Judith Merril

   Judith Merril

For the first couple of years after World War II, I was living in Greenwich Village, as a civilian, along with my second wife, Dorothy Louise LesTina (about whom see The Way the Future Was.). We had a pretty busy life, the two of us, and although I had heard that there was a whole new science-fiction fandom in the city I was overfull of self-affairs (as the Bard put it) and myself did lose it.

Anyway, then Tina, visiting her parents in California filed for divorce. (There, too, check my writing about Tina for details.) In any case, I suddenly wasn’t married any more, and so I had time to get around to seeing if I and this new NYC fan community had any reason to get together.

It turned out that we did. I began making friends with young Robert Silverberg and young Charles Brown (yes, the Locus man, although all that was still very far away) and a bunch of other people who became close, long-time friends. And there was one really interesting thing, unprecedented in pre-war fannish history, and that was that quite a few of these new New York fans were female.

That was an unexpected but very, very welcome development. I soon became friendly with some of this new breed of femmefans, as they were (briefly) termed, and with one in particular. That one’s name was Judy Zissman. She was divorced and with an enchanting little girl whom she had named Merril. Judy wanted to be a writer and the two of us got along just fine.

Before I tell you some of the things that happened next, there is one thing you need to know about Judy right now, and that is the nature of her beliefs about sexual conduct. One of them was that females had as much right to sleep around as males do, and that that right was considerable..

That was one of the things I didn’t really want to discuss when I was writing The Way the Future Was. The good news is that now I don’t have to discuss it at all. In the last years of her life, Judy was writing her own memoir, and in it she was quite open about her views and her experiences.

Judy died before she could finish the memoir, but the two of us had begun having some of our children’s children growing up and taking over some things. One of them was our well-beloved granddaughter Emily Pohl-Weary, who, having herself become a writer, finished the book for her. (It was published as Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril. And listen, our kids and grandkids don’t fool around. It won a Hugo Award.)

So by all means, read all you like about Judy’s private business. Only read about it from her.

Before long, Judy and I had settled down to cohabitating in her gigantic New York apartment on East 4th Street.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. The place certainly was gigantic, at least four big bedrooms, but it was also on the basement level of the apartment building To get to it, you took the elevator down one flight. It had been designed, and built, with the expectation that it would be occupied by the building’s janitor and his family. In America’s postwar boom, though, your average janitor didn’t care to be treated like an inferior. The present incumbent and family lived in modest prosperity, rent-free, in a perfectly rentable apartment above-ground. Judy had discovered the situation and grabbed the underground space for a pitiful rent, which I think may have been less than $25 a month.

For us it was perfect. Plenty of room for us each to have space to live and write, and space for little Merril and for the child’s pet dog, Taxi Driver, and even for Judy to rent out one of the extra rooms to the occasional single woman who needed a cheap place to stay. One was Gerry Schuster, rehearsal pianist for the New York Ballet. Another, at a different time, described herself as “the white New York girlfriend” of a famous musician — and proved it by getting us all comped seats to his Carnegie Hall appearance, and a visit to his dressing room after.

And, in particular, the one thing that the place was perfect for was parties. We had a lot of them.

We were quite prosperous at that time, you see. I was book editor and advertising copywriter for the rich Popular Science Publishing Company at a steadily increasing salary. While Judy had got herself an editorial job with Bantam Books, working for Ian Ballantine, who at that time ran it.. Between us we earned quite a lot, we didn’t really spend all that much, and God was good. Not only that. Bantam gave Judy the chance to edit her first very own science-fiction anthology (but entitled Shot in the Dark to disguise the fact that it was sf as much as possible).

And even that wasn’t the very best of it. There was the fact that Judy had, without warning and all by herself, had unexpectedly written a story of her own that just knocked the socks off everyone who read it.

The story I’m talking about, of course, was “That Only a Mother.” What it’s about is a time after a nuclear war when radioactivity left after all the bombs were dropped has produced horrid mutations. The lead character in the story is a woman who has just given birth to a baby she loves with all her heart, and can’t allow herself to realize is a physical monster.

That’s not just a great story idea. Judy wrote it beautifully. Her then agent, Scott Meredith, read it over, called Judy to his desk and told her he was going to sell that to a big, big magazine at a big price.

He didn’t, though.

