John W. Campbell in 1957

John W. Campbell in 1957

The home base of Street & Smith at the time that John Campbell came aboard to edit Astounding was a remarkably rickety old building at the corner of 17th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York. Well, that’s not strictly true. It wasn’t one old building. It was several of them, stitched together by knocking through walls and rerouting hallways to connect them.

This imposed a class system for getting into the offices. When John arrived for work each morning, he had to enter through the doorway on West 17th Street, because that was where the time clock was. (Yes, John Campbell had to punch in and out on a time clock, at least in the early days.)

Whereas when someone more important, like me, wanted to visit John in his office, we entered through the main door at 79 Seventh Avenue, like gentry. After telling the receptionist what we wanted, and providing we passed inspection, she summoned a guide to convoy us, through passages lined with thousand-pound rolls of pulp paper for the presses on the ground floor, to the ancientest and most decrepit elevator in the city of New York. Its controls were not push buttons, as we degenerate moderns suppose that every proper elevator’s are. They were not even the up or down handles that our parents remember from their youth. A rope dangled from rooftop to bottom of the elevator shaft, and if you wanted to make the Street & Smith elevator go down you caught the rope and pulled it downward, for up you pulled it upward, and the elevator stopped when you gave a little reverse tug on the rope.

That wasn’t the end of your journey. When you got to the right floor, you still had a country mile to hike before you got to John’s modest office. We were no longer in the original Seventh Avenue building — though we might as well have been when the presses began to roll and all the linked buildings began to shake. Then, at long last, we’re there … and John Campbell puts down the DeVilbiss with which he’s been spraying his throat.

“Good morning, Pohl,” he says — we knew each other for ten years before he ever addressed me as Fred — “Do you know why television can never replace radio in the American home?” And I knew that all was well with the world and John Campbell had begun work on his next month’s editorial.

That was one of the things I learned from John Campbell. He began each new month with some such polemical statement, trying it on everyone who came into the office. We were all encouraged to disagree with it, which meant that by the end of the month John had heard just about every disagreement that could be registered against his thesis, and had had time to think of rebuttals … so that he was ready to write his next editorial. (In which he proved that TV could never replace radio in the home because TV required attentive watching. Therefore housewives couldn’t turn it on just for company as they could radio.)

In John’s office, he sat at a rolltop desk. Why such an old-fashioned piece of furniture? I once asked him. “Because,” he said, poking a Camel into his long cigarette holder and lighting up, “these buildings are firetraps and smoking in them is against the law. So when the fire inspectors come by the switchboard girl gives everybody a special ring. We put our cigarettes out in the ashtrays and put them inside the desk with the top rolled down, and open the windows. Then we just wait for the inspectors to go away again.”

John was not alone in the room. He shared it with Catherine Tarrant, listed on the masthead as “Ass. Editor” until I pointed out to John that that might lead to unintended readings. Kay Tarrant had come with the job. Her official description was secretary-assistant, but as John preferred to do most of his own typing, she spent most of her time copy-editing the manuscripts he bought (and those bought by his successor, Ben Bova, as well) to prepare them for the printer.

That was not necessarily an arduous job. John did not normally go in for the kind of lavishly creative editing that characterized, say, Horace Gold’s tenure at Galaxy (and infuriated so many of his contributors), and when John took a notion to rewrite sections of a particular story to make it more like John’s image of what it should have been, he did it himself.

But Kay Tarrant, too, had impulses that went beyond the simple correction of faulty grammar, spelling or punctuation. She hated — hated! — smut. And she devoted her life to erasing every trace of it from the magazine.

This, of course, had an effect on the corps of science-fiction writers, a sadly rowdy lot. The more troublesome ones initiated a contest to see who could get something bawdy past Kay Tarrant. Many of them tried. All saw their best inspirations slain on the copy desk until George O. Smith stepped up to the plate. He won when he got past Miss Tarrant’s eagle eye his definition of a tomcat as “a ball-bearing mousetrap.”

