Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Bill the boy neighbor

Recently I heard from a man named Robert vanMaanen, who lived in the same building as Bill Finger in the early 1970s, when Robert was a boy. This was the building in which Bill died.

Bill and young Robert became friends. It’s somehow poetic that Bill had a positive experience with a Bob at the end of his life considering how an earlier experience with a Bob was quite the opposite.

An interview with Robert:

How did you know Bill Finger?

I grew up in Manhattan. My father was a building superintendent at the building where we lived, 340 E. 51st Street (the Allen House). I was in 6th grade (1973).

Robert is the boy in the tie in the front row.

 Robert in his fathers office in the basement
of the Allen House

I was into comics, and I loved the Batman show. My father found out that Bill was the original writer of the Batman comics, so he introduced me to him.

How often did you see him?

I would see him in the lobby on occasion, probably met with him about six or seven times (sit-downs).

How would you see him? Did he come over? Did you go to his apartment?

I always went up to his apartment.

Did he socialize/interact with your parents?

He did talk to my father, but not my mother. First time I met him, my father went with me. And then I went either alone or with friends who were comic fans.

What was your impression of him?

He seemed like a nice man. He had lots of stories to tell. It was a long time ago (40+ years). But he left an impression on me and my love of comics (especially Batman) grew.

How was his attitude when discussing his Batman work?

He was proud of his contribution in creating Batman. It was almost as if he was talking about his son. He would tell me about his research he would do for his stories. He would explain that you just can’t write about something without knowing about the subject. Looking back on the things I have read about him as an adult, I see why he would have trouble with deadlines.

Why do you think he was so nice to you?

I think he saw in me a person who was touched by a character he co-created. A fan.

What do you remember about his apartment?

I think it was a one-bedroom, living room/dining room combo. We would sit at the dining room table and talk. The wall that was towards the front door had a china closet. Dining room had an oval table, I think four chairs. One of the chairs had a huge pile of papers/comics/research notes on it. In the china closet left lower door, he had more papers and notes. There was a small TV cart (on wheels). The TV was always on when I was there.

What memorabilia did he have?

He showed my some copies of comics he had. I asked him about Detective Comics #27. He told me that a few years back, National Publications had asked him to auction off his last file copy (I believe for charity). He had all sorts of notes for stories he had written. I remember a paper with clocks and watches with cutaways. He found a Batman and Robin sketch signed by Bob Kane which he gave to me. He inscribed my Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder From the 30’s to the 70’s [sic] “To Robert, more than a fan—a friend, Bill Finger.”

Unfortunately both the items I had from him were stolen years ago. But when I saw the only known copy of his handwriting, I immediately recognized his writing style. I wish Bill would have signed the Batman sketch; I’m sure someone out there still has it. He also had a script of The Green Slime on his TV stand. There were other papers and magazines under it (not sure what they were).

How were those items stolen?

After we moved from the city to Staten Island, we lived on Howard Avenue and there was a building fire. We had mostly water damage. But the building was not habitable. We temporarily moved into a building that my father was building manager of. It was a smaller apartment, so some of our stuff went into storage. Most of the stolen stuff was collectibles and comics.

So the items were stolen out of the house or out of storage?

Out of storage, probably winter of 1979.

Do you remember hearing that he died (January 1974)? How? What was your reaction?

I was sad. I never got to say goodbye. I did not tell Athena or Travis this, but my father Jack (Jelke) vanMaanen is the person who found Bill dead. There was a complaint of a smell on his floor and people had not seen him. Being the super, my father went into his apartment and found him. I know his son came and took what he wanted from the apartment. But there was no memorabilia left. Just furniture. 

If the experience changed your life in any way, how?

It did change me. I became a bigger comics fan because of it. Through the years, there would be small snippets of info about Bill. I always remembered the stories, the passion he had for his part in the creation of Batman plus all the characters; even if he wasn’t officially recognized, it was fine just knowing in his head what the truth was. Looking back now (as an adult), the most amazing thing: he was never bitter. He never had a bad thing to say about National Periodicals or Bob Kane. I always corrected people when talking about who was (in my opinion) the creator of Batman.

Do you remember anyone else in the building Bill would hang out with?

No one else in the building that I know of. I know he was friendly with one of the doormen, Eddie.

Are you still in touch with any of your friends who came with you to Bill’s apartment, and if so, could I reach out to them, too?

Two friends came with me to visit him. I’m in touch with one of them, George Pappas. He remembered meeting Bill, but thought it was Bob Kane (being it was so long ago and Bob’s name is always associated with Batman). The other friend I lost track of, Tom Ward (two kids to the right of Miss Weissman, in a pink shirt and red pants). He had the same book as me signed by Bill, different inscription. He may have only known handwriting of Bill.

Do you have any photos of Bill or his apartment?

Unfortunately, I do not.

What are you doing these days?

I work at New York University’s Co-Gen Power Plant (32 years).

Where do you live?

I live on Staten Island in Eltingville since 1976. I’ve lived in New York City all my life.

Anything you’d like to add?

I’m glad that Bill is finally got recognized for all the work he had done in comics. I’ve been telling people the truth for years. I wish I had heard about you when you were doing your research on your book. I may have been able to help you with some leads. There is probably not much I can tell you at this point. You did a fantastic job on your research.

I know Bill would be proud to see his name associated with Batman and the many other characters he helped create.

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