What postwar New York had lacked was a gathering point for the area’s sf brethren (and sistren), so Lester del Rey and I created one. I invited a few of my sf friends to come and discuss the subject at my apartment at 28 Grove Street in the Village, Lester showed up with some of his, and we constituted ourselves a sort of roving gentlemen’s (and ladies’) club for people interested in science fiction, especially if professionally.
There were nine of us. The mythological Hydra was said to have nine heads. That was good enough, so we called it The Hydra Club and began beating the brush for members. In the process of inviting all the area’s sf writers and editors whose addresses we could locate, Fletcher Pratt was one of the first we reeled in.
He was a key recruit. We original nine of course knew all the book and magazine editors, and most of the writers, in the area. Fletcher knew everybody else — Basil Davenport, editor (and later judge) for the Book-of-the-Month Club; Bernard De Voto, authority on my personal hero, Mark Twain, whilom editor of The Saturday Review of Literature and eternally the author of its most popular regular column, “The Easy Chair”; Hans Stefan Santesson, editor of a couple of small book clubs which now and then did science-fiction books and so on.
The cut was between the people who primarily did science-fiction, all of whom we knew, and the people who did all kinds of works, but sometime did or sometimes might do a little science fiction as well. And those latter were the ones with whom Fletcher was our strongest link.
I have to admit that at first I wasn’t entirely easy with the idea of Fletcher Pratt, considered as friendship material for me. There was a generation gap. I didn’t have any other friends anywhere near that old. Fletcher was pushing fifty, and almost all my other friends were within at least approximate lying distance of my own age, which was then in my late twenties. Even Jack Williamson’s age was not much more than halfway to Fletcher’s. Fletcher was also famous — that is, famous in wider circles than just those of science fiction.
On the other hand, Fletcher did now and then definitely write science fiction himself, which betokened a certain youthfulness of outlook. Anyway, how could anyone be stuffy, stodgy or staid when he was known to spend at least one hour of every day hand-feeding live mealworms to his pack of pet marmosets?
Fletcher owned about a dozen of the little South American monkeys, kept in three or four large cages in a corner of his huge sitting room. They were sweet-looking little beasts, with a fringe of white beard all around their little faces, with their chronic expression of concern.
The census of the pack was not a fixed number. Fletcher encouraged the little animals to breed — not so much because the surplus was always well received by pet dealers, whose payments to the Pratts for those they didn’t keep just about covered the mealworm bill, as, I think, because Fletcher wanted his marmosets to be happy.. He had, of course, given them all names, mostly taken from New York’s literary establishment. The head marmoset, and Fletcher’s personal favorite, was Benny De Voto.
That same room was a great asset to us all. It was spacious, it was conveniently located, and Fletcher and his wife, Inga, were gracious hosts who enjoyed company, When a couple of Hollywood types came to New York with a proposal for a sort of syndicate of science-fiction writers to market their works to film and TV producers the Pratts provided them with a place where they could describe their plan to twenty or so of the area’s leading sf writers. (It came to nothing. The Hollywood duo had nothing tangible to offer the writers.)
Then when many of those same writers wanted to get together to discuss creating an organization of sf writers along lines similar to the Authors League, the Pratts once again offered a venue for the discussion. (And that, too, came to nothing at that time because half the writers declined to join anything that was structured like a trade union, and the other half rejected anything that wasn’t. When SFWA — the Science Fiction Writers of America — at last did come into existence, it was because two writers, Damon Knight and Lloyd Biggle, Jr., declared that they had created it and urged all the other writers whose addresses they could find to send in checks for some $25, upon which they would become members. This was an immediate success.)
Even more important, when such seldom seen heavy hitters as W. Olaf Stapledon, author of Last and First Men, Odd John and many others of science fiction’s early classics, made a trip to New York for other reasons, the Pratts made that room available for a reception. That was a wonderful break for those of us lucky enough to be invited to meet him, and actually a welcome one for Stapledon himself.
He had been invited to New York to participate in a meeting to urge peace in international affairs. Like many respectable European intellectuals, Stapledon found it hard to decline such invitations, but when he got to the Waldorf-Astoria, he found it encircled by a howling mass of anti-communists, perhaps rather like today’s Tea Party hordes, and he welcomed the chance for some quiet conversation.
But the Pratts’ appetite for company wasn’t satisfied by what could be accomplished in one — after all — rather small New York apartment. Without telling anyone what they were doing, they went shopping for a more impressive place.
They found what they wanted in Highlands, New Jersey, a wonderfully huge structure that sat on a bluff over the sea, and for the next half-dozen or so years it was, for many of us, our favorite weekend resort.
To be continued.