The Amer­i­can Way: A True Sto­ry of Nazi Escape, Super­man, and Mar­i­lyn Monroe

  • Review
By – February 13, 2023

His­tor­i­cal events become more vivid when seen through the eyes of those who lived them, and that’s cer­tain­ly true in The Amer­i­can Way. It’s the sto­ry of Jews who left Europe and pros­pered in Amer­i­ca in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, a few of whom hap­pened to cross paths with icons of pop­u­lar culture.

It begins in Berlin dur­ing the Weimar years with a young cou­ple, Jules and Edith Schul­bach. They worked togeth­er in their fur and tai­lor­ing busi­ness in Berlin, and, after the rise of the Nazis, they start­ed over again in New York in the same trade. A very dif­fer­ent per­son pro­vides a kind of coun­ter­point: Har­ry Donen­feld, a Roman­ian-born Jew who grew up on the Low­er East Side of Man­hat­tan. A gang mem­ber since he was a boy, he traf­ficked in boot­leg liquor dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion and lat­er pub­lished and dis­trib­uted cheap, sen­sa­tion­al­ist magazines.

Jules and Edith Schul­bach were known as mod­el cit­i­zens, gen­er­ous to Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions and always prop­er in pub­lic. Jules was also a devot­ed ama­teur film­mak­er, and one day in 1954, he decid­ed to ful­fill a dream. He went to film Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe as she per­formed a scene for the movie The Sev­en Year Itch out­doors in New York City. Jules cap­tured the icon­ic moment when Monroe’s dress is blown upward by a gust of air from a sub­way grate. It became the only col­or film to doc­u­ment the event, since the scene used in the movie was reshot in Hollywood.

Har­ry Donen­feld also had an unlike­ly encounter with a cul­tur­al icon: Super­man. His pub­lish­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion busi­ness need­ed new mate­r­i­al — prefer­ably some­thing whole­some, to avoid pos­si­ble charges for dis­trib­ut­ing obscene mate­r­i­al in his pulp mag­a­zines. A car­toon series writ­ten by two teenagers from Cleve­land, Jer­ry Siegel and Joe Shus­ter, crossed his desk, and Super­man began to appear in Action Comics in 1938. True to char­ac­ter, Donen­feld method­i­cal­ly avoid­ed pay­ing them, and tried to steal the rights to their spin­off char­ac­ter, Super­boy. He allowed Siegel and Schus­ter to fall into pover­ty while exploit­ing the endur­ing char­ac­ter they created.

Helene Stap­in­s­ki and Bon­nie Siegler write in a com­pelling, con­ver­sa­tion­al tone about peo­ple who had escaped some­thing, wear­ing a mask to sur­vive,” and, like Super­man, lived an alter­nate iden­ti­ty using the pow­ers that they, and only they, pos­sessed.” Their account of the Schul­bachs’ mar­riage is par­tic­u­lar­ly touch­ing. How­ev­er, the lengthy chap­ters about Bil­ly Wilder, Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, New York crime boss­es, con­cen­tra­tion camps, and the attack on comics in the 1950s offer lit­tle that is new. Over­all, though, it’s an enjoy­able vis­it to a van­ished era.

Discussion Questions