TCJ ARCHIVE

Jerry Robinson: Been There, Done That

Siegel and Shuster

GROTH: I’d like you to talk about your involvement in the public advocacy for Siegel and Shuster in the mid ’70s. My understanding is that it started when Siegel wrote, in 1975, an open letter to the media, which was disseminated all over the media, and that the first that you heard about this was when you actually saw Jerry Siegel on a TV talk show, talking about DC’s treatment of him and Shuster. Is that true?

ROBINSON: As I recall, that’s true, but my impetus came when I saw them on The Tomorrow Show. I was working late on deadlines and I think that Bob Forgione or one of the fellows who worked for me at the time was there. The TV was always on or the radio while we worked. I just heard the name Jerry Siegel. I looked up, and there he was. That was the first time I learned about it. As I recall, he was in the audience and got up and spoke. He told about his plight and it was a complete shock. I thought sure that they … It was at least understood by a lot of us that a settlement had been made and they were getting some sort of a pension or annuity, because I had been in touch with them some time before where it looked like things were going well. I knew them well, of course, from way back when; they lived in New York. In the very bad times, we had helped them out. You asked about the Milt Gross fund. That was one thing we did. We had helped out Jerry and Joe from that.

GROTH: Earlier?

ROBINSON: Yes. Oh, yeah. Before this.

GROTH: You know, in most accounts of this particular incident, Neal Adams is front and center as the advocate for Siegel and Schuster and I wasn’t really aware of the extent of your involvement. Can you tell me how you got involved and how you hooked up with Neal?

ROBINSON: Well, right after I heard that on the television, immediately afterwards, I contacted Jerry to find out the details and ask what I could do. So he briefed me on all of the circumstances, and I felt that that was something our society should take a lead in. As past president, I had access to the current board and the current president, a good friend named Bill Gallo. I knew most of the current board. What year was that? That was some years after… I served as president, I think, in ’69.

GROTH: You were president from ’67 to ’69.

ROBINSON: ‘67 to ’69. So this was what year?

GROTH: ‘75.

ROBINSON: So some years after I was president, but I knew most of the current board. Shortly afterwards, I guess it must have been Jerry who told me that he got a call from Neal Adams, who was also very upset about what had happened to them. I didn’t know Neal at that time. I was out of the comic books for some time. Maybe I knew of him. I’m not sure … he gave me Neal’s number. I immediately called Neal, because I thought that we could work together. At that time, Neal was very active at that time … there was a comic book organization.

GROTH: It was called ACBA, the Academy of Comic Book Arts …

ROBINSON: So I went to the National Cartoonist Society, And Neal and I discussed what to do. My own thought was to rally as much of the arts community as possible, so I went to the magazine guild. Of course, I also served as president of the editorial cartoonists, so I immediately called that board and I wrote out some sort of a statement that all of the different art organizations could support, or hopefully would support. With the editorial cartoonists, they never meet together really, only once a year at the annual meetings. It’s like a floating crap game with the editorial cartoonists.

So I called the board and I knew the current president, a successor of mine. And he polled the board. I read him the statement that I still have somewhere in at my files. They passed it unanimously. Then they scheduled a meeting of the National Cartoonist Society (NCS) and we invited Jerry and Joe and Neal to meet with the board of the National Cartoonist Society, and they also passed my resolution immediately. I remember that same day, morning, perhaps of our NCS meeting, if I recall — anyway, the Magazine Cartoonists, made up of New Yorker cartoonists and the freelance gag cartoonists and so forth, had their annual meeting. I knew the director, Ron Wolin, and I called Ron up and told him what the mission was and if I could appear before their membership. I remember racing from one meeting to the other. They graciously gave me the floor to tell the story of the Siegel and Schuster tragedy. And I read them the resolution and since it was the annual meeting they could take action there. I remember that the whole hall was full. Oh, they were so supportive. They immediately affixed their name to the statement unanimously. That kicked us off. Subsequently I called the artists guild and the screenwriters guild, whoever … the writer’s guild. Through NCS, Bill Gallo held a press conference that we all attended to get press support. I got statements from as many “names” as I could, like Jules, who was a great supporter and Will and others. I had a casual meeting with Kurt Vonnegut the years I was up at Cape Cod. I called him and at least got his name in support — and others in the field, like Lee Falk and so forth. Then we tried to get as much press coverage as possible. To our artists abroad, I sent statements to Mexico City and to London to get press there, which they did. And I think France — the major ones I had time to do.

