The “Quadrumvirate,” for most of its existence, ran the Futurians. We accreted to the club and to each other by adhesion to other clubs; the first was G.G. Clark’s Brooklyn Science Fiction League, which Donald Wollheim and Johnny Michel had left a shambles after they had kidnapped most of its members, one of them being me; then we began sending radar signals to individuals to seemed to be our kind of people, by which we mostly meant the kind of fan who desperately wanted to become a pro.
We found one of these in Connecticut in a person who was then a member of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, because the CCC not only gave him three hots and a cot for planting trees and doing other things for the environment, it also sent some money back to his family who could use it (remember, this was the time of the Great Depression). That was Robert A.W. Lowndes. Before long, he was able to change jobs, becoming a hospital orderly (thus his nickname of “Doc”) and then he made it to New York and the Futurians.
Like most of us — Johnny Michel being the principal exception — Bob worked hard at trying to become a pro. The easiest shortcut to doing that, most of us thought, was to collaborate with some writer with a good track record for selling his work. As we didn’t have enough of those to go around, we mostly collaborated with each other. Quite often it was more than two of us collaborating on a single story. For example, there was Paul (Pohl) Dennis (Joseph Harold Dockweiler) Lavond (Lowndes), who wrote four or five mercifully unpublished, more or less Lovecraftian horror tales in the 1930s. (If any of these stories survive and you come across one, I urge you to read something else as rapidly as possible.) There was even one story that was serially violated by no fewer than seven Futurians. That one did get published in one of Donald’s magazines because, whether you consider it fair or not, the truth is that three of us did become professional editors over a period of just a few months at the end of 1939.
I was the first. When I told my fellow Futurians what I had done, Bob Lowndes took a deep breath and began copying the names and addresses of publishing companies from the contents pages of every magazine in the house.
I don’t know how many turndowns Bob had to endure, but eventually he did hit a live one in the shape of Louis Silberkleit, the successor (I think) to the ownership of what had once been Hugo Gernsback’s tiny stable of sex, sf and popular health books. The fun part of the job for Bob, I believe, was the science fiction magazines, because those were what he read for pleasure. And — when he had them — the air-war, sports, western, and crime pulps because of the fun you could have commissioning a story, say a football story, from as resolutely non-athletic a human being as James Blish. Bob kept working as a magazine editor until the end of his professional life.
Like most of us boy editors, Robert sometimes supplemented his paycheck by selling a story or two, often enough to himself. His first professional sale was not a story, though. It was a poem. It was sold to the editor most of us would most like to sell to, John Campbell, and it went to Campbell’s fantasy magazine, Unknown.
She is not as mortal women, strange Lurani of the sea
As the desert, she is alien, as the night wind she is free
And her flesh is lightly tinted with the sheen of waters still,
With the green of placid waters and her touch is damp and chill
As the lilly of the swamplands, as the stately lily lolling
She is tall and finely fashioned and her dark hair gently falling
Is alive. It creeps and quivers over shoulder, thigh, and breast,
Slowly creeps and curls, caressing the soft contours of her breast.
In the eyes of my Lurani, in her dark eyes gently gleaming,
I can see strange thoughts, exotic, and desires that set me dreaming
Of the mighty sea triumphant as she strokes me with her hand,
As she languorously strokes me with her curious webbed hand.
I have lain beside Lurani in her python-like embrace
Through the nights that were immortal, and the evil on her face
Ever more will keep me ardent as her dark eyes o’er me gloat
Till the night I feel those silken tresses tighten round my throat.
—Paul Dennis Lavond
(Robert A.W. Lowndes)
So I made my way to Campbell’s office and he greeted me with his usual, “Sit down, Pohl.” (It would be twenty years before he called me Fred.) “Do you know why television will never replace radio in the American home?”
I didn’t, of course. I never did. I was aware that was the way John Campbell wrote his monthly editorials, trying the central argument on everyone who came to his office until he had heard all the objections that could be raised against it, and could start writing. So there were ten minutes or so of that (“Because you can’t just let a television set be on, Pohl. You have to watch it.”)
And then he took that week’s collection of Futurian submissions out of my hand and put them in with the stack of as-yet-unread other manuscripts, and then he frowned.
“This one’s pretty short, Pohl,” he said holding up a single sheet.
“It’s a poem,” I explained.
“Um,” he said, reading again. Then he said, “There’s something here that bothers me. I think it’s that rhythm. It’s too regular, like maple syrup coming out of a jug.”
It was my turn to say, “Um.” I said it.
Then Campbell pursed his lips in that almost-but-not-quite look that I hated so much to see on an editor’s face. I could see that my chances of making another sale here this morning were fading by the moment.
So I did something. I said, “How would this work?” And I scooped a pencil off his desk and struck out the word “silken” from the last line of Robert’s poem. It now read, “till the night I feel those tresses tighten round my throat.”
Campbell took the paper from my hand, read it over skeptically, then read it tolerantly, and then said, “Yes, I think that takes care of it. I’ll put a check through.”
The check was for four dollars at the going rate for poetry, which was 25 cents a line. From this the informed reader can see that, although I was beginning to know how an agent could help an editor make the right decisions, there were a few areas where I was still quite ignorant.
One had to do with the formatting of poetry. Although payment was by the line, there was no act of Congress that specified how many feet a line should contain. If, instead of the actual first line I submitted, I had instead set it up to say, “She is not as mortal women / Strange Lurani of the sea, / As the desert she is alien / As the night wind she is free” — why then I had converted a 16-line poem to a 32-line one and doubled the size of the check from $4 to $8, and Bob’s your uncle.
One more thing.
At some point John had to turn “Lurani” over to his assistant, Catherine Tarrant, for copyediting. I have always wished I could have been a fly on the wall for that occasion, for what Katey was most famous for was her unremitting campaign to keep any vestige of smut out of Street and Smith magazines. What could she possibly have made of lines like, “Slowly creeps and curls, caressing the soft contours of her breast”? Alas, we shall never know.
Let There Be Fandom: The Science Fiction League