Feature writing


David Weiss: ‘My dad was Superman’

The Times

January 28, 2013


David Weiss’s earliest imagining was: “I’m the son of Superman and I will grow up able to fly.” This was no infant fancy, but rooted in a delicious, real event. In 1945,  four years before David was born, his father, Stanley, was walking in Green Mansions, a lake resort in upstate New York, when he was approached by Joe Shuster, with whom Jerry Siegel had created Superman seven years earlier. Shuster told him: “I’ve been drawing Superman from my mind’s eye but you look more like him than anyone I’ve ever seen. Can I draw you?”

“Sure,” Weiss said. Shuster gave Weiss two sketches, one signed and dated, and the men went on their way. Through this meeting Stanley became the living, breathing incarnation of Superman. The rarely shown sketches were displayed yesterday, for one day only, at Superman at 75: Celebrating America’s Most Enduring Hero at the Centre for Jewish History in New York. The anniversary of Superman’s comic-strip birth, in April 1938 (with a dateline of June), will be bombastically marked by the release of Man of Steel, starring Henry Cavill as Superman, on June 14.

While alive, Stanley made little fuss about the drawings. “He wasn’t flamboyant,” reveals David, 63, who lives in Boston. “I never saw him strike a Superman pose, he never wore the Superman T-shirt I gave him in my teens. I think he said, ‘How much money did you waste on that?’ My father didn’t parade it.”

Stanley married David’s mother in 1947, and David remembers the sketches on the wall of his childhood home. “I’m certain that was my mother’s doing,” he previously told The New York Times. “It seemed a bigger deal to her, but that still doesn’t mean either of them considered it a big deal. The Jewish family culture I grew up in had a fundamental modesty.”

David tells me that it was only after checking out two Superman strips from the DC Comics archive, from before and after Shuster met Stanley, that he recently deduced “that meeting with my father influenced Shuster to draw Superman to look like my father”. He once met Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor, who said: “You should hold on to those — they’re probably worth a lot.” David admits if the drawings are worth $50,000 or more he may sell them. “If not, I’ll loan them to museums. There’s no value in holding on to them. My dad would have absolutely agreed with that.”

His father’s story and beliefs dovetail with those of Superman. “Never do that which, if everyone did it, would destroy society,” he once told his son. Photos taken of Stanley, two years before Shuster’s sketching, show a muscular, broad-chested 21-year-old in swimming trunks. In a suit, shirt and tie, he is a suitably dorky Clark Kent. When looking at the sketches, David laughs: “That’s definitely Superman, but is it my father?”

Born of East European Jewish immigrants, “engaging and gregarious” Stanley grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was devastated when, after Pearl Harbour, he could not enlist because of a heart defect. Stanley joined his father-in-law’s furniture business. And your dad was Superman, I remark. “I wasn’t blown away by it,” David says. “This was in my life before I was born. Growing up, there was my dad, the Superman in comics and the one on TV played by George Reeves. The difference was I knew Superman wasn’t real; my father was the real Superman.” The TV superhero “indoctrinated” the young David with the values of the era, alongside the cowboy influences of the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers.

His father worked all hours but didn’t change into a red cape and blue tights to save the world. “He was proud to help run a business that helped support other families,” David recalls.

Like Superman, he was a paragon. “Honesty was absolute. When I was 8 or 9 I took some coins… and got caught. So it was pants [trousers] down, then the belt. It was not done with malice: I had broken a basic rule of conduct. Among the things I learnt from my father were respect and honour. He taught me that treating people with disrespect says more about you than it does about them.”

At college David took drugs, which upset his father. While there were complexities to their relationship, “he was a good guy: he loved me, I loved him. There were years that the relationship was strained. He worked hard to provide for his family. He was a product of his generation.”

In his mid-20s David and his father went “toe to toe, like elephants bellowing at each other” when Stanley asked his son why he hadn’t graduated yet. However, Stanley didn’t begrudge his son receiving a medical deferment to prevent him serving in Vietnam. The true Superman was also a gentle patriot. “After Nixon was elected he said he hadn’t voted for him, but this was his country, this was his President and we all needed him to succeed.”

In 1978, the year of the first Superman movie starring Reeve, Stanley, aged 57, was dying of heart disease. As his condition worsened, David graduated; he asked a nurse to tell his father, who, wittily, gasped: “When?”

For Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, the drawings of Stanley underline Superman’s status as a consciously drawn Jewish hero. Superman made his debut during the dark ascendancy of Nazi persecution in the 1930s. His Kryptonian name, Kal-El, resembles the Hebrew for “voice/vessel of God”. His physique echoes the Jewish strongman Siegmund Breitbart and figures such as Samson and the golem. “Then, by chance,” Tye says, “Shuster sees a Jew, Stanley, who is the Superman he has been drawing from his mind.”

Does David still wish he could fly? “Life is full of disappointments,” he says drily. “I outgrew that one.” It’s “kinda cool Superman’s being claimed for us [Jews],” he says. “I grew up with the reverberations of the Holocaust. We were in a land of privilege [but] I remember my mother driving past a golf or country club saying we couldn’t go in because they wouldn’t admit Jews . . .” David smiles, shrugs. “But I grew up thinking we were superior because my dad was Superman.”