I can’t avoid a personal reminiscence here. When John left us and Ben Bova took over as editor of Astounding, the first story Ben bought was my “The Gold at the Starbow’s End.” As those who remember the story can attest, it is simply riddled with naughty words and impure thoughts — not because I can’t express myself without them but because there was no way to tell this particular story in their absence. (It’s a pretty good story, too. I think it’s my best novelette.) When he gave the ms. to Kay Tarrant for copyediting, he warned her that it would have to be edited with a very light hand.

All the same, he told me later, she got no more than about three lines into the first page before clearing her throat and saying, “Oh, Ben? Do you really want me to leave in this — ” “I do,” he said. “Leave it.” And three minutes later, when she cried, “Ben! Really!” it was, “Leave it again.”

Mine was the first example of what is loosely called adult prose that Ben bought but by no means the last, and ultimately Kay learned to live with the new rules and soldiered on.

More follows whenever I find time to write it.

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  1. Jerry says:

    I’ll bet you were relieved when Kay was no longer able to wash out your authorial mouth with her editorial bar of soap. Marvelous reminiscences, Fred. I hope to hear more of this storied time.

  2. Neil Rest says:

    More follows whenever I find time to write it.
    I do hope that implies that there are so many other things you’re writing right now . . .

  3. Dr. Psycho says:

    I grew up hearing legends of the dreaded Kay Tarrant and her pencil of Trans-Neptunian Blue, but I never before heard the story of how you and Ben Bova introduced her to the new realities. I hope it wasn’t too unpleasant for her, really I do.

  4. Peter Weston says:

    I enjoyed reading about JWC, Fred, and sorry it took me so long to find it! Congratulations on your birthday!

  5. RonB says:

    I’ve been reading the giant 6-volume Zelazny compendium from NESFA and of course your name is mentioned several times as the editor who bought certain stories. Would love to hear any Zelazny stories if you’ve got ’em…

    Thanks for, well, everything!

  6. Johnny Pez says:

    And I’d love to hear any Harl Vincent stories. His stories have started popping up on Project Gutenberg, but there’s very little information available about him.

  7. Sid says:

    “But Kay Tarrant, too, had impulses that went beyond the simple correction of faulty grammar, spelling or punctuation. She hated — hated! — smut. And she devoted her life to erasing every trace of it from the magazine.”

    Obviously a lot has changed in out modern media…too bad. We could use a few people like Kay these days!

  8. billy rae says:

    great article about john campbell

  9. Pat S. says:

    The “Godfather of Science Fiction” lives all around us. Great post.

  10. Roger says:

    That’s a funny story about the Ass. Editor! Thanks for this charming post – I really like Campbell’s work.

  11. Shawn says:

    Remarkably well written article…best I’ve read all week! I was there with walking down the long halls and going up the rickety elevator; standing in front of the rolltop desk…listening to Kay’s cluck of disapproval as she caught another editor trying to slip some naughty word past her lol. Beautiful imagery!

  12. MaryAnn says:

    I wish we had Kay’s all over the Internet who just hate – hate smut, so we can finally get rid of these smut sites once and for all. I enjoyed reading this.

  13. Michael Walsh says:

    @MaryAnn: I think their brains would melt before they got through even a small part of the ’Net.

  14. Gary Gilliam says:

    I really appreciate the people like Catherine Tarrant that made a great effort to keep “smut” in literature at bay. At least the writers back in the day had class. The only thing about that is, the bad language of that day and time was a little on the modest side compared to today’s filth. But that said, a little bit of naughty mixed into a well written script seems to me brings a more natural feel and flow even if its a science fiction.

  15. house interior design says:

    Really nice…I grew up hearing legends of the dreaded Kay Tarrant and her pencil of Trans-Neptunian Blue, but I never before heard the story of how you and Ben Bova introduced her to the new realities. I hope it wasn’t too unpleasant for her, really I do.

  16. Maryann says:

    @Michael yes, that’s true. Sad, but that’s true. There are just too many smut sites online for all the Kay’s combined.


  17. Steve says:

    @Michael – Lol…her poor heart would probably give out on something as simple as a Google images “safe” search. It’s amazing how much smut manages to even slip through that filter!