Hannes Bok, 1941.

Hannes Bok, 1941.
 

There were a couple of things about Hannes Bok that we didn’t mention last time, but they were important to him. One was his love of music. Indeed, when young Wayne Woodard, as he had been named by his parents, started working out the name he wanted to live his life under, the names he started with were all variants of those of the great early master Johann Sebastian Bach. First it was Johan, then Johannes, then he modified the spelling and came up with Hannes Bok. (Which was a little odd, actually, because Hannes’ favorite composer wasn’t anyone as old-fashioned as a Bach, but the quite modern Finnish master, Sibelius.)

The other great passion of his life took up even more of it than music — and was less sympathetic to most of his fellow fans. That was his passion for astrology. Hannes didn’t just believe in it, he studied it with the same intensity that a disciple might have given to the works of his 12th- or 14th-century master. Hannes went so far as to work out complete astrological readings for a few of his friends. They were detailed and — inasmuch is there is anything that could be called trustworthy about the study of astrology in general — quite trustworthily prepared. Looked at as art objects rather than useful tools, they are in fact well worth hanging on your wall. Which is what I did — way back when, with mine — but it’s long lost now and I can only wish that I had it still.

During the years of the War and just after, Hannes had been having his most prosperous period, doing over a hundred covers for Weird Tales and a dozen other science fiction and fantasy magazines, plus interior black-and-whites for them and covers for Ballantine and many of the semi-pro book publishers that were springing up. Most of them didn’t pay very well, and Hannes had a self-defeating habit of putting in long hours of experimentation on new techniques of enhancing the color on each job. But he was eating, and relatively happy.

That, however didn’t last. Hannes had developed another self-defeating habit, this time of becoming pretty quarrelsome. Sadly, a lot of the people he quarreled with were the customers for his artwork. One after another of them quietly took Hannes’ address out of their card file — which had the effect of cutting down on his income — which had the lock-on effect of making him still more quarrelsome.

I saw very little of Hannes in that immediate post-war period. The only contact I remember is running in to him by accident at someone’s office, I think perhaps John Campbell’s. He didn’t seem particularly thrilled at meeting me again, and I wasn’t overly charmed by his manner. It was quite a while after that that I went up to his desolate little flat and saw him for the last time.

It happened that I had met with Don Wollheim for some reason, maybe for lunch one day, and as I was getting ready to leave he said, “What I have to do now is go up and see Hannes Bok to talk to him about some artwork. Want to come along?”

“Sure,” I said, before I could change my mind. The apartment was pretty far uptown, but the subway got us there quickly enough, and Hannes was buzzing the door open before we even rang his bell.

“I was sitting by the widow, and I saw you guys coming, Have you got my checks?”

Donald’s reason for coming, he had explained to me, was to buy a couple of drawings that he hoped to be able to use in his job at Ace Books, but he shook his head at that. “No checks till we get the art,” he said. “I told you that. Have you got the drawings?”

Hannes complained briefly about that, but he went into the room that he called his studio and came back with two flat packages wrapped in newspaper. “When will I get the checks?” he asked Donald.

“As soon as I can get them signed,” Donald said. “You know what it’s like.”

Hannes gave him a bitter grin. “I do,” he said. Then he turned to me. I guess I’d been looking him over pretty closely. He was a lot skinnier than I remembered and quite a lot surlier.

“Is something the matter?” he asked.

I lied. “No, nothing,” I said. But what I had seen in that quick snarling grin had been a real shock. The man had no teeth at all, not even dentures.

I didn’t take much part in the conversation for a while after that. I was doing my best to understand what it would be like to have no teeth. Hannes wasn’t much older than I was. Under forty, anyway. By no means old enough to be the toothless grandpa he had turned into, and by no means as old as the oldest old fart I’d ever had the actual experience of living with. That particular old fart was my own real grandpa, briefly occupying our back room before Ma had managed to shift him off onto the care of Aunt Marie, who had a bigger house and a bigger yard and a hot, dry attic where he could cure the backyard-grown tobacco no one would give him money to buy.

That was when I figured out that you didn’t have to have all that many calendar years behind you in order to turn into Grandpa. Or worse.


Before we left, Donald — in order to make some light conversation, I thought — had asked Hannes what he’d had for lunch. Hannes didn’t answer that, just told us that he needed to finish something before the daylight went. So the daylight stayed but we were the ones who went. And on the way back down to civilization Donald told me that Hannes needed the checks he was about to persuade his publisher to sign to pay for the repair of his upper denture.

“He’s been living mostly on cornflakes,” Donald told me. “He pours milk, or sometimes water, over them until they’re mush, and then he gums them down.”

“Jesus,” I said. “How long can he go on like that?” Donald just shook his head, but not very long after that I got a definitive answer. That was when we got the word that Hannes had died in his sleep.

The death certificate said “heart failure,” but when I talked to Donald he didn’t believe it. He shook his head and said, “Starvation.”

 
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8 Comments

  1. David B. Williams says:

    There seems to be a regular sub-genre of these odd, tragic biographies in fanhistorical literature. Enough could be pulled together to publish a very depressing book.

  2. Jim Flanagan says:

    Coincidentally, the auction of Jerry Weist’s collection has 4 items by Bok.

    http://historical.ha.com/common/search_results.php?Ntk=SI_Titles&Ntt=Bok&Nty=1&N=49+793+794+792+2088+4294953525&chkNotSold=0&Ns=

    Jim

  3. David Ratnasabapathy says:

    Couldn’t he have got free dentures from the National Health Service?

    It’s so odd that Americans don’t want Public healthcare. You live lives that are more miserable and shorter for the lack of it — but the very people, the majority, who would benefit from it, resolutely oppose it.

  4. Stefan Jones says:

    @David:

    The Economist recently ran an article about why people just a rung up the ladder from poverty and want, and for whom an injury or illness would mire them in debt and lost, oppose safety net programs . . . even though they would benefit:

    http://www.economist.com/node/21525851?frsc=dg

    It’s because they don’t want the people a rung below them to get any help, and erase the differences between them. They have a psychological need to have someone worse off than they are.

  5. David Ratnasabapathy says:

    Bigotry harms the bigot too, then.

  6. Sandra Bond says:

    Here’s another 1950s photo of Bok, taken by long-time fan Marty Jukovsky:

    https://picasaweb.google.com/mjukovsky/ScienceFictionDays?authkey=Gv1sRgCN6SmdWLuti3lQE#5658677568880795410

  7. John Boland says:

    I guess I haven’t been reading the blog for a month or so. Neglecting the politico-psycho-babble of other posters, let me mention that Bok’s work struck me the first time I saw it as absolutely wonderful–playful and beautiful. Imagine if he had been around for The Dragon Masters (not to denigrate in any way Gaughn’s work). My memory gets fuzzy, but I’d swear I saw a Bok cover on F&SF long after Fred’s account suggests he had died. Wasn’t it Bok’s work for “A Rose for Ecclesi–”–oh, hell, I’m not going to try to spell that, have probably already butchered Jack Gaughn (Gaughan?). But come to think of it, does anyone but me feel that J.G.’s (there!)style at times owed something to Bok? Anyway, thanks for another blog entry. Reading these is a tremendous pleasure.