Eugenie Clark

   Eugenie Clark

It’s hard to list the Ipsy’s guests in any sensible order, perhaps because they were not an orderly bunch. It does make sense for me to divide the guests into two classes. To begin with, there was the New York science-fiction crowd, all of whom I had known for some time.

In that group were most of the science-fiction people I have already written more or less extensively about in these pages. Among the ones most frequently present were Lester and Evelyn del Rey, Bob and Essie Bolster, George and Dona Smith, Cyril Kornbluth (first as a house guest of mine, then as a nearby resident on his own). Assorted other house guests of mine included Fritz Leiber from Chicago and Jack and Blanche Williamson from New Mexico.

Ted Sturgeon was definitely a regular in an unusual sense. For a couple of months one summer he never went home at all, since at the time, his finances being anemic, he didn’t have a home to go to.

The Pratts had no objection to Ted’s staying in the house when everyone else was gone. However, they didn’t offer to feed him. That was not a problem for Ted, who enjoyed a good dish of eel. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that by the time he finally moved out of the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, he had fished out the entire family of eels who lived by the boat dock. They never returned.

Any number of other New York-area sf people visited the Ipsy. Isaac Asimov, for instance, was there I think only once, but it was a significant visit, since Fletcher and Inga had plans for Isaac. They spent a lot of that weekend telling him what a wonderful place the Bread Loaf Writers’ Colony was for anyone with the desire, and the ability, to be a serious writer … and, I’m pretty sure, spent an equivalent period of time with the Breadloaf people telling them what a wonderful prospect Isaac was. The effort paid off. Isaac did give Bread Loaf a try; he loved the place, the Breadloaf people loved him and he became a Bread Loaf stalwart.

The other fraction of frequent guests at the Ipsy basically comprised the non-sf friends of the Pratts, many of them with ties to The Saturday Review of Literature. Some of those were actual celebrities of one kind or another, as for example Eugenie Clark, known worldwide as the “Lady with a Spear,” after her bestselling book with that name. Eugenie, as a child, had been fascinated by the works of William BeebeHalf Mile Down, the story of his adventures hanging at the end of almost 3,000 feet of steel cable in his “bathysphere,” a steel sphere about the size of a pup tent, or Beneath Tropic Seas, about his less spine-chilling but even more beautiful experiences walking through warm-water corals with only a mask for breathing.

I could understand her fascination. I had been turned on by the same books at about the same age. The difference between Eugenie Clark and me, though, was that she then grew up to become an actual ichthyologist, and I only to become a writer.

Perhaps even more famous, though in a different way, was Bernard DeVoto, at one time the editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, and for many years the author of its most celebrated column, “The Easy Chair.”

DeVoto was, in fact, about the closest thing Fletcher Pratt had to a hero. Indeed Fletcher had paid him the supreme compliment of naming after him the alpha male in his little tribe of marmosets, now transplanted from 67th Street to the billiard room of the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute. (Whom I very nearly put to death by sunburn one day when Inga entrusted me with timing his therapeutic ultra-violet ray treatment and I absentmindedly forgot to turn it off.)

As another token of respect Fletcher had dedicated one of his books to DeVoto, because, he said in the dedication, Bernard DeVoto was the man who had taught him how to write nonfiction books with his graceful works on Mark Twain, the American West and much else. (And I should say here, at last, that Fletcher was the one who taught me some of the same skills, with his marvelous Ordeal by Fire history of the Civil War.)

Unfortunately for me, the human DeVoto rarely made it to the Ipsy. Apparently he didn’t care to make the trek out to Highlands. Or perhaps to DeVoto, known for trumpeting his conviction that the only people entitled to have hot drinks were those who had suffered skiing accidents, and that there were only two drinks a man might properly consume, either a martini or a slug of straight whiskey, Fletcher’s effete toleration of whatever a guest might wish could have seemed barbarous. Or it may simply have been that he chose to avoid as much as possible of Fletcher’s cooking.

It is no disparagement of a man I held in high esteem to say that Fletcher was a sometimes quite awful cook. It was his conviction that most people ruined their dishes by overcooking them. Of that Fletcher was never guilty. You have not tasted bouillabaisse until you’ve had Fletcher’s version, in which you would not be surprised to find that the fish were still merrily swimming around their lukewarm pot. And when it came to preparing the dish that Fletcher most liked to set before his guests — a lordly roast of some exotic beast — you knew that the liquid in the bottom of the serving dish was going to be simple, uncooked blood.

