The Clubhouse; Fanzine Reviews: “ornaments of antediluvian fandom whose simulacra still walk at conventions”

 

Fanzine reviews: The Harp Stateside

The Harp Stateside (February 1957) Part Three.

Faned: Walt Willis

Artwork by ATom (Arthur Thomson)

Carrying on with Walt Willis’ account of his 1952 TAFF trip to America.

SATURDAY, THE FIRST OFFICIAL DAY OF CHICON II.

QUOTE

The convention was supposed to start at three, but it wasn’t until 4:15 that Korshak got up and announced that there had been a delay—some of us had noticed this—and that it had been due to the fact that Catholic girls had been using the hall. You got the impression that they had been doing nameless things in in it … Hamling made a graceful little speech of welcome and Korshak got up to introduce the guests.

In some ways this was the best turn of the convention. Korshak’s eyesight is on a par with his knowledge of present-day fandom, and he spent more time apologising for the first than displaying the second. After picking out a few notables in the front row he peered despairingly about the auditorium … He had announced first that he was going to “jump from table to table”, a prospect which delighted those among us who felt that an acrobatic spectacle of this sort was just what the convention needed … But before he even started beating on his breast and swinging from the chandelier, Korshak unaccountably turned vicious, threatening to “strike here and there at random” and to “hit as many people at the tables as I possibly can”. Naturally, this terrified the guests and they cowered in the shadows so that he couldn’t find them. This seemed to infuriate Korshak even more. He knew they were there all right. He produced the registration lists to prove it, and revealed blackly that he was going to “shoot up and down the list, picking out the high spots”.

Cowered, the victims stood up and surrendered. Among the high spots so picked out were various ornaments of antediluvian fandom whose simulacra still walk at conventions, and such luminaries of the future as Harlan Ellison and Roger Sims … The only reason I got among the immortals was that for a good half hour Henry Burwell had been shouting “Walt Willis!” and passing cards up under Korshak’s nose with “Introduce Walt Willis!” written on them in block letters. He was on the point of organising a fireworks display with my name spelled out in coloured lights when Korshak, running out of names he remembered from the most recent issue of THE TIME TRAVELLER, introduced me.

END QUOTE

First off, Willis’ dig at Korshak for running out of names mentioned in TIME TRAVELLER is a bit extreme, given that the last issue was published in the winter of 1933, almost twenty years before the convention. This plus the reference to “various ornaments of antediluvian fandom whose simulacra still walk at conventions” would indicate sixth fandom, or at any rate Walt Willis, was less than enthralled with the beginnings of organized fandom and was more concerned with the exciting “here and now” of contemporary fandom. So, I guess I’ll tone down my criticism of modern fen uninterested in what went before. The phenomenon would appear to have been common sixty-five years ago, so why tear my hair out over a habit that old? In fact it looks like a lack of respect for the fannish past is in itself one of fandom’s oldest traditions, and who am I to oppose tradition?

TIME TRAVELLER, by the way, was the second clubzine to be published by the New York Club The Scienceers. The first, its predecessor, was called THE PLANET, which saw six issues in 1930. The famous fan historian Sam Moskowitz seems to have considered it the first true SF fanzine, though allowed that its successor TIME TRAVELLER was the first to have a broad impact on fandom. Others point to THE COMET which had its first issue published by the Science Correspondence club two months before the first issue of THE PLANET, but its contents were strictly scientific in nature and had virtually nothing to do with science fiction. Among fan historians the debate goes on.

This kind of nitpicking attention to minutiae drives many fans to distraction. “Who cares?” be their battle cry. I suspect Walt Willis be among them. Yet, let me point out, he knew enough of fannish history to make a joke out of a reference to TIME TRAVELLER and, of course, the whole point of the joke would be lost if his readership didn’t “get” the reference. This implies that knowledge of fan history was widespread at the time. Perhaps fans of the day simply took fannish origins for granted and merely found an emphasis on such, at the expense of contemporary fandom, to be amusing. Therefore it may be that I do Willis an injustice to imply that he had any disrespect for the elders of fandom. Still, he was very much a mover and shaker in contemporary fandom and it’s probably fair to say he was more interested in what was currently going on as opposed to dwelling on the past. Ironic, perhaps, that he turned into one of the principle icons of fandom’s “glory days” of legend. That was never his intention. All he wanted to do was have fun. The bedrock intention of any genuine fan, methinks.

