Posts tagged ‘Hannes Bok’

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury

A few days ago, I received a telephone call to tell me that Ray Bradbury had just died.

I can’t write a proper obituary about the man who had been a friend for very nearly three-quarters of a century, ever since that day in 1939 when both of us — kid fans, yearning to be writers, though neither of us had sold a story yet — ran into each other at the very first World Science Fiction Convention ever. Ray had dreamed of going, but didn’t have the price of bus fare until the great father figure of fandom, Forrest J Ackerman, loaned it to him — and, once present, Ray spent most of his time trying to interest New York editors in the cover art of his friend, Hannes Bok.

In the seventy-odd years since then, our lives intersected from time to time. Now and then I would buy something of his for some magazine or anthology I was editing; sometimes we would appear on some con program together, occasionally I would take him to lunch in the endeavor, usually unsuccessful, to persuade him to write more for me.

One particular lunch, early on, sticks in my mind. We were walking toward a restaurant in Century City when a cab driver slowed, leaned out of his window and called, “How you doing, Ray?” And somewhat sheepishly Ray admitted to me that many of the cabbies in the Los Angeles area knew him well, as a steady customer, because he never himself drove a car. (Later, as he prospered, he kept a car and driver of his own.)

I saw Ray last a couple of years ago, when he and I were joint guests for the science-fiction program at UC-Riverside. He was feisty as ever, rather startlingly denouncing current science fiction as trash or worse — though it turned out that what he meant to be denouncing wasn’t print science fiction, but only the current crop of sf films. I would have liked to go into that in more detail, and to ask if he included the film Avatar. But time didn’t permit, and now I never can.

So long, Ray. You’re leaving me feeling a little lonesome.

he Futurians, 1938

Some of the Futurians at my apartment in 1938. From left, front row: Joseph Harold Dockweiler aka Dirk Wylie, John B. Michel, Isaac Asimov, Donald A. Wollheim; center row: Chester Cohen, Walter Kubilius, me, Richard Wilson; top row: Cyril Kornbluth, Jack Gillespie, Jack Robins.

I haven’t been in the habit of putting my own stories in the blog, but there are one or two that I think belong here. “The Reunion at the Mile-High” was one. I wrote it as a “festschrift” story for Isaac Asimov and it, along with a dozen or so similarly born stories by other writers, made a volume given to him to celebrate his long and glorious career.

What tickled me was what he said after he’d read it. He clutched his chest and said, “I suddenly thought, what if the story had been true?”

The Reunion at the Mile-High

By Frederik Pohl

In those long and long-ago days — it’s been half a century! — we were not only young, we were mostly poor. We were all pretty skinny, too, though you wouldn’t think that to look at us now. I know this, because I have a picture of the twelve of us that was taken right around 1939. I dug it out to loan it to my publisher’s public relations people just the other day, and I looked at it for a long time before I put it in the overnight mail. We didn’t took like much, all grinning into the camera with our hairless, hopeful teenage faces. If you’d been given a couple of chances to guess, you might have thought we were a dozen Western Union boys on our day off (remember Western Union boys?), or maybe the senior debating club at some big-city all-boy high school. We weren’t any of those things, though. What we actually were was a club of red-hot science-fiction fans, and we called ourselves the Futurians.

That old photograph didn’t lie. It just didn’t tell the whole truth. The camera couldn’t capture the things that kept us together, because they were all inside our heads. For one thing, we were pretty smart — we knew it ourselves, and we were very willing to tell you so. For another, we were all deeply addicted readers of science fiction — we called it “stf “in those days, but that’s a whole other story. We thought stf was a lot of fun (all those jazzy rocket ships and zippy death rays, and big-chested Martians and squat, sinister monsters from Jupiter — oh, wow!) That wasn’t all of it, though. We also thought stf was important. We were absolutely sure that it provided the best view anyone could have of T*H*E  F*U*T*U*R *E, by which we meant the kind of technologically dazzling, socially Utopian, and generally wonderful world which the rather frayed and frightening one we were stuck with living in might someday become. And, most of all, we were what our old Futurian buddy, Damon Knight, calls toads. We weren’t very athletic. We didn’t get along all that well with our peers — and not even as well as that with girls. And so we spent a lot of time driven in upon our own resources, which, mostly, meant reading. We all read a lot.

