H. Beam Piper, 1957.

H. Beam Piper, 1957.

For a while, H. Beam Piper was one of the clients of my literary agency in the late 1950s. He had first attracted attention with his story “He Walked Around the Horses,” about a man who, having done that, apparently disappeared into another reality. But perhaps he is best known for his successful “Little Fuzzy” stories

Piper was a railroad man from birth. He lived in the Western Pennsylvania rail centers of those great continent-spanning lines that appeared after the Civil War. That war was important to Beam. He had strong feelings about such concepts as heroism and personal honor, and he took sides. The side he favored was the slaveholding but militarily exciting Confederacy. Mostly self-educated, Beam was thrilled by the exploits of. those dashing Rebel commanders, in particular by John Mosby, the Southron cavalry officer who made parts of Virginia uninhabitable by Federal troops or sympathizers.

When Beam mentioned to me that he had, on his own time and just for the fun of it, written a lengthy work about his hero, I reminded him of my Basic Maxim No. 1: “Writers write mostly for the fun of it. Agents exist to see they get money for having fun.” So he turned the finished piece over to me, and I promptly sold “Rebel Raider” for a decent amount of money.

With things like that and the better prices I was able to negotiate for his science fiction, Beam was enjoying a modest prosperity. He formed the habit of coming to New York once or twice a month. His first stop was usually at my literary agency office on Fifth Avenue just across from Madison Square, where we would usually pick up a few other writers to go out for dinner.

Beam had had little experience with exotic eats — high cuisine was not apparently popular in Altoona at that time — and so loved to experiment with menu items. Not always happily. When he ordered a dish that was meant to contain uncooked Italian ham, he sent it back to be properly fried. He wasn’t deeply into nutrition, either. When a waiter would bring him an entree with crisp green and red vegetables artistically surrounding it on the platter, Beam might spread his hands over his eyes and cry, “Vittamins! Vittamins! Take the foul things away!”

That happy state continued for some time, and then I closed the literary agency down and plunged into the line of work God (or Someone) had obviously intended for me all along, the telling of stories. I saw less of a lot of writers who had been clients, especially out-of-towners like Beam.

Stories floated in from Western Pennsylvania, first astonishingly that he had quit his job. That was a little worrying, in the case of a lifelong old railroad man like Beam, but it indicated good news. I had fixed him up with a new agent, my old friend (and one time boss at Popular Publications) Rogers Terrill. I was glad to see that things were working out for both of them. . . .

And then another story came in. Beam had gotten married!

That was a major shocker. In all the time I had known him, Beam had never shown the slightest flicker of sexual interest in any female. (Or, I hasten to say, in any male, either.) And the wedding seemed to have taken place — wait for it — in Paris. In Paris! In the city of lights, the home to romantics and lovers and all the other things that Beam had spent his life proving he was not.

It was impossible. But there it was.

That was all we knew. It seemed that none of us in our once-in-a-while-dining-together circle had maintained close contact with Beam, so we knew very few details.

Then we heard nothing much at all for quite a while. Then what we did hear was about as bad as it could be.

 
I heard the first part of the bad news right away. A neighbor called to tell me that Rogers Terrill had just died, she thought of a heart attack. That made sense. Rog’s Jersey shore house had about as much lawn to mow as mine did, which was the better fraction of an acre. Taking account how his face blanched and his limbs began to quiver when he cut it, Rog’s wife had long beseeched him to hire one of the neighborhood teenagers to handle that chore, but Rog was stubborn.

We arranged the sending of condolence cards and went on with our lives, and then, not very long later, we heard the rest of it. Beam was dead, too. He had shot himself.

Bit by bit, the rest of the bad news piled on. There had been a divorce, Beam had settled everything he owned in joint accounts with his wife, but now the lawyers were barring access to the funds by either party. Rog had failed to provide for a plan to carry on payments to his authors as checks came in in the event of his death, so money was silting up in trust funds that could not be tapped by humans until these other packs of lawyers came to an agreement, and Beam ran out of money.

There was no reason for that to happen. I wasn’t then particularly well off but I would, any one of us would, have been happy to go to any necessary trouble in order to front him enough for his three hots a day as needed to keep him alive.

But that couldn’t be. Remember Beam’s concepts of personal honor. He was incapable of asking for that kind of help. He was incapable of letting anyone know how desperately he needed it. He did still have two resources. One was a windowsill where pigeons came down to coo and flutter. The other was a 22-caliber handgun with a few rounds left in it.

(This is the story as I first heard it from one of Beam’s relatives. I have since heard slightly different versions from others, but I’ll stick with what I heard first.)

Every evening, then, Beam would open the window. When a fat pigeon landed there, he would shoot it in the head, clean it, pluck it and broil it in his little gas flame, and that would be his dinner. And when he had come down to a single remaining round, he put it in his own brain.

13 Comments

  1. Mike Ransom says:

    I worked in France for a time in the early 90s. I once got into a discussion about SF with a French executive at the company. He told me his favorite writer was “Ahsh Bim Peeper”.

  2. Jerry says:

    One of the first sf books I ever bought as a boy was a ragged copy of “Space Viking,” which I found in the bargain bin one summer vacation. It still springs to mind when the phrase “space opera” is mentioned. I was always saddened by the circumstances of his death, but it’s a bit more understandable given what you say about his temperament.

