In a wingback armchair, the kind seen in old drawing rooms and thrift stores, sits a man with a face that had always been hidden. But here I have come, out to a quiet street most famous for the dust storms that engulfed it in the thirties, to unmask this face for the first time. The mask is what we all know: it is mask from photographs reprinted on everything from posters to textbooks to cigarette lighters.
The mask is a hero. Beneath it is just a man.
It is hard to reconcile those famous images with the old man before us. He wears a button-down white shirt with yellow stains inside the collar and a cardigan. A tissue tucked inside his sleeve comes to air as two dogs, Lucky and Stetson, wrestle on a rug in the middle of the room. The walls are unadorned save for a coat of paint from the 1980s.
His name, we know now, is Timothy Tuttle, and his voice is croaky with age and lighter and more affected than one might expect. He does not drink from the offered glass of water even though it might smooth over the cracks. As an iPhone meets with the coffee table, open to a voice recorder app, he laughs softly, murmuring, “Isn’t that something?” As the light goes on and he gets his signal, he coughs, wipes his lower lip, and repeats the announcement that became the headlines of newspapers across the world: “I was Ultraman.”
No shrines exist to corroborate his story. His closet is void of paraphernalia. No caves live beneath his house; no rows of latex costumes lie behind a bookcase. Tuttle has seen nothing of his old mask in decades. The last of it, he claims, was left in a dumpster somewhere beyond the cares of the golden world. His eyes cast downward with that detail. A dumpster. “On the edge of town somewhere,” he tosses out, “I can’t remember where.” That was in 1976.
This revelation places at the bottom of a landfill a thick layer of spandex, blue with that instantly familiar yellow trim. The boots were knee-high green. Plastic, he insists, not leather as everyone believes. He explains with a detached rationality: “Leather would have been too expensive, something I would have had to custom order. That would leave a paper trail.” Mention of the green, plastic boots reminds him of long drives to seedy underbellies, of specialty shops in darkened parts of town. He made those trips with infrequent regularity in a rusty sedan, then a Volkswagen van, and then a panelled station wagon, but never in a flashy sports car like the movies would have us believe.
Those stories he inspired—radio serials, comic books, novels, television, films—always cast a trusted servant, an assistant, or a sidekick. But this was pure fabrication. “One might wonder how you could do it alone,” he insists, “But I did.” His wounds were healed in twenty-four clinics (“I told them I was a boxer.”), his costumes he made himself (“I had a serger.”), and his work-outs were done during the YMCA drop-in (“It was free and I was never Bruce Wayne.”).
He lifts a pair of horn-rimmed glasses from his eyes and wipes the lenses with the bottom of his shirt. “Yes, I did it alone. It might sound impossible, but it seemed to me impossible to do with someone else. How do you bring someone into that world? I spent all this time making a fortress of myself, how could I suddenly let someone inside?”
The fragments of life outside the mask read like an obituary: parents, William and Linda, a salesman and a homemaker; older brother, Steve, a high school quarterback-turned-auto mechanic; and himself, Timothy, born into the cradle of a middle America riding an inter-war high. His first home was a tenement; his first toy a stuffed bear. He gives these facts sparsely, unwilling to elaborate; perhaps he considers them unimportant.
He breathes deeply before he continues, but he does continue. With the suicide of his father when he was six years old, Linda struggled to build a life for her sons, eventually finding a job as a secretary for the local newspaper. Her connections there got Timothy his first job at the age of sixteen. By the end of the war, he’d moved up to reporting. His first story covered local vets returning home.
What he captured with that story was not the bright glamour of victory but the subtext of shellshock: “I found it troubling,” he admits, “to see that deadness in the soldiers’ eyes, to see that thousand-yard-stare and to wonder what it was they were staring at. They were looking at something the rest of us could not see, like ghosts perhaps, or maybe even just how it all fits together, this puzzle of the world. They saw life at its most elemental and they found it revolting. It terrified me, but it gave me a curiosity, a desire I never had before. The war was never really over for them, and so I decided it would never be for me either.”
The masked vigilante emerged in early 1946. By 1947, he’d been given a name: Ultraman. It was a name dubbed by the press (even if that press we now know was Tuttle himself). Ultraman, he says sheepishly, was easy journalistic fodder for a newspaperman like him. The public loved the easy morals of criminals brought to justice, and found riveting the on-going quest to rid the city of evil and crime. Timothy Tuttle’s stories often ended with an enigmatic tease: “Of course the photographs cannot show the colours of this hero’s uniform, but some witnesses recall yellow atop green, others claim blue.”
In late 1950, a villain appeared who would come to be labelled Ultraman’s nemesis: the self-styled Dr. Hydrogen. The battle between the two gave the public a hero to celebrate and a villain to denigrate for two decades. Yet Tuttle grows cagey when I bring up Dr. Hydrogen. “I suppose heroes need a nemesis,” he falters, “I knew you would ask [about him]. I mean, how could you not? He did what he did and I stopped him as best I could.”