We even more or less agreed that we were toads. At least, we knew that girls didn’t seem anxious to fall bedazzled by any of our charms. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t that we were hopelessly ugly — well, not all of us, anyway. Dave Kyle and Dirk Wylie and Dick Wilson were tall and actually pretty good-looking. Even the snapshot shows that. I think our problem was partly that we were scared of girls (they might laugh at us — some of them no doubt had), and partly a matter of our internal priorities. We were more into talking than tennis, and we put books ahead of jitterbugging.

That was half a century ago. In other words, history. My secretary, who is also my chief research assistant when I need a specific fact from the library, tells me that 62.8 percent of the people alive today weren’t even born then, which undoubtedly means that that ancient year of 1939 seems as remote and strange to most people now as the Spanish-American War did to me.

I would like to point out, though, that 1939 didn’t seem all that hot to us, either, even while we were living it. It wasn’t a fun time. We were the generation caught between Hoover and Hitler. We had the breadlines of the Great Depression to remember in our recent past, and the Nazi armies looming worrisomely in our probable future. When we looked out at the real world we lived in we didn’t much like what we saw.

So, instead, we looked inside the stf magazines we adored, and then we looked inside our own heads. We read a lot, and we tried to write. Because the other thing about us, you see, was that we were all pretty hardworking and ambitious. Since we weren’t thrilled by our lives, we tried to change them. We had our meetings — we’d get together, once a month or so, in somebody’s basement or somebody else’s living room, and we’d talk about this and that; and then we’d go out for an ice-cream soda; and then we’d gradually splinter apart. Some of us would go home — especially the ones who had to get up in the morning, like Isaac Asimov. (He worked at his parents’ candy store, and the commuters started coming in for their morning papers at five-thirty a.m.) Most of the rest of us would just wander, in twos and threes. I’d start out by walking Dirk and Johnny Michel to their subway station. But generally, by the time we got to it, we’d be in the middle of some really interesting discussion (did the General Motors Futurama at the World’s Fair have the right idea about the World of Tomorrow, all twelve-lane superhighways and forty-story apartments? Were John Campbell’s Arcot, Wade & Morey stories as good as Doc Smith’s Skylark?) — so then they’d walk me back to my station … or around the block … or anywhere.

Always talking. Talking mattered to us. Writing mattered, too, almost as much. We did a lot of it, on our battered second-hand portable typewriters, each on his own but always with the intention of showing what we had written to the others. Words mattered, and we particularly intended to make our words matter. Somehow. We didn’t really know how, exactly, but when you think of it, I guess we succeeded. If we were toads, as Damon says, then sometime or other some wandering fairy princess must have come along and kissed us, and turned us into something different … or we wouldn’t have been getting together at the top of the Mile-High Building for our Fiftieth Reunion, with reporters allover the place and our older, considerably more impressive faces stating out at the world on the Six O’Clock News.

You can’t fly nonstop from Maui to New York, even on the sleeper, because they don’t let flying boats operate over the continent. So I had to change planes in Los Angeles. Naturally I missed my connection, so when we finally landed at Idlewild I was late already.

The porter cut a taxi out of the snarl for me — it’s wonderful what a five-dollar bill can do at an airport. As I got into the cab, I stretched my neck to look toward the New York City skyline, and I could see the Mile-High Building poking far above everything else, looking like a long, long hunting horn sitting on its bell … if you can imagine a hunting horn with gaps along its length, held together (as it seemed at that distance) by nothing bigger than a couple of pencils. They say they need those wind gaps in the tower, because a hurricane just might push the whole thing over if they didn’t allow spaces for the air to get through. Maybe so. I’m willing to believe that the gaps make the building safer, but they certainly aren’t reassuring to look at.

Still, the Mile-High has managed to stay up for — let’s see — it must be six or seven years now, and it’s certainly an imposing sight You can see it from anywhere within forty or fifty miles of New York. More than that. It’s so immense that, even across most of Queens and part of Brooklyn, when I looked at it! was distinctly looking up. Then, when I got out of the cab at its base, it was more than big, it was scary. I couldn’t help flinching a little. Whenever I look straight up at a tall building I get the feeling it’s about to fall on me, and there’s nothing taller than the Mile-High.

