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Miamian, a lyricist at heart, is comic book legend

MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Something you may not know about comic books.

“There were two words you could never use,” recalls Lee Goldsmith, a former DC Comics writer and Broadway lyricist. “They were flick and the name Clint.”

Goldsmith, who at 92 is one of the few surviving authors of such classics as The Flash, The Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, pauses for the inevitable question — and then laughs wryly before explaining why: When words were reduced from initial drawing to printed page, letters often blended together. The “l” and the “i” could be mistaken for a u. Flick turned into … well, you can figure out the rest.

Another not-too-well-kept secret: Those romance comics aimed at the teenage set — the hugely popular “Girls Love Stories” that ran until 1973? Many were written by men including Goldsmith, who discovered he had an uncanny talent to channel the pent-up emotions of the typical 16-year-old girl of that era.

“What do you expect?” he chortles. “I’m gay!”

These days, Goldsmith may need a magnifying glass to read and assistance to get around. He may visit doctors more than he would care to. But his sense of humor, his way with words, those talents have only been refined by time. He will be honored by the retirement community he now calls home, East Ridge at Cutler Bay, with a private Superhero Saturday event next Saturday that will include a talk about the glory years and a Superhero Costume Contest.

“It was a surprise,” Goldsmith says of the event. “I suppose people hear comic books and they make a big deal of it. They don’t care about anything else.”

In other words, decades after penning his first story for DC Comics, Goldsmith remains amused by the zealous fanaticism of comic book readers. After all, he defines himself more as a lyricist, a man infatuated with words.

“I love words,” he says. “To be a good lyricist, you have to have a lifelong love affair with the English language.”

Writing comic book stories was simply a way to earn a living, a career launched in an unlikely way. Released from the army after serving in the Pacific during World War II, Goldsmith got from a friend the name of a DC Comics editor who was looking for writers. He knew nothing about what he calls “unmovable movies” because he had never read a comic. But without a college degree, he felt he didn’t have many options.

The editor handed over a stack of comic books so Goldsmith could familiarize himself with the plot line. Then he gave him a situation and asked him to return with a story. It passed muster and he was hired. He would go on to work for the company until the early ’70s, a career that spanned almost three decades.

Writing for the comic book trade provided him with a good living. He was paid $12 a finished page; each story was about seven pages. He was bringing home a couple hundred dollars a week, a good income for a New York kid who had grown up poor.

Goldsmith says he is often asked if he kept any of the titles he authored. Comic fans are legion and always looking for an original to add to a collection.

“He can’t even remember the ones he actually wrote, they were so many,” says Jeff Haller, his partner of 18 years.

In fact, Goldsmith remembers one practice that is sure to upset ardent fans. Every day, writers were tasked with getting rid of leftover comic books, which they did by the bushel. These trashed titles would probably fetch a nice sum on eBay these days.

“Who thought of keeping those things, anyway?” Goldsmith shrugs. “There were no credits for the writer or the artist.”

But perhaps more important than a handsome paycheck was the fact that his job as comic book writer was also a form of education.

“In a comic book page, you can’t waste a single word,” he explains, “and that’s great training for a lyricist.”

Goldsmith had loved musical theater since he was a child. With his older sister, he regularly listened to the music of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan on the radio, an unusual pastime for a boy growing up in the 1920s. When he graduated from eighth grade, his sister treated him to the Cole Porter Broadway classic Anything Goes, then starring Ethel Merman.

“I was simply blown away,” he recalls. “It changed my life.”

Goldsmith would experiment with lyric writing for years before sitting down with composer Lawrence Hurwit to write Sextet, a musical that would play on Broadway for about two weeks in the early 1970s, starring Dixie Carter. (Carter would later become famous for her role in the TV sitcom Designing Women.) Two of the Sextet characters were gay men, an edgy concept even for the New York of the time. The play would also attract the attention of his pre-war girlfriend, the late Estelle Getty, who played Sophia Petrillo, the wise-cracking mother on the 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls. Once reunited, the two pals would remain in touch until her death.

Sextet was the start of a new career path for Goldsmith. He eventually teamed up with composer Roger Anderson to write seven more musicals. Their Chaplin, which premiered at the Shores Performing Arts Theater, won a Carbonell Award and made its way to London. Their collaboration on Shine!, with author Richard Seff, also resulted in a Broadway USA Award. His most recent work as a lyricist, Abe, on the life of Abraham Lincoln, premiered in Quincy, Illinois, in 2009.

A longtime Miami resident — he moved here in 1958 after visiting his mother and stepfather — Goldsmith is still enchanted by words. At one point, he breaks into song, a rendition of A Handful of Hops from Shine! His love of rhyme is obvious.

“A handful of hops,” he sings, “a bit of the barley, some water that’s cool and clear. It’s easy to fix it, a paddle to mix it and you’ve got yourself some beer.”

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