Harry Steeger

Harry Steeger

In the late 1930s, I was a teenage science-fiction fan and would-be writer. I had come to know a number of editors of the existing science-fiction pulps by reinventing myself as a literary agent and visiting them at their offices, offering them the latest stories written by some of my fan friends. The writers were pretty amateurish and my sales of them around zero. Still, the deception wasn’t entirely implausible. A couple dozen of us would-bes had formed ourselves into a fan club called The Futurians. Drawn from that pool, some of my clients were Cyril Kornbluth, Don Wollheim and Isaac Asimov, and they were all already coming fairly close. Close enough, at least, to be taken at least slightly seriously by the editors.

What I noticed about the editors was that they spent much of their time reading science fiction. Well, that’s what I was doing, too, only I was doing it for nothing. I summoned up the nerve to ask one of the friendlier editors, Robert Erisman, if he would like to hire me as an assistant. He didn’t laugh at me. He didn’t even tell me what I am sure was true, that he didn’t have a budget for an assistant or any hope of being given one. But he did tell me that he had heard that some new magazines were coming out from Harry Steeger of Popular Publications, way at the far end of 42nd Street (Erisman’s office was almost as far west as you could go on 42nd Street, in the old green glass McGraw-Hill Building, while Steeger’s, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, was almost as far as you could go east — that is, in either case, without running into a river.). So why didn’t I, then, go see Mr. Steeger and see if he might hire me to edit a science-fiction magazine for him?

So I did, and, wonder of wonders, Mr. Steeger did. He said I could start right away. He cautioned me that these new magazines he was adding would be paying only a half-cent a word, instead of the traditional pulp penny, and to be consistent, all he could pay an editor for them, like me, was $10 a week, which even in 1939 was starvation wages. (I learned later that I wasn’t even the worst-paid of his new hirees. A young man named Costa Carousso was hired at about the same time, and his deal was that he would be paid nothing for his first three months and then raised to $10 a week. Curiously when Carousso, like me, got swept up into the Air Force a couple of years later, they turned us both into weathermen.)

What he didn’t tell me, but I found out for myself soon enough, was that none of the editors got paid very much, but were all expected to write enough stories for themselves to add up to a passably almost decent income. I volunteered the information that I would prefer to do my own typing and there, too, he managed not to laugh in my face, since that was what all the editors did. He simply walked into an unused office, poached a typewriter off its desk, carried it a few yards down the stem of the great T the offices were laid out in, set it down on that desk and said, “This will be your office. My secretary, Peggy Graves, will come to see you tomorrow and answer any questions you may have, Good luck.” And he walked back to his own office, leaving me to enjoy my very own desk, in my very own office in my very own employer’s publishing company.

Would you believe it, I was 19 years old and actually a professional editor.

(There is one memory from that day that still rankles a bit. All this had taken place on a Thursday, almost all of which I spent in the Popular office. The next day was Friday, which I spent working there. When, the following Friday, Peggy marched through the offices, depositing a paycheck on everyone’s desk, mine was for the five days of that week, with nothing for the Friday and most of Thursday of the week preceding. I contend that I am owed 1-1/2 days pay, or $3, for that week, that I have been owed it now for the better part of a century, and that the debt should have been earning, and compounding, interest all these years. Only I don’t know who to send the bill to.)

More to come.

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  1. Stefan Jones says:

    Just jumping in and becoming an editor like that . . . blows my mind, man!

    It would be nice to see a photo of the building your office was in . . . assuming it still exists!

  2. the blog team says:

    Stefan — coming right up!

  3. Bill Goodwin says:

    Tell you what, Fred old boy. I’ll publish a science fiction magazine–a real nice one too–and if you’ll edit it for me, I’ll not only start by making good on that $3 (plus compounded interest), but round off the sum to a full two days pay. ‘Cause I’ve got a feeling about you!

  4. SM says:

    I just noticed the “40 magazines under one owner” figure. I hadn’t realized there were so many pulps at one time! The total in a given month must have been hundreds.