Tradition requests that you don't speak ill of the dead.
It's a concept nearly as old as civilization; a courtesy extended to a defenseless soul lest the violator incur bad karma or at least a disapproving look. Some of the departed, though, get a special dispensation from such polite consideration. It's hard to find anyone willing to say nice things about Adolph Hitler or Bin Laden. And while he's not nearly as despicable, few kind words have ever been said on the behalf of DC comics editor Mort Weisinger.
Recently, I was gifted with an undated and apparently unpublished "obituary" of Weisinger, written by William Woolfolk, that the late Dr. Jerry Bails had shared with a few correspondents. Was this intended as a fanzine piece? Or a private letter? Who knows? Why Woolfolk wrote it is a mystery to this comics detective.
[Mystery solved! Roy Thomas, comic book legend and current ALTER EGO magazine editor, has informed me that this William Woolfolk piece was originally written for submission to that publication. However, Woolfolk's critical commentary of Weisinger gave Thomas second thoughts and he sent his old friend Jerry Bails a copy for his opinion. They concluded it was too harsh for AE and the "obituary" never saw publication. Roy has graciously forgiven my unintentional appropriation of the piece and given his full approval of its online appearance here. Thanks, Roy!]
William Woolfolk had a long career, beginning as a comic book writer at MLJ, spending more than a decade working for Fawcett, Orbit, EC and a brief venture into publishing as co-owner of O.W. Comics, before making his way to DC. Though his tenure at that company was relatively short (his talent and ambitions far exceeded the confines of the comic industry) his relationship with Weisinger stayed with him--and not in a good way.
When Will Rogers said that he'd never met a man he didn’t like, he had never met Mort Weisinger.
In my dealing with the various people I met during the Golden Age, I always try to follow the Golden Rule of treating them as I would like to be treated. In most cases I think I succeeded, but I make an exception for the editor of the Superman comics. In Latin the saying is, "De Mortuis nil nisi bonum"--speak no evil of the deal. De Mort is a different matter, and it is long past time to let the full truth about him be known.
I first met Mort through my wife Dorothy (nee Rubichek), who had worked with him on Superman at DC Comics. Dorothy said he was anxious to meet me, knowing that I wrote for Captain Marvel, Superman's chief rival in the marketplace. We invited him for a weekend at a summer home we had on Shelter Island. Mort came with his wife Thelma, a tall, willowy, very pretty woman who had been his nurse during a stay in the hospital.
Within an hour, Mort was pressing me for a contest in which we'd plot new stories for our respective super-heroes. I saw this as a transparent attempt to formulate plots he could then offer to his writers, so I didn't go along with his "contest." As is now well documented, Mort made a habit of enticing writers to give him plot ideas which he would turn around and give to other writers as his own. He was addicted to the thievery of ideas.
If Mort had lived in ancient Rome, he'd have been feeding writers to the lions in the arena. His chief victim was the very talented but very undisciplined and financially irresponsible Bill Finger. Mort was also editing BATMAN at the time, and Bill Finger was the writer who, with artist Bob Kane, had made BATMAN the most exciting and imaginative comic book feature of the time.
I admired Bill Finger's work and knew he was having a rough time paying his bills, largely because he took so much time over his stories that he earned comparatively little money. He borrowed money from everyone he met, including from my wife Dorothy during the funeral of a well-beloved DC editor whose name I think was Bernie Breslau [note: actually, Breslauer].
Mort reveled in telling tales about Bill Finger’s financial difficulties. And he took every opportunity to humiliate him. He made Bill wait in the anteroom for an hour while he discussed plots with other writers who had arrived later. On one occasion Bill arrived in his shirtsleeves because he’d told his wife he was just going for a pack of cigarettes and that time Mort kept him waiting for more than two hours. I was present when Mort laughingly joked about Bill’s predicament. I went out and lent Bill the ten dollars he needed so badly, and Mort reproached me, saying I was a "bleeding heart" and shouldn't have done that because Bill needed to be taught a lesson. "After all, he can sit down and write a page and get the money, but he’s too damn lazy." I said that not all writers could turn out pages like links of sausage.
Most writers who worked for Mort Weisinger would probably have paid to buy a ticket to his hanging, but they could not afford the price that scalpers would have charged. His fellow editors in the same large office -- Jack Schiff and Murray Boltinoff -- always looked forward to my arrival because I mocked Mort as a modern Dracula who liked to suck the lifeblood from writers.
Boltinoff was a particularly appreciative audience of Mort's skewering. Why did Mort put up with me? I think it was because he made the mistake of trumpeting what a catch he'd made by persuading me to work for Superman/DC.
At the time I was working simultaneously for three other publishing houses--Fawcett, Timely, and Orbit Publications--and even selling some stories and articles to mainstream publications. As a result, I was under continual deadline pressures, but I thought that was a good trade-off for the increased security.
However, I did get a personal glimpse of what it would be like if Mort got the upper hand. At one point I was down to three other markets because Robert Erisman had left editing Captain America and returned to editing the strip of pulp magazines for Martin Goodman. I made the mistake of telling Mort that, if he could guarantee me a certain number of stories, I would stay with only three publishing contracts.