A limousine had pulled up behind me. The man who got out looked at me twice, and I looked at him thrice, and then we spoke simultaneously. “Hello, Fred,” he said, and I said:

“Doc, how are you? It’s been a long time.”

It had been — twenty years, anyway. We were obviously going to the same place, so Doc Lowndes waited for me while I paid off the taxi, even though it was gently drizzling on Sixth Avenue. When I turned away from the taxi driver, after a little argument about the tip, Doc was doing what I had been doing, staring up at the top of the Mile-High. “Do you know what it looks like?” he asked. “It looks like the space gun from Things to Come. Remember?”

I remembered. Things to Come had been our cult movie, back in the l930s; most of us had seen it at least a dozen times. (My own record was thirty-two.) “Yeah, space, I said, grinning. “Rocket ships. People going to other planets. We’d believe almost anything in those days, wouldn’t we?”

He gave me a considering look. “I still believe,” he told me as we headed for the express elevators to the top.

The Mile-High Building isn’t really a Things to Come kind of edifice. It’s more like something from that even more ancient science fiction film, Just Imagine silly futuristic spoof packed with autogyros and Mars rockets and young couples getting their babies out of vending machines. I first saw Just Imagine when I was ten years old. The heroine was a meltingly lovely teenager, just imported from Ireland to Hollywood, and that movie is why all my life I have been in love with Maureen O’Sullivan.

The Mile-High Building doesn’t have any of those things, least of all (worse luck!) the still lovely Maureen, but it is definitely a skyscraper that puts even those old movie-makers to shame. To get to the top you go a measured mile straight up. Because the elevators are glass-walled, you get to see that whole incredible five thousand plus feet dropping away as you zoom upward, nearly a hundred miles an hour at peak velocity.

Doc swayed a little as we accelerated. “Pretty fast,” he said. “Real fast,” I agreed, and began telling him all about the building. It’s hollow inside, like an ice-cream cone, and I knew quite a lot about it because when I was still living in New York City, before I could afford the place on Maui, I used to know a man named Mike Terranova. Mike was a visualizer working for an architect’s office — at another point in his career he did the drawings for the science fiction comic strip I wrote for a while, but that’s another story, too. Mike really was better at doing machines and buildings than at drawing people, which is probably why our strip only ran one year, but he made up for it in enthusiasm. He was a big fan of the Mile-High. “Look at the wind gaps in it,” he told me once, as we walked down Central Park West and saw the big thing looming even thirty blocks away. “That’s to let the wind through, to reduce the force so it shouldn’t sway. Of course, they’ve also got the mass dampers on the two hundredth and three hundredth and four hundredth floors, so it doesn’t sway much anyway.”

“It’s just another skyscraper, Mike,” I told him, amused at his enthusiasm.

“It’s a different kind of skyscraper! They figured out the best offices are the ones with an outside view, so they just didn’t build any offices inside! It’s all hollow — except for the bracing struts and cables, and for the three main floor — through sections, where you change elevators and they have all the shops andthings.”

“It’s brilliant,” I said; and actually it was. And I was explaining all this to Doc, and all the time I was talking we were flashing past those vast central atria that are nearly a hundred stories high each, with their balconies, and flowers growing down from the railings, and lianas crisscrossing the central spaces; and Doc was looking at me with that patient expression New Yorkers reserve for out-of-towners.

But all he said was, “I know.”

Then I was glad enough for the break when we walked across the hundredth-story level, between the soda fountains and the clothing shops, to the next bank of elevators, and then the next. Then you get out at the top, five thousand and change feet above the corner of Fifty-second Street and Sixth Avenue, and you have to take an escalator up another flight to the club itself

I don’t like standing still, so I took the escalator steps two at a time. Doc followed gamely. He was puffing a little as we reached the door the doorman was already holding open for us.

“Put on a little weight, I see,” I told him. “Too much riding in limousines, I’d say. There must be big bucks in the poetry racket these days.”

I guess my tone must have sounded needling, because he gave me a sidelong look. But he also gave me a straightforward reply, which was more than I deserved. “I just don’t like taxi drivers,” he said. “Believe me, I’m not getting rich from my royalties. Publishing poetry doesn’t pay enough to keep a pig in slop. What pays my bills is readings. I do get a lot of college dates.”

