Posts tagged ‘Gertrude Asimov’

The continued life and loves of Isaac Asimov

Janet Jeppson and Isaac Asimov (Photo by Jay Kay Klein.)

Janet Jeppson and Isaac Asimov (Photo by Jay Kay Klein.)

There was one woman whom Isaac met in that period when his marriage to Gertrude was crumbling but had not yet got to the stage of a divorce who became both large and permanent in Isaac’s life. She was a New York psychiatrist named Janet Jeppson, who now and then wrote science fiction.

Janet and Isaac had once or twice bumped into each other at science-fiction events in the city, but nothing much came of it until they were both present at an annual banquet of the Mystery Writers of America. They found themselves talking mostly to each other, and thereafter Isaac regarded her as a good friend — at least until he came to regard her as the woman he would wholeheartedly love until the end of his life.

I didn’t at the time know Janet, and I was pretty curious about this woman who had so smitten the normally somewhat reticent Isaac Asimov. Isaac was, also uncharacteristically, always willing to talk about her; in fact you could say that Janet was his favorite topic of conversation in the years around 1970. When, a little overloaded with Janetiana, I finally asked him why she was incontestably the most desirable woman in the world for him, he thought for a moment and then said, “Because Janet has never once failed to make me feel welcome.”

One story Isaac told me says something about the degree of Isaac’s growing devotion to her — and about some of the problems that come with a degree of public recognition. Isaac had just finished delivering a lecture to a group in Boston when he got a phone message to say that Janet had collapsed with some sort of a brain problem in New York and was now in the emergency room of a hospital. There were few details. Shocked and frightened, Isaac said a quick goodbye to his hosts, ran out of the building, jumped into his car and was off.

It is a good couple of hundred miles from Boston to New York, with good highways but highways that are exceptionally well policed. It is astonishing that Isaac wasn’t pulled over along the way because the length of time he took to make the trip was incompatible with speed limits, but he got to the hospital in one piece and managed to locate Janet’s doctor. Who said, “Yes, I’m Dr. Jeppson’s attending and I’ll take you to her, but first, Dr. Asimov, may I tell you how much I’ve always enjoyed your Foundation stories?”

Isaac being a nonviolent person, he didn’t cold-cock the man. And he did get to see Janet, and she recovered from what had caused her collapse.

Unfortunately that was not the total of their medical problems in that period. In 1972, Isaac discovered that there was something going on in his thyroid gland that might well be malignant, requiring dietary changes and medications to take, while Janet found a lump in her breast that was definitely so, requiring surgery.

That made a problem in Isaac’s mind, because he had always admitted that he couldn’t stand the sight of blood or of the visible results of surgery. (That was one of the things that had made his long-ago rejection by the medical schools quite bearable.) He was sure that the removal of one of her breasts would make Janet worry that her body would become repulsive to him.

He was also sure that that could not happen, that no imaginable change in Janet’s physiology could make him love her less. But the person he had to convince was Janet herself.

So he practiced not looking away, controlled the expression on his face and made a habit of cracking jokes about “single swingers.” It worked. Before long he had Janet herself able to laugh about the subject, as she has been ever since.

Then, as 1972 was coming to an end, something nice happened. The Holland-American cruise line put on a special event, a cruise to some lovely Caribbean islands which included a special stopover off the coast of Cape Canaveral to view the launch of the Apollo 17 Moon rocket. It was a night launch, the first one ever attempted, and the last launch scheduled to take human beings to the surface of the Moon. (And none have been added since.)

The ship’s manifest included fellow sf writers Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Ben Bova and myself (each including a nearest and dearest, and in Ted’s case a small son who explored every part of the ship, giving all the rest of us employment in keeping him from falling overboard), along with various celebrities like Marvin Minsky, Hugh Downs, Katherine Anne Porter, Norman Mailer and Carl Sagan, among many others. Nearly all were either old friends or people one would be happy to have become so.

Isaac, of course, usually retired to his cabin between meals, and anyone who passed could hear the steady tappety-tap of his portable. This, I explained to those who didn’t know him, was because of an incurable addiction Isaac suffered: he had never seen a sheet of paper he didn’t want to write on. (Well, to be fair, I rather often did the same thing myself.)