GROTH: Were you and Neal working on two tracks or were you working together? Were you coordinating together?

ROBINSON: Well, we’d confer, but I think we each worked our own thing, because he had more contacts in the comic-book field, and then I had them in the editorial and the comic strip. Because of the syndicate, I guess I had more contacts there. But when we opened negotiations with Time-Warner, we worked together.

GROTH: Were you asking Warner for anything in particular at this point?

ROBINSON: No. We hadn’t opened negotiations. The strategy was to put enough pressure on DC, or really Time-Warner who owned it then. They were more susceptible to adverse publicity, because the first Superman movie was in the works at the time. So we knew that they didn’t want any bad press about that. That was the big leverage for us.

GROTH: So, at one point, did they agree to work with you or someone?

ROBINSON: Well, I think within a couple of weeks they agreed to talk to us.

GROTH: And did you do most of the talking to Time-Warner, or …?

ROBINSON: No. We both met together at the meetings.

GROTH: You and Neal?

ROBINSON: Yeah. Neal did a lot of the talking. He was very good at that. But I remember I called … Jules Feiffer was one of those that I conferred with and we needed a lawyer for some legal advice on certain points. We weren’t qualified for that. And Jules recommended his lawyer, who I went to see, and he was good enough on a pro bono basis to come in and he sat in on some of the sessions.

GROTH: With whom were you talking at Time-Warner?

ROBINSON: That was mostly with Jay Emmett, who was VP. I think he was the most reasonable and approachable on this. Although I think, in retrospect, we might have done much better. I realize the power we had collectively with our organizations and bringing pressure on them. But as far as we could see, [Siegel and Shuster] were in such a bad state that we were really afraid to push too far and to have them walk away, which they could have done. They could have said, “To hell with them, we’ll fight this out in the courts and we’ll weather the bad publicity and what can they do?” You know, it could have worked both ways. Or they could say, “Well, it’s worth it in the long run for us to settle.” It’s not going to be the millions that it should have been, but you don’t know.

An example of that, the last night — what proved to be the last night before we finalized the agreement — we still had a lot of issues that I was mostly concerned with, Siegel and Shuster and others still hadn’t been settled or agreed to, one of which was restoring their names to the property, that it was created by them. I was very upset about that. I knew that no matter what the money amount was in the settlement, the lawyers fees and health care and annuity and all of that — which was essential — if they didn’t have the credits, they would not have their self-respect as creators. You know, they had lost their humanity. Jerry would get physically ill walking by a stand selling Superman, his creation, which didn’t have his name on it, you know, or seeing the Broadway Superman show and so forth. That was one thing that I was very concerned with. Just to illustrate the narrow line we had to walk, as I said, Jerry and Joe flew back to the coast so Neal and I were here alone during these negotiations. Jerry said he couldn’t stand the stress every day. We would confer to him every day and tell him what happened at the negotiations and what we got and didn’t get and so forth.

Well, the last night before the settlement, Jerry called me and said, “Look, Jerry, settle tomorrow. I can’t stand the tension, the stress.” It was awful for him, day to day. He previously had a heart attack. He said, “I could keel over tomorrow and we won’t get any settlement. I’m concerned about leaving my wife and daughter (and his daughter was very young then) some security. Do the best you can, get the best you can but it’s better that I get what I can while I’m alive. It’s not going to do any good if I pop off.” So those were my instructions, to settle the next day.

