. He was a cut above the average comic writer or artist. There were a few exceptions, like Don Cameron.

Did he write from home?

Yes. I suppose at some point everybody at times worked in the office. There were cubbies where we could sit and work when something has to be gotten out quickly. Bill worked at home mostly. So did I. So did most of us. I remember sitting alongside Jerry Siegel one day, in one of the cubby holes. We were each working on a Superman story. It’s funny because I said, “Jerry, how much are you getting for that story?” He said $800, then he said “How much are you getting for yours?” I said $125, which I thought was fair. After all, Jerry had invented the character. Jerry didn’t know that was fair. Jerry thought he should have had everything. Jerry had no idea of the costs of running a business like that, of fighting the mobsters for space on the newsstands, and what that cost, and maintaining bodyguards. In a way, Jerry and Joe were rather childish.

When you were working in these cubbies there, was it desks that were lined up with separation, or was it just desk next to desk?

They were small rooms, well lit, with desks. Just room for two at a time at most. They were small. They were perfectly well adapted to writing and to privacy. And you didn’t have to work there, it was just a convenience.

So they were actual rooms with doors and windows? It wasn’t an open cubby?

It was all glassed in.

The wall was made out of glass?


Did people wear ties to work in those days?

Oh no, anything but. It was very informal there. In fact, in the very early days, you’d see people chasing around the bottle. A lot of them were heavy drinkers. You’d see bottles lying around. People never wore—neckties were almost taboo. This was the very early days, a lot of prosperity, right on top of the Depression. People were having a lot of fun. There was an often lot of drunks around. A lot of the writers couldn’t work unless they were drinking. I’m talking about some of the guys who came in at the end of the war. Some of the earlier ones were pros. Don Cameron was an alcoholic. He didn’t carry a bottle into the office but one day he came in, he tried to push Mort Weisinger out the window, but I guess you know that story.

Actually, I don’t. That would be great for another book. It sounds like a good one.

A whole lot of it’s been told in Alter Ego. I’ve told some. [something unintelligible] Don was a little guy. And I’m small. At that time, I was five six and three quarters, I’m now five two, I had two discs removed. At that time, I towered over Don. Don was an excellent writer.

How tall were you compared to Bill back then?

Bill and I were about the same height. Bill was a short man, maybe he was an inch or so taller than me.

What color hair?

Brownish. Light brown. Blue eyes, I remember. I think they were blue eyes [selective service report from 1940 confirms brown eyes, brown hair, 5’7”]. Now I can’t be sure. These are strange memories. My most painful memory of Bill was the time when he really was out in the doghouse with DC, had no work, and was working out on Long Island for some kind of municipal cataloging place. He was getting very badly paid. He was really at the very bottom at that time. He was broken with Portia. At that time he came to visit me and he brought Freddie. He had to take charge of Freddie ‘cause Portia had to do something. They were separated, but he was still visiting… He didn’t know, we took him out, and he told us this terrible story about his suffering. And you could see it. He was like parchment when you looked at him. It was very sad to see because Bill was very good when he was good. But Bill had that inability to get his work in on time. It was almost as though a Freudian withholding.

Did he talk about his work?

Yes he did.

When he talked about it, was he compelling? Did people listen to him?

No, he talked together with other writers, would get excited. If you read my first column, when Bill and I are plotting a Plastic Man story, that’s the way it worked, with excitement, with all of us, we’re all the same that way. There wasn’t anything different or unusual about the way Bill did it, except in many ways Bill was better at it. Also, Bill had a talent for taking a certain kind of life and doing a real biography of it, like he’d take a fisherman’s life on the east coast and he’d build a story around that, building in the details, lot of good research. It had a realism that was very rich around which the story was woven.

Are you talking about a Batman story, for example?

Yes, Batman stories specifically. All of his stuff is Batman.

Where did he do his research?

That’s kind of hard to know. He’d go to the library. He was not an organized researcher. He was a badly educated man. I don’t know if he got through high school. He was selling shoes. The story is that this idiot and uh, you know, Bob Kane, or Robert Kahn, was absolutely an idiot. He couldn’t talk and worst of all, he couldn’t draw. But what happened was that his father was a lawyer and at the time that DC was negotiating with the syndicate in order to get in there, that was the time old man Kahn or Kane or whatever struck and demanded a contract for Bob. That was how Bob got hold of it and got all his security. But if you ever talked to Bob…they were doing a Batman movie. Bob went out to Hollywood. They figured he’d be good for advice. He had nothing to say. He had no ideas. He never did have an idea. The only exchange that I’ve had with him, and I knew him for a long time, in association with Bill…I remember in the office he came over to me and he said “What’s the idea of putting a stampede in there? You know I can’t draw sheep!” (laughs) Well, they weren’t sheep! He would talk almost in monosyllables. He was really the kid with the dunce cap.

What did Bill think of him?

Bill didn’t express himself that I remember about Bob.

If he was such a smart guy and Bob wasn’t—

You know, Bill was smart and Bob wasn’t, but what their personal relationship was you didn’t see. You only saw it from it from the outside. I never saw Bill alone with Bob. How would you, you know? He never treated him with any contempt or anything. As a matter of fact, the other way around—Bob sort of lorded over Bill because Bob could’ve fired him any time he wanted because of that contract. Bill had no security whatsoever. Now all the editors knew this, and some of them made an effort—like Jack Schiff and
Bernie Breslauer in the old days, and these guys were Marxists. Right-wing Marxists, I call them—they were Stalinists. I don’t know if you know much about the politics of those days and the differences between Trotskyites and Stalinists?

I should but I don’t.

Yeah, you should, but you don’t—well, Jack Schiff and I were good friends, in spite of the fact that he was a Stalinist and I was a Trotskyist. (laughs) Jack had a very human quality. He cared about the writers. He cared about fairness. This is why he got involved in all these things. Basically, he was a do-gooder, he was a very decent man. He was a very competent editor. And when he left he was very bitter too because I saw him afterwards. But everybody who left was bitter. That’s the way it goes in those businesses.

Part 2.


Dan Trudeau said...

Please post as many of these as you can, Marc, as they're always fascinating. With the golden age creators leaving us, I feel like this is our last chance to get a glance into that world.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Dan - more to come! Check back each day this week! Thanks.

odkin said...

You have Scwartz referencing a "Bernie Breswell (sp?)". That would be DC editor Bernie Breslauer.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Ah, thanks Odkin. Change made!

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