Saturday, April 5, 2008

Bill Finger's desk

In my ten years of freelance writing, my relationship with facts has evolved. At the start, I accepted most any statement from a "reputable" source (Britannica, Newsweek, most any book) as a "fact."

Yet the more I researched, the more I realized that every fact is suspect until verified by at least one other primary source and preferably two. It's not possible every time, but I try. And now I know that even statements routinely and confidently repeated by multiple writers are subject to deeper investigation; see my post about Superman and Hitler

This is one reason I like to write picture books. Double- and triple-checking every fact is tough enough with a 1,500-word manuscript. I quiver to think how long it would take me to do it for one much longer than that.

Photographs present a thornier challenge. If you know what a particular person looked like, authenticating a photo of him you newly find is generally easy. But what about newly-found photos of people you never saw oldly? If the photo is labeled with identifying details in faded handwriting, can you trust them? People make mistakes, sometimes even deliberately.

And what about photographs of locations—especially locations that were mundane at the time but which took on greater meaning later on? It is virtually impossible to verify photos like this. It is one of the few instances where a writer like me can relax a bit and give in to the most likely explanation.

Hence, here is a photo of Bill Finger's desk:

Why can I safely say that this was Bill's desk?

The photo has no markings on the back, but Bill's granddaughter inherited it along with several other photos of Bill from the same time period. The clincher: I showed the photo to his longtime writing partner Charles Sinclair. He and Bill worked side-by-side for years, late into the night. Charles's memory has been so impeccable that he correctly remembered which day of the week Bill died. This was his response to the photo:

"I think you're on to something. Where did you find this? It's 'in character'semi-makeshift, but functional. I would date this as about 1950 [9/3/10 addendum: It's actually a bit earlier.]. The reference books are right. That Front Page desk light is great, the portable typewriter is correct, and that hokey folding metal chair (stolen from a nearby social hall??) is a great touch. I don't recognize the artwork. My recollection is that big Klee print that looked like a red lollipop handing over the desk. Also, when he bought that brown-and-gold Crosley AM-FM radio (1950? 1951? 1952?), Bill kept it on the right end of the desk, anchoring the books."

Of course, any picture book about a writer will require at least one illustration of him at his desk. As optimistic as I generally am, I never thought I would have the giddy fortune of stumbling upon a visual reference of Bill's workspace.

Forget about the unlikely chance of finding such a photo. What about the even more unlikely chance that such a photo existed in the first place?

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