Posts tagged ‘Katherine Anne Porter’

 
The Wonderful, Wonderful Voyage

So there we were, the couple hundred of us, off on our CruiseCon. Every day we would stop at a different staggeringly beautiful island. Some of us might go ashore. Most stayed on the ship, because that was where the fun was, especially at lunch.

We quickly sorted ourselves into tables, of which the best, at least if measured by the amount of laughter emanating from it, was Isaac Asimov’s . Isaac spent mornings and afternoons in his cabin, writing. Whenever you passed by his door you would hear the ceaseless clack of thoughts being transmuted into pages for a future book on his portable typewriter. The work Isaac was writing that week was Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor, and it was his practice to test-hop the jokes at the lunch table before typing them into his text.

I wasn’t allowed to join Isaac’s table because at the time I still incorrigibly smoked and no one else at that table did. It was not a severe punishment. There were plenty of other interesting people to lunch with, though it was true that one or two of the celebrities made themselves scarce. Norman Mailer, as far as I know, never left his cabin, presumably having his meals sent in. We didn’t see a lot of Katherine Anne Porter, either, but that, I supposed, was simply that at her advanced age — she was eighty-two — she would naturally spend most of her days in bed,. (It is astonishing how the passage of time alters one’s assumptions.)

In fact, there were so few occupied tables in the ship’s vast dining room that conversations were often carried on with participants from several tables at once. There was plenty of time for conversation since, with only one sitting, there was no pressure on servers or diners to clear the room for the next shift.

Then, the meal over, we wandered off. A few went to the pool or the gym, some to the casino, some to their cabins, or indeed to any convenient flat surface for a nap. Since we had all agreed to give talks for our tickets we did make ourselves available, one or two at a time, in the ship’s public function rooms. For the writers among us, that mostly involved telling whoever showed up what we were currently working on, and answering questions. The scientists and media people generally drew larger crowds and more interesting discussions. Then dinner, more or less like lunch, and then there were the room parties.

Everybody’s stateroom was about the same size and none of them were large. A room party of more than half a dozen people inevitably spilled into the hallways (or, properly, the passages, since we were after all on a ship.) Heinlein’s party always spilled over. Carl Sagan’s, though involving just about as many people, didn’t, because Carl insisted on keeping the door closed.

Most of the room parties included a certain relatively minor amount of drinking, usually in the form of BYOB bottled beer from the ship’s bar. A few room parties, however, had a different theme and advertised to any one in the world who owned a nose that they were offering a different kind of intoxicant. For those of you too young to remember, this was the tail end of the liberating 1960s, when much that had been immoral became permissible. I saw no signs of any harder drugs than marijuana, though, and there were very few party-goers who allowed themselves to get significantly sloshed..

The ship’s closest approach to serious drinking was in the bar on the top deck. That offered a good deal more room, permitting larger parties, or indeed several discrete parties going on at once. Greatly expanded choices of preferred beverage were available, and occasionally we got the company of a ship’s officer, coming off duty at the nearby bridge and happy to chat with us.

The officers were frequently of Dutch descent, and they introduced us to what most of us had hardly ever heard of, the pleasures of Dutch gin, or genever. Nearly all of us were encouraged to try this new tipple, from makers with names like Damrak and Boomsma, and its fruity flavor, and we did it so enthusiastically that, two islands into the cruise, we had drunk the ship’s storerooms dry of genever.

Well, enough of telling you about experiences you can’t have. Simply imagine that you’re at the best con you’ve ever attended, only it’s with fewer people than usual and it runs twice as long. And it takes place not in a hotel in some strange city but on board of some twenty thousand tons of steel that is chugging through blue waters under balmy skies. Put them together with a host of entertaining companions available on what is almost a twenty-four hour schedule, and you’ve got the picture.

Too bad that Jack, Joe and Jim had to miss it.

To be continued.

 
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Me, ca. 1972.

Me, ca. 1972.

Gather round, dear friends and fellow fans, especially the kind of fans who enjoy going to science-fiction cons. I have a story to tell that will make you eat your heart out. It is a tale of the absolute jim-dandiest (sort of) science-fiction con that was ever held, although it wasn’t called one. Unfortunately for present readers, it happened nearly forty years ago, and it is highly probable that nothing like it will ever happen again.

The project was the brainchild of three good friends of mine. One was an astronaut, one was a communications genius who used to work with Walter Cronkite and the third was a highly respected scientist, and the one thing I won’t tell you about them is their names. You see, the three of them collectively cooked up one of the very best ideas I have ever heard, and they overcame all obstacles to make it come to pass. But then they messed up one tiny, inconsequential little detail. That turned the whole enterprise into a catastrophic confusion which gave great pleasure to some but cost others, including one of its principle intended beneficiaries of the idea, the Holland America cruise ship line, a ton of money.

That’s why I conceal their identities. They suffered all the embarrassment they needed forty years ago. Now, well into the 21st century, they are entitled to set that huge humiliation behind them. So, just for purposes of identification. let’s refer to them as Joe, Jack and Jim.

The inspiration came to them in the early spring of 1972. By that year, NASA had already made good on President John F. Kennedy’s pledge, in his famous “Man on the Moon” speech of May 1961, to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. The space agency had landed five two-man teams of astronauts on the Moon’s surface in the Apollo series. One more was due on 7 December 1972, listed as Apollo 17. Several additional launches had been announced, but the fickle public had lost interest in space, and now they were all canceled. Apollo 17 would be the last of its kind, at least unless and until a new program began.

