From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel, Will Sykora, 1936.

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel and Will Sykora in 1936.

After a while two Real Pro Writers did in fact come to our Science Fiction League meetings.

They weren’t top pros; in fact, I had never heard of either of them until they showed up. And they weren’t there to help promote Wonder Stories, either … oh, my, no. Their names were John B. Michel and Donald A. Wollheim.

To fourteen-year-old me they were immensely impressive high-powered types. Not physically. Neither were most of the rest of us fans; to some extent, Damon Knight’s toad theory is descriptive enough.

I started out lucky enough, but somewhere just before I got into science fiction I went swimming one day at the St. George Pool, a huge indoor saltwater marvel, and went off the high board, meaning to see how close I could come to the tiled bottom. I came real close. When I got out of the water and looked in the bronze wall mirrors, I found I had knocked off a front tooth; and so, for the next couple of decades until a dentist shamed me into doing something about it, when I smiled I smiled gold. So did Bob Lowndes. (I also had pimples, not many, but prominently located, usually on the end of my nose and big enough to be visible as soon as I was. Donald used to call that one my “auxiliary nose,” bless his darling heart.)

G.G. Clark was sort of belligerently defensive-looking most of the time. Cyril Kornbluth, when he came along, was short and pudgy. Jack Gillespie looked like an Irish jockey. Walter Kubilius was incredibly tall and wraithy, six-feet-eight or thereabouts, and maybe all of a hundred pounds. All of us came to understand early on that it was not on our looks that we would make our way in the world.

Both Wollheim and Michel had really bad complexions, and Donald had mannerisms that I suppose had origins within his own head, but gave the appearance of skeptical contempt for everything around him. Donald always carried a rolled-up umbrella. He rarely looked directly at the person he was talking to, but stared forty-five degrees to starboard, wry half-smile on his face, in moments of concentration a finger at his nose. Johnny was a self-taught cynic, and talked that way. Donald’s voice was gruff and abrupt. They were both smart as hell.

Not only that. They were far more mature than the rest of us, including Clark. Johnny was a year or two older than I, and Donald a year or two older than that. (He had to be all of nineteen.) But the real clincher, the thing that elevated both of them to at least veneration, if not actual sanctity, was that they both had actually been paid for work published in a professional science-fiction magazine. Johnny had earned his letter by winning some sort of contest, in which he supplied a plot that some other writer — I think it was Clifford D. Simak — wrote a story around. Donald had done even better than that. A story entirely of his own creation, “The Man from Ariel,” had been published.

And, it turned out, that was why they were with us. They were mad.

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  1. Robert Nowall says:

    Not that I can comment much on fandom or fans of that era—I knew of Walter Kubilius at the end of his life, but I don’t recall ever being introduced—I just want to say you’re doing a great job with all the links in your blog entries. The story of the pool at the Hotel St. George from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was great.

  2. David Kesterton says:

    Actually more of a request than a comment; as a fan of Robert A.W. Lowndes, at least his Magazine of Horror and other Acme pulps, will you someday add a photo of RAWL? Unless, of course, we are
    talking antennae, flippers, and such – I assume he was fairly human.