In this issue, we've tried to present a mini-anthology of stories about how events
from our pasts have influenced the way we are today. Something we haven't mentioned
yet, and maybe the biggest influence of all, is the persistence of friendship,
especially during trying circumstances. The following article is a remembrance of
one of those times.
This is a story about how I won -- and lost -- a bet. The bet was with Harlan Ellison, and it was his idea. He was wrong and I was right, and in the end it didn't matter.
The year was 1960. My first wife, Sylvia, and I had moved to New York City in the summer of 1959, finding -- after several weeks of searching -- a pleasant five-room apartment in the west Village, a block away from Sheridan Square on Christopher Street. The apartment was on the fourth floor of a five-floor building that had no elevator -- good for catching a vagrant breeze on a hot summer's day, but lousy for easily coming and going. Those four flights of stairs could get to you after you'd been up and down them a few times.
Harlan moved back to New York City, after a year or two's stay in Chicago, in the spring of 1960. He had been editor on Bill Hamling's Rogue magazine, one of the few Playboy imitators to make a serious job of it. (Hamling had been offered a 50% ownership in Playboy when Hefner started that magazine, but turned the opportunity down and had been kicking himself ever since. Rogue, once a pulpish 35¢ men's-sweat magazine, was transformed in 1959 into a slick competitor to Playboy.) As a struggling young writer, I'd been submitting short items to both Playboy and Rogue (my first sale -- at 50¢ a word! -- was in fact to Playboy), and had been getting back rejection notes from Harlan (although he did send me a check for a five word sale -- the title for an article Rogue used which I'd suggested to him at the 1959 Worldcon -- in the sum of 25¢). So perhaps that is why, when Harlan returned to New York City, he moved in with us until he found a place of his own.
Of course, I'd known Harlan for some years by then. We'd corresponded in the early fifties, and he'd contributed to my fanzines of that era. (I in turn had illustrated a story for his fanzine in 1953 -- and in retrospect I'm damned grateful neither the story nor my awful illos were ever published; Harlan had a massive file of unpublished material when he gave up putting out fanzines.) We met in 1955 at the first Worldcon I attended, and saw each other on and off in the years which followed, usually at conventions.
I held Harlan in awe in those days. He had enormous energy, and it fueled not only his talents (as a writer, editor, and -- now mostly forgotten -- cartoonist), but his activities. A trip to a restaurant or a store with Harlan was an entertainment, with Harlan the Master of Ceremonies and Star. Harlan decided at the 1955 Cleveland Worldcon to help George Young select and purchase a tie at a nearby men's store, and led half a dozen of us along on a short walk to the store. Along the way we encountered a construction project: men digging a deep hole in the street. Immediately Harlan took charge, issuing directions to the men in the hole and to the growing crowd of bystanders. He was funny, and he had all of us -- fans, workers, passersby -- in the palms of his hands. There was applause when he was done and turned to continue to the store. Although he was only a few years older than I, there was a huge gap between us in terms of experience and knowledge and I looked up to him.
By 1960 I was no longer a callow high school kid but the gap remained. Harlan had by then sold dozens of stories and one or two books, served a tumultuous stint in the Army, been married and divorced, and had been working at Rogue. And he had no less energy. He seemed to sleep in half the time most people did, and to use the extra time to write new stories. He could write anywhere. In later years he would write stories in store windows and at Worldcons. I watched him write "Daniel White for the Greater Good" (an excellent story) in my living room, in the midst of a party, pausing every two or three pages to announce, "Listen to this!" and then read us what he'd just written. I learned from Harlan how to write finished copy cold, in a single draft.
My own career was just starting to take off at this point. I'd joined the staff of Metronome magazine, then the world's oldest (and best) jazz magazine, which had resumed publication in the spring of 1960 after a six-month hiatus, during which a new publisher and production staff had been found. My article on Ornette Coleman -- then a very controversial and misunderstood figure in jazz -- was the cover story in the first new issue of Metronome, and earned me a lot of respect in the field when Coleman said (in print) that I was the first to understand what he was doing. This led in turn to my becoming a columnist for Ted Wilson's Jazz Guide, getting liner-note assignments, and covering a wide range of jazz concerts and events for Metronome, for which I also reviewed books and records.