Korshak, as in Erle Melvin Korshak, was a long time Chicago fan first active in the late 1930s. He played as a catcher during the famous fannish softball game held at Flushing Flats in New York City on the third day of the first world convention in 1939, so one presumes his eyesight had been all right in his youth. He is noted by fan historians for his account of the 1939 WorldCon, “Memoirs of a New York Trip,” that he wrote for the July, 1939 issue of FANTASY DIGEST. It gave “good coverage” according to Sam Moskowitz.

Korshak was also one of the fen who successfully bid for the first Chicon which took place in 1940. Of his character and nature Sam Moskowitz wrote “In word and action he always played the role of the super salesman, and to do his methods justice the word super should really be underlined. From his earliest days of activity he carried on a little side business of buying and selling science fiction magazines and books.” He was noted for his mercenary enthusiasm, but equally for “the generosity and kindness of his basic nature.” A popular, well known fan in his day.

Hamling, as in William Lawrence Hamling, was another early Chicago fan, one who opposed the faction Korshak belonged to when bidding for Chicon I, but their fan feud was eventually sorted out to mutual satisfaction. Hamling had previously co-written, with the leader of the opposing faction Mark Reinsberg, a short story WAR WITH JUPITER which appeared in the May, 1939, issue of AMAZING STORIES. An early example of a fan achieving pro status. By the mid-1940s he was famous for having at least 100,000 words of his fiction in assorted editorial hands at any given time. In 1947 Ray Palmer hired him to help out with editing duties at AMAZING STORIES. By the time of Chicon II he was the editor and publisher of the prozine IMAGINATION which ran till 1958. Oddly enough, by the late 1960s he operated, along with Earl Kemp, the publishing house GREENLEAF CLASSICS which published mostly erotic novels. He even published a Congressional investigation of pornography but since his version was lavishly illustrated, wound up serving a term in prison for obscenity. Not the usual fannish fate.

All I can find about Henry Burwell in the sources I have on hand in my den is that he helped Harry Moore of New Orleans put together the first single-volume mimeographed version of THE IMMORTAL STORM by Sam Moskowitz, and that he was one of the few fans privy to the actual gender (female) of Lee Hoffman prior to the big reveal at Nolocon in 1951. At any rate he appears to have been an active fan of the era.

Once (finally) introduced by Korshak, Walt Willis “stood up and brandished a programme, grinning foolishly” and then sat down. Unfortunately Koshak, with his poor eyes, failed to notice Willis’ performance and called again for him to stand up. Willis did so, this time flailing his arms about “like a helicopter.” Willis was quite pleased to be “the only fan introduced twice to that convention.”

Korshak then turned the opening ceremonies over to the Chair, Judy May, who goes down in fannish history as the first woman to Chair a World Convention. She also introduced the “official” gavel for the first time which was intended to be handed down from one Worldcon to the next. Walt commented that Judy “very nearly broke the line of descent then and there by hitting the table two terrible blows with it.” Is it still in play? Or was it retired long ago?

Judy May, actually Julian May, published her first SF story DUNE ROLLER in ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION a year before the convention so, like Korshak, Hamling, and others associated with the convention committee, was considered a pro. Indeed, Chicon II was viewed at the time as the first WorldCon to be run as a sort of industrial trade fair for pros rather than a fun get together by fans for fans, a trend which set some fans complaining and longing for “the good old days.” On the other hand, the presence of so many pros doubled Worldcon attendance and ensured its success. So, a good thing, really.

Not everyone thought so. After Chicon II, the #1 fan of the mid-to-late 1940s Phil Tucker wrote: “One year ago in New Orleans, STF conventions moved into the realm of big business when that particular clambake grossed more than one thousand dollars … This year attendance moved up into the higher brackets to keep pace with finances—and science fiction conventions were no longer the familiar things I used to know. They had become a machine.”

Be that as it may, ultimately Judy May abandoned SF&F (and fandom) to write non-fiction for juveniles, then came back with a vengeance in the 1980s to write a series of fantasy/alternate history novels in her PLIOCENE EXILE and GALACTIC MILIEU sagas. One of the more successful fans turned pro, you might say.