So I immediately called Neal, and it turned out Neal had a prior engagement in Florida. I think he was making a personal appearance at a comic-con or something. I don’t recall now. I couldn’t reach him until the next morning. In any event, I decided to call … Jay Emmett had given me his home phone number at one time during negotiations in case I needed to reach him after negotiation sessions, which I had never used. So I figured, if I’m going to settle the next day, I’ll make one more stab. This was already quite late in the evening. So just on the last ditch effort, I called Jay at his home. Luckily, he was in. I made a last pitch. In effect, I said, “Look, Jay. Just a couple of things that separate us now for a settlement and maybe we can put it together if we both make some compromises on this.” I had to take a strong stand on this as if we were going to continue the negotiations, but knowing at the same time that I couldn’t, but I couldn’t let him know that or I would have lost my leverage. So I said, “Time Warner depends on a lot of talent in all kinds of fields, from authors to directors to actors to writers.” They’re a multi-media company. That gave me a lot of good leverage. I said, “This is not going to be well-received anywhere down the line that you left these people in such a plight, particularly the writers and directors who jealously guard every credit on a film, you know what that is.” I knew that the arts community would be outraged. Because Shakespeare is out of copyright, you don’t take Shakespeare’s name off of Hamlet. Because Arthur Conan Doyle is out of copyright, you don’t take his name off of Sherlock Holmes. It’s created by Arthur Conan Doyle. That’s forever. And that’s the way it should be with this, irrespective of their rights. So I knew that they were very concerned about that if they put their name on it they would somewhow be giving them more leverage or more rights.

GROTH: That’s right.

ROBINSON: So I said, “But you could work that out. So that’s what we need.”

He said, “Let me think about it.” This is like eleven o’clock at night. He said, “I’ll call you back.” I knew he had to call his lawyers. I impressed him that this was a chance. Breaking the impasse and settle it and to get a good press.

So he called me back in about an hour, it was like midnight or more, and he said, “OK, I discussed it with my lawyers.” Then we’d also discussed some other things, like more money up front, some more money to cover their legal fees, travel expenses … and those were the minor things, really. I knew $20,000 or $25,000 was not going to break Time Warner. They’re going to accept that. It was the other thing that was crucial. So he came back and he said, “O.K., we’ll restore the name but we can’t put it on … products, on licensed toys and things. And we can’t put it on the film.”

So I said, “No.”

GROTH: So he did not want to put their names on the film.

ROBINSON: Right, as well as franchise toys and things. And so again he said, “I’ll get back to you,” and had to talk to his lawyer again. Oh, he didn’t say that, but I knew that was it. He said “I’ll call you back.” So then, it’s like 1:00 or later in the morning, and he calls me back and says, “OK, I’ll give you the print books, the magazines. But not the toys, because that involves a lot of contracts with the licensees and so forth, and not the film, because that’s already been shot, the credits are screened and all that.”

Well, we had one big thing in the pocket, which was the books, all-Superman books, “created by.” So, I said, “Well, look, I’ll give you the toys” — I think that was the least important thing. There’s a lot of stuff you can’t imprint “created by” on — a little statue figure or something. Might be on the box. But that was the least. But I said, “No, it’s got to be on the film.”

He said, “Well, it’s already been shot.”

So I said [laughs], “Look, I’ve done films, you’re dealing with a professional. You can easily do the credits, whether it’s shot or not. You just shoot another still for the credit thing. So that’s a must, it’s got to be in the film.” I was being a little risky there, bold, but I thought it was something they could do as long as they went to do the books. And I thought the film would be very important personally to both Jerry and Joe, and would make a big splash. So, again, he had to go back, and finally he comes on and says, “OK, you’ve got a deal.”

So that’s how it occurred. I immediately called Neal, I don’t know whether it was late at night, I don’t know if I reached him that night or early in the morning. But I remember getting him on the phone, so I was able to tell Neal about that last breakthrough.

So of course, we were celebrating, and made arrangements to meet the last negotiating session, and Jerry and Joe came flew in for the signing. So it was finally concluded, and of course Jerry and Joe were grateful to both Neal and myself, they never stopped thanking us all these years until they passed on.

GROTH: Do you remember how many meetings you actually had to have, with Emmett?

ROBINSON: As I recall, it went most of the week, every day.

GROTH: Every day?

ROBINSON: Yeah.

GROTH: And you and Neal were both at the meetings?

ROBINSON: Oh yeah.

GROTH: What was Neal’s negotiating technique like in the meetings? Or maybe you can tell me what the dynamic between the two of you was like.

ROBINSON: Well, we passed things back and forth. A lot of the time, Jay Emmett wasn’t there. Neal took the phone, and talked to him and relayed the content. I guess they didn’t have conference phones in those days, which would have been much simpler. Because our lawyer was joining us, and their lawyers, so we had to wait to hear both ends. It was cumbersome in that sense.

