by Joe Kennedy
CONCEPTION ON A COUCH
Shortly after the atom bomb went off, blowing a lot of Japs all to hell and providing John W. Campbell Jr. with a topic to write a non-fiction book about, things began getting back to normal. Rameses cigarets and Orbit chewing gum vanished from the market; newspapers went back to using small headlines; and George R. Fox of Rahway, New Jersey, decided to form a whiz-bang new science fiction club.
One balmy December day in 1945, this club was conceived on a couch in Fox's livingroom. Somebody sitting on the couch -- I forget whether it was Lloyd Alpaugh or Sam Moskowitz or Bob Gaulin or me -- thought up a name for the organization. "World of Null-A" was running in Astounding at the time, and so the club was named "The (Null-)A-Men".
It was, as Moskowitz later remarked, the first time in fan history that a club had been named after a story which none of its members liked.
Ten people from Jersey and New York got together at Moskowitz's house the following January, to eat Moskowitz's liverwurst and paw with unwashed hands through his magnificent collection of rare fanzines in bound volumes. This was the second meeting of the A-Men.
In March 1946 the A-Men considered themselves sufficiently mighty to sponsor an affair which foundered under the official title of The First Post-war Eastern Science Fiction Convention.
Now, although George Fox and I lifted a couple of fingers to mimeograph and address a wad of circulars, the First Postwar Eastern was Moskowitz's show from start to finish. He hired the hall, he talked L. Sprague de Camp into giving a speech, and ran the affair like a veteran ringmaster.
More than a hundred people squeezed into Newark's gloomy Slovak Sokol Hall. For our heroic efforts on the convention committee, Fox and I were given the honor of sitting up on the speakers' platform. Manly Wade Wellman and Tremaine and Merwin and Robert Arthur and Wollheim spoke briefly; a little guy with horn-rimmed glasses stuttered forth a question and I didn't find out until a year afterward that this had been George Ebey; Helen Wesson was wandering around with an armload of The ... Things, looking beautiful and bewildered as she tried to locate all the people that the copies were supposed to go to. Afterward, an account of the proceedings somehow managed to get into -- of all places -- Harper's Magazine.
Tom Hadley was there, too.
Of the fabulous individuals whose fannish trajectories my own has crossed, Tom Hadley will remain one of the fabulousest. The man himself is surrounded in legend. His mother, some say, is a multi-millionaire. I do not know if there is any truth to the story that when Hadley, out driving, confounded a tree with the highway, he calmly phoned for another new Cadillac. At the Philcon, anyhow, the hotel staff leaped to his service as if motivated by springs.
Hadley had just published The Time Stream by John Taine, and he brought along a couple hundred copies which were offered for sale at the con. As the firewater rose higher in Hadley's head, the price of The Time Stream sank lower. Collectors who, minutes earlier, had relinquished three dollars for the volume, were mad as bloody hell when the book was suddenly offered for two.
At the auction Hadley was the biggest buyer. After a bitter bidding duel with Gerry de la Ree over a not-particularly good Lawrence original, Hadley peeled off fifteen dollars, took a close look at the drawing, and bellowed: "Migawd! What made me buy this?" He also paid five dollars for a batch of old Cosmic Circle Commentators.
It seems to me, though, that Hadley deserves much of the credit for starting the current stampede to cram sci-fic between hard covers. When The Time Stream first appeared, I heard fully a score of people opine that Hadley was throwing his money down a hole. There were not 2,000 stf fans who'd plunk down $3 for a book, said the prophets gloomily. The only reason Arkham House prospered was that it specialized in weird fiction, for which there was a larger audience.
Hadley continued throwing his money down a hole. I read the other day that Fantasy Press has printed 7,000 copies of EESmith's Triplanetary.
SKYLARKS OF SLOVAK SOKOL
Eight weeks later Sam Moskowitz again stood on the rostrum of Slovak Sokol Hall. Fifteen faces smiled wanly up at him.
Though the sperm of the Eastern Science Fiction Association had been planted on George Fox's couch, it was not until this organizational meeting in April 1946 that the ESFA was yanked into the world, a squalling, hairy brat; its umbilical cord snipped, and its back roundly thumped to encourage respiration. This meeting also marked the first appearance on the fan scene of fifteen-year-old Ricky Slavin. Of this, more later.