The book Isaac was writing at the time was one of his works on humor, and before adding a joke to the collection in the manuscript it was Isaac’s practice to tell it to his companions at meals to get a reaction That added to the already impressive amount of laughing and jesting that went on at that table over the Holland-America’s quite good food, but my then wife Carol and I were excluded. We were both still dedicated cigarette smokers, and Isaac and Ben Bova, who had claimed that table early on, were even more dedicatedly not. (Though Barbara Bova still did enjoy an occasional cigar.)

That didn’t really matter, anyway. With so few passengers aboard we were all clustered in one corner of the ship’s vast dining hall. Also, with so few of us to be fed there was only one seating for meals, too, which meant we could linger over them as long as we liked, and banter between tables was the norm.

Taken all in all it was definitely a joyous cruise, although perhaps not so much so for the Holland-America line. Because of some incomprehensible mixup hardly any tickets had been sold to paying customers, so that we freebies pretty nearly had the ship to ourselves. But Janet greatly enjoyed it … and therefore so did Isaac.

And then, in the fullness of time, in 1973, the divorce from Gertrude was granted, and then it was less than a week before Janet and Isaac were married.

(Coming up soon, I think, the final, and mostly sad, part of my memories of Isaac.)

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Our continued reminiscences of Isaac Asimov, and we must be getting somewhere near the end by now, mustn’t we?Now Isaac had a pretty good job, with enough social standing, as a tenured college professor, almost to impress his wife Gertrude and enough of a paycheck — along with the increasing income from all those books of his that publishers were bringing out and people in growing numbers were buying — to keep them well out of the danger of poverty. They had a nice house in a nice Boston suburb, and along the way they had acquired two nice babies, a boy named David and a girl named Robyn, to help fill the rooms.

Still, Gertrude wasn’t entirely happy. She knew that her husband was getting quite well known, you could almost even use the word “famous,” with all those books and all those people who kept wanting him to come and speak to their groups. But she was a normal Brooklyn girl who read the gossip columns, and the kind of fame that she really wanted for her husband came with a special flavor that could come only from Broadway.

Isaac spent some effort on trying to make her happy. He wasn’t a particularly addicted theater fan, but that’s where you found the air Gertrude liked to breathe, so he took her to each season’s most important plays — and often to dinner before the curtain and to a snack when the show was over, always in the places where the famous people flocked together. But eating in the same room as the stars of the gossip columns wasn’t the same as eating with them, and on one occasion Gertrude decided to act.

She and Isaac were sharing a table for two at Sardi’s, the very definition of the famous people’s Broadway hangout. And a few yards away, as Isaac told it to me:

“There was this table for eight or ten, all directors and actors and all that, and they were laughing and hollering and having a great time. And Gertrude was after me to go over there and talk to them.

“‘You’re famous, aren’t you?’ she said. ‘So let’s just drop by, and you can say, “I’m Isaac Asimov, and my wife and I noticed you were having such a good time we thought we’d stop by and say hello.”‘

“And I didn’t want to do that, but she kept on. So finally I gave in. We walked over there, with me rehearsing what I was going to say in my mind, and I asked for some autographs, and then one man on the far side of the table looked up. Then he jumped up and came running over in our direction — but not exactly to both of us, and definitely not to me. It was Gertrude he was aiming for, and he was yelling, ‘Gittel! Is it really you? My God, I haven’t seen you since you moved out of the old neighborhood!'”

By the way, I’m pretty sure that Gertrude’s dream of Heaven was that her husband, and perhaps even herself as well, might possibly become subjects of a couple of the 1,300 cartoons of celebrities that festooned the walls of Sardi’s and were the restaurant’s trademark. I don’t think that ever happened, but I don’t know for sure. Does anyone?

(The reason I never looked for myself is that about the only times I ate at Sardi’s was when I was grabbing a quick lunch before an Author’s Guild Council meeting, the Guild offices being on an upper floor of the same building. When the Guild moved out, I stopped going. There was nothing wrong with the food or even with the prices, which are what you’d expect from a fashionable restaurant in the theater district, but it was always too crowded for my enjoyment.)

