Robert A.W. Lowndes (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., 1939.)
I recall many things about Robert W. Lowndes, how soft-spoken he was, how much he enjoyed studying old science fiction stories, and how warm and friendly he was.
I remember one time, when John Michel, Don Wollheim, Lowndes and I were in a bar each drinking something. Lowndes ordered a white wine, I believe it was Sauternes. He took a sip and let the small amount of fluid roll over his tongue to relish the flavor and he held it there for a long while before swallowing. He told me the only way to appreciate wine was to sip it slowly and savor the flavor. I now think that was just rationalization for not having sufficient funds to order a second glass. But at the time I was so impressed by his sophistication that for a long time, the only wines I preferred to drink were white wines and I would try to make the flavor last in my mouth a long time. Many years later, I mentioned this incident to Robert but he said he could not remember it.
Once after a meeting, when we were about to go to our respective homes, Robert surprised me by saying he wanted to go home with me. I was hesitant. My parents had no phone at the time so I could not ask my mother if it would be all right. “I have to,” he told me. “I have no place to sleep tonight.” That did it. I said, “Sure.”
When we got to my home and I explained things to my mother, she accepted Robert and fed us dinner. The apartment was rather small. There was one big bedroom, no privacy. Normally I slept alone on a full sized bed on one side of the bedroom and my father and mother shared the bed on the other side. So that night Robert and I had to sleep in my bed. There was no other room. I slept well but I don’t know how Robert fared. The following morning my mother fed us a good breakfast.
Always, whenever I went to meet with the Futurians, I had to go to Michel’s house, and later on to the apartment they shared. No one had ever come to my house. Now, having a fellow Futurian visit me at my home, sharing my food and even my bed, made me feel good. Worrying about Robert, I asked him did he want to spend another night at my house.
He said, “Absolutely not.” I asked him why. He said, “Isn’t it obvious?” He would not give any details. I did not press him to find out whether it was because of the lack of privacy, the forced sharing of my bed, the single bathroom, or the poverty he observed. But I was glad to have helped him out that one night.
Lowndes used to regale us with quotes from early science fiction stories. He would stand before us and read paragraphs from stories in old magazines from his or Don Wollheim’s collection, and we would groan at what we thought was bad writing. One such story that drove us to loud laughter involved a manlike robot that was the house servant. When providing refreshment, the robot was asked by a visitor to join him in a drink. The robot declined, stating, “The drink affects the delicate enamel of my teeth and once that is gone, the rest soon follows.” This sentence was repeated so many times in the story that I doubt any of us listeners could ever forget it. We thought that the robot was the only thing of merit in the story. It was not made clear whether the robot was referring to the effect of sugar on the teeth and that once the protective enamel was gone, the rest of the teeth soon followed, or whether, as Lowndes believed, considering what the robot was made of, once the enamel was gone, the rest of the robot would also deteriorate and vanish.
In those early days, we were often fond of walking long distances around Flatbush, Brooklyn, finally ending up in an ice cream parlor or candy store for sodas. The basic group included: Wollheim, Michel, Lowndes, Cyril Kornbluth and me. Occasionally Dick Wilson would join us. We continued this ritual even after Michel, Wollheim, Kornbluth and Lowndes had decided to room together in the first apartment they jointly rented.
During each of these walks, Kornbluth would relate a shaggy dog story. It was about an unemployed, destitute man who sees an ad in a paper left on a park bench, offering a huge reward for a lost shaggy dog. Just then he sees a huge shaggy dog ambling about and becomes convinced this was the one that was lost. He grabs the dog and endeavors to return it to the owner. Unfortunately, he meets up with many difficult and life-threatening obstacles on the way to returning the dog and finally, his clothes in rags, many cuts and bruises all over his face and body, he rings the doorbell of the dog’s owner. A man, obviously a butler, regards him while sniffing snobbishly and asks what he wanted. “I’ve found your shaggy dog and I’ve come for the reward,” our hero says. The butler looks at it with disdain and says, “It’s not that shaggy,” and slams the door on the man. It was a pointless and unappealing story, but the fun was in inventing the obstacles that faced the hero.
Each time we took the walk, Cyril Kornbluth would tell this story in his deep melodious voice that made each word sound like a pronouncement of doom. At every rendition, Cyril’s imagination would fly through fantastic difficulties that had us laughing despite the morbid character of the story. In Cyril’s inventiveness, the hero might struggle with someone and get a black eye or two, or he might get hit by a truck and end up in the hospital, or something else would happen to him before he could return the dog. Each time he repeated the story it had a different set of obstacles. Cyril’s vivid imagination was impressive.
One day, Kornbluth couldn’t be with us. Robert took over the telling and let his own imagination take rein. His soft, pleasant version was not as predictive of doom as Kornbluth’s, but his imagination was just as effective. I realize now that those storytelling incidents were training for later authorhood.
After the group had obtained the apartment they shared, we would occasionally go to a Chinese restaurant some blocks away and order our evening meal. We were all poor and could not afford anything sumptuous. Imagine a ceramic bowl six or seven inches in diameter, about an inch and a quarter high, filled with such recipes as fried rice or chow mein or chop suey, all for 25¢, including dessert. To us this was the height of extravagance, and during the time we were eating we felt wealthy and that we were eating like the super rich.
One day in late March, during the period when Lowndes was publishing the fanzine Science Fiction Weekly, I urged Robert to put out an April Fool’s issue. He was very reluctant. He depended upon paid subscribers to finance the publishing plus a little money for himself, and he was also beholden to various sources who revealed to him all the latest happenings in the science fiction field that he could publish. If he issued an April Fool’s issue, his subscribers might feel cheated or he might offend the ones who supplied his material. Finally I convinced him that issuing an extra April Fool’s supplement and naming it Science Fiction Weakly would do him no harm and the readers might even appreciate it. The issue he finally prepared was one page, two columns on each side of the page, each column being a single article of about 300 words. I wrote up three humorous articles, taking up three of the columns and someone else wrote the fourth. I don’t know how many of the readers took to the April Fool’s issue, but since Robert was still publishing the paper thereafter, I guess they must have been amused.
To be continued.