H. Beam Piper, 1957.
For a while, H. Beam Piper was one of the clients of my literary agency in the late 1950s. He had first attracted attention with his story “He Walked Around the Horses,” about a man who, having done that, apparently disappeared into another reality. But perhaps he is best known for his successful “Little Fuzzy” stories
Piper was a railroad man from birth. He lived in the Western Pennsylvania rail centers of those great continent-spanning lines that appeared after the Civil War. That war was important to Beam. He had strong feelings about such concepts as heroism and personal honor, and he took sides. The side he favored was the slaveholding but militarily exciting Confederacy. Mostly self-educated, Beam was thrilled by the exploits of. those dashing Rebel commanders, in particular by John Mosby, the Southron cavalry officer who made parts of Virginia uninhabitable by Federal troops or sympathizers.
When Beam mentioned to me that he had, on his own time and just for the fun of it, written a lengthy work about his hero, I reminded him of my Basic Maxim No. 1: “Writers write mostly for the fun of it. Agents exist to see they get money for having fun.” So he turned the finished piece over to me, and I promptly sold “Rebel Raider” for a decent amount of money.
With things like that and the better prices I was able to negotiate for his science fiction, Beam was enjoying a modest prosperity. He formed the habit of coming to New York once or twice a month. His first stop was usually at my literary agency office on Fifth Avenue just across from Madison Square, where we would usually pick up a few other writers to go out for dinner.
Beam had had little experience with exotic eats — high cuisine was not apparently popular in Altoona at that time — and so loved to experiment with menu items. Not always happily. When he ordered a dish that was meant to contain uncooked Italian ham, he sent it back to be properly fried. He wasn’t deeply into nutrition, either. When a waiter would bring him an entree with crisp green and red vegetables artistically surrounding it on the platter, Beam might spread his hands over his eyes and cry, “Vittamins! Vittamins! Take the foul things away!”
That happy state continued for some time, and then I closed the literary agency down and plunged into the line of work God (or Someone) had obviously intended for me all along, the telling of stories. I saw less of a lot of writers who had been clients, especially out-of-towners like Beam.
Stories floated in from Western Pennsylvania, first astonishingly that he had quit his job. That was a little worrying, in the case of a lifelong old railroad man like Beam, but it indicated good news. I had fixed him up with a new agent, my old friend (and one time boss at Popular Publications) Rogers Terrill. I was glad to see that things were working out for both of them. . . .
And then another story came in. Beam had gotten married!
That was a major shocker. In all the time I had known him, Beam had never shown the slightest flicker of sexual interest in any female. (Or, I hasten to say, in any male, either.) And the wedding seemed to have taken place — wait for it — in Paris. In Paris! In the city of lights, the home to romantics and lovers and all the other things that Beam had spent his life proving he was not.
It was impossible. But there it was.
That was all we knew. It seemed that none of us in our once-in-a-while-dining-together circle had maintained close contact with Beam, so we knew very few details.
Then we heard nothing much at all for quite a while. Then what we did hear was about as bad as it could be.
I heard the first part of the bad news right away. A neighbor called to tell me that Rogers Terrill had just died, she thought of a heart attack. That made sense. Rog’s Jersey shore house had about as much lawn to mow as mine did, which was the better fraction of an acre. Taking account how his face blanched and his limbs began to quiver when he cut it, Rog’s wife had long beseeched him to hire one of the neighborhood teenagers to handle that chore, but Rog was stubborn.
We arranged the sending of condolence cards and went on with our lives, and then, not very long later, we heard the rest of it. Beam was dead, too. He had shot himself.
Bit by bit, the rest of the bad news piled on. There had been a divorce, Beam had settled everything he owned in joint accounts with his wife, but now the lawyers were barring access to the funds by either party. Rog had failed to provide for a plan to carry on payments to his authors as checks came in in the event of his death, so money was silting up in trust funds that could not be tapped by humans until these other packs of lawyers came to an agreement, and Beam ran out of money.
There was no reason for that to happen. I wasn’t then particularly well off but I would, any one of us would, have been happy to go to any necessary trouble in order to front him enough for his three hots a day as needed to keep him alive.
But that couldn’t be. Remember Beam’s concepts of personal honor. He was incapable of asking for that kind of help. He was incapable of letting anyone know how desperately he needed it. He did still have two resources. One was a windowsill where pigeons came down to coo and flutter. The other was a 22-caliber handgun with a few rounds left in it.
(This is the story as I first heard it from one of Beam’s relatives. I have since heard slightly different versions from others, but I’ll stick with what I heard first.)
Every evening, then, Beam would open the window. When a fat pigeon landed there, he would shoot it in the head, clean it, pluck it and broil it in his little gas flame, and that would be his dinner. And when he had come down to a single remaining round, he put it in his own brain.