A long, dull political meeting was spent in arguing over by-laws and such stuff. The old name, the (Null-)A-Men, was given the ax. Two more votes and the club would have been named "The Odd Johns" instead of ESFA.
Not the least attractive feature of Slovak Sokol Hall was the fact that it rented for $3. The proprietor, a cunning character, allowed this low rent in the expectation of getting business for his bar downstairs. Little did he realize that the upper lips of fully half the club's membership bore less fuzz than a peace -- uh -- peach. Many a sober speech on the place of science fiction in the modern world was drowned out by the thumping strains of a polka wafting upward, accompanied by legions of boots clomping the barroom floor.
From the nativity of ESFA, there was little doubt in anybody's mind that the man who should by rights run the club was Sam Moskowitz. Virtually single-handedly, he had presented the First Postwar Eastern Conference; nobody else had the personal contacts necessary to get big-name speakers. Even after the reincarnation of the Queens SF League in the fall of '46, many New Yorkers continued trooping over to Newark the first Sunday of every month. Elections were a polite formality. The ESFA was Sam Moskowitz, and its members seemed well satisfied.
The man who has piloted ESFA for the past four-and-a-half years should rate at least a paragraph here. Moskowitz, as most actifans know, is physically massive. Indeed, he worked for a time as a boxing instructor. He has a powerful voice that would fill Mammoth Cave. He is an interesting speaker because he himself is interested in everything in creation. I have heard him deliver impromptu a discourse on the colonial history of Newark, then switch to poetry or politics with equal competence. He has remarked on occasion that he works as a truck-driver because it is a job which places little strain on his eyesight, which he believes was impaired by overconcientious reading of the letter sections in the Gernsback pulps, which were printed in microscopic type. Moskowitz is a highly readable writer because of his ability to pick out shrewd angles in his topic which nobody else would ever think of. Fandom has not produced many better critics because there are not many people in fandom who can match his enthusiasm.
ESFA was not only a convivial place to spend a Sunday afternoon but it soon became a marketplace where dealers could spread their wares. Membership cards were struck off by Sykora, bearing the initials of the club in huge scarlet letters. I have heard of at least one member who flashed one of these things in a bar and was mistaken for a Communist.
Toward the end of the year, meetings degenerated into much bitter wrangling over whether the club should boycott Amazing for printing the Shaver Mystery, and whether there was such a thing as fantasy music. These bickerings led Gerry de la Ree to quit the club in disgust. A few others followed.
Interesting as it was to look at writers (Frank Belknap Long, a retiring individual, faced the assembly like a hare ringed in by hounds), lots of people went to the ESFA because of the enjoyable bull sessions afterward. The younger mob, as soon as the meeting was over if not sooner, would streak for the nearest Chinese eatery.
One Sunday night a bunch of us youths were as usual chawing chop suey in one of these joints when a rather memorable incident occurred. Monroe Kuttner, a faithful ESFAttendee, was afflicted by a queasy stomach. To tantilize him, Fox related an anecdote about a Chinese chef who suffered from leprosy. Parts of the chef's anatomy kept unexpectedly dropping off; so one day a patron of the house sank his fork into a steaming heap of chow mein only to draw it forth holding a human thumb in an advanced stage of decay. Fox swore up and down that this tale was true. As he listened to this, poor Kuttner's face assumed the color of fish. "Things don't happen like that in these Chinese joints!" he gurgled. "They're cleaner than any other kind!" So saying, he cut open a tomato on his plate and out rolled a plump louse.
On one occasion the club heard a talk by Kenneth Sterling M. D., an oldtime member of the Futurians and a close friend of H. P. Lovecraft. Sterling spent about an hour lecturing on the chief causes of death in the United States, giving statistics for fatalities due to cancer and heart disease in great profusion. As the hour dragged to a close, he remarked, "Well, I'd intended to discuss my friendship with Lovecraft, but I see my time is just about up, so I thank you all for your kind attention," and sat down. John Michel was there too, chewing a sinister black cigar.
