Harry Harrison was a good friend for over sixty years, a fact I’m sure of because I remember when we met. It was way back in the 1950s, when my then wife and I lived in a huge basement apartment in the East Village. We made the best use of it, too, hosting pretty large and sometimes a bit noisy parties, mostly for the local science-fiction community and blessed by the fact that basement doings were inaudible above ground. I can’t pin down the exact date, but at one of those parties two young people knocked on the door whom I had never seen before. “We’re the Harrisons, I’m Harry and she’s Evelyn. Jay Stanton said we could come,” the man said, sounding unsure of himself.
I said, “Of course you can. Coats go in the first bedroom, food and drinks are where the noise is coming from. I just heard the elevator door so I’d better stay here a bit, but you go and mingle.”
So that made two historic events for that evening — one being the first time I saw Harry Harrison, the other being the last time I observed him being diffident. By the time I got back to the party he had three or four people around him, all clamoring to be taught how to say dirty words in Esperanto.
We became friends quickly — in fact, a particular kind of friends, something akin to a double-dating foursome except that we were all married, Harry to his then wife Evelyn, me to my own then wife Judy Merril. We seemed to have a lot of interests in common, and Harry in particular liked to talk about the art and business of writing. He wasn’t himself a writer but instead an artist, mostly of comics. I supposed that was simply the normal fannish interest, with a touch of wanting to do illustrations for the magazines.
That was my bad guess. The truth came out considerably later, when he turned up one day with a manuscript in his hands. “Want to read it?” he asked. I said, “Sure,” although I didn’t really. (It is no fun to have to tell a friend in what ways his story sucks.) That problem didn’t come up, though. The story had a good premise — something about machines that traveled underground as well as submarines did underwater. What’s more, I was only a couple pages into it when I realized it was actually quite a good enough story to make me wish I was still an editor myself so I could accept it on the spot.
I told him how much I liked it and asked if he wanted suggestions on who to send it to. “No,” he said. “I showed it to Damon and he bought it for his new magazine.”
“Huh,” I said, and added, “I thought you were going after a career in illustrating, not writing, for the magazines.”
He gave me a smile. “I was, but you talked me out of it.” I must have looked puzzled, because he explained, “Remember those times when you were talking about your average budget for the old Astonishing Stories? You said you paid around fifty dollars per story, average, and when I asked what you paid for an illustration you said. ‘About five.’ Right then is when I started trying to write.”
It was a decision made in heaven, because look at what came out of that man’s typewriter over the next years. Just the novels were fine, starting with Deathworld, and going on forever. And not only science fiction, because along came Stonehenge (with Leon Stover), a historical novel, and a fine one.
I lost touch with Harry from time to time over the next years, owing largely to his experimenting with living in other countries, starting with Mexico, then moving across the Atlantic. He did show up in New York now and then for a visit, but when he and his second wife Joan (and their recently acquired two small children, Moira and Todd) wound up in Denmark, they stayed for years, coming back to America only when they discovered that their children were learning Danish faster, and better, than English.
That didn’t last, though. By the time Todd and Moira were beginning to get good in their native tongue, Harry had another yearning. He really hated to pay income tax. What’s more, he and I had from time to time discussed the very attractive standing offer the Republic of Ireland had made to any foreign-born but part Irish person, which was instant citizenship and the chance to take advantage of Ireland’s grant of waiver of all income tax for professional artists, including writers. Each of us having the required minimum of at least one Irish grandfather, we were both eligible.
For me those chats were fantasy, because America was the only country I was willing to call mine. Harry, though, was made of sterner stuff With a little help from Anne McCaffrey, who had taken the offer years earlier, and after some talks with Irish embassy people, all of a sudden Harry was miraculously transmuted to Irish and, wife and kids included, was living in a little town outside of Dublin. And Irish he profitably remained for the rest of his life.
Part 2 to come.