In this respect, by the way, I was of considerable use to Fletcher. I was living with my then-wife, Judy Merril, in her huge basement apartment at 99 East 4th Street, and on Second Avenue, no more than a couple of blocks away was one of the last surviving old-style butchers’ shops in New York. They undertook to supply Fletcher with whatever cut of whatever variety of meat he wished, provided only that he give them a couple of days to get it from their supplier. If for that weekend it was to be roast hump of buffalo, in Fletcher’s view the only part of the animal that was fit to eat, on the Monday Fletcher would call the shop to place his order, and on the Friday I would pick up the roast and lug it out to New Jersey.

One of my personal favorites among Fletcher’s literary lions was John Ciardi, the New England poet, who was perhaps best known in our circle for writing his own epitaph in the form of a quatrain one afternoon:

Here, time concurring (and it does)
Lies Ciardi. If no kingdom come
A kingdom was. Such as it was
This one beside it is a slum.

John, of course, was much better known in much wider circles than that for his superlative translation (into American English) of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and for his own magisterial books on poetry. To say nothing of his CBS TV show, or his Saturday Review column.

Ciardi and I became friends in a way that was unusual, at least for me, among the group I thought of as “Fletcher’s friends.” Most of those were people whose company I enjoyed and with whom I was on the best of terms, but whom I rarely saw except at the Ipsy. John and I, however, had worked up a joint project of our own, which developed into a habit of meeting on our own at places other than the Institute. I think it may have had something to do with a proposed anthology, or a series of books of some kind. But I’m sorry to say I can’t remember any details, other than the fact that it came to nothing in the end.

St. Leger Lawrence was unusual in that company for the fact that I had then, and have now, no idea what he did for a living. But he had been close friends with the Pratts for many years, and where they went he went also. Basil Davenport, on the other hand, was conspicuously the head editor (and later a judge) for the Book-of-the-Month Club.

What I most clearly remember Basil for was one Friday evening. I was running to catch the ferry which would connect with the train for Highlands. So was Basil, just behind me. When we both got aboard, just before they slammed down the gates, both of us still panting, he said jubilantly, “I did a great thing for science fiction today, Fred! This afternoon I persuaded the whole board of judges to take Arthur Clarke’s new book as a main selection!”

Perhaps the most totally assimilated of the Friends of Fletcher was Laurence Manning.

I first heard that he was still alive after I had finally remembered to ask Fletcher about the identity of his long-ago collaborator on the novel from one of the bedsheet-sized sf mags from the dawn of time. “You mean ‘The City of the Living Dead’?” he asked.

“No, no. The story I mean was A Voice Across the Years. The byline was by you and somebody I’d never heard of, called ‘I.M. Stephens.’ Who was he?”

By then Fletcher was smiling. “You mean I’ve never introduced you to my wife, Inga Marie Stephens Pratt?”

“Oh,” I said, embarrassed. I should have made that connection long before because Inga’s expertise lay in fashion and clothes design in general, which accounted for the emphasis on those matters in the novel. But Fletcher was still talking.

“But if you want to see a collaborator of mine from the Stone Age, Laurie Manning is the one you’ve been waiting for. He isn’t writing any more. He’s got a nice little business in mail-order plants and flowers, which he runs from his house, and as a matter of fact he and his family are coming out for a visit next week.”

(Part 5 will be coming along pretty soon, provided I finish writing it.)

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  1. Bill Goodwin says:

    Are we to understand, then, that Eugenie Clark was an Ichthy Wipsy Insider?

    The legendary clash of Eel and Sturgeon…

    John Ciardi was the one who said “Poetry lies its way to the truth.” I’ve always liked that.

    Loving every bit of this, as usual!

  2. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    John, of course, was much better known in much wider circles than that for his superlative translation (into American English) of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and for his own magisterial books on poetry.

    I never met John Ciardi, but I have a story about him nevertheless.

    My brother, John M. Higgins, and I attended the same high school and studied the Divine Comedy under the same teacher, Nancy Husted, who favored Mr. Ciardi’s translation.

    Years later, in 1986, my brother and I were watching TV together when the sad news came that the famed poet John Ciardi had died.

    John turned to me and said, “Now the big question is– Paradiso,Purgatorio, or Inferno?”

  3. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    In 1930 (while Fred was still in grade school), Laurence Manning and Fletcher Pratt were among those who started the American Interplanetary Society in New York, at a speakeasy called Nino & Nella’s. This group eventually merged with another group to become the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics. Rocket engineers can thank some SF writers for founding their professional society.