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There’s Still Time Yet For Heroes: An Interview With Golden Age Writer Lee Goldsmith

Contributed by Mickey Angel Estefan Jr.

Off a main interstate in Cutler Bay, FL, through a couple of long neighborhood streets and a roundabout, you end up at the security house entrance of East Ridge at Cutler Bay, a 76 acre retirement village tucked away like a secret magical hamlet.

The security guard at the entrance asked the purpose of my visit to which I replied, “I am here for Superhero Saturday!” The event was in honor of Golden Age comic book scribe and World War II veteran, Lee Goldsmith, a resident of this community who at age 92 had apparently become a town celeb and had recently made it known in a Miami Herald interview that he was gay.

The guard instructed me to park my car in a designated lot for visitors and to wait on a bus that would take me into the community. I thought I would be able to just drive in and I pondered how carefully this little village was protected.

Another security staff member, a middle aged tanned man with a short sleeve work shirt and security patch, lifted a police tape and moved a traffic cone so I could park in the almost full visitor parking. He directed me to a small van that would take me into the secluded neighborhood. As I boarded the bus, a young boy about 11 years old, sat in the driver seat. With amusement I asked, “Are you driving?”. To which he replied, “I wish!” I imagined his fantasy of tearing through this quiet nook with 20 miles-per-hour street signs on every block and corner.

The guard in the lot turned out to be the actual driver and, I presumed, the kid’s father. After confirming I was heading to the event, we set forth to the village’s community center. As we drove through at the most prudent of speeds, we passed by row upon row of pretty garden homes and villas, in light sunny colors, with manicured lawns – with not a soul on the street or sidewalk. This almost make-believe town was a mishmash of Pleasantville meets Smallville meets Riverdale. For a moment though, the beauty and isolation and lack of human sightings made me wonder if I hadn’t stepped into Stepford, Connecticut – but instead of Stepford Wives, Stepford Seniors. And I thought to myself, “No one knows I am here and I don’t know how to get back to my car.”

When we arrived to the community center I was instructed simply “go through those double white doors and make a left.” Now I knew for sure I was going to disappear. I grabbed my bag and camera and thanked the father and son as I stepped off and followed the directions. I entered the building, made a left and followed a small hallway that opened into a cacophony of sights and sounds of banquet tables; superhero decor; kids running around; a face painter; a cotton candy machine; catering tables with food; and staff and residents dressed like comic book characters. I felt like Dorothy Gale stepping out of my tornado blown house into a world of MGM color.

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I was greeted my a woman in a Spider-man webbed shirt who immediately gave me a pencil and raffle ticket. I thought for sure someone would ask me who I was and why I was there, a complete stranger to the village. But they welcomed me without question. I took a seat at a banquet round to fill out my ticket. All around me were either staff or resident’s family members dressed up in costume. There was a Supergirl, a Batgirl, about two dozen children of all ages, and at least one resident of the retirement community dressed as Wonder Woman with a sign at her waist stating “RETIRED.”

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When I returned my ticket I advised Spider-Woman that I was here to write a story and would it be okay for me to take pictures. Overhearing the conversation, Rick Drew, the village’s Director of Sales, attired in a Spider-man shirt and baseball cap asked me, “Well, have you met Lee yet?”. I hadn’t and he quickly walked me over to a table at the far end of the room where Lee, surrounded by friends was sitting. “Lee, this man is here to write a story about you.” And just like that I was in business.

Lee Goldsmith sat in his wheelchair, wearing a Dickies black short-sleeved shirt with his East Ridge name tag pinned over his shirt pocket. Behind his thin rimmed glasses were kind bright eyes only matched by a huge smile as I introduced myself and shook his hand. While I sat down a woman had also come by to greet him and kissed him on the forehead. He turned to me and said, “You didn’t give me one of those.” So I stood back up and kissed him on the head. When in Rome….

He asked me what I would like to talk about and I answered, “How does it feel to be the Superhero of the day?”

“Well, this is all kind of funny. I haven’t written a comic book for over forty years.” As a matter of fact the body of work Goldsmith is probably most known for is as lyricist and book writer for musicals such as Come Back, Little Sheba, a 1974 musical adaptation of the 1950 play; and his collaborations with composer Roger Anderson: Shine! (1983), Chaplin (1993), and the most recent one about the life of Abraham Lincoln, Abe, the Lincoln Musical (2009).

