After Fletcher Pratt’s death, his wife, Inga, sold the house and moved away, but returned once to take this photograph. Actually it shows the back of the mansion, looking downhill from Portland Road. The other side had the main entrance and the most frequently used stretch of the great porch, with its view of the river, the sandspit on the other side and, beyond that, the wide Atlantic Ocean.
Posts tagged ‘Fletcher Pratt’
Keith P. Graham asks if I will do a post on The Trap Door Spiders, a New York City luncheon club for sf writers and people like them, but I have to recuse myself. Although Wikipedia appears to think I was a member, I never was.
The TDS was started by Fletcher Pratt in 1945, that being a time when he and I were not much more than recent acquaintances. Wikipedia says the club was formed because Fletcher and other male friends of John D. “Doc” Clark couldn’t stand Doc’s new wife, Mildred, and hit upon the idea of a men’s-only luncheon club so they could spend time with Doc without Mildred.
That sounds plausible. I didn’t know Mildred well, but she obviously didn’t care much for Doc’s old drinking. buddies. Two of the TDS stalwarts were among my closest friends, Lester del Rey and Isaac Asimov, but neither they nor anyone else ever invited me to join. The fact that I had said in public that that sort of thing didn’t interest me may have something to do with it. Or maybe not; I don’t know.
Isaac wrote a bunch of mysteries about a club modeled after the TDS, which I think give a good idea of what it was like.
The Last Days of the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute
110 Portland Road, Highlands, N.J., one-time site of the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute. View larger map. (Thanks to Bill Higgins for geographical research.)
Back in Highlands, New Jersey, William Lindsay Gresham was soon forgotten. At least he was not spoken of. Around then, the Mannings became less likely to drop by on a Saturday night. A coolness seemed to have developed between the neighbors. I don’t think that is necessarily a coincidence, but I don’ know any details. Fletcher didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t press him.
The weekends were still pleasurable and the company generally good. If there was any significant difference in tone it was only that Fletcher himself seemed to be a little less bouncy in spirit. The billiard-room sessions with the portable typewriter in his lap were going a bit more slowly.
I haven’t, in these pages, said anything about Fletcher’s religion. I haven’t said anything much about anyone else’s, either. Personal religion was not high on the interest list among the people of the Ipsy-Wipsy. But I did know that Fletcher had been brought up Christian Science, back in those Buffalo days of his youth, and that he still had some sort of ties to Mary Baker Eddy’s church. Yet when Fletcher began to concede, under Inga’s questioning, that, yes, it was possible that he’d picked up a mild case of the flu, I was confident that if any symptoms became really worrisome, religion would not prevent Fletcher from taking the matter to a real M.D.
Indeed, it didn’t. But unfortunately Fletcher let it go a bit too late. When the surgeons opened his abdomen up on the operating table there was no longer anything they could do. They simply sewed him back together and let him die, which he did on the 11th of June, in the year 1956. He had been 59 years old.
That was the end of the Ipsy, for Inga didn’t have heart to try to carry it on without him. She put the big old house up for sale, and the buyer who appeared was, I think, a dentist from, I believe, Jersey City. The dentist didn’t have it long, though. Before long in a midweek a fire started there, with hardly anybody around, and the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute suffered a Viking’s funeral,
The dentist tore down the wreckage and put up a more normal-sized house on that great piece of land. But the new house had none of the Ipsy-Wipsy’s magnificence, and especially none of its well-loved people.
By the third or fourth year of the Ipsy, the great house in Highlands had pupped a fair-sized litter of clones. There was me and my family in Red Bank, the del Reys a quarter of a mile away, George and Dona Smith in Rumson and, at least briefly, the Kornbluths in Long Branch and the Budryses in Oceanport … and, perhaps most important, the Laurence Mannings in Highlands itself, next door to the Ipsy-Wipsy itself.
When Laurence Manning — Fletcher’s long ago collaborator from the days when science-fiction magazines had the square footage of telephone books (no, not in the number of pages, of course!) — and his family came out for a weekend, they loved the location as well as the company. And when Laurence mentioned that he was looking for a house to buy and move to, Fletcher was quick to say that when he and Inga had bought the Ipsy, they’d bought more acres of land than they had any use for, and the Pratts would be happy to hive off a few acres to sell to the Mannings if they’d care to build a house next door. Which they did, and so the Pratts and the Mannings were next-door neighbors.
Actually that seemed like quite a nice arrangement. Although Manning didn’t have much interest in science fiction anymore he still liked the company of writers, and the conviviality of an Ipsy-Wipsy weekend. And we liked the Mannings.
He knew everything about home plantings, which made him a useful resource for those of us who, like myself, had never had to plant a space much bigger than a windowbox before. He was good company and by no means limited to shop talk. So things went swimmingly, with the Mannings’ house guests walking the couple hundred feet of lawn to the great house next door on Saturday nights … until they didn’t.
Remember that I once said that, with all the social drinking that went on of an Ipsy weekend, I had only once seen anyone unpleasantly drunk?
This was the once. The man in question I did not know well, though I had read some of his work. His name was William Lindsay Gresham.
It’s hard to list the Ipsy’s guests in any sensible order, perhaps because they were not an orderly bunch. It does make sense for me to divide the guests into two classes. To begin with, there was the New York science-fiction crowd, all of whom I had known for some time.
In that group were most of the science-fiction people I have already written more or less extensively about in these pages. Among the ones most frequently present were Lester and Evelyn del Rey, Bob and Essie Bolster, George and Dona Smith, Cyril Kornbluth (first as a house guest of mine, then as a nearby resident on his own). Assorted other house guests of mine included Fritz Leiber from Chicago and Jack and Blanche Williamson from New Mexico.
