I recently visited the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society and marveled at the huge collection of vintage cars, planes and historical artifacts that told the history of the city.
But there was something missing. Among the gleaming cars, motorcycles, advertising signs and plaques there was no mention of the most famous name ever to come out of Cleveland – Superman, or his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Not even a word.
Cleveland Heights comic book writer Harvey Pekar, who died in 2010, has a small tribute, which is well-deserved. But I will never understand the lack of respect the historical society has for Superman or Siegel and Shuster.
It’s not just a new insult. There is no display at all about the first issue of Action Comics, which celebrated its 81st anniversary this year. That iconic comic told the first story of Superman. It’s a treasured and valuable piece of American pop culture.
It’s an insult that dates back decades. I’m told the museum did have a fleeting, temporary Superman exhibit once, but I don’t know when or what it contained.
More than 20 years ago, Joanne Siegel returned to Cleveland with a mission: find a final resting place for the ashes of her husband, Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, who had died in 1996 at age 81.
I was a reporter for The Plain Dealer and had written many stories about Jerry, Joe and Superman, so she asked me to help her out. I spent the day with her as we drove around the city, revisiting the important sites of their lives. First stop was Jerry’s childhood home on Kimberly Avenue. The current residents, Hattie and Jefferson Gray, were not home.
She peeked through the windows into the house where the Superman legend began. Before we left, I gave her a piece of paper from my reporter’s notebook and she wrote a nice note to the Grays, thanking them for being such good custodians to the house. Today, years later, the Grays still have that note framed and sitting on their fireplace mantel.
Our mission that summer day was important. Jerry’s fondest wish was that half his ashes be returned to the city he loved. The other half would remain with Joanne.
The ashes were sealed in a handsome container, a stylized line of books. The spines listed the characters created by Jerry Siegel: Superman, Superboy, The Spectre, Lois Lane and others.
She also offered Jerry’s typewriter on which he wrote Superman’s adventures, his writing desk, his glasses and a stack of scripts of early Superman comics, some that had never been published. There were other items as well, including items that belonged to Joe Shuster, Jerry’s partner.
She wanted to donate all the items to be displayed for the public to see, a fitting tribute to the world-famous creation and the creators.
I was confident we could find a worthy recipient. I was dead wrong.
The Cleveland History Center, then called the Western Reserve Historical Society Museum, was my first and obvious choice. We met with a museum official and explained what we offered. He politely shook his head and declined. I forget the reason he gave, if any, but I believe he said something about space. Of course, the grotesque Native-American-mocking giant edifice of Chief Wahoo from the old stadium merits space then and now.
He was intrigued by the scripts. He said he would accept them and place them in special collections.
Would people be able to see them?
Oh no, he said. Perhaps researchers may be permitted access to them, but no one else.
So the words that birthed the Man of Steel, perhaps the only scripts remaining and worth a fortune to collectors, would be tucked away. And it there was no guarantee that the scripts would not be sold by the museum.
Frustrated, Joanne and I left.
The rest of the trip was just as disappointing. The Cleveland Public Library (which ultimately was given Jerry’s desk for the yearlong, record-breaking, Superman exhibit); Cleveland City Hall; Cleveland Justice Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame also declined.
Joanne left Cleveland, despondent and frustrated that she could not fulfill her husband’s wishes.
To my knowledge, there has been no tribute at the museum since then.
“After that visit, and for the rest of her life, my mother remained upset that the museum and other public places had no interest in honoring Jerry and Joe,” said Laura Siegel Larson, Jerry Siegel’s daughter. She wonders why the museum does not have an exhibit honoring their contribution to Cleveland culture.
The story has a bit of a happy ending. In 2007, we formed the Siegel and Shuster Society to honor Jerry and Joe and the red, blue and yellow-clad character they created. Joanne and her daughter, Laura, have visited Cleveland many times and been treated like royalty.
In 2008, they came to town for the first (and only) reunion of the Siegel and Shuster families that came together for the dedication of the rebuilt Siegel House at 10622 Kimberly Ave. in Cleveland. The Siegel and Shuster Society and the brilliant author Brad Meltzer, spearheaded an international auction of mostly Superman-themed items that raised more than $100,000 to restore the house.
Joanne beamed as she stood on the porch that rainy day and talked to the crowd. She said she knew what Siegel’s mother would say if she were there: “Oy, Jerome, what did you do?”
After her mother’s death in 2011, Laura Siegel Larson installed her mom and dad’s ashes and the famous urn and some photos in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Her father’s typewriter has a place of honor in the American Writers Museum in Chicago, alongside the typewriters of Orson Welles, Truman Capote, John Lennon and Ray Bradbury.
The Cleveland museum did not respond to a request for comment. I'm hoping the Siegel and Shuster Society will reach out to the museum and try to convince officials to correct their Super oversight.
Michael Sangiacomo, who owes it to Joanne Siegel to right this wrong, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.