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.