GROTH: Well, why did you have to call him on the phone?

ROBINSON: Jay was apparently out of town that week. He was the only one who wasn’t there. A lot of the occasions he wasn’t there, we had to do it by phone.

GROTH: What is Neal like as a negotiator?

ROBINSON: Well, I think he was good.

GROTH: Did he have any particular technique you remember?

ROBINSON: No, not really. Most of the time, it was a question of getting what we could without running the danger of breaking off negotiations, you know, feeling our way. We could sense right away that they were amenable in certain respects and not others, and I think the danger point was always what I had always assumed, they were worried about the rights, and carving out any additional claim of copyright for them. I think that’s what their hesitancy was during my last conversation with Everett.

The other thing that happened — I think it’s worth telling — right after the signing, I’m leaving the Time Warner offices. There was a terrific downpour, and I couldn’t get a cab. When I finally got one I noticed this woman also looking for a cab a little further up. And I recognized her, it was Anne Jackson, who’s the wife of Eli Wallach. She’s an actor also. And they live right near me. So I called, “Anne, come on, I’ll drop you off.” Literally, a few blocks away. So of course she joined me, we’re both drenched, it was really a hard downpour. And I was still flushed with, what I assumed victory for us, and so I proceeded to tell her on the way up about the sad tragedy of Siegel and Shuster, creators of Superman, who were penniless and all that they went through.

And she said, “Oh, that is terrible. Well, tell me what we can do, what Eli and I can do to help.”

So I said, “Anne, I’m so excited because we just signed the agreement, so I appreciate your offer to help, but we just settled it.” But I said, “We’re having a party at my apartment tonight to celebrate, why don’t you come?” And she said, “Oh, no, we can’t come, we didn’t do anything.” And I said, “Well, you just offered to, you would have.” [Groth laughs.] So that’s how Anne and Eli came to the party. So that night, Jerry and Joe were here, oh, I think I invited all those that could make it who helped that we could round up on short notice.

GROTH: Now who all was that?

ROBINSON: Well, if I recall, that was Will Eisner, and Joe Shuster, Sam Gross, the New Yorker cartoonist, who I think was on the board of the New Yorker magazine cartoonists when they passed the resolution. Gee, I don’t remember them all specifically. But we had a big roomful. We called everyone who could make it.

The other thing that happened, we alerted CBS alerted about the negotiations, and we promised Walter Cronkite that we would give him the breaking story if we settled. So, we called Cronkite’s office, told him about the settlement. And so that night at the party, I think he went on at 6:00 or 6:30, and we’re all gathered around the TV set. We had champagne bottles and glasses ready for a toast. Cronkite comes on, and we go through the whole program on pins and needles and he doesn’t mention it. Finally, before the sign off, he tells the story about the settlement. And he ends up with “Finally, truth and justice and the American way won out!” With a shot of the animated Superman flying in the sky. So all the glasses were filled with champagne and we all toasted. I’ll tell you, it was a very moving moment. There wasn’t a dry eye there, particularly with Siegel and Shuster. They were with us. I’ll never forget.

And the New York Times must have heard about it. They had a reporter there and they ran an article on the settlement in the morning with a picture from the party, showing, I think, Joe and a few others.

GROTH: Siegel and Shuster got $20,000 each per year. Now, that wasn’t a tremendous amount of money even back then.

ROBINSON: No. It wasn’t. I mean, it was not bad back then, but it wasn’t great. Not near enough. We really didn’t do as good as we … I think in hindsight, we had more leverage to have gotten more. A lot more.

GROTH: But clearly you thought that was the best you could do at the time?

ROBINSON: We thought. Well, first of all, at the end, Jerry ordered me not to negotiate any further, so I couldn’t. In fact, I was really sweating out the next day getting the things that we did that night, for fear that they would call it off, I never knew what they were going to consider past the line. In hindsight, I think yes, we could have. I’ve always regretted that.

GROTH: Were you tempted to give Jerry a lecture and tell him he’s got to tough it out a few more days?

ROBINSON: Yeah. I knew he was at the end of his tether. I mean, I was literally afraid that he wouldn’t last that week; he was in very bad shape.