  3. David H. says:

    Thanks for the memories. I remember waylaying you briefly at the WorldCon in 1996 to ask about that Mosby piece, which I was working on tracking down. (This was, I think, shortly before I had read GATEWAY, at which point you went from being Frederick Pohl to being FREDERIK POHL. Funny how reading a book can change your reaction to a person.)

    For folks interested in Piper, John F. Carr has put out a truly terrific biography of Piper (H. BEAM PIPER: A BIOGRAPHY, available at Amazon.com and I’m sure through John directly), with letters and photos and all manner of terrific Piper-related material, including an inventory of his historical gun collection as it stood just before his marriage. (Alas, the swords and modern firearms were not included in that inventory, so we just have to dream.) John shows how much of what was believed about Piper was wrong — Piper told a number of different stories, even about his own name.

    Piper reportedly shot himself with a Colt Marshal revolver, in .38 Special. There were only about 2500 of those made in the mid-fifties. Curiously, Robert E. Howard shot himself with a .38 semi-auto, and while I have not read the details of the manufacturer the time period would indicate it was most likely a Colt Model 1900, 1902, or 1903. Could have been a 1911 firing .38 Super, too, I guess. They both went out as Colt men, either way.

  4. Robert Nowall says:

    After first encountering Piper\’s work (when Ace Books reprinted the bulk of them in the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s), I thought the world of them, some of the best stuff I\’d read in SF. And most of it still holds up for me. It was years before I learned even a hint of what had happened to him.

    I wrote in a post elsewhere about how SF writers are unlikely candidates for a massive bodybuilder biography. I have read the John F. Carr biography of Piper. It was, well, peculiar—but since it would seem it\’s likely to be the only substantial biography of Piper that I will *ever* be able to read, I am grateful for its existence.

    (Also, I found some details of the biography enlightening—and discouraging. I remember how great Piper\’s works were—and how little money he made from them.)

  5. Branko Collin says:

    If he shot the pigeons that were sitting on his window sill, wouldn’t land in the street instead of the pan? How did that work?

  6. Christopher says:

    H. Beam Piper was a really important author to me as a young man. One of the first science fiction books I ever read was Little Fuzzy.

  7. Greg Weeks says:

    I’ve always wondered what H. Beam Piper would have written if things would have worked out just a little differently. I started reading Piper’s work when Jim Baen did the reprints at Ace in the 80’s. The earlier printings were impossible to find at the time. I think most of them still hold up. I think I’ve read everything he’s written now. Null ABC/Crisis In 2140 was the last I found.

    Greg Weeks

  8. Fuloydo says:

    One of the first, if not THE first, Science Fiction books I ever read was Little Fuzzy. I found it on the shelf of the small bookcase full of paperbacks my father had in the spare bedroom of our house when I was about ten. This was in 1973. I loved that book and, about ten years later, it was stolen from my car while I was eating lunch. I hope whoever took it appreciated what they got. My thoughts when I first heard about how he died were, sad to say, mostly selfish. How many more Terro-Human Future History stories did he have, that we never got to share. The man knew how to tell a story.

  9. Michael Rawdon says:

    Piper is the writer who got me into reading science fiction – I discovered him as a teenager around 1985 or so. I first read Empire, a collection of his later-in-the-timeline future history stories, which is probably still my favorite book of his.

    I’ve heard that he left copious notes of his future history behind, and I’d always hoped someone would bundle them up and publish them. I suspect the chances of that get smaller every year, as his books are not even kept in print anymore. Too bad.

  10. Anton Sherwood says:

    Thanks for telling a fuller version of the story than had reached me before.

  11. Richard Moore says:

    I wasn’t aware that Rogers Terrill had been Piper’s agent. He must have liked having former pulp editors as agents as his agent for several years running up to his suicide was Kenneth White. It was White’s death that threw Piper’s financial situation (never good) to the desperation point. White’s unexpected (Piper did not know he was ill) death meant expected payments for stories sold did not come through, nor revisions requested by John Campbell. In the confusion left by White, Ace Books published Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen before the last novella was published by Analog. This greatly irritated Campbell, who detailed in Brass Tacks how the mix-up had happened.

    Carr’s biography corrects the record on Piper’s ex-wife, who some say spent all of his money on a Paris honeymoon. As I recall the Carr biography (which I don’t have in front of me), they were married in the U.S. and her very responsible job with an international organization kept her in New York City. Piper commuted back and forth to NYC from Altoona. Her job took her to Paris and Piper followed. He hated everything about Paris and within a few months, he walked out and returned to the U.S. The marriage was a personal and financial disaster for Piper, who was probably as ill-suited for marriage as could be imagined. Yet, he missed her for the rest of his life.

  12. Bruce Netterville says:

    Thank you for this post. I have only recently began reading Mr Piper’s works. Some of his works remind me of Poul Anderson esp his Paratime stories match up to Anderson’s Time Patrol. Interesting author and I plan to read his entire collection. Thanks for the insight.

  13. Wm. Mark Crafton says:

    Just finished Fuzzies and Other People (1984) that I found in a used book store. I’d read Little Fuzzy waay back when I was in high school in the mid 1980s, along with some of the Paratime stories.
    Mr. Piper, Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Stanley G. Weinbaum, and Andre Norton were some of the first SF writers I ever read. And some of the best! They inspired dreams that I might someday (alas, still mostly dreams!)write stories such as theirs.
    Whenever I think of Mr. Piper and his wondrous worlds, I mourn that he died before he could reveal any more of them to us.