Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A friend of Bill Finger's son steps forward

On 5/14/13, as Albert Ching of Newsarama interviewed me over the phone, I mentioned that though Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman is out, I feel like I’m still writing the story because I continue to blog about newly uncovered Bill Finger info as I encounter it.

And literally seconds after I said that, this message came in from Europe on Facebook:

Hi. My stepfather just read an article about Bill/Fred Finger and the Batman comics. He was flabbergasted as he knew Fred [Bill’s son, who died in 1992] very well from 1987 on. He discovered the article in his search for Charles Shaheen [the only person who was named in Fred’s settlement of estate, as recounted in my book], hoping to find him alive and kicking. Now he knows better. If you want to contact him, please feel free. His address is [redacted]. Cheers.

So I did, of course. And the gentleman, Dirk Van Vaerenbergh, agreed to be interviewed about his friendship with Bill
’s son. 

I sent questions and he responded with excerpts from the journals he kept over the years:
I was born in 1954. I work as a drama teacher and actor in Flanders, Belgium.

At the time I met Fred [Finger], I was teaching Swedish language and literature at the University of Ghent and studying Russian.

I had been in a relationship with the same man since 1978. He also met both Fred and Chuck [Charles Shaheen] and even lived with them for three months when he was doing some work at the Bellevue Hospital in New York. We now have been legally married since 2001 and we raise a son together (my stepson who contacted you on Facebook) with the boy’s lesbian mother.

I got into my diaries and this is what I found.

April 1987

I met Fred on April 13 in the Maiden Lane Sauna [Wall Street Sauna] in New York.

The first afternoon, he told me that many of his friends had died, his address book was empty, he was divorced, he had children, his father was Bill Finger and Bill had drawn Batman comics but had not gotten the recognition he deserved, and he—Fred—was HIV+.

A lot to take in on one afternoon.

He lived at 15 Jay Street with his friend Agnes/Angie. It was a former food dealerhouse [sic; Dirk does not remember what he meant by the word, but said it looked like a huge space (loft) with a small bathroom in the middle]. He worked at [a restaurant called] JF Vandam. He had plans to go work in a nouvelle cuisine kosher restaurant in Brooklyn.

He looked drop dead gorgeous. Slim, dark, nice hair, and a full beard. Wore glasses and was quite shy. I fell for him immediately. We saw each other three, maybe four times during my first stay.

He phoned me a month later to say he had developed AIDS and would I please come as soon as possible.

December 1987

When I got back to New York, Fred worked in another restaurant at 73 8th Avenue [name not recorded]. His summer had been terrible—he lost his job, got into debts, was thrown out of the flat by Angie in October, and now lived with Portia, his mother. He had not paid child support in three months.

He had two daughters, one by him (Athena) and the other one by Bonnie (how that came about I never got clear).

Talked about his relationship with Richard (a transvestite), Bonnie (his ex-wife), and Carl (a painter).

I visited his mother who lived in a small flat that was in a bad state in a beautiful apartment block on 16th Street. Half of New York had [once] come to visit, now nobody! [I asked for elaboration and Dirk said that many years ago, Portia had been very popular and that famous people came to visit]

She sat with grandeur in the kitchen, never moved, was small and fat, had long fingernails, and smoked continuously.

She hated Richard and Bonnie and Carl and Angie—so everybody that Fred ever loved. Now she wanted to see me and appraise the material.

“Show me your left ear, darling! Is that a diamond? Take off your glasses, honey! Oh, my, his eyes are pretty, do not you think so, Fred?”

Fred had kept from her that he was HIV+.

April 1988

I was in New York again.

Fred felt better and is fat. He took pills every 4 hours, had an alarm clock. Fred’s T cells were down to 32 [the T cell count for a healthy person seems to be between 500-1,500].

He worked at a bakery for seven dollars an hour for three days and had 85 dollars in food stamps. He baked for the Living Room [a space where AIDS patients got together to have a cup of soup, talk, etc.] and sometimes I took the cakes to the AIDS people although I was actually not allowed.

Met his mother and [his aunt] Irene and cousin Judy and her husband George.

We went to lots of shows and benefits and it [was at one of them], The Michael Bennett Tribute, that I met Chuck Shaheen and his lover Richie Salgado for the first time.

