Remembering Robert P. Mills
|Vol.1, No. 1, Fall 1949||Vol. 1, No. 1, Jan. 1957||Oct. 1958|
|Nov. 1957||April 1960||July 1960|
Science fiction’s forgotten agent
By Leah A. Zeldes
Though little remembered today, Robert Park Mills (1920–1986) played a quiet but prominent part in shaping science fiction and fantasy from the 1950s through the ’80s. He was no flamboyant character, but as an editor and, especially, as a literary agent, Mills put into print some of the best-known works of the era.
When Mercury Press launched The Magazine of Fantasy in 1949, publisher Lawrence E. Spivak appointed Mills managing editor. Mills also managed its sister publication, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, from 1948–1959. In addition, he wrote EQMM’s “Detective Directory” column and edited Mercury Mystery Book-Magazine and, from 1957–1958, he edited the short-lived, bi-monthly Venture Science Fiction Magazine, including writing its editorial column, “Venturings.” He penned a few short stories, as well.
At first, Mills’ duties at what soon became The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction were more about managing than editing. Founding editors J. Francis McComas and Anthony Boucher, based in California, chose the fiction, while Mills, in New York, handled the more routine jobs of copyediting and arranging for typesetting and production. But after McComas left in 1954, and Boucher four years later, Mills became F&SF’s sole editor.
Mills was not an obtrusive editor, ordering writers about in the style of John W. Campbell at Astounding or Horace L. Gold at Galaxy. Mills put his stamp on F&SF through careful choices of the best stories (often selected by assistants, such as Cyril Kornbluth), by cultivating promising authors and by welcoming the unconventional.
By the late 1950s, the genre seemed to be floundering in the eyes of many fans. Chicago’s Earl Kemp published the landmark Who Killed Science Fiction? in 1960, yet most of its contributors credited Mills’ work at F&SF as a high point of the field.
“They have the fewest taboos of any of the magazines and are willing to try almost — not quite — any new type of story. It’s still a pleasure to read the magazine all the way through,” Philip José Farmer wrote.
Mills recruited Isaac Asimov as science columnist and bought innovative stories other editors rejected, among them Daniel Keyes’ groundbreaking “Flowers for Algernon.” (It was at Mills’ suggestion that Keyes added a romantic element to the story.) At a time when women SF writers were still relatively rare, he published the first of Anne McCaffrey’s Helva stories, “The Ship Who Sang,” and Joanna Russ’s first story, “Nor Custom Stale.”
Mills complained in Who Killed Science Fiction? of the difficulty in finding such works: “There is not enough fresh, good writing in the field. A fair amount of competent reworking of old themes, a much too large amount of incompetent reworking of old themes and working out of ridiculous themes, and virtually no stimulating new concepts worked out with inspiration or high skill.” The previous August, F&SF had published a special issue of “done-to-death-themes.”
Nevertheless, F&SF won Hugo Awards for best prozine in 1959, 1960 and 1963, with Mills’ purchases like Ron Goulart’s early story “Dream Girl,” Fritz Leiber’s “The Silver Eggheads” and Robert A. Heinlein’s “All You Zombies.” Robert Bloch’s “That Hell-Bound Train,” Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” and Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers,” serialized as “Starship Soldier,” all won Hugos of their own, as well. Mills also edited numerous well-regarded reprint anthologies.
In 1959, Mills founded the Robert P. Mills Ltd. literary agency, and after leaving F&SF in 1962, he worked full time as an agent, representing a wide variety of writers. Significant mainstream clients included Richard Brautigan, author of Trout Fishing in America; novelist and essayist James Baldwin; Chicago newsman turned novelist Ben Hecht; Jim Thompson, author of gritty pulps such as The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me; and Richard Fariña, whose untimely death cut short the promising beginnings of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. In addition, there were Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man; poet Langston Hughes; Noel Langley, the South African novelist who wrote the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz; film critic Pauline Kael; pulp writer Norman Daniels; China expert Edgar Snow; comedian Jackie Gleason; and dancer Katherine Dunham.
It was as an agent for science fiction writers, though, that Mills really mattered. The Mills agency’s papers, now at the University of Texas at Austin, catalog the 1960s and ’70s’ most prominent SF names: Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Lloyd Biggle Jr., Ben Bova, Ed Bryant, Terry Carr, Avram Davidson, Lester del Rey, Gordon R. Dickson, Thomas Disch, Harlan Ellison, Philip José Farmer, James Gunn, Joe Haldeman, Harry Harrison, Daniel Keyes, Damon Knight, Fritz Leiber, Walter M. Miller Jr., Fred Saberhagen, Clifford Simak, John Sladek, Walter Tevis, James Tiptree Jr., Roger Zelazny and more.
Literary agent Cherry Weiner, who got her start as secretary to Mills in 1974, called him “a tough negotiator when it came to his authors.”
“He was effective,” agreed novelist Roberta Gellis, a former client. Correspondence between Mills and Brautigan describes the agent’s tireless efforts to sell Brautigan’s novel The Abortion. For Baldwin, Mills went beyond agency to handle all his literary and financial affairs.
He often spurred his writers to bigger things. “My first day there,” Weiner recounted, “I was just typing a submission letter, under Bob’s name, to F&SF. . . . Bob came into my office and asked me why it took so long for me to type the letter, and I sheepishly told him that I was late because I had taken the time to read the short story. He asked me what I thought and I told him that without a doubt it would sell, but it really should be a novel. Bob immediately dictated a letter for me to write [to the author] telling him (and I remember this word for word) that ‘even my neophyte secretary said, write the novel.'”
Mills was born in 1920 in Missoula, Montana, the son of William P. Mills, a physician, and Alice Wicklund. He was a younger half-brother to Norman Wicklund Macleod, the poet, editor and educator who established Briarcliff Quarterly, Pembroke Magazine and the New York Poetry Center.
Mills received his bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey in 1942. Entering the U.S. Army at the height of World War II, he rose to first lieutenant. Thereafter, he lived in New York. He married twice, to Anne Hale in 1945, and later to Patricia Bain, and had two children, Frederic and Alison.
Those who knew him describe him as mannerly and somewhat patrician. “He was very tall, thin, quiet, gentle and very gentlemanly — almost old-fashioned courtly when he dealt with women … excuse me … he called us ‘ladies,’ ” Weiner said. “Yet with all his quietness and gentleness he had an amazing presence about him.”
In the office, she said, he was all business, and outside of business matters he didn’t mix much with the science fiction community. “He was professional and kept his private life private,” Weiner said.
The Mills era of science fiction came to an end in 1984, when he retired, selling his agency to Richard Curtis Associates, and moved to San Diego. He did not enjoy a long retirement. Proving how much of his heart he had put into his work, Mills died of a coronary just two years later, at age 65.