Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was born on this day, January 7, 126 years ago. It’s fitting that tomorrow I’m leaving for Miami en route to Cuba retracing some of the steps of my grandparents on their fabled trip to Cuba in 1937.
Cuba is one of the Shangrilas of travel I have wanted to visit since I was a child. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama on the Gulf Coast and Cuba isn’t so far away. The history and culture are intertwined with the part of the world I know well—New Orleans, Tampa, Miami and Key West. When Castro overthrew Battista, I was old enough to be aware of events and later knew Cuban refugees who settled in the Mobile area. In college my swim coach whom I adored changed his name to Carlos de Cuba as a constant reminder of his country. I have longed to visit for most of my life.
I’m starting out the year visiting a place that looms large in the story of my grandfather’s loss of DC Comics. Why did Harry Donenfeld decide to send my grandparents and then 5-year old Auntie Diane to Havana for a “working vacation?” Also along for the ride was Vincent Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth. The idea purportedly was to finalize the new magazine published in partnership with Jack Liebowitz—Detective Comics.
Detective Comics was Wheeler-Nicholson’s idea. The title is similar to pulp titles that he knew so well. The Major became partners with Jack Liebowitz for financial reasons due to not having the capital to launch three unprecedented comics magazines in the middle of the Depression. Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz appeared to be floating in money.
Gaines, Donenfeld and Liebowitz
March of 1937 was a busy month for the players in this drama. On March 1st, Harry Donenfeld and Victor Fox appear on a passenger list arriving from Havana to Miami. Were they there to organize the Cuba trip or just gambling with Harry’s pal Meyer Lansky? And where does Lansky fit into the story? He was intimately involved with the casinos in Cuba and he and Batista had a long history with one another.
Victor Fox has his own unique saga and ran afoul of Donenfeld and Liebowitz in March of 1939 with a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Fox had Will Eisner create Wonder Man who was similar in make-up to Superman. It’s also rumored that Fox was somehow involved in the finances of Detective Comics but there appears to be no clear evidence.
On March 16, Siegel and Shuster visited the Major in New York. They also met with Liebowitz separately and possibly Donenfeld. Then the entourage of Wheeler-Nicholsons, Vin Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth headed to Havana.
Although there are slight differences in the various family stories they all follow pretty much the same narrative. After struggling to establish comic magazines with all original material Harry Donenfeld helped to finance the Major and suggested my grandparents take a working vacation to Cuba in order to organize the new magazine Detective Comics.
There are photos of my grandparents in Havana at Sloppy Joe’s along with Vin Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and his wife, Elsa are dressed in elegant tropical attire and the Major is holding the requisite panama hat. They’re both smiling broadly. This is in contrast to an earlier photo taken in 1936 where they both appear exhausted and stressed. Sullivan and Ellsworth look slightly out of place and uncomfortable. Vin Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth appear on ship’s passenger lists returning to New York on April 4th. However, so far there is no firm date of the Wheeler-Nicholsons either going to Cuba or returning, which lends some credence to my mother’s version of the story that they continued their trip onto the Bahamas.
Why did Harry send everybody to Cuba in the middle of the Depression on a working vacation to organize a comics magazine? It’s an interesting question. If the magazines weren’t making any money why would a supposedly astute businessman like Harry spend all that money when they could have easily worked in New York?
The family legend is that while MWN was in Cuba Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz masterminded the eventual takeover of the company from him. In some versions of the family story it happens in a cinematic sequence where the Major comes back from Cuba and his name has been removed from the office door. In my mother’s post divorce version, told to me as a young girl, my grandfather was bamboozled out of Superman for a trip to the Bahamas. These are great stories but like all things that happen in life it took a lot longer and was much more painful.
In a way my mother’s version has an element of truth. The Major was bamboozled out of Superman for a trip to the Bahamas but he didn’t realize it until it was much too late. From legal documents of 1936 and 1937 it appears that Donenfeld and Liebowitz were already orchestrating the takeover of the company. For a man like my grandfather who prided himself on strategic thinking the bankruptcy proceedings that began Christmas of 1937 were a shock and a huge blow. He fought like hell to keep the company that he envisioned and created but with no capital and one young inexperienced lawyer he was no match for the tactics of Donenfeld and Liebowitz. They had at least two large law firms and several accounting firms and a head start on the plan to acquire the comics publishing company. Again, the question arises, if the comics weren’t making money why all the effort expended to acquire them? To make matters worse, Asa Herzog, one of the attorneys for Donenfeld and Liebowitz was a colleague of the lawyer appointed as trustee in the bankruptcy proceedings—Abe Menin. It’s a cozy little group.
This is just one aspect of the larger story but with the exotic locale and characters like Victor Fox and Meyer Lansky on the periphery it’s well worth exploring. What do I hope to find in Havana? I’ll at least get a feeling for a time and place before it becomes overly developed. And I’ll do my best to search for some of the details that always lead one to a larger picture. Every step of this 20 some odd year adventure has been helped by writers like Larry Tye (Superman) and Brad Ricca (Super Boys). My co-author Gerard Jones (Men of Tomorrow) has laid a solid foundation for our upcoming biography Lost Hero. I am dubbing the guys who have been so generous with their terrific research the Fourth Avenue Irregulars! Tom Andrae, David Lawrence, Alex Jay and Todd Klein among others have contributed to this chapter of the story. Do yourself a favor and check out Todd’s incomparable blog. With the help of all these wonderful colleagues, the Major’s story is becoming more well known. He had an extraordinary vision and deserves to be remembered. Cuba Si!