November 18, 1996 12:00 PM

by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

Kids across America learned a terrible truth on June 16, 1959: Superman was not faster than a speeding bullet. George Reeves, the actor they knew as the Man of Steel—aka Clark Kent—in the syndicated TV series The Adventures of Superman, died of a gunshot wound to the head in the bedroom of his L.A. bungalow. Police quickly ruled his death a suicide.

Too quickly, argue Kashner and Schoenberger, who also collaborated on A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant. Although Reeves, 43, had reportedly been despondent over his inability to land another acting job after five years of flying out of windows, bending guns into pretzels and fending off fans during personal-appearance tours (“You bum—let’s see you fly!” yelled one pint-size heckler), he was far from suicidal, say the authors. Not only had he cheerfully signed to appear in—and possibly direct—three new episodes of Superman, but he was engaged to wed Leonore Lemmon, a former nightclub chanteuse.

So how do the authors think Reeves died? Murder, they write. Toni Man-nix, Reeves’s possessive paramour of 10 years whom he had jilted for Lemmon, was the wife of Eddie “the Bulldog” Mannix, an MGM executive with reputed Mob connections. Toni allegedly hired a contract killer to creep into Reeves’s bedroom and shoot him while he slept. Though there’s no one around to contradict this theory (Toni died in 1974; the Bulldog, nine years earlier), Reeves’s autopsy reveals bruises suggesting that he may have struggled with an attacker just before he died. More compelling is the book’s portrait of Reeves as a talented actor and a likable guy forced to cope with life in padded blue tights and a billowy red cape. (St. Martin’s,” $21.95)

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