One major event was the Newport Jazz Festival, still held then in Newport, Rhode Island. Sylvia and I drove up, along with Metronome's associate editor, Bob Perlongo, to find Newport a scene of near-chaos. George Wein (festival manager) refused to honor my Metronome credentials despite Perlongo and Metronome's editor, Bill Coss, vouching for me in person, so Sylvia and I drove a mile away to the Cliff Walk Manor, where an insurgent jazz festival was being held, featuring Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Ornette Coleman. The streets along the way were full of rowdy college-age kids (some were mooning passersby in the mid-afternoon) and beer cans littered the sidewalks. During the evening's concert at Cliff Walk Manor, our eyes began stinging and we discovered that the police had been using tear gas at the main festival, a mile away, in what turned out to be a riot by kids outside the festival walls. We left after the concert, driving up to Boston to stay with our friends at the Ivory Birdbath in Cambridge. I called Harlan (who was then still living in our apartment) to tell him what had happened.
"Geeze, Ted," Harlan exclaimed. "That's a great story. Why don't you write it up for Rogue? I'll call Frank Robinson and set it up for you."
This led directly to my first major sale to Rogue, "Riot At Newport." It wasn't, as I wrote it, a very good piece. But Harlan rewrote the lead, and Frank edited it into acceptability. (I've said it before and I'd like to say it again: Frank Robinson is the best editor I've ever had. He turned my dross into gold, and always claimed: "It was all in your piece, Ted; I just rearranged a few things." I learned a great deal just by studying the changes he made, and my subsequent sales to Rogue appeared pretty much as written.)
That summer Harlan found his own apartment -- three doors up the street, in a building with an elevator. And he met a woman, Linda Solomon, who also lived in the same building. Linda would go on to a career of her own in writing and editing, but that was mostly ahead of her in 1960.
Linda had a small but well-selected record collection, containing a goodly amount of jazz. One of the records she had was a premium offered by Tom Wilson. Now, Tom is worth an article in his own right. He started up a very important small jazz label while he was still in college -- earning an MBA at Harvard. The record company, Transition, was essentially his thesis project, but it also released the first albums by people like Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, and all Transition lps are collectors' items now, going for hundreds of dollars apiece.
In late 1959, Tom, with a partner, began doing jazz radio programming in New York City. They leased six hours an evening -- six pm to midnight -- on a local FM station, and presented some of the big names among jazz critics, like Nat Hentoff, in one-hour shows, every weeknight. I listened to it regularly and subscribed to the program guide, Jazz Guide. The first issue of Jazz Guide came out the same week as the first revived issue of Metronome, and Tom liked my work in Metronome so much that he called me up and invited me to write for Jazz Guide, which is how I met and got to know him. (I also subsequently introduced Harlan to him, and Harlan became another columnist for Jazz Guide.)
The radio thing did not last -- Tom and his partner had a falling out -- and Tom dropped radio to get into publishing (he started up a magazine designed to be sold at record stores, called 33 Guide, to which both Harlan and I contributed reviews) and return to record producing, first for United Artists and Savoy, and later for Verve, where he produced the first Mothers of Invention album (adding 'of Invention' to their name).
But while Tom and his partner were promoting their jazz radio programming, they offered albums as premiums to program-guide subscribers. The albums were in blank, white jackets, but the actual lps inside (obtained very cheaply sans covers) were a jazz sampler issued five or six years earlier on the Period label.
And Linda had one. So did I, but mine had the original Period cover, complete with liner notes and personnel listings for each track, since I'd bought it (for $1.98) when it first came out. Tom offered me one of the ones he was sending out, but I turned it down; I didn't need another copy, much less one with a blank cover.
I tried to tell Harlan that when he came over one Friday afternoon to rave to me about Linda's copy of the album, which he'd just heard.
"Great stuff, Ted. There's lotsa old historical tracks. There's one with Mildred Baily singing with the John Lewis orchestra!"
"With John Lewis! You know, the pianist in the Modern Jazz Quartet! I know you like him, Ted -- you've got most of his albums!"
In fact his "European Windows" and "Golden Striker" albums were heavy favorites of mine then. "You don't mean John Lewis," I said. "John Lewis never played with Mildred Baily. You're thinking of John Kirby. She sang with him on those 1939 tracks."
"No, Ted," Harlan insisted. "John Lewis. It was John Lewis she sang with."
I tried to explain that Lewis' first recordings were done after WW2, with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, and that in 1939 he was probably still in school somewhere. Then I hauled out my copy of the Period sampler, to prove my point.
But Harlan was not impressed. "This isn't the same album, Ted," he said, with only a glance at the jacket. "I'm right, I know I'm right, and you know I'm right."
"Aw, come on, Harlan," I said. "You know you're wrong. You got the names wrong, that's all. It was John Kirby. She sang with him for years."