The Asimovs stayed married through the decade of the 1960s, but that was the end. Isaac was by quite a large margin more interested in sex than Gertrude was. He was in fact a healthy human male, not much over forty and unwilling to endure a life of deprivation. Accordingly, he began supplying his lacks through a series of affairs.

I don’t know the identities of most of his partners in the affairs, but as it happens I do know where he had them. That’s because on one later occasion he and I agreed to meet for some purpose in the lobby of a big old Boston hotel just off the Common. When Isaac got there he looked around, grinning, and volunteered that this was the place where he used to take his girlfriends. But he didn’t say who those girlfriends were, and I didn’t ask.

Continue reading ‘Isaac, Part 6’ »


Isaac Asimov, 1965.

Isaac Asimov, 1965.

All this time Isaac was continuing to write for John CampbellFoundation stories, robot stories, all kinds of stories. Perhaps his biggest hit for John, though, wasn’t exactly a story. It was what came to be called “a non-fact article,” this one a dead-pan scientific report on a compound called “thiotimoline,” which had the curious property of beginning to dissolve before it was added to a solvent.

For a time I was back in the literary-agency business, handling Isaac among most of the other top sf writers in the world. The publishing of science fiction in book form in the U.S. had just begun, and I wanted Isaac to get in on it. The trouble was that Doubleday, the most interesting of the hardcover houses, had decided that they wanted new works, not reprinted serials taken from the pulps. (It was a dumb decision, and later, when they realized what they were missing out on and reversed it they made a fortune out of those old Foundation and robot books.)

But at the time that was policy and I couldn’t argue them out of it. But I happened to know that Startling Stories had asked Isaac to write a short novel for them and then, when he did, rejected it. When I told him what I had in mind, he dragged it out of the dead file and handed it to me. “Fred,” he said, “this is my only copy. Be very careful of it, because if it gets lost, you are no longer my agent.”

That pulled my cork. I think it was the only time in my life that I was really mad at Isaac. I all but threw the manuscript back at him. “Isaac,” I said — well, I think yelled, “we’re talking about grown-up publishing here. You’re the author. You give me a manuscript, I try to get it turned into a book, but I’m not the one who provides the manuscript.” (There may have been a few expletives thrown in here and there.)

Anyway Isaac backed down, we were friends again, and Doubleday was glad to have the book. Isaac had called it “Grow Old Along With Me.” Walter Bradbury, the editor who wrote the contract, called it The Stars, Like Dust, and if I’m not mistaken, it’s still in print today.

If the established New York publishing houses were too proud to pick up reprints from the pulps, the fan-owned semi-pros who had started the whole thing weren’t. What I couldn’t sell to Doubleday or Simon & Schuster I mostly sold to them. Isaac’s robot stories, for instance, went to Martin Greenberg’s Gnome Press. When I handed the manuscript over to Marty, he said, “I don’t have to read this, I’ve already read them all. I’ll write a contract. But I need a title and there isn’t one on the script.”

He was right. No new title occurred to me, but I’d admired the title on an Eando Binder robot story — “I, Robot,” borrowed from the great Robert Graves novel, I, Claudius — and it wouldn’t matter what we put in the contract, because the title could always be changed and titles aren’t copyrightable anyway. So said the contract, and the Binder title just never got changed.

Funny story: Isaac had told me that “his” Three Laws of Robotics were actually given to him by John Campbell — Isaac had just tinkered with the wording. But when the movie people actually made a film called I, Robot, the story that was filmed had nothing to do with Isaac’s actual stories but was something written and published by another writer, and all they used of Isaac’s work was the title and the Three Laws. Neither of which had been his.

In 1948, Isaac got his Ph.D. It is the custom before that degree is granted for the candidate to appear before a sort of jury of people who already have the degree, who question him or her at depth about various details of the particular field of study involved. When Isaac went before the group for his orals, he expected they would make him sweat and they did.. Then, when he was just about ready to flee from the room, the most senior of his questioners said, “Now there is one subject we haven’t touched on, but it may be the most important of all. Mr. Asimov, what are the properties of the compound thiotimoline?”

And Isaac knew he had it made. As he had. Not only the degree, but also a job, teaching biochemistry at Boston University (not to be confused with the famous Catholic school, Boston College) and no one could take it away from him because he had been granted tenure. With his wife Gertrude — Gittel for short — and their two babies, he could now look forward to a comfortable and stress-free life in New England.