Sterling's speech was one of the few events in fan history which have been reported right on the spot. Maddox had lugged his bulky Speed-o-Print machine all the way from Greenwich Village. In the white heat of enthusiasm, he struck off the latest issue of his newssheet, The Fan Spectator.
After the meeting the skies opened wide up and it rained like all billy-hell. I will never forget passers-by in the middle of Newark gawking openmouthedly as we hiked through the downpour brandishing this colossal Speed-o-Print machine in the air. We ducked into a horror movie, where a flabbergasted usher agreed to park the contraption in some hole in the wall which was, I believe, the men's room.
But -- ahh! Those magnificent after-meeting bull sessions. The anecdotes that would bubble forth like pin-points of carbon dioxide coming out of a ginger ale bottle, as hoary veterans of the early days of fandom would spin forth yarn after yarn --
One anecdote was about the former editor of Super Science who got the glorious wage of $15 a week. His secretary also got $15, so he fired her, did her work too and got $30.
Then there was the former editor of Astounding (one of them) who used to snag spare cash by writing stories under pennames and selling them to himself. Now, this is a thing which lots of editors have to do in order to eat decently. But one day his boss took a look at the files and discovered that a lot of stories had been bought and paid for which the editor hadn't gotten around to writing yet. Astounding abruptly got a new editor.
Moskowitz claimed he once almost sold a book-length novel to Doc Lowndes, his bitter feuding-enemy. Seems Future Fiction was crying for material. Julius Unger offered to latch onto the manuscript of a sensational science-fiction novel, written by a woman who'd never appeared in the pulps before ... was Lowndes interested? So Lowndes replied sure, let's have a look at it. Moskowitz, the "woman" in question, then began working night and day to write this sensational science fiction novel. Future Fiction, lacking a lead novel, was delayed. Lowndes tore his hair. Just when SaM was putting the final touches on his book-length masterpiece, Lowndes made a deal with Ray Cummings to reprint a long string of that worthy's novels. Well, so the story goes.
During the ESFA's first year, Moskowitz was having a lot of trouble with his landlord. This dignitary kept breaking into the locked room down in the basement where SaM stored his surplus books and prozine duplicates, and making off with armloads of choice items.
"I don't know what he steals them for," said SaM sadly. "He can't read."
LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI
The first time fifteen-year-old Ricky Slavin came to ESFA, I got the impression that she was a nice, innocent, slightly naive kid. Hence I received something of a jolt at the following meeting, during the course of which she calmly blew a lungful of cigarette smoke into my eyes and asked me whether I was a virgin.
Ricky Slavin was dark-haired, plump, and pretty. She soon got to know almost every stefnist of importance in the metropolitan area, and ESFA promptly elected her secretary. Her contributions to a serious discussion were keen, almost brilliant. ESFA males soon discovered that to arouse her wrath was like chucking a torch into a pile of TNT.
Once I wrote an account of the October 1946 Philly conference which Virginia Blish said was an awful waste of my considerable talents. On the train coming back from this conference, Slavin and I were chatting.
"Sometimes," she sighed, "I get so mad at this stupid world and all the men in it that I feel like casting myself under the cruel, rolling wheels of this train."
"Well, why don't you?" I said politely.
"You jerk," she spat, "I've got something that will take care of a jerk like you. You never saw my hidden fang, did you? Well, I'll show you something that will make your eyes pop --"
So saying, she tugged her skirt right up to her hip. As I looked on helplessly, she began drawing something out of the top of her stocking. It was a switch blade knife. She flicked the trigger and a wicked-looking seven-inch blade shot out toward me.
"Feel this!" she hissed. "It's sharp enough to rip your guts out." Then, to my relief, she returned the weapon to its hiding place.
There came into being a state of undeclared warfare between Slavin and ESFA's director. On one or two occasions somebody bought Ricky a drink downstairs in the Slovak Sokol bar; this innocent occurrence filled Moskowitz with visions of the club losing its three-dollar meeting hall. (In New Jersey you have to be 21 even to buy a beer.)
