Book review: The American Way, by Helene Stapinski and Bonnie Siegler


On Nov. 8, 1938, a Gestapo neighbor stopped Jules Schulback, a young Jewish furrier in Berlin. “A major sweep is coming,” the man warned him. “You have to get out. Right now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Now. Do you understand me?”

Jules understood. He and his wife, Edith, packed three suitcases, piled into their Model A with their young daughter, and fled, headed for Rotterdam and a ship bound for the United States. Not a moment too soon. The next day, Nov. 9, 1938, was Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” when Nazis launched a coordinated wave of assaults against Jews, attacking and killing them and destroying homes, businesses and synagogues.

The Schulbacks’ 11th-hour escape is just one of many life-changing anecdotes in a new book by Jules’s granddaughter Bonnie Siegler and co-author Helene Stapinksi. “The American Way” uses Jules’s story as its narrative through line, but this isn’t a one-man show. It’s a fast-moving American epic with a cast of refugees and starlets, publishers and bootleggers, comic-book creators and sports legends. As it follows them before, during, and after World War II, the story leaps newsreel-style from Berlin to New York to Hollywood to Ohio to Paris and back to New York.

Family and period photos help bring the large cast to life. There’s a dapper Jules, earlier in 1938, posing aboard the Queen Mary with a life preserver around his neck, on his way to America to find a sponsor for the paperwork he will need to bring his family to safety. There’s his fellow Berliner Billy Wilder in 1926, getting his start as a scrappy newspaper reporter before emigrating to reinvent himself as one of Hollywood’s great directors. There’s Superman creator Jerry Siegel, nerdy teenage son of a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, too busy dreaming up superheroes with his artist friend Joe Shuster to bother with homework. Jerry, Joe, and Jules never met in person, but they shared an unlikely connection whose influence changed their lives.

Harry Donenfeld was “a small guy with a big mouth and boundless energy,” who’d grown up poor on the Lower East Side after he and his family escaped antisemitism in Romania at the turn of the century. Harry pursed an entrepreneurial, sometimes shady version of the American Dream, building an empire on whatever he could distribute at a profit — bootlegged liquor, pulp-fiction rags, girlie magazines known as “smooshes.” Hot stuff — and it sold. Harry didn’t always stay on the right side of the law, but he looked out for his friends and neighbors. He had a soft spot for Jules’s cousin Faye Sternberg, a former neighbor in the Bronx. Faye persuaded Harry to sponsor Jules and his family, sight unseen — another lucky twist of fate.

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A financial Superman, Harry saved the day for the Schulbacks, but people he did business with discovered that his version of “the American way” meant that doing just about anything for a buck. It took Jerry and Joe five years to find a home for the Man of Steel; they were thrilled when they sold a 13-page Superman story to Action Comics, one of Harry’s enterprises, for $130. Their contract included signing away the rights, a misstep they’d regret for the rest of their lives.

In Jerry and Joe’s comic-book universe, Superman (another immigrant finding his way in America) brought Nazis and fascists to their knees. But he couldn’t save the real-life victims of the Nazis’ genocidal antisemitism. Millions died; each of them had a story. “The American Way” never forgets that.

Before they fled in 1938, Jules and Edith made a last-ditch effort to convince Edith’s parents, Albert and Martha Friedmann, to come with them. “How can I just up and leave?” Albert said, unable to believe the worst. He and Martha were murdered by the Nazis three years later. Edith’s sister, Ushi, spent the war in Berlin, one of about 7,000 Jews in hiding there; 1,500 survived. Ushi made it to New York in September 1945, wearing a winter suit in a heat wave. Jules and Edith met her at the dock. It was a rocky reunion. “She took the flowers from Edith, then slapped her across the face and said, ‘How dare you leave me behind!’”

In some cases, it took years for the Schulbacks to learn the fates of their loved ones. In the meantime, they found their way in their new country.

Late one night in September 1954, Jules was in their Upper East Side apartment, home movie camera in hand, headed for a rendezvous with an American icon. He’d been tipped off that Marilyn Monroe was in town to make “The Seven Year Itch.” That night, she’d be filming a scene downtown. Yes, that scene, where she’s perched atop a subway grate, her white dress billowing up around her.

From five feet away, Jules captured it all in living color, the ugly as well as the beautiful: the former Norma Jeane Dougherty, reinvented as “the American Dream in flesh and blood,” surrounded by a crowd of leering men. Director Billy Wilder — fellow Berliner and Jewish refugee — wandered past in a winter coat and fedora. Off-screen, at the edge of the crowd, baseball legend and Superman superfan Joe DiMaggio, then Monroe’s husband, raged at the spectacle of his wife on display.

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Later, DiMaggio would take that rage out on her in their hotel room; a week later, she would file for divorce. (Stapinski and Siegler can’t resist a juicy story, even a tangential one, which makes the book feel disjointed at times, if never dull.) But in Jules’s footage, found after his death in 2004, the actress exists only in the moment. “Marilyn yawns. Marilyn smiles. Marilyn glows,” Stapinski and Siegler write. “Her skin is just like Billy Wilder described it decades ago, flesh that photographs like flesh. You feel you can reach out and touch it. Hold it. Squeeze it.”

Monroe worked miracles on-screen. It’s a uniquely American miracle, born of luck, grit, opportunity and coincidence, that Jules Schulback survived to witness for himself.

Jennifer Howard is the author of “Clutter: An Untidy History.”

A True Story of Nazi Escape, Superman, and Marilyn Monroe

By Helene Stapinski and Bonnie Siegler

Simon & Schuster. 366 pp. $28.99

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