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Joanne Siegel dies at 93; model for Superman character Lois Lane

She married the Man of Steel's co-creator, writer Jerry Siegel, and successfully fought a long legal battle to regain his copyrights to Superman and related characters.

February 18, 2011|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • Joanne Siegel's personality was infused into the Lois Lane character, her daughter says. She was "very smart and determined, and she had a lot of guts; she was a courageous person."
Joanne Siegel's personality was infused into the Lois Lane character,…

Joanne Siegel, who played a role in the creation of the Superman saga in the 1930s as Joe Shuster's teenage artist's model for Lois Lane and later married the Man of Steel's co-creator, writer Jerry Siegel, has died. She was 93.

Siegel, a longtime resident of Marina del Rey who successfully fought a long legal battle to regain her late husband's copyrights to Superman and related characters, died Saturday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, said her daughter, Laura Siegel Larson. The cause of death has not yet been determined.

Joanne Siegel was high school student Joanne Kovacs when she took out a small classified ad under "Situation Wanted — Female" in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the Depression year of 1935: "ARTIST MODEL: No experience."

One of the responses to the ad came from Shuster, a young Cleveland artist who was developing Superman as a potential cartoon strip with his young writer friend, Siegel.

"Joe was taking art lessons and felt that he needed someone to pose as the Lois Lane character for the Superman story. So I posed," Joanne Siegel recalled in a 1996 interview with the Plain Dealer.

"I remember the day I met Jerry in Joe's living room. Jerry was the model for Superman. He was standing there in a Superman-like pose. He said their character was going to fly through the air, and he leaped off the couch to demonstrate."

Siegel's daughter said that "one of the things [Shuster and Siegel] were particularly interested in is how would a woman look like if she was being carried in the arms of someone flying through the air.

"So they set up a chair that had arms on it, and my mom draped herself across one arm and her legs across the other arm, and Joe drew her in that position."

At least three women in the Cleveland area reportedly have claimed to have been the inspiration for Lois Lane over the years, but Joanne Siegel said in the 1996 interview that they were all wrong.

"My dad actually wrote a letter to Time magazine one time because he was so aggravated over people making claims on this," Larson said. "Joe Shuster also wrote a letter. He wanted to make sure that everybody knew my mom was the actual model [for Lane].

"My father said she not only posed for the character, but from the day he met her it was her personality that he infused into the character. She was not only beautiful but very smart and determined, and she had a lot of guts; she was a courageous person."

Superman made his debut in 1938, in Action Comics No. 1 published by the predecessor of DC Comics. The character became an immediate sensation and was on its way to becoming one of the most recognizable characters in the world.

Siegel and Shuster, however, signed a publisher's release in 1938, and a court later ruled that they had sold the entire Superman copyright for $130.

The daughter of Hungarian immigrants, Joanne Siegel was born Jolan Kovacs in Cleveland on Dec. 1, 1917. (Because teachers and classmates found her first name difficult to pronounce — it's pronounced YO-lon — they called her Joanne.)

After graduating from high school, she modeled in Boston and New York under the name Joanne Carter before working in a Los Angeles-area shipyard during World War II.

After the war, she moved back to New York City, where she was reunited with Siegel, whom she married in 1948; they had both been married to other people and divorced.

The previous year, Shuster and Siegel had tried and failed to get back the rights to Superman.

After that, Larson said, "my father tried to get work and found that publishers were not willing to hire him. He had been blacklisted. My mother and father lived in complete poverty for many, many years.

"It was due to my mom's ingenuity that she called up the publisher of Superman at a certain point and said, 'How can you sit by and continue to make millions of dollars off of a character that Jerry co-created and allow him to live in this unbelievable poverty?'

"And it was due to her determination and keeping after them for several years that eventually my father went back to work as an uncredited writer on many Superman, Lois Lane, Supergirl and other stories."

Before the release of the 1978 "Superman" movie, a campaign led by comic book writers and artists led what was then known as Warner Communications — the parent company of DC Comics — to agree to give both Shuster and Siegel $20,000 a year for the rest of their lives.

Jerry Siegel died in 1996.

"His wish was for my mom and me to continue his quest to regain ownership of the character that he created with such love," Larson said.

Due to new provisions in the Copyright Act, she said, they successfully regained those rights in a 2008 federal court ruling. However, the Siegel family is still waiting to receive money that has been owed to them since 1999.

In addition to her daughter, Siegel is survived by a sister, Sophie Halko; and two grandsons.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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