He was, however, not quite prepared for superstardom.

Final installments coming up when I write them.

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Gertrude and Isaac Asimov

Gertrude and Isaac Asimov. (Photo by Jay Kay Klein.)

When World War II ended, Isaac Asimov’s stint as a war research scientist came to an end. Then he said good-bye (or at least au revoir to his associate researchers, because he was pretty sure to be seeing at least Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp again) and headed for the normalcy of a return to civilian life.

That, however, was not to be. His draft board had other ideas. His work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard had preserved him from being called up as long as he was doing the work. Now he wasn’t doing it any more. He was quickly promoted to become classified 1A in the Selective Service’s eyes, and shortly thereafter promoted again, now becoming Asimov, Pvt Isaac.

This was not a development Isaac had sought. Worse, it soon became a development he couldn’t live with at all, because the Army had a plan for him. With his education and his record of writing about the future, he was a natural to be selected as an observer at some upcoming military tests.

They were not tests Isaac wanted to observe. Indeed, he saw nothing but trouble, bad trouble, if that scenario was followed.

The USA had invented the atomic bomb and used it to speed the end of the war. Now it wanted to set off test bombs under experimental conditions, several of the things, so it could learn as quickly as possible just how to use this ultimate weapon. The higher-ups had scheduled several such tests, far off in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, and the plan was that formations of GIs would be present at every firing — to observe and protect, they said, but the suspicious-minded wondered if the tests were also likely to provide useful information about the effects of radiation on healthy young men.

There was also a political problem. The Soviet Union, America’s most potent wartime ally, had with the peace become its deadliest rival. The papers were filling up with lurid stories about Soviet spies lurking everywhere, trying to steal America’s secrets — trying hardest to learn everything that could be learned about the atom bomb and how to make one of their own. And, Private Asimov, in what country did you say you were born?

Private Asimov pointed out that he had warned of this problem to every authority figure he could find who would listen. It took a while before he could find one who was willing to do that, and by then he was well on his way to the test site. But then things improved. Isaac not only was taken off the A-bomb detail, his draft status was reviewed and he was a civilian again.

There was one bad feature. They insisted on flying him back to the States. But Isaac put up with that, confident that if he survived that ordeal he would never have to get in a plane again.

Since, being Jewish, Isaac was not going to be allowed to attend any decent medical school, he had no hope of ever putting the letters M.D. after his name. Next best, he thought, would be a Ph.D., and the discipline that he wanted to get the award in, he decided, was organic chemistry. And while he was working toward that goal there was one other accomplishment he wanted to achieve. He wanted to get married, because Isaac had a girl.

Her name was Gertrude Blugerman. If you picked out the letters D-E-A-R-E-S-T on your telephone keypad in those years she was the person (assuming you were dialing in New York City) who would answer.

I think that tells you an important fact about Isaac right there. Oh, of course it was only dumb luck that gave Isaac’s girl an endearing phone number. That sort of pure chance could have happened to anyone. But if it had happened to almost any other young man, it is likely that neither he nor the girl would ever have known. It takes a certain kind of mind to ring up changes on all the numbers and phrases and facts that come one’s way — the kind of mind that Isaac Asimov was born with, and that made him the writer he was.

All this time, of course, Isaac was writing science fiction, mostly for John Campbell but now and then for others. He had already established the two main currents in his fiction: The positronic robot stories (Why were they positronic? I asked him that once and he said, “Because the positron had just been added to the list of particles and no one knew what it could and couldn’t do.”) and the Foundation series.

So what else can I tell you about Isaac Asimov at this stage? His favorite breakfast was a can of Campbell’s vegetable-beef soup. As far as his general dietary choices were concerned, his family didn’t keep kosher but were not very adventurous in diet. But Isaac liked to try new things when he and I ate out together. Not all experiments were successes, When the two of us lunched one day and discovered the restaurant was offering soft-shell crabs, which neither of us had ever tried, we gave them a shot. Once was enough for me — I didn’t like their slippery feel in my mouth — but Isaac’s verdict was that he didn’t really like them but might give them another chance some time.

(More parts to come, as I write them.)

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