"Oh, yeah? You wanna bet? Huh? You wanna bet on it? Come on, Ted -- you know you're right, so let's bet on it, okay?"
"I don't want to bet on it, Harlan. I'd win, so what's the point?"
But Harlan insisted. Harlan can be very insistent. "I'll tell you what," he said. "I'll bet my entire record collection against one record in your collection, your 10-inch X-label album by the Original Dixieland Jass Band!" This album documents the earliest known 'jazz' recordings, circa 1917, albeit by white musicians. The 10-inch lp was issued in the very early fifties by RCA Victor on its jazz-historical X label, and was by then itself of some historical importance. I consider the music on it of little value (others have other opinions) except as a historical document, but at that time I was trying to build a major jazz collection (in part to make me a more-rounded jazz critic), and the album was important to me for that reason. Harlan's collection, on the other hand, was as big as mine (over one thousand lps), and did not overlap it too much. He had a lot of classical albums I didn't then have, and a lot of the more or less 'hip' popular albums as well. He had one album that I really wanted, because I'd never seen it anywhere else (and still haven't to this day): a Johnny Mathis album arranged by some of the top jazz arrangers of the day, like Gil Evans. It was tempting to think of owning Harlan's collection.
Harlan did not drop the issue until I said, "Okay, Harlan, if you want a bet, you've got a bet." When Sylvia came in, he excitedly repeated the whole story to her, re-emphasizing the bet. One record in my collection, against his entire collection.
Sylvia got excited. "When can we collect?" she asked.
"We can't settle the bet," Harlan said, gently correcting her (Harlan liked Sylvia quite a lot), "until Monday, because Linda is away for the weekend. Monday we'll get together and go over to her place and look at her record and settle the bet."
"Is this a real bet?" Sylvia asked.
"Yeah, Harlan," I said. "No hanky-panky, now. You don't go over first and alter the label or anything."
"Aw, come on, Ted! Do you think I'd do a thing like that? This is a serious bet, man!"
Boyd Raeburn was in town that weekend, and at one point a crowd of us were in a subway car when the story of the bet came up again, Harlan excitedly telling Boyd about it. By now the stakes had escalated again: Harlan was betting not only his entire record collection, but his custom-made record cabinets as well. I watched all this with numb amazement. It was beginning to dawn on me that I was going to win a lot.
I'd had vague doubts. Although I knew it was John Kirby and not John Lewis -- and I had my own copy of the record to back me up -- Harlan was so dead-set insistent that I couldn't help wondering if, maybe, possibly, there had been a typographical error on the radio-premium copies (maybe the reason they'd sat in a warehouse somewhere for years), or some other explanation that could cost me the bet. After all, it was Linda's copy of the album that would decide the bet, and I'd never seen her specific copy.
If Harlan had wanted to drop the bet, if he'd come up to me and said, quietly,"You know, I think I'm wrong -- I don't want to bet on it any more," I'd have let it drop. I was embarrassed by the lopsidedness of the stakes. And winning the bet would be like taking candy from a baby. It wasn't right.
But on both Saturday and Sunday, Harlan reiterated the bet. It made a good story and he told it well, to a number of people on a number of occasions. And every time he told it within my hearing, I believed a little more that it was really going to happen: I was going to win Harlan's entire record collection and cabinets! I started to feel lust for that collection. I began planning how I'd rearrange my living room to make space for his cabinets, handsome furniture in their own right.
In the back of my own head, I knew this was not good: too close to stealing. I'll winnow out the records I really want and he can keep the rest, I decided, full of magnanimous feelings.
Monday dawned. Harlan phoned. He was at Linda's and I should come on over, he said, his voice gleeful. He was already at Linda's. I was filled with foreboding as I went up to her apartment.
Linda greeted me at the door and I went in to find Harlan sprawled in a nearby chair. Without comment, Linda held out the album to me. I slid the record out of its blank jacket and looked at the label. There, neatly typed in the distinctive face of Harlan's Olivetti, was a thin strip of paper taped over the record label that said, "Mildred Baily with John Lewis & His Orchestra." I turned the record over; there was a second Mildred Baily cut on the other side. Here, too, was a typed line taped over the actual credit: "John Lewis Again, Ha ha."
I looked at Harlan with what I believe was sorrow in my expression. "You promised you wouldn't do this," I said.
"Yeah," he said, crestfallen. "Well, you know." He fished out his keys. "Here," he said, and handed them to me. "I don't want to watch."
Do you have any idea what's involved in moving 1,