Judy-Lynn and Lester del Rey (Photo by David Dyer-Bennet)
Quite a few years ago —well, about seventy of them, to be exact —I was the teen-age editor of two professional science-fiction magazines for the giant pulp firm of Popular Publications. I didn’t pay much for the stories that went into my magazines but I did pay something, and so most of the science-fiction writers of that era dropped by from time to time to see if I would care to relieve them of some of their stack of Astounding rejects.
People like hoary old Ray Cummings and bright-minted new stars like L. Sprague de Camp came by my little office at the end of 42d Street, just where it stops dead at the East River, and one day our switchboard girl, Ethel Klock, informed me that I had a new visitor named Lester del Rey.
Though I’d never met the man, I knew the name; I had seen it, enviously, any number of times on the Astounding contents page. “Shoot him right in!” I commanded, hoping that he would come bearing manuscripts, and a couple of minutes later there he was, short, angel-faced, no more than a couple of years older than myself — and, yes, with two short-story manuscripts in his hands!
There is an established procedure for such events. It doesn’t allow the editor to snatch the typescripts from the author’s hands, or the author to throw them in from the doorway without a word. There has to be a little chatting back and forth first, so I had to wait until Lester was back in the elevator to start reading. The stories were short. I finished them both in a quarter of an hour.
Then I rejected them both.
What was wrong with them? I don’t remember. What were they about? I don’t remember that, either. And not only did I bounce them, so did every other editor Lester showed them to. Years later I asked him what had become of them. He said he had no idea, didn’t remember anything about them, and hoped I would never ask him such an embarrassing question again.
So that was my unpromising start to knowing Lester del Rey. Fortunately, later on things got better.
Later on things did, but it took a few years. John Campbell got over his nasty habit of rejecting any of Lester’s stories, so Lester had nothing to sell me; and then the Air Force invited me to join them for World War II so I had no magazine to buy them for, anyway. Then, postwar, Lester and I ran into each other now and then at various gatherings, and then in 1947 we ran into a big one. That was the ’47 World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia.
We were both there. When it was over we were having a cup of coffee together somewhere when we got to thinking. We had had such a great time mingling again with our nearest and dearest (as well as some of our farthest and dislikedest) from the world of science fiction that we decided we really ought to organize some sort of local sf group so we could do more of it. So Lester commandeered a couple of his friends and brought them to my Greenwich Village apartment, where I had collected a few of mine, and we sat down and created the Hydra Club. (Why Hydra? Because there were nine of us there, and the mythological Hydra had had nine heads.)
This was a definite public service, because for years thereafter the Hydra Club had become the place where sf writers from out of town visited when they came to New York in order to find people they could talk to. (Out of town sometimes meant very out of town — in the case of Arthur Clarke or W. Olaf Stapledon, the United Kingdom; in the case of A. Bertram Chandler, from about as far away as you could get without leaving our planet entirely, namely Australia.)
Nor was Hydra merely a place where you could exchange trade gossip with colleagues. Lester and I both found wives there, and we two couples made a habit of going to cons together. What made that easy was that after a while Lester and Evelyn del Rey came out to visit with Carol and me and our growing number of children in our big old house in Red Bank, New Jersey. The del Reys’ intention was to spend a weekend. They wound up staying seventeen years — well, seventeen years in the neighborhood, anyway, since after a while they bought a house of their own down the street. It might have been longer, but one day, driving to a small vacation in Florida, their car got entangled in the wake of an eighteen-wheeler and was sent spinning off the road. Evelyn was thrown clear, but then the car rolled over on her and she was killed.
After that Lester could not stay in their house. He sold it for a pitiful amount —furniture, books, wine cellar and all — to the first person who thought to make him an offer, and moved back to the city.
For all those years we had been keeping busy, Lester writing, me doing some of that but also fooling around with editing and other diversions. After putting together a string of anthologies for Ian Ballantine, I wound up as editor of a couple of science-fiction magazines, Galaxy and If. It was not a well-paying job but I loved it. It gave some welcome perks, including a full-time assistant.
When I needed to hire a new one I interviewed a recent Barnard graduate named Judy-Lynn Benjamin, who seemed to be bright and energetic enough for the job, but presented two worrisome problems. One was that her specialty was the works of James Joyce and she knew nothing at all about science fiction. That, I figured, could be handled; I would not ask her to make any buy-or-bounce decisions, and everything else I could easily teach her.
The other struck me as tougher. Judy-Lynn was an achondroplastic dwarf, not much over three feet tall, and I didn’t know how she would manage to reach the top drawers of the filing cabinets. But I took a chance, and actually she worked out rather well, turning out to be capable of managing anything at all. After I left the magazines, Judy-Lynn went to work for Ballantine Books, winding up running the enterprise, which is why its current avatar, Del Rey Books, was named after her.
Lester entered the picture when my publisher, Bob Guinn, urged me to add a fantasy magazine to my group. I had nothing against fantasy, but I didn’t have a great deal of interest in it, and anyway I didn’t want to add to my work load. So I persuaded Lester, now a widower for some years, to come aboard as its editor. He did well, and the three of us got along well, too, in fact better than I realized until I got a phone call from Lester to say that he and Judy-Lynn were getting married, and would I care to be his best man?
I would. They did it. And after a while, he joined Judy-Lynn at Ballantine, and — no surprise to anyone who knew them — with Lester handling the fantasy side of the operation while Judy-Lynn continued with the sf, they were fabulously successful, leading the field in the number of their books that wound up on the New York Times bestseller list.
What made Judy-Lynn successful? The answer to that is simply that she worked with (and/or married) three of the best editors around, studied what they did attentively and learned from all of them. (I know that makes me sound immodest, but I learned from the best there was, namely J. W. Campbell.)
Lester had a whole other style. Lester took as his model some of the historically great editors of the past and, like them, questioned every phrase and comma in every manuscript he accepted and made the authors rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. It paid off — once when I was having lunch with Lester’s boss he told me that he believed Lester was the most profitable editor in the publishing industry — but it was arduous. Some authors dumped the man who had made them bestsellers in favor of some other editor who might give them a less stressful life.
So the del Reys were riding high, but it came to an end. One of the penalties of being an achondroplastic dwarf is the likelihood of a short life span. After some very good years, Judy-Lynn had a massive stroke and then died of it, and a few years later Lester followed her.
Other husband-wife editorial teams in science fiction and fantasy — Ian and Betty Ballantine, Donald and Elsie Wollheim — have done wonderfully well, but in making that Times list, no one has done better than the del Reys, and I don’t really think anyone ever will.