GROTH: You know, there was a story that was profoundly moving, about Shuster being a messenger boy at the age of 50 or something, and going up to the DC offices, and I wanted to know if that was literally a true story, or if it was slightly apocryphal.

ROBINSON: No I think it was true. I remember Joe telling me that. Whether he exaggerated it or not, I don’t know. And I doubt it. He was a very … he wasn’t the type to have made that up.

GROTH: I wanted to see if I could nail you down because I’ve read three different versions of that story. Two of them by you. [Laughs.]

ROBINSON: Oh, really?

GROTH: And then a third by someone else who …

ROBINSON: So I did tell that before.

GROTH: Well, you’ve told it two different ways.

ROBINSON: OK. You tell me and I’ll tell you. Sometimes it loses in translation, you know? And I know just as I read your interviews, accurate as you were, you know, just on the phone, you didn’t get a name straight or something like that, it could happen.

GROTH: Right. Well, you told one version at a symposium with the American College Art Conference at the University of Nebraska, but it doesn’t have a date. But you said that …

ROBINSON: Where was that published?

GROTH: This is actually published in The Comics Journal.

ROBINSON: When was that?

GROTH: This was published in Joe Shuster’s obituary in 1992.

ROBINSON: I see.

GROTH: You said, “Joe had a job as a messenger boy in New York, and as fate would have it, was given a package to deliver to the same building where the Superman empire was located. Wandering around the halls, he was straining his weak eyes to find the company that was to receive the package when one of the employees at DC Comics saw him. The employee ran to his boss and said, ‘My God, you know who’s wandering around the halls? Joe Shuster.’

The next morning Joe received a call from the CEO, telling him to ‘come to my office right away.’ Joe rushed in, thinking finally, something was going to be done. Instead, the exec scolded him for embarrassing the company by wandering around the halls in rags. He fished a hundred dollars out of his pocket, gave it to Joe, and said ‘At least buy an overcoat. And get a new job; we don’t want you hanging around 
the building.’”

Now in another interview, you said, “It was winter and bitterly cold outside and Joe wasn’t wearing a coat. He didn’t own a winter coat. Joe was near an elevator when he encountered DC publisher Harry Donnenfeld. Donnenfeld says, “Joe, what are you doing here?” Joe said, “I’m delivering a package.” Donnenfeld says, “It’s cold out there. Why aren’t you wearing a coat?” Joe said, “I don’t have a coat.” Donnenfeld said “Here’s ten dollars, go out and buy yourself a coat.” And gets into in the elevator and leaves.

ROBINSON: Well, as I recall now, I think the last one was more accurate. I don’t think they called him the next day, that might have gotten changed in translation. But my recollection now was more the latter [version], although that could vary in little details, in the sense that he was delivering a package, it was at 480 Lexington, and may or may not have been to DC itself. It might have been in the same building. The other part of it sounds right, that Joe was probably trying to find the company or who it was to be delivered to, and I think that’s when Donnenfeld spotted him there.

GROTH: And you got that story from Joe.

ROBINSON: Yes. He might have told me the other version too, but I don’t remember that. That they called him and told him to come in and then gave him the money. That doesn’t sound as likely it happened.

GROTH: It doesn’t, no. Now, the third version I read had Liebowitz as the one giving him some money, and on top of everything else, told him to quit his job as a messenger, which he did.

ROBINSON: Whose version was that?

GROTH: It was printed in the Village Voice. It was a story about the fight to regain their credits. And it was written by a comic-book writer by the name of Eliot S. Maggin.

ROBINSON: I don’t know him.

GROTH: But you’re almost entirely excluded from this version of the story [laughs].

ROBINSON: Well, I was apparently never interviewed by him.

GROTH: No.

ROBINSON: Well, I think in the comic-book business, it was a big story. And at that point, I wasn’t as well-known, you know, I’d left comic books 20 or more years before. And Neal was very important because he was a big star in comic books at the time.

GROTH: Yes.

ROBINSON: And that was important for us. We made a good team in that respect, we complemented each other in the areas that we were strong in. Neal was very good. He’s authoritative and comes out strong, you know; we needed that.

GROTH: He’s an outspoken advocate.

ROBINSON: Yeah.

(Continued)

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