Our three friends, sitting around and chatting about it, agreed that this last Apollo launch would probably pull in a considerable crowd of spectators. “Only, you know,” (said Jack, or Jim, or possibly Joe), “if you’re just an ordinary citizen who wants something to tell your kids about, it’s really a lot of trouble to be a spectator to a launch. You have to fly down to a motel that’s probably ten or fifteen miles away the night before, and rent a car. Then you drive to your assigned parking space through miserable traffic while it’s still dark the next morning, then hiking half a mile or so across the sand dunes to get to your assigned observing spot, with the bull alligators bellowing at each other and the mosquitoes lining up for breakfast. Wouldn’t it be nice for them if there were some way to sit in comfort and watch the whole thing. Besides staying home and watching it on TV, I mean.

At that, one of them — I don’t know if it was Jim, Jack or Joe but we’ll say Jack — said, “Hey, what about watching it from a cruise ship anchored just offshore?”

And another one, maybe Jim, said, “Great idea! And, listen, if you really wanted to do it, maybe you could get a bunch of people like us to give lectures on the ship in exchange for free tickets.” And somebody, possibly Joe, said, “Why the dickens don’t we just go ahead and do it?”

They did. They talked to Holland America line (my own personal first choice among cruise companies), who loved the idea, only they wanted to make a real cruise out of it, with visits to four or five gorgeous tropical islands. Then they got busy compiling a guest list of leading science-fiction writers and assorted celebrities to attract hoi polloi. To all of which Holland America responded with approval and encouragement, and did they have any other ideas like that? And everything was going smoothly and the future looked good.

 
That year the Worldcon was in Los Angeles, in one of their big hotels close to the airport.

I planned to attend — actually I was their Guest of Honor that year — and when one of the three planners let me know that the three of them, too, would be in L.A. that weekend, I decided to drop in on them to see how things were going.

That was a little bit trickier than it looked. Los Angeles is one of the sprawliest of cities and, while the con hotel was next to the airport, the three schemers were clear on the other side of everything at the much classier Century Plaza Hotel in Century City. Still I did want to see them, and, besides, from experience I liked eating in the Century Plaza’s restaurants. So I shifted a few items in my Worldcon schedule around and drove my rental car clear across LaLaLand to join Jack, Joe and Jim for a very upbeat lunch.

Things were going splendidly, they said. They had been working the invitation list. Robert Heinlein was coming, and Ted Sturgeon and Isaac Asimov and at least a dozen other top science-fiction writers, said Joe. And other celebrities, too, Jack added, people like Carl Sagan and Norman Mailer and Katherine Anne Porter, whose 1962 novel Ship of Fools had created a stir in the world of publishing (an invitation which produced quite a lot of joking from Jim and Joe when Jack mentioned the title).

“And,” Joe put in, giving me a grin, “of course everybody brings his wife or husband or main squeeze. And we’re all comped, for the whole cruise, courtesy of Holland America. In your case, Fred, you don’t even have to worry about air fare, because you live near New York and that’s where this cruise starts and finishes.”

That I took to be my cue to tell them some good news I had brought with me. “Over on the other side of town at the Worldcon,” I said, “there’s a hotel stuffed full of four thousand or so science fiction fans, each one of whom would sell his grandmother into white slavery for the chance to be on this cruise. So why don’t the three of you come back there with me today? I’m giving a talk this afternoon. I’ll introduce you and, if you still have any unsold space left, you can have a sellout by dark.”

I had expected to get a pleased, maybe even a relieved response to that. After all, when you’ve got a thousand or so passages to sell and each one costs a couple of thousand dollars, you’d like to lower the risk factor as soon as you could, wouldn’t you?

So I thought they’d be happy to have the suggestion. They weren’t. They were polite, but not taking me up on my offer. One of them — Jim? — said, “We’re not ready for that, Fred. We’ve got to finalize the invitation list, and that’s what we’re here to work on for this weekend. We don’t want to start selling cabins until we know how many we need for guests, which means how many we have left to sell.”

Well, it wasn’t the way I would have done my calculations, but Jim, Joe and Jack were savvy, experienced human beings. So all I said was, “Let’s see. This is the first week in September. The launch is scheduled for December 7th. That’s not much more than ninety days away.” And the response I got to that was three friendly what-is-there-to-worry-about? chuckles.

 
And we went on with our lives. I was aware that there was a fair amount of telephoning going on in science-fiction circles — “Did you get invited to go on this cruise?” “Did you?” — but I was not involved in the decision-making, and very glad that was so.

I was never able to make a reliable count of the guests invited by Jack, Joe and Jim. More than fifty, I’m sure, but I think fewer than one hundred, and most, as Joe had said, were invited to bring their marriage partners, while a few had brought progeny as well. These were all traveling free, the cruise line covering their expenses, while the number of paying passengers was —

Was —

Well, I don’t know what it was. I have been told, by people who claimed to know, that there were a handful of people, fewer than a dozen, who in spite of the best efforts of Jack, Jim and Joe — who never did consider themselves quite ready to start selling tickets — somehow managed to pay actual money to someone for actual tickets for passage on the cruise, but I never met any of them. It is quite possible that the number of paying passengers on the ship was zero. It is true that, at the last moment, Holland America Lines, recoiling in horror from the approaching disaster, did put a couple of small nonpaying groups of travel agents aboard, as cruise lines, airlines and hotels often do to encourage future business. But most of the ship’s cabins were unoccupied as it pulled out of the port of New York.

This fact, of course, was reflected in all the ship’s services. There was only one sitting at meals and no waiting to use the exercise machines or visit the snack bars. For those passengers on the free list, it was a dream of paradise. For the cruise line, not pleasant at all. I don’t actually know what these follies cost Holland America. A figure I have heard mentioned was half a million 1972 American dollars. Jim, Joe and Jack might have been able to give a more precise figure, but we couldn’t ask them.

They hadn’t come aboard.

To be continued.

 
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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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