Posts tagged ‘Milton A. Rothman’

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel, Will Sykora, 1936.

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel and Will Sykora in 1936.

The “maybe” is because some doubt has been expressed. Having heard of what we New York fans did by taking the train to Philadelphia, some British fans promptly organized a gathering in Leeds a few months later. This causes some confusion as to which con deserves to be termed “the first.” Some blog readers have asked me, as one of the few survivors of the Philadelphia event, to describe how it came about.

I believe the idea of the two areas getting together was originally Don Wollheim’s, and I believe that after talking about it by phone with at least one Philly fan (I think it was Bob Madle) they set a date. Anyway, it was an adventure. Going there on the train was a considerable part of it, because I had seldom before taken a train away from the city without a grownup in charge.

To be sure Donald turned 21 right about then, but he wasn’t a “grownup.” He was just one of us. And, come to think of it, Will Sykora might well have been a trifle older than Donald. I never had asked his age. It wouldn’t have seemed polite, would have seemed, I don’t know, like inquiring into things we weren’t meant to know, like the reproductive processes of some creatures that had chosen a different pathway when the main line of human evolution was turning into marsupials or mammals.

Anyway, it is true that I was the secretary. I did take minutes and then, true to form, lost them. I have to say, though, that that was really a pretty trivial loss. No recordable business was brought up by anyone since all we had ever planned to do was get together. What we did do was what fans everywhere have done whenever they were in the company of other fans. We talked about what we had recently read, and which authors we liked and what we wished favorite authors would write next … and then about everything. That is what fans have always loved to do. Talk.

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel, Will Sykora, 1936.

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel and Will Sykora in 1936.

A congratulations note from Mark Olson reminds me of what I didn’t think of on my own, namely that we just passed the 75th anniversary of that earth-shaking event, the very first science-fiction convention ever, held when a handful of us New Yorkers dared the rail trip to Philadelphia to join with a handful of Philly fans and convene.

Three-quarters of a century! My, how time flies when you’re having fun!

Part 2 of Review of the Campbell-Swisher Letters

John W. Campbell in 1957 (from

John W. Campbell in 1957 (from

Fantasy Commentator
Sam Moskowitz and A. Langley Searles Memorial Issue, Special Double Issue, Nos. 59 & 60.

On October 5, 1937, John W. Campbell’s world changed. The powers at Street & Smith, on F. Orlin Tremaine’s advice, appointed him to replace Tremaine as editor of Astounding Stories. That must have been a shock to Campbell, who’d been worriedly wondering who would get the job, as well as a solution to the worst of his money worries.

I had guessed elsewhere the his weekly paycheck was probably $35, but I was wrong. Actually it was $30. Yet that was a sum the young Campbells had only dreamed of having — was enough, indeed, to permit him to buy a Ford (presumably on the installment plan), and thus to manage, among other things, that long desired trip back to New England to visit old friends. But that didn’t happen right away. Getting used to his new job kept him jumping

He would have liked to start afresh, with a lineup of stories that he had chosen in the first place, and edited to make them more like the stories he himself wrote, in the second. He didn’t have that luxury. Tremaine had bought a number of stories, which now sat in the magazine’s inventory and had to be published. This appeared to have filled the magazine through its January 1938 issue; Campbell’s first editorial, in the December 1937 number said February would be a “mutant” issue. It didn’t say what part of the magazine would get mutated. It turned out to be the stories.

The magazine did not show the effect of a new hand at the tiller very quickly. That wasn’t John’s fault. No magazine can show the full effects of a new editorial policy overnight. Not only are there the inventory of stories bought under the old policies to work off, but it takes a while to let the contributors know what the new policies are.