The full story may never be known, but anyhow Slavin went storming up to Moskowitz's third-floor apartment one day, unannounced and uninvited, determined to do him dirt. An argument followed. Slavin seized his prized copy of The Outsider and Others, hurled the volume to the floor, and ripped to shreds the book's dustjacket.
Since collecting is a way of life to SaM, she could not have touched a more vulnerable spot. So far as I have been able to figure out, ESFA's director practically flung the poor girl down two flights of stairs, then booted her into the street.
"After all," said SaM mournfully as he related the tale, "the dustjacket alone was worth five dollars!"
From that day on, he imposed a ban against Slavin's entering Slovak Sokol Hall.
In December '46, Alpaugh, Ron Maddox, Fox, and I held a oneshot-fanzine session at which we knocked ourselves out publishing a thing entitled Tails of Passionate Fans. The piece de resistance of this literary abortion was a story purporting to have been ghostwritten by Stanley G. Weinbaum, and Slavin was the heroine of it. When Slavin latched onto a copy of this thing, she sent special-delivery letters to the fathers of the four co-editors, threatening to sue for libel and I don't remember what all else. By luck, every one of the four co-editors managed to intercept the letters, and Fox even went so far as to write an answer, signing his father's name to it. A couple of years later Alpaugh published a second issue of Tails, but it was tame stuff by comparison.
Then there was the time Joe Schaumberger was in a penny arcade and discovered one of those machines which you put a penny in and you press down the right keys and a little strip of tin comes out the bottom with your name on. On this contraption Schaumberger typed out an obscene greeting and mailed the little piece of tin to Slavin. She promptly sicced the postal authorities on him, and Schaumberger told me this greatly influenced his decision to join the army abruptly.
A year or so after Slavin stopped coming to ESFA, I met her at a Queens SF League conclave. She planted her foot squarely in the middle of my pratt.
She is married now, and doesn't go to science fiction meetings any more. She is, without doubt, one of the most real personalities I have ever met, and somehow I have always liked her. Someday when I write my Great American Novel I would like to use her as a character in it, if I thought she wouldn't mind.
THE ANCIENT MYSTERIES
Paul Dennis O'Connor's appearances at the ESFA, though infrequent, were memorable. Drooping eyelids and an affected Boston accent are the characteristics of the man that stand out in my recollections of him. He is, of course, best known for publishing two fragmentary Merritt novels with endings by Bok.
I would say without hesitation that O'Connor is by far the most enjoyable impromptu speaker I have ever listened to. His rare addresses to the ESFA were a dazzling bunch of bawdy quips, bellylaugh-provoking anecdotes about well known writers and editors -- at least half inaccurate, but all uproarious.
O'Connor once bowled over an ESFA audience by remarking in a perfectly deadpan fashion: "Contrary to many reports, I am not in the habit of sprawling in the nude on a yellow chaise lounge." He was fond of flashing a huge green ring coyly about. "The stone in this ring," he explained, "is genuine emerald taken form the eyesocket of an Egyptian mummy."
To characterize O'Connor as a fruit would be, I think, dead wrong. He has a subtle sense of humor. I always got the impression that his mannerisms were put on often as a gag, as a clever and carefully studied pose, designed to amuse other people.
On a few occasions O'Connor threw open his apartment and showed old Fritz Lang movies and army training films. Various queers from the village were among the crowd. I am indebted to Lloyd Alpaugh for an account of one of these open-house clambakes. Les Mayer, a good-looking ex-GI, was seated in O'Connor's darkened bedroom watching movies when a couple of characters sat down on either side of him. Though they were males, they wore fingernail polish and tried to snuggle up to him. This naturally disconcerted Mayer. Hieing himself to another chair several yards away, he tried to ignore the characters. The latter, who so far as I know were not fans, simpered and moved after him. Around and around the room they went, Mayer vacating chair after chair and the characters following him hell-bent, giggling all the while.
"You know" said Mayer to Alpaugh when the movies were over and they were going home, "I believe those two guys were fairies."
