Sunday, May 31, 2020

Finger family mysteries: Bill’s mother(s) and “sisters”

No one in this blog post is as s/he seems…

Prologue:

The book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman came out in 2012. DC Comics corrected the Batman credit line in 2015. The documentary Batman & Bill came out in 2017.

Yet here I am, in the here and now, still researching Bill Finger. 

In particular his family.

Because there are so many unusual unknowns. 

(To be precise, I am not actively researching. But now that I have the equivalent of a BA in Bill Finger, sometimes research comes to me, and that sends me into the Batcave all over again.)

Below is a consolidation of significant findings I have not yet revealed publicly. Some of it I learned after my book came out. Some of it I learned only weeks ago. But some of it goes back to the beginning of my Bill Finger experience (2006). Between the making of the documentary, other projects, and life itself, I did not make time till now for this long overdue info dump:

BILL’S MOTHERS

In 2013, I received Bill’s short-form birth certificate (i.e. a contemporarily typed version, not a copy of the original), and with it, a stunner. 

It turns out that Bill’s biological mother was not Tessie as I had been told but rather a woman named Rosa. On Bill’s birth certificate, Rosa’s last name is spelled “Rosenblodt” but on her marriage license, it’s clearly “Rosenblatt.”


Louis and Rosa were married by a rabbi (possibly in the rabbi’s apartment) in New York on 11/27/1912, Bill was born in Denver in 1914, and Louis married Tessie Stromberg back in New York on 12/24/1916 (possibly in a more traditional ceremony). 


Therefore, Tessie was Bill’s stepmother. I don’t know when—or if—he learned that. 

Tessie circa 1945; 
I have no photos of Louis

Yet on the marriage certificate for Louis and Tessie, Louis claimed that it was his first marriage. 

Alexandra (Allie) Orton, story producer for Batman & Bill (and a hella beast of a researcher), said “Typically when…a man [did] that, it’s a clue that he [was] a bigamist and he walked out on his first wife. But it is a bit odd considering he seems to take the kid with him. In divorce cases back then, fathers got the children a lot more readily, so that might be it (or he might be widowed), but then why lie?”

The 1913 Denver directory states Louis was a tailor (and still was in the 1930s in the Bronx, when Bill the Boy Wonder starts); Rosa was listed as “Rose.” They lived at 1581 Hooker Street. (Thank you to Meghan O’Sullivan for finding and sending me a scan of this.)


Was Bill born at that address? His birth certificate doesn’t say. Did Rosa die in childbirth or when Bill was an infant? Or did she and Louis divorce? I don’t know. 

Allie checked for Rosa in Colorado and New York death indexes and cemetery records, but did not pick up her trail. Rosa may have died outside of those states. Allie even tried to determine the synagogue of the rabbi (Joseph Handelman) named on the marriage record. No luck.

I’ve also yet to uncover why Louis lived for that short spell in Denver.

The fact that Rosa was Bill’s biological mom means that Emily, born to Louis and Tessie in 1918, was Bill’s half-sister. This implies that Gilda (born circa 1920) is also his half-sister...or another relative, or perhaps even unrelated. (More below on Gilda.)

BILL’S FATHER LOUIS

According to Bill’s birth certificate, when Bill was born in 1914, Louis was 20…but that does not align with Louis’s birth year (1890) as provided on his draft registration cards for both World War I and World War II. 




In other words, in 1914, Louis would’ve been 24 (and therefore older than Rosa, who was 23). But the birth certificate has at least two other typos, so perhaps it’s simply another clerical goof.

Yet another inconsistency: apparently Louis sometimes changed his mind about where he was born. Most sources I have (Rosa/Tessie marriage licenses, naturalization petition, WWI/WWII draft cards, 1920 census, 1940 census) say Austria, but Bill’s birth certificate says Russia (perhaps another typo) and on the 1930 census, Austria is crossed out and Poland written in. Perhaps that has to do with border changes because of the war?


Zoomed in:


And still more weirdness: the 1930 census says Bill was born in New York (no, Denver) and lists Emily first, even though Bill was older. Maybe there’s nothing to read into there, but somehow I think there is.

BILL’S YOUNGER “SISTER” EMILY

In 2007, I heard something that I brushed off at the time because it seemed like a mistake and because I was more focused on a simultaneous discovery, but now I see that it was probably true—and if so, it whispers of even more Finger family secrets. 

