Editor’s Note: Roy Schwartz is a pop culture historian and critic. He is the author of “Is Superman Circumcised?: The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero.” Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and at royschwartz.com. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
“We grew up on stories of our mom dating the real Clark Kent,” Dustin Neumark, 78, a retired lawyer from Highland Park, Illinois told me. “And she did look like Lois Lane,” his brother Neil, 75, also a retired lawyer, added.
Their mother, Helen Louise Cohen, was a pretty, lively teenager with brown hair when she met Joe Shuster, co-creator of Superman. He sent her love letters with illustrations, and in one it’s hard to tell if the drawing is of her or Lois Lane.
Cohen passed away at age 96 in 2018. She left behind four letters and nine illustrations, which her children have shared with me. They believe several others were given away or stolen in their mom’s later years, when she was suffering from dementia and people came and went from her house. Neil remembered at least one full-figure drawing of Superman.
What survived are two sketches of Superman from the waist up, one in his signature akimbo pose, one of either Cohen or Lois (they even had a similar hairstyle) and one clearly of Cohen herself. The rest are of cute little things like teddy bears.
These drawings have been in the family’s possession for over 80 years. They’re considered treasured family heirlooms, but Cohen’s children told me it never occurred to them they’d be of interest to anyone else. After attending one of my lectures on Superman, Dustin and Neil decided to share them publicly for the first time.
Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s revolutionary idea
Helen was born on November 5, 1921, to a Jewish family in Oklahoma. They moved to Cleveland when she was in high school. She’d jokingly call herself “the Okie from Muskogee.”
Shuster was born Joseph Michael Shuster in 1914 in Toronto to Jewish immigrants from Europe, originally Shusterowich. In 1924, the family moved to the United States and settled in Glenville, a working-class neighborhood of Cleveland.
In 1934, at the age of 18, Shuster and classmate Jerome Siegel came up with a revolutionary idea: Superman. He was the first superhero, a concept so unprecedented that, as Siegel detailed in his unpublished memoir, every newspaper syndicate in the US rejected it for being too fantastic for children to relate to.
Four years later, the two finally sold it to DC Comics, and Superman made his debut in June 1938. They sold the first story for $130 (about $2,700 in today’s dollars) and, famously, with it signed over ownership of the character.
Shuster based much of Superman’s physicality on Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the lead action hero of silent movies. For Clark Kent, he borrowed a little from comedy star Harold Lloyd but mostly based the character on himself. In a 1983 interview in “Nemo: The Classic Comics Library #2,” Shuster described himself as “mild-mannered, wore glasses, was very shy with women.”
“So in the artwork, he was able to translate it,” Siegel said in the same interview. “He wasn’t just drawing it, he was feeling it.”
Clark Kent was their reality, while Superman was their wish fulfillment. Kent, after all, can change anytime he wants into the world’s most powerful man. The smart and beautiful Lois Lane may sneer at mousy co-worker Kent, but she swoons over Superman, clueless that they’re one and the same.
A Superman co-creator’s sweetheart
The story her sons remember is that their mother met Shuster in 1938 when she was a teenager and he was in his early 20s. How the two met remains somewhat unclear. Most likely, according to the brothers, Cohen met Shuster’s father at Mount Sinai Hospital, where she volunteered and he was an elevator operator, and he offered to introduce her to his son. It’s also possible that their fathers knew each other and played matchmakers. They might also have met somewhere along Euclid Avenue, where the Cohens owned a coin and stamp store, still in the family’s ownership, and Shuster rented his art studio.
Whatever the case, Shuster was smitten enough to write her love letters while they were both still living at home. The letters are excited and earnest, romantic, sometimes flirtatious. Their tone indicates a relationship still in its early stages but past casual, and serious enough that Shuster knew her family and regularly sent his regards.
He moved to New York sometime between June and October 1939, writing to her. She started college that September, attending Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve) in Cleveland.
By this point Superman was a bona fide hit. “Superman” #1 debuted in May 1939, eventually selling 1.3 million copies monthly. A nationally syndicated newspaper strip began in January 1939 and a Sunday strip was added that November, soon appearing in 230 newspapers. In September 1939, Time magazine noted Superman was “rapidly becoming the No. 1 juvenile vogue in the U.S.”
“I’ve been living, thinking, breathing SUPERMAN until it is almost a part of me!” Shuster wrote to Helen on Nov. 5, 1939, the day the Sunday page started. “After all these years,” he followed on Nov. 26, “success has finally come our way.”
Shuster was doing very well. Accounts vary, but he and Siegel were making between $38,000 and $75,000 a year ($780,000 and $1.6 million adjusted), more than Depression-era young men with a high school education dared dream of then. Shuster didn’t mention any of this in his letters. Perhaps, like Superman, who wooed Lois as Clark from the very first story, he wanted to win her over for who he was, not what he could do.
The hero doesn’t always get the girl
The last surviving letter, dated Dec. 20, 1939, was particularly heartfelt. “My every waking hour is filled with the thought of returning to Cleveland,” he wrote. Helen broke it off regardless. It wasn’t just the distance. As she told it to her sons, Shuster was simply too mild-mannered for her.
A while later she met George Neumark at a dinner for Jewish soldiers while visiting her aunt in Muskogee. They were married within three weeks.
He was a dashing officer, later awarded the Legion of Merit and eventually becoming a colonel in the Army’s 88th Infantry Division. After World War II, they returned to his hometown of St. Charles, a scenic burg outside Chicago, where in 1957 he became an alderman and in 1961 mayor.
Shuster had been classified unfit for duty due to severe myopia, which was worsening. Drawing became difficult, and he had to rely on assistants. In 1947, he and Siegel attempted unsuccessfully to sue for the rights to Superman and got fired. Shuster spent the following years in increasing poverty, taking on odd jobs, until he and Siegel received a modest settlement in 1975.
Shuster was equally unlucky in love. He dated other women before and after Helen, but it never lasted. There was a girl named Francine, and they even discussed marriage, but her mother insisted the children be raised Catholic, while his mother forbade it, and that was that.
He also dated Joanne Carter, née Jolan Kovacs, the model he’d hired to draw Lois in 1935 (the character already existed in early drafts but it was Carter’s “irrepressibility, ambition and spunk” that brought her to life, her daughter told The New York Times.) Eventually, though, she married Siegel in 1948.
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Shuster also got married, in December 1976, at the age of 62, to Judith Calpini, a former showgirl. It lasted 11 months.
He moved to West Los Angeles, renting a small one-bedroom apartment blocks away from the Siegels. He died in July 1992 at age 78. He was legally blind, alone and in debt, leaving behind nothing but Superman memorabilia.
In my estimation, the illustrations the Neumark brothers own aren’t particularly valuable. Shuster drew many over the years, and most sell on auction sites for a few thousand dollars. But the story behind these, and his letters, gives them historical value. They’re a peek into the earliest days of Superman’s existence and the private life of his co-creator.
The real-life Clark never got his Lois, but his creation continues to woo her more than 80 years later.
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