An interesting story from his early stage years involved his work Sextet (1974), a musical with six characters about straight and gay couplings which starred Dixie Carter. Estelle Getty of Golden Girls fame had seen Goldsmith’s name on the marquee of the Bijou Theater in New York and demanded to see Lee. Getty was Goldsmith’s fiancé before the war, an engagement Goldsmith broke off after realizing he was gay after some experiences in the army. They had lunch and remained close friends until her death.

Goldsmith is a little surprised at comic fandom or that people would even care so many years later about stories he wrote so long ago. As a matter of fact back in the forties extra copies of what we now consider Golden Age comic treasures were thrown into the incinerator, a fact that would make comic book collectors cringe in horror.

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In the 1940s, many writers in the comic book industry weren’t fans of the medium trying to break in, but everyday Joes needing a job. Goldsmith had served in the Pacific arena of World War II, fighting “on our side” he pointed out just to be clear. He told me “the only job for a man in the time of war is to survive. That was all one could do in a war. Survive.” It was the only solemn remark he had made all day in an otherwise afternoon full of quick witted quips.

“The year was 1492. I am kidding, it was 1493,” he told the audience as he began his tale. Goldsmith returned stateside to San Francisco and made his way back to New York by train over four days and three nights. In his box car there was a door next to his seat which he opened and found a luxurious state room with its own private bathroom. He entered the room and rode in it the rest of the trip without anyone ever finding him.

He arrived in New York with “no job, no skills and no college degree.” He had done some writing in high school and the Army and a “friend of a friend of a friend,” who turned out to be the wife of an editor at National Comics – the predecessor in 1944 of National Periodical Publications which would much later officially become DC Comics.

Goldsmith had never even read a comic book before when he sat with the editor who gave him the following synopsis for a comic book script, “Flash is on a deserted island, tied to a tree, with no one to help him. How does he escape?”. Goldsmith came back with a script and was hired on the spot.

He earned twelve dollars a page, for ten page scripts, writing two scripts a week. At just over $200 a week in earnings right after the war Goldsmith was making good money and was able to afford the rent on his own apartment in New York City. “Most of the writer and artists worked at home in their apartments. Only the editors worked in the offices on Lexington. He then added jokingly, “I wrote from home because I was too busy drinking.”

Goldsmith wrote the Golden Age classic stories of Green Lantern, the Flash, and Wonder Woman, his favorite, in Sensation Comics. He remembers the high quality of the writers who in those days didn’t receive any author credits in their books. Batman and Superman were hands off except to the original creators of those characters and contracted writers like Goldsmith just churned story after story on a dearth of books. “It wasn’t as easy as you might think. Writing a script for a comic book was like a movie script, with screen shots.”

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After the war, superhero comics lost popularity and companies like DC started to produce all genre fare like westerns, war stories, horror, science fiction, and romance comic books. Goldsmith spent nearly thirty years writing love story comics books like Girl’s Love Stories, which ran from 1949 into the early 70’s.

“I was very successful with love story comics. If you want to know how I knew to write the pent up passions of a teenage girl so well, let my psychiatrist answer that question for you.” He continued to work with DC Comics for almost 30 years until Warner Brothers bought DC Comics and moved a portion of the operation to California. They offered to move him out there but he didn’t want to leave New York City and from then on continued with the real love of his life, musical theater.

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His love of music not only led him to his career as musical book writer and lyricist but also to his long time partner and husband of eighteen years. Goldsmith had pointed over his shoulder and said proudly, “See this handsome man behind me? That’s my husband.” And Jeff Haller, a fellow lover of opera and critic in his own right, stood loyally as he has since both he and Goldsmith met by chance in 1997, in a restaurant near the Miami-Dade County Auditorium while attending an opera.

I asked Goldsmith about the recent United States Supreme Court decision that made marriage equality the law of the land. “Did you think this would ever happen in our lifetime?” To which he replied, “For most of my life I would go to other people’s weddings and hear them ask the bride ‘Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?’ I never thought those words would be spoken to me!” I added “Well, it’s been almost a month now since the SCOTUS decision and despite the doomsayers, the world hasn’t ended.” Goldsmith looked at me, then down to his watch, and back up at me with a big mischievous grin on his face, “There’s still time yet!”

Mickey Angel Estefan Jr is a freelance writer for a performing arts site and his personal blog Mickey’s Ramblings.  Read Mickey’s  Gift Of Saying Goodbye. Photos also by Mickey Angel Estefan Jr.

Appreciative thanks to Dale Lazarov who first brought Lee Goldsmith to Mickey’s and Gay League’s attention.

May 27, 2020
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