I was rebuked. See, we Futurians had been pretty sharp-tongued kids, big on put-down jokes and getting laughs at each other’s expense; just the thought of coming to the reunion seemed to get me back in that mood. I wasn’t used to seeing Bob in his present gentler incarnation.

Then the white-haired woman took our coats, and even gentle Bob got a kind of smirk on his face as I handed over my trenchcoat. I knew what he was looking at, because I was wearing my usual at-home outfit: canary-yellow slacks, beach-boy shirt, and thongs. “I didn’t have a chance to change,” I said defensively.

“I was just thinking how nice it is for you folks that live in Hawaii,” he told me seriously, and led the way into the big reception room where the party had already started.

There had certainly been changes. It wasn’t like the old days. Maybe it was because they were talking about making Bob poet laureate for the United States. Or maybe it was just the difference between twenty and seventy. We didn’t have to explain how special we were now, because the whole world was full of people willing to explain that to us.

There were at least a hundred people in the room, hanging around the waiters with the champagne bottles and studying the old pictures on the wall. It was easy to see which were the real Futurians: they were the ones with the bald spots or the white beards. The others were publicity people and media people. There were many more of them than of us, and their average age was right under thirty.

Right in the middle was Dr. Isaac Asimov, sparring good-naturedly with Cyril Kombluth. They were the center of the biggest knot, because they were the really famous ones. General Kyle was there — in uniform, though he was long retired by now — telling a young woman with a camera how he got those ribbons at the battle of Pusan. Jack Robinson was standing in the background, listening to him — no cameras pointed at Jack, because the reporters didn’t have much interest in schoolteachers, even when that one had been one of Harvard’s most distinguished professors emeritus. I saw Jack Gillespie, with a gorgeous blonde six inches taller than he was on his arm — she was the star of one of his plays — and Hannes Bok, looking older and more content than he used to, drinking Coca-Cola and munching on one of the open-faced sandwiches. There wasn’t any doubt they were pretty well known by any normal standards. Jack had already won a Pulitzer, and Hannes’s early black-and-whites were going for three thousand dollars apiece in the galleries on Fifiy-seventh Street. But there’s a difference between say-didn’t-I-see-you-once-on-TV and famous. The media people knew which ones to point their cameras at. Cyril didn’t have one Pulitzer, he had three of them, and the word was he’d have had the Nobel Prize if only he’d had the sense to be born a Bolivian or a Greek. And as to Isaac, of course — well, Isaac was Isaac. Adviser to Presidents, confidant of the mighty, celebrated steady guest of the Jack Paar show and star of a hundred television commercials. He wasn’t just kind of famous. He was the one of us who couldn’t cross a city street without being recognized, because he was known by features to more people than any senator, governor, or cardinal of the Church. He even did television commercials. I’d seen him in Hawaii, touting the Pan American Clipper flights to Australia … and he didn’t even fly.

They’d blown up that old photograph twelve feet long, and Damon Knight was staring mournfully up at it when Doc and I came over to shake hands. “We were such kids,” he said. True enough. We’d ranged from sixteen — that was Cyril — to Don Wollheim, the old man of the bunch: why, then he had been at least twenty-three or twenty-four.

So much has been written about the Futurians these days that sometimes I’m not sure myself what’s true, and what’s just press-agent puffery. The newspaper stories make us sound very special. Well, we certainly thought we were, but I doubt that many of our relatives shared our opinion. Isaac worked in his parents’ candy store, Johnny Michel helped his father silk-screen signs for Woolworth’s Five and Ten, Dirk Wylie pumped gas at a filling station in Queens, Dick Wilson shoved trolleys of women’s dresses around the garment district on Seventh Avenue. Most of the rest of us didn’t have real jobs at all. Remember, it was the tail end of the Great Depression. I know that for myself I considered I was lucky, now and then, to get work as a restaurant busboy or messenger for an insurance company.

A young woman came over to us. She was reading from a guest list, and when she looked at me she wonderfully got my name right “I’m from Saturday Evening Post Video, “she explained. “You were one of the original Futurians, weren’t you?”

“We all were. Well, Doc and I were. Damon came along later.”

“And so you knew Dr. Asimov and Mr. Kornbluth from the very beginning?”

Continue reading ‘The Reunion at the Mile-High’ »

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.

Continue reading ‘Hannes Bok, Part 2: The story with the unhappy ending’ »

Illustration by Hannes Bok.