Ted Sturgeon was definitely a regular in an unusual sense. For a couple of months one summer he never went home at all, since at the time, his finances being anemic, he didn’t have a home to go to.
The Pratts had no objection to Ted’s staying in the house when everyone else was gone. However, they didn’t offer to feed him. That was not a problem for Ted, who enjoyed a good dish of eel. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that by the time he finally moved out of the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, he had fished out the entire family of eels who lived by the boat dock. They never returned.
Any number of other New York-area sf people visited the Ipsy. Isaac Asimov, for instance, was there I think only once, but it was a significant visit, since Fletcher and Inga had plans for Isaac. They spent a lot of that weekend telling him what a wonderful place the Bread Loaf Writers’ Colony was for anyone with the desire, and the ability, to be a serious writer … and, I’m pretty sure, spent an equivalent period of time with the Breadloaf people telling them what a wonderful prospect Isaac was. The effort paid off. Isaac did give Bread Loaf a try; he loved the place, the Breadloaf people loved him and he became a Bread Loaf stalwart.
The other fraction of frequent guests at the Ipsy basically comprised the non-sf friends of the Pratts, many of them with ties to The Saturday Review of Literature. Some of those were actual celebrities of one kind or another, as for example Eugenie Clark, known worldwide as the “Lady with a Spear,” after her bestselling book with that name. Eugenie, as a child, had been fascinated by the works of William Beebe — Half Mile Down, the story of his adventures hanging at the end of almost 3,000 feet of steel cable in his “bathysphere,” a steel sphere about the size of a pup tent, or Beneath Tropic Seas, about his less spine-chilling but even more beautiful experiences walking through warm-water corals with only a mask for breathing.
I could understand her fascination. I had been turned on by the same books at about the same age. The difference between Eugenie Clark and me, though, was that she then grew up to become an actual ichthyologist, and I only to become a writer.
Let me tell you about the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, which is the name that Fletcher and Inga Pratt gave to their enormous old house in Highlands, on the New Jersey shore. The house had something over thirty rooms. The ground floor, which was embraced by a wide, 360-degree veranda, comprised a kitchen, a billiard room, a dining room capable of seating 20 or more, a room I would call a sitting room, another, slightly larger, which I would call a living room but think should be given a more elegant name.
On the second floor were six or seven bedrooms, a couple of them with private baths and little sitting rooms of their own. And on the third floor there were another half dozen or so bedrooms, with a couple more baths.
Do not make the mistake of supposing these third-floor rooms were servants’ quarters. They all were for guests. There was plenty of room for the guests’ servants, but they were to be accommodated in another wing of the house entirely, essentially a six- or seven-room home attached to the main residence. It had its own kitchen and bath, the only connection between it and the residence being through the two kitchens.
Since the Pratts employed no full-time servants, they rented this attached house to Esther Carlson, a young woman who was beginning to appear regularly in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and her handyman husband, Bob Bolster. They didn’t stay the course, though, and when they left — and when George O. Smith at last succeeded in divorcing his first wife and Dona Campbell did the same for her husband, John W. — the newlywed George and Dona Smiths took over the conjoined space until they bought a home of their own a few miles down the shoreline in Rumson.
The Ipsy-Wipsy Institute was set on something over half a dozen acres of lawn, descending about a hundred vertical feet from the roadway to the ocean. There was a little beach there for swimming and a pier for boating — or for fishing, though about all anyone ever caught was eels. A lot of quite tasty eels, though.
Fletcher Pratt was a dear man who had a few eccentricities. One of these was his inclination to run the Ipay-Wipsy Institute as a sort of road-show version of an English country home. Weekend guests were expected to arrive early enough on the Friday evening for a few drinks and a modest dinner, generally prepared by Grace the Cook and followed by a drink or two and conversations in the billiard room, until the guests began retreating to their rooms. (There was, by the way, no billiard table in the billiard room, only the report that once there had been.)
Saturday began with a Grace-made breakfast buffet whenever anyone came down for it, after which Fletcher would set up his typewriter in the billiard room, and sometimes I would set mine up as well. For both of us, the procedure was that we would type a few words, or a few lines, as they occurred to us, then chat a bit with whoever else was there, then maybe another line or so of copy. When there was no one else to talk to Fletcher might divert himself by tossing playing cards into a hat and I by getting myself a cup of coffee and glancing at the morning papers.
Others might sit in the sunny porch and read, or play cards or an African board game called K’bu that the Pratts fancied, or explore the neighborhood, or make the trek down to the water’s edge for a swim. At some point, Grace would set out the materials for a pick-up lunch, to be eaten, probably in small groups, in one of the first-floor rooms or on the porch. Then more of the same until five.
Then the more structured part of the weekend began.
Someone — preferably someone who could play, or at least get some sort of a sound from, a bugle — was given the bugle and a homemade flag bearing a drawing of a martini glass and instructed to march around the porch, tooting the bugle and waving the flag, in order to notify the guests, and a few of the neighbors as well, that the cocktail hour had arrived.
I should say, right about here, that although there was a lot of drinking at the Ipsy-Wip, I almost never saw anyone really drunk. (With one exception that I’ll tell you about later.) But the drinking was steady, from the beginning of the cocktail hour at five until dinner was served at seven. With the dinner there was wine for those who wanted it, of course, and then, when Grace had picked up the plates, Fletcher brought out the bottle of port.
The thing about the port was that it always had to be passed clockwise around the table. Fletcher, sitting at twelve o’clock at the head of the table, would start the service by giving the bottle to (say) Essie Bolster, at the one o’clock position to his left. Who would help herself to as much as she wanted of it and then pass the bottle to, say, Fritz Leiber to her left at two o’clock, and so on, always passing to the left, until the bottle finally made it back to Fletcher, at the head of the table, who at last was allowed to help himself to the port.
To be continued.