New Year’s Eve 1988-89

Fred now lived at 233 Dean Street with Chuck and Richie and Alvin.

They all had AIDS and got [a drug called] AZT, although Richie and Chuck [would] sell it on the black market. (In the years following, I sometimes doubted whether Chuck really had AIDS.)

They lived in a social welfare flat for $950 a month.

Chuck [had been] to be the manager of La Cage aux Folles for six years and went to Las Vegas with it. [Chuck and Richie] were quite well off; Chuck bought Richie a Mercedes for Valentine’s Day.

Afterwards they dealt in antiques, got even richer…then suddenly their house burned down and they had to flee the state [Dirk didn’t know why]. Then somehow Chuck “lost” his passport—I mean they took it away from him [Dirk didn’t know why]. I believe he also went to prison.

Chuck [had] a lot of money hidden in a bank in Zurich, wanted to go to Europe with Richie and Fred to collect the money, rent a house and a small staff. We made plans to see each other this side of the ocean [Europe].

[I asked why, if Chuck had money, did he and Richie live in a welfare flat; his response: Indeed. He had money but not during the years we knew him. Thought he would be able to lay his hands on the Swiss money, but that never happened as far as I know. I asked how he had this money: Rumors: money he had come by in a “strange way”—insurance?]

August-September 1989

(I had gotten back from a six-week course in Russian at MGU [sic; Moscow State University] and met my husband in New York to leave for New England.)

They did not go to Europe; Chuck still did not have a passport, a false one would cost him $25,000. It is a bitter pill he cannot afford it as he has $750,000 in a vault in Vienna that can be opened only with his fingerprints.

Portia died on August 26 [according to the social security office, she died January 2, 1990] and left Fred exhausted. Bonnie became his fresh nightmare (said Chuck). Nagging and guilt and what have you. Fred had a new boyfriend, Ricardo, from Venezuela. They all decide to go to Puerto Rico.

July 1991

Fred, Chuck, and Richie lived at 386 Sackett Street in a nice souterrain. Richie died. Fred looked old. Chuck completely fell for an Irish boy—a nurse—John (it could be Maloney but maybe I am confused). During my stay John gave up his work and came to live with the others.

Fred borrowed some money from Chuck, forgot to pay his bills, and lost his Visa card.
He really had no money anymore.

April 1992

Fred died [in February]. I was in Europe so I could not attend the funeral. [Now, in April] I stayed with Chuck and John in Brooklyn; they had a little money as John sold his house.

In the meantime, the state discovered that Fred Finger took money as Richie Salgado [after he] had died, and they wanted $7,000 dollars from Fred. But since Fred had died, the state wanted it out of the estate. So Bonnie was going to trial [Dirk had no idea what happened as a result]. Chuck still got Fred’s [Batman] royalties as he forged Fred’s signature.

And a common Russian friend goes to Seattle and worked there with Fred’s social security number.

April 1995

I visited Chuck and John. John bought off his life insurance and now they had money to pay off the credit cards.


I heard from Chuck’s neighbor from Brooklyn, John McFadden, that Chuck had paid bail for his lover, drugs, and lawyers. [John also said] that John Maloney’s trust fund and life insurance all went the same way. That Chuck borrowed money from loan sharks and then suddenly one night he left with one bag and left everything. Absolutely everything. And was never heard of again.

Chuck and Fred were never partners or lovers [contrary to what I had been told so contrary to what it therefore states in Bill the Boy Wonder]. They were roommates, that is all.

[Despite the shady things they did to protect themselves from the state], to me they were kind, friendly, hospitable. I was a window to the world. Chuck called us lifelong friends; indeed we saw him through various boyfriends and deaths. He had the impression we had always been there. But of course we realized he had had a completely different way of living before he met us.

I have a weird feeling about this drifter [Jesse Maloney, as explained in the author’s note of Bill the Boy Wonder]. He could be the boy that Chuck got out of jail in New York.
On the other hand John [Chuck’s partner, whose last name Dirk thought might be Maloney] had a twin brother. I thought he was called Jess? But I am not sure…

Thank you for sharing your memories, Dirk.

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