I commissioned this illustration from Hannes Bok after seeing his work in 1939.

The Futurians had any number of members who won awards for writing, but we only had one who earned his Hugo by the beauty of the things he drew and painted. That was Wayne Woodard, as his parents called him when he was born in 1914, though he became better known to fans and to art-lovers all over the world by the name he chose for himself when he needed something to sign to his artwork, Hannes Bok.

Most magazine illustrators get their start with the magazines by visiting their offices, a bunch of samples under their arms, and showing them to whoever on the masthead would look at them until somebody showed up who liked the samples well enough to use a few in their magazines. That wasn’t possible for Hannes. He was a West Coast kid and he had no possibility of affording a bus ticket to where the magazines were. But he had a stroke of luck.

When he moved to Los Angeles — which he did early in 1939 — he met a kid fan named Raymond Bradbury — “Ray,” for short — who was almost as badly off as himself. The kid wasn’t aiming to be an artist; his dream was to become a writer, but he was as unsuccessful at it as Hannes was with his art. However. he belonged to a group of people who, like Hannes, were interested in science fiction and fantasy. The group, the Los Angeles Science Fiction League, would later become the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. They met in an upper room of a place called Clifton’s Cafeteria.

LASFS was a welcoming group for Hannes. Among the people he met there was a writer named Emil Petaja, who did get some of his stories published in the prozines and became Hannes’ best and lifelong friend. Another was a fan, or actually a kind of superfan who knew everybody involved in making of sf films, named Forrest J (No Period!) Ackerman.

The big news in science fiction, at least as far as the LASFS was concerned, was what was going to happen in New York that summer. The city was planning a huge show called the New York World’s Fair, and the fans in New York had uncharacteristically abandoned their blood feuding to work together to create a wonderful new project, a World Science Fiction Convention. It was the chance of a lifetime, they reasoned, because they could take advantage of all the foreigners who would come to New York for the Fair. Some fraction of them, they calculated, were sure to be fans who would be likely to stay for this Worldcon.

It was every last LASFS member’s dearest dream to be among them, but for most they knew it was only a dream. The Depression was dwindling fast, but its effects were not altogether over. And LASFS was made up mainly of teenagers with few resources to draw on.

But one resource was Forry Ackerman. A small inheritance had left him with money in the bank, so he was going to the Worldcon himself. So was a female fan named Myrtle R. Jones — or, as you would say it in Forry’s favorite second tongue, Esperanto, “Morojo.” And, when Forry had had a couple weeks of exposure to the woebegone expression on Ray’s face, he figured out a way of solving one problem. He could lend Ray Bradbury the bus fare. So he tapped the bank account a little harder, and pulled out enough cash to lend Ray Bradbury the price of a ticket to New York.

That was not a risk-free investment on Forry’s part, because the only source of income Ray had to pay him back was what he earned as a newsboy, selling papers on the streets of Los Angeles. But it wasn’t just a kindness to Ray. To Forry’s generosity, Ray added on a kindness of his own. He was going to do his best to meet every sf editor in the world, or at least every one who made it to the Worldcon, and while he was introducing them to himself there was no reason — assuming Hannes would lend him some samples to take along — why he couldn’t introduce them to the work of Hannes Bok at the same time.

 
And that is how it all fell out. Ray wheeled and dealt with such good effect at the Worldcon that, if I’m not mistaken, some of Hannes’ samples were actually bought and published by an editor, and several other editors asked him to do work for them.

One of this latter class was me. I met Ray Bradbury, and heard of Hannes Bok, for the first time at (or, more accurately, near — but that’s another story) the Worldcon, and shortly thereafter commissioned a set of illustrations for a story of my own from Hannes. (I still have one of the drawings on the wall of my office at home.)

That expedition worked so well for Hannes that it gave him the funds to make the move to New York, and that too worked pretty well. Well enough, at least, for Hannes to enjoy some years of relative affluence — affluence enough, that is, for him to pay the rent and have enough left over to eat regular meals.

I think he must have been a pleasant person to be around then. Unfortunately, I wasn’t around him for most of that period, because I had received an employment offer — the kind of an offer that you just can’t say no to — from the Armed Services of the United States of America.

 
Watch for Part 2, covering how all this worked out, coming soon — provided “soon” is when I write it.

 
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