It wasn’t altogether his fault. Some of the big editors were scared off, I think, by the scary picture Judy painted of the war that most Americans were beginning to fear might just happen at any moment. (Schoolchildren were being to taught to hide under their desks and “duck and cover” if bombs began to drop nearby.)

So I think that some editors were turned off by fears of political problems if they published it. That wouldn’t have been all, though. Many, many editors didn’t want to expose their readers to the kind of stomach-turning revulsion that some people got from reading the story. One of the editors Scott tried it on, indeed, called his office as soon as she had read it and demanded that he send a special messenger over to get the horrible thing out of her office at once.

So it wound up with John Campbell buying it for his magazine. That wasn’t the same as piles of money and prestige from a big slick. It wasn’t all that bad, though. It aroused a storm of talk, and mostly praise, from the readers, and from that time on Judy was an instant Big Name Writer.

To be continued.

Related posts:
Judith Merril, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9


  1. Q says:

    Thank you for all the reminisces that you share with grateful fans!

  2. CaitieCat says:

    I had the enormous good fortune of meeting Ms. Merril twice in my life, once when I was 13, and again shortly before she passed.

    When I was 13, I went down to the newly-opened Science Fiction Library that she’d founded among the buildings of the University of Toronto. I walked along the hall that lead to the small room full of delicious sf/f, and as I did, noticed through an open door that a lady I recognized from the TV was in an office.

    I backtracked, and said, “Hey, you’re that lady from the TV!” To which she agreed; she had been providing taped intros to TVO’s presentation of Doctor Who serials. We had a nice conversation, ending with me asking her to recommend something I might enjoy, based on the books I mentioned having liked.

    She steered me to Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, the first of the Thomas Covenant books. She suggested it because, she said, she found it really refreshing to have a book whose protagonist was a whiny horrible pain in the ass. I agreed, when I’d read the book.

    I met her once more before she passed, wandering around the IKEA in north Toronto; she was using a wheelchair, and had an attendant with her. I spoke to her briefly, thanked her for the recommendation (which had led me to so much more!). She even remembered me, more to my surprise.

    Thank you for writing more about her. I’ve always been very interested in reading her work, and about her life. She’s one of my heroes, along with Jane Jacobs, as women who wrote in fields traditionally thought of as “men’s”.

  3. Stefan Jones says:

    This is probably a longshot, but while living in the Village did you ever eat in a place called Fugazzi’s?

  4. Emily says:

    Have I mentioned how much I love that you’re blogging? I get to keep up with your life remotely. Plus, I don’t have any friends whose 91-year-old grandfathers blog. Ha! Great post about Judy and I adore that photo of her. XO and miss ya, Em

  5. Ann Pohl says:

    Hello Father — I agree with Emilina. It’s REALLY cool to have a 91 year old (great-grand)father who is blogging about the past for the future…

    “That Only a Mother” was a deep influence on me, seeing as it was my own mother who wrote it. I have read the story many, many times — and always felt “that baby could have been me.” Equally so with her Shadow on the Hearth.

    Cut my teeth on Judith’s personal library, which later became the Spaced-Out and then the Merril Collection at the Toronto Public Library. How to describe being schooled through this body of scientific and speculative knowledge? Just about everything humanity now finally recognizes as a “crisis” in the life of our planet was written about before 1961 in sci-fi. So, like the young people today, I grew up feeling panic and hopelessness about the future of the human race and all the life forms we rely on for survival and comfort.

    To my way of thinking, in those days in America, sci-fi was an enormously important medium for social commentary and protest. The political environment forbade such commentary, under threat of dire consequences. Pops, you reference this above, in discussing the challenges Judy and Scott faced in getting a publisher for the cogent and touching “That Only a Mother.”

    In the early ’60’s, I lost my taste for seeing these desperate facts fictionalized (or as I see it candy-coated). My personal favourites of your works, Pops, are Chernobyl and Our Angry Earth. Works like these should have been compulsory reading in high school science back when they were published.

    RIP Judith. You tried to wake up The People. As did all of you in the genre at the time. Thanks Pops, for keeping on keeping on. :)

  6. Keith says:

    I’ve never had the honor of meeting Judy but I’ve read her SF stories and yours. The last one I read of yours was ‘O Pioneer’ in the library which it took about an hour from start to finish. Emily’s my mentor and good friend, she’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to meeting a famous writer. ~Hey, Em how goes it.~ I’ve always wanted to do that.