Mort mistakenly took this as a confession of need and told me that he considered every writer to be like a lemon that he squeezed until it was dry before throwing it away...and I was no exception. That was enough for me.
On my next visit to DC I bypassed his office and went down the corridor to where Bob Kanigher was editing the other DC magazines. I'd known Bob from our days as writers at MLJ, and Bob had often suggested that I come to work for him.
We were discussing a story idea when Mort came storming down the corridor. He demanded to know what I was doing there, and I replied that I had every right to work for whoever wanted to employ me. He then told Kanigher he could have me, because I wasn't up to his standards. I suggested he should try to be more modest about his standards, considering how modest they were.
I believe that when people try to treat you like a dog, you should not only bark, you should bite. Considering the fact that Mort and I were like two pit bulls, it is hard for me to explain why we had any further contacts. Although we did,they occurred outside of comic books.
The first was when I left comic books to become a magazine publisher. I employed several comic book people such as Murray Boltinoff and Jack Miller in getting out four pocket-sized magazines, and Otto Binder as editor of SPACE WORLD magazine, the first consumer magazine devoted to the unfolding Space Age.
And then the distributor, Kable News, wanted an imitation of the phenomenally successful magazine CONFIDENTIAL. I was unwilling to deal in the kind of celebrity scandals that CONFIDENTIAL specialized in, but thought there would be a market for other "inside stories" which I would have to cull from various sources.
I decided that Mort would be a good choice to help in packaging it.
Commercially, that was a good decision. Mort came up with variations of previously published magazine interviews and stories, and I acted as editor and reviser of what he wrote and purchased from other writers. INSIDE STORY became the second-best-selling magazine of its kind, next to CONFIDENTIAL.
By then Mort had become a slavish admirer of mine, claiming I was the best editor he had ever known -- an opinion that might have been based on the fact that I was paying him a share of the profits in addition to his packaging fee. In fact, I overpaid him, and when the time came for him to return some of the money, he accused me of "stealing bread out of his family's mouth."
At one point while he was packaging articles for INSIDE STORY, Mort submitted an idea about heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano having been involved in a fixed fight. I told him that sounded libelous to me, and I couldn't accept it. He responded that he'd excerpted it from an article that had appeared in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. I still thought it risky to publish, so Mort said if there was any trouble about it he would pay any legal fees involved.
Reluctantly, I went ahead and published it. Sure enough, the POST was sued for having made that statement, and we were sued for having republished it.
When I reminded Mort of his promise to pay for any legal problems that resulted, he said I ought to sue the POST for the money.
He was always trying to take advantage of people he knew. When Adlai Stevenson was running against Eisenhower for the Presidency in 1952, Mort, who admired Stevenson, as we all did, decided he was a loser and that he could profit from that. Instead of betting on Eisenhower, which would have been the straightforward thing to do, he called his friends who were also Stevenson rooters and said he could help them to place bets on Stevenson to show their support for him. Then he booked the bets himself. He told me this, chuckling at how he'd hoodwinked his friends.
Once at a party in his home he boasted that DC Comics had never had to cancel a comic book title, and he put down money on a table to challenge anyone who said they had. I immediately rattled off a list of titles I knew DC had discontinued.
Mort immediately picked up the money and said, "Well, you know."
Our relationship came to an end when I sold my publishing business in order to become the story editor and head writer of The Defenders television show, which was then the most highly-regarded, award-winning show on the air.
Mort wanted to write for the show, but Reginald Rose, the creator and owner of the show, wanted no part of him. Reggie had met him and shared the universal disregard in which most people held Mort.
The last contact I had with Mort was after The Defenders, when I'd returned to my first love of writing novels. I had a million-copy bestseller with THE BEAUTIFUL COUPLE, and Mort wrote a pandering letter hailing me as the "Prince of Paperbacks." That resulted in an unexpected benefit for him, since the publisher wanted me to write another novel, based on the Miss America contest.
But I had already committed to write for Doubleday a novel about a Supreme Court justice. When the head editor Ed Kuhn asked if I knew anyone else who might be able to handle the subject, I recommended Mort, knowing that he would do the research necessary, even though I knew that his prose style moved as turgidly as a river under ice.
On my recommendation Mort got a contract for THE CONTEST and a handsome advance. Naturally, Ed Kuhn found him impossible to work with, and the novel had disappointing sales. Mort was never able to publish another, although I saw a recent mention of him as having written THE CONTEST and "other novels." A gross exaggeration for a gross man.
The last time I saw Mort he told me, "Bill, you're the only one who's going to cry at my funeral."
He was wrong about that.
I didn't rejoice at his passing because I believe with John Donne who said, "Never send to learn for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." But I reserve my tears, and I have shed them, for the lovely men and women I knew in the Golden Age of Comics.
Enough said about Mort. Let him rest in peace.
He didn't pull any punches, did he?
I generally shy away from publishing any unsubstantiated gossip, but much of what Woolfolk writes about has been said by others. Maybe not as pointedly or in such detail, but frequently enough that I doubt little of what he wrote.
A couple of years back, in ALTER EGO #98 (Dec. 2010), my friend, the great interviewer Jim Amash, responded to several complaints he had received about negative comments made by some of his interviewees.
"The truth is, we can’t pick and choose the history we want to learn."
Well said, Jim. I couldn't agree more.