What John did with the submissions that kept coming in was first to give each one a fair reading (sometimes this may not be much more than the first page; you can tell), and then divide them into two parts. The ones he didn’t have any interest in got a printed rejection slip. The ones that had something good about them got a typed note from John saying what he liked about the story and what about the story kept him from buying it. Those went back, too. But sometimes they came back again revised to the Campbell prescription and then got bought, and more frequently the next stories Campbell got from that writer were closer to his wishes. (How do I know so much about John’s reading habits? Because he described them to me, and they were so eminently sensible that, when I became a pro editor myself, I adopted them as my own.)

There are two points in the letters where John talks about dealings with me. Both of them are wrong. In the first one, he says I bragged to him that my Astonishing Stories sold more copies than his Astounding. That’s incorrect, though. I didn’t know about the difference in sales figures or I certainly would have bragged about it all over town.

The other is in the discussion about putting a non-Jewish pen name on the stories by Milt Rothman that I sold him as Milt’s agent. In the letters, John says he thought it better not to tell me about his reasoning because it might cause misunderstandings. But he did tell me. That led to my advising Milt to do what he said, in fact. On that one, I do have a theory to explain it. I think when he wrote the letter he hadn’t told me his reasoning, but then changed his mind and on a later occasion did tell me.

Well, this got longer and more detailed than a review should. I apologize for that, and in general for taking so long, when all I really wanted to say was if (1) you want to be an editor, or (2) if you’re interested in Campbell as a person, or (3) if you just like a good read on a science-fiction subject — why, then, this is a book for you.

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From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel, Will Sykora, 1936.

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel and Will Sykora in 1936.

After a while two Real Pro Writers did in fact come to our Science Fiction League meetings.

They weren’t top pros; in fact, I had never heard of either of them until they showed up. And they weren’t there to help promote Wonder Stories, either … oh, my, no. Their names were John B. Michel and Donald A. Wollheim.

To fourteen-year-old me they were immensely impressive high-powered types. Not physically. Neither were most of the rest of us fans; to some extent, Damon Knight’s toad theory is descriptive enough.

I started out lucky enough, but somewhere just before I got into science fiction I went swimming one day at the St. George Pool, a huge indoor saltwater marvel, and went off the high board, meaning to see how close I could come to the tiled bottom. I came real close. When I got out of the water and looked in the bronze wall mirrors, I found I had knocked off a front tooth; and so, for the next couple of decades until a dentist shamed me into doing something about it, when I smiled I smiled gold. So did Bob Lowndes. (I also had pimples, not many, but prominently located, usually on the end of my nose and big enough to be visible as soon as I was. Donald used to call that one my “auxiliary nose,” bless his darling heart.)

G.G. Clark was sort of belligerently defensive-looking most of the time. Cyril Kornbluth, when he came along, was short and pudgy. Jack Gillespie looked like an Irish jockey. Walter Kubilius was incredibly tall and wraithy, six-feet-eight or thereabouts, and maybe all of a hundred pounds. All of us came to understand early on that it was not on our looks that we would make our way in the world.

Both Wollheim and Michel had really bad complexions, and Donald had mannerisms that I suppose had origins within his own head, but gave the appearance of skeptical contempt for everything around him. Donald always carried a rolled-up umbrella. He rarely looked directly at the person he was talking to, but stared forty-five degrees to starboard, wry half-smile on his face, in moments of concentration a finger at his nose. Johnny was a self-taught cynic, and talked that way. Donald’s voice was gruff and abrupt. They were both smart as hell.

Not only that. They were far more mature than the rest of us, including Clark. Johnny was a year or two older than I, and Donald a year or two older than that. (He had to be all of nineteen.) But the real clincher, the thing that elevated both of them to at least veneration, if not actual sanctity, was that they both had actually been paid for work published in a professional science-fiction magazine. Johnny had earned his letter by winning some sort of contest, in which he supplied a plot that some other writer — I think it was Clifford D. Simak — wrote a story around. Donald had done even better than that. A story entirely of his own creation, “The Man from Ariel,” had been published.

And, it turned out, that was why they were with us. They were mad.

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