In bull-sessions after an ESFA meeting, O'Connor was a very interesting man to listen to. One night in a cafeteria he delivered a long and wonderful discourse about the time Hannes Bok was employed to paint some sexy murals for Dunninger, the mind reader; about how Derleth used to pay off his dust-jacket artists in copies of Arkham House books; how the New Collectors Group was not going to publish Merritt's sequel to The Moon Pool because Mrs. Merritt wanted a dime a word for it. He then went into a diatribe against all science-fiction fans, whom he considered viler than maggots; proceeded to read the palms of several people at the table including Ron Clyne; and spoke very seriously of the forgotten mysteries which only the ancient sages knew.
I believe it was around this time that Moskowitz went to New York in a rented car and bought up all the copies of The Fox Woman that O'Connor had left, for speculation. He did, however, sell them at a fair price to ESFA members.
THE WORLD OF SAMUEL MASON
While physicists were tinkering on their atom-bombs during the war years, Sam Mason was trying to organize Philly. The PSFS, however would have none of him, so he drifted to New York. Here he acquired a measure of inverted glory.
My first impressions of Mason were striking. An incredible mop of reddish hair topped his wispy frame like bloom of a poppy. There was something leprechaunish about the man. He and Rose Riewald and George Fox and I were sitting in Fox's living room drinking Fox's mother's beer and soda and Mason was reminiscing about the Boy scout troop he once belonged to. This was the only Boy Scout troop I ever heard of in which all the tenderfeet drank gin.
Mason was critical of New York policemen. "These cops, damn their guts. They have somehow got the notion I am a marijuana-runner. They keep calling up on the phone and asking, 'All right, where have you got it hid?' I tell them I don't know what they're talking about and then they hang up. But the FBI agents are even worse. They keep breaking into my apartment at the damnedest hours!"
To Mason's Greenwich Village lodgings toddled callow fan-editors bearing stencils to be run off on the rickety mimeograph* (* Legend has it that the A.B.Dick Company did not release this contraption -- it escaped from them.) leaving laden with heaps of the stories and poems that rolled unquenchably from Mason's typer. From all reports, Mason got a huge charge of watching these innocents get red-eyed on his rum; and one youthful Brooklynite suddenly took a vacation from fandom when his mother smelled reefer smoke on him. Yet Mason's contributions to crifanac were often salutary. His two-shot fanzine, Count Wacula, contained traces of terrific writing, the best single item being a satire on Saroyan. On the basis of this piece alone, I consider Mason a humorist of almost Burbee-esque stature. As near as I can remember, the beginning went: "The world is a beautiful place when you are a young writer starving to death in a furnished room, longing for a beer, longing for a check from SatEvePost, longing for Hedy Lamarr, all full of wants and desires and salami, and not entirely certain that Lenin was right, either."
The last I heard of Mason, he was smuggling guns to Israel.
THE CONVENTION THAT ALMOST WASN'T
In March, 1948 the Eastern Science Fiction Association decided to hold a "convention" of sorts, to celebrate its second birthday. George O. Smith, Merwin, Sturgeon, and other notables were invited. The Sunday of the convention was a drizzlingly rainy day. As I stepped into the meeting hall, the overpowering stench of old eggs hit my nose. Half an hour earlier, Ron Christensen and Bob Gaulin -- with astonishing gymnastic prowess -- had entered the hall by a skylight and planted a quantity of ammonium sulfide among the rafters. This substance promptly began vaporizing as hydrogen sulfide, and perfuming the meeting hall below.
Pre-convention attendees wandered around with hands clamped to their noses. Women looked sick. Moskowitz stormed in, doing a slow burn as he sniffed the stink. With a window pole, he poked around the ceiling trying to dislodge the source of the odor. Mumbling something to the effect that he'd throw the culprits the hell out if he knew who they were, he heaved both the hall's windows open, but the damp breeze only stirred the smell up a bit. Distinguished people began arriving, wrinkling their faces as they entered the room. One well-intentioned lady insisted on going around tapping the walls, trying to locate the dead rat which she was convinced had met its doom somewhere between the boards. By the time the meeting was called to order, the stink had abated somewhat. But throughout the afternoon many individuals looked glassy-eyed, and the percentage of attendees deserting the meeting for the bar downstairs was higher than was customary.
None of the subsequent ESFA meetings were as good as that one, so I stopped going.
Text versions and page scans Judy Bemis
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