The 1930 and 1940 censuses indicate that Louis and Tessie had a daughter named Emily. But she was mentioned nowhere else in my research. In my quest to figure out what happened to her, I called the New Jersey cemetery where Louis and Tessie (who died about a month apart in 1961) are buried. I was told that the person responsible for tending to their graves was named Emily.

The rub: the cemetery record listed Emily not as their daughter but their niece

Second, bigger shock: after a quick search of an online directory, I learned that Emily was still alive.

With immense excitement, I called her. She, however, was the opposite of excited to hear from someone like me. 

2009

She said she did not really remember Bill and could not help. But I did delicately glean a bit from her, and more from her daughter-in-law B and granddaughter T, who went out of their way to try to get Emily to open up:


  • T said Emily referred to herself as an only child 
  • Emily once told B that she didn’t really have a brother (by which she could’ve meant that they had no relationship…or that they were actually cousins)
  • Emily once said that Bill had disappeared off the face of the Earth and she didn’t know if he married or had kids; she had not seen him since before her wedding (and she married young)
  • when she last knew Bill, he was still Milton (so prior to 1939)
  • yet Emily said she’d heard Bill was a writer and B remembers Emily saying she was proud of Batman
  • I asked if the Finger family had Shabbat dinner when she was growing up and she said something to the effect of “not as a habit”; the family was not religious but did have mezuzahs 
  • I asked if Bill moved out after high school and Emily didn’t remember the timeline 
  • T thought it sounded like Bill and Emily didn’t live together for long
  • when Bill died Emily did not wish him ill, but didn’t go to his funeral (I said that there wasn’t one)


Emily does not appear with Louis and Tessie on the 1920 census—even though she was born in 1918. This seems like further proof that she was their niece (or at least not their biological daughter). If so, I don’t know who her birth parents were or why she moved in with Louis and Tessie.

B later told me that Emily wanted nothing to do with “that side of the family”—which I think means her father’s side. Bill was definitively estranged from his parents, and when Emily told me (in so many words) that she was estranged from Bill, I assumed that there had been a specific rift and Emily had taken her parents’ side. It later occurred to me that perhaps both Bill and Emily had distanced themselves from Louis and Tessie. 

From at least one Finger cousin, I knew the Finger family was fractured...and that now seems like an understatement. 

With her memory vault still mostly sealed, Emily passed away at age 99 in 2018.

BILL’S SECOND YOUNGER “SISTER” GILDA

In 2012, the year Bill the Boy Wonder came out, the 1940 census was released to the public. (Why it takes so long.

And it contained another Finger bombshell. Now appearing in the Louis and Tessie household is a second daughter—Gilda. Yet if I’m reading it right, it shows that Gilda had completed four years of high school and was 20 in 1940—so where was she on the 1930 census?


This suggests that Gilda was also not Louis and Tessie’s biological daughter but rather a niece, a boarder (census takers sometimes mislabeled temporary residents as family members), or maybe even the result of an affair that either Louis or Tessie had. One reader of this blog tantalizingly speculated that Gilda could have been a wife of Bill’s before Portia (whom he married in 1943, see below). 

Yet what still seems most likely to me is that Gilda was a niece. Louis had about twelve siblings (I don’t know about Tessie); it is plausible—especially during the Great Depression—that certain kids in the large family could have been forced to change homes. 

Emily graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx in 1937, so I am now checking yearbooks there for Gilda. If I do find proof that Gilda also attended, it almost surely won’t help determine what happened to her after high school…but at least it’ll mean a photo.

Speaking of which, here’s Emily’s:


Allie scoured New York for trace of Gilda, but found no marriage records (either with the Finger surname or with a Gilda marrying a Finger), death records, or cemetery records. Gilda also doesn’t appear on any of the other family records.

BILL’S FIRST (KNOWN) MARRIAGE

Bill married Portia (born Ethel) Epstein in New York on 4/24/1943. (Thanks again to Meghan O’Sullivan, in this case for finding and sending me a scans of the bride/groom ledger.)



IN SUM

Mystery lingers with the Fingers. Rosa…Gilda…even Emily. You all remain in the shadows. For now…

2 comments:

Jamie Coville said...

Thanks for keeping up with this and for keeping us up to date as well.

Jeff Derrickson said...

What an incredible story!

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