After Judy had finished speaking, Walt lost track of what was happening.

QUOTE

After this I’ll bet there were announcements and things, but I was feeling far too dreadful to pay any attention to them. I decided that if I were to last through the convention I would have to get some sleep, so I went to bed. This was the most sensible thing I have ever done in my life.

END QUOTE

I’ve read in someone else’s account of this convention that Walt’s absence was noted throughout the afternoon and evening on this, one of the busiest days of the convention, and that rumours spread he was spending his time secluded with other BNFs and ignoring the convention attendees at large. This was, of course, rather unfair and entirely untrue. He was simply dead to the world and couldn’t be roused till 11:00 pm when Shelby Vick finally succeeded in getting him out of bed.

QUOTE

I got up and wandered dopily into Burwell’s room … I retreated through the next room and took a glass of whiskey, Lee Hoffman and an elevator up to the top floor. We looked in at the penthouse party but it was too noisy for us in our present state so we went on up to the observation tower and sat on the steps for a long while looking at Chicago and talking.

Eventually we went back to the penthouse party, just in time to be thrown out along with everyone else. I don’t know what had been going on—all we’d glimpsed had been (Theodore) Sturgeon playing his guitar and it hadn’t been as bad as all that—but I gather this was the night all the damage had been done in the penthouse, because it was the next day that all the rumours started about Les Cole having flown back to Frisco in a huff, disenchanted with fandom. Actually he stayed on at the hotel, though he withdrew from all participation in the official program. It was said that there was over $100 worth damage done to the Little Men’s penthouse that night, and that at the end of the convention they were afraid to check out because they couldn’t pay it, and that the money was raised by other fans in an impromptu whip-around.

END QUOTE

Said penthouse on the 42nd floor of the Morrison Hotel consisted of “three bedrooms, a monstrous living room, a dining room, and a miscellany of other amenities.” Lester Cole, the San Francisco fan who was Chairman of the Bay Area “Elves, Gnomes and Little Men’s Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society” had rented it to throw parties to push their bid for the 1953 worldcon to be held in San Francisco.

For the first party the group gave permission to two fans to run it as a rather small affair providing they brought their own liquor. As Harry Warner, Jr. put it: “The party had the modest intent of unveiling Nuclear Fizz to fandom, but before the night had ended, an enormous mob had run through the penthouse, had sniffed out and guzzled the Little Men’s potables, and had created an estimated $100 in damage.”

Not unlike many a house party thrown by teenagers today when the parents are away and social media allows far too many people to hear about the party. In this case not only were there around 900 registered attendees at the convention, there were also an estimated 175 gate crashers, all of them hungry for parties. No wonder things got out of hand. (Or maybe it was the fault of those Catholic League of Decency girls who were sharing the hotel with a convention of their own. Likely suspects I suspect.) Fortunately plenty of fans, including many who hadn’t even been at the party, forked over enough cash to cover the damage. Darned decent of them. $100 be a LOT of money back in 1952.

Anyway, Walt Willis spent the early hours of the morning talking with various fans, then finished off the night with another round of chocolate malts. When he got up later he put in a full day at the convention as shall be revealed next column.

Incidentally, for those who are interested, the correct formula for a Nuclear Fizz drink is:

1 shot gin, 1 shot Cointreau, 1 shot lemon/lime juice mixed, 2 shots soda, 2 or 3 drops bitters. Add more Cointreau if you want it sweeter. Adjust amount of soda to taste.

Just as a side note, it would be more accurate to say the intent of the party was to unveil a drink discovered by Chick Derry and Bob Pavlat at the Philcon 1 Worldcon in 1947 when they overheard Tom Hadley, a fan and semi-pro publisher, giving the formula to the hotel bartender. They liked it. Shortly afterwards Pavlot gave it the name “Nuclear Fizz.” They shared their knowledge with fans like Redd Boggs at the 1949 Cin Vention Worldcon. Word spread. I don’t know if Derry and Pavlot were present at Chicon II, but evidently SOMEONE was determined to introduce the drink to fandom at large. I doubt it was directly responsible for the resulting rampage though, unless … maybe the Catholic girls of age had had too much? Many mysteries in fannish history.

BY THE WAY:

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You can find yet more zines at: Fanac Fan History Project

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