When asked how twenty years could go by without the villain’s apprehension, his eyes cast back to the two dogs wrestling in the rug. He does not answer immediately, but stares silently at the dogs for a long while before tugging gently at Lucky’s tail. The dog shakes off his hand, ignores him, and pounces back on his playmate. Tuttle sighs: “It was what it was.”
Dr. Hydrogen, real name Samuel Sherkov, has been incarcerated at Littlefield Maximum Security Prison since his transfer there in 1980. He spends his days in solitary confinement, only mingling with the other inmates during meals. He likes it this way. After the first few troubled years of court appeals and loneliness, he found the peace of mind that previously alluded him.
His reaction to Timothy Tuttle’s revelation took place with a grim smile: “It’s been years. I hold no ill will. I know what it is like to live with that mask. If you pretend at something long enough, you forget how to do anything else. And the mask, it becomes a security blanket. I couldn’t do anything else anymore. In the long run, I am glad I was caught. It might have taken my freedom, but I got myself back. Hopefully now that he has [come out], he can too.”
The rivalry with Dr. Hydrogen brought wider attention to the superhero. Tuttle’s articles were reprinted in papers across the United States and Canada. He kept a desk at the New York Times, and it was there that he met Maggie McLean, a fellow journalist. Their relationship would prove to be the first and only one of his life.
Bright and ambitious, Maggie McLean consistently built her name on controversy. In the early seventies, her investigations into an international crime syndicate, which made victims of millions and a millionaire of Dr. Hydrogen, was expected to be a flash bomb of an exposé, eclipsing even Watergate.
As this exposé came to print, Timothy Tuttle delivered a bombshell of his own: an in-depth interview with Ultraman himself, the hero on record for the first time after twenty-five years. The interview, in which Ultraman announced his impending retirement, ran as an exclusive in Esquire but was quickly picked up by every major publication from La Monde to Playboy. As Tuttle was awarded the Pulitzer, McLean’s exposé was quickly forgotten, even though it brought about the incarceration of hundreds of criminals, Sherkov included.
Maggie McLean, who met with me in her Greenwich Village home, still feels the sting of that year: it spelt the end of a two decade-long relationship. She has neither seen nor spoken to Timothy Tuttle in close to thirty years. Although marked by a deep affection and mutual respect, their partnership held a quiet distance that allowed McLean to carry on with her work. “There was always something in the way with him, but I was okay with that. I never wanted those things they force upon you, […] a white wedding or picket fence. I just wanted my work.” They never lived together and often spent weeks apart. But after the Pulitzer, the gulf widened.
While smoking quietly on a patterned divan, she ran her empty fingers across the crown of a grey head. “This unmasking of Tim’s, it does answer a lot of lingering questions. Now I realize it must have been too much for him, the capture of Sherkov. He was getting old. He took pills for his cholesterol, for God’s sake. How could he be running around in tights? He must have known he couldn’t go on much longer.” Her eyes drifted out across the smoky haze as though contemplating unlived lives. “Perhaps he was angry with me. All those years of trying to catch Dr. Hydrogen by force and then I go and do it with words. I don’t know. Part of me now wonders if he never really wanted Dr. Hydrogen caught, like this whole thing was some game between children and I flipped the board.”
Timothy Tuttle has agreed to let a photograph run with this story. He shrugs: “Such is the burden of unmasking myself, I suppose.” In search of a decent backdrop, Mr. Tuttle leads us through his house: a bungalow on the outskirts of the city centre, one of those mid-century carbon copies that used to run for blocks in towns and cities across America. His home is something he acknowledges his mother might have retired to had she kept her health. But he reluctantly admits she would not have been happy with this news—“probably would have given her a stroke all over again”—neither her nor his brother, he adds, who passed away from prostate cancer last January.
As the dogs growl and nip playfully, Tuttle’s eyes drift over to them. Wider those eyes were decades ago, but still dark and hooded. They sag at the corners now. Studying them, it becomes all too obvious these were the eyes behind the mask in those old photos. No mystery remains here: just the explanations like the dredging of a river. One might make the assumption that his brother’s recent death plays some part in the decision to unmask himself, as if the sudden lonesomeness provides a freedom he has never had before.
As the photographer places the lights around the living room, Lucky and Stetson begin to whine. Tuttle leads them into the kitchen, where the sound of dry dog kibbles falls into metal bowls. The photographer and her assistant are discussing whether the model train in the corner of the room can be moved to accommodate a bounce flag as Tuttle returns. He claps his hands once to signal getting down to business in the same way a grandfather or a bank manager might. “Where do you want me?”
As the photographer directs him towards a chair, a quiet look of unease creeps over Timothy Tuttle’s face for just a moment before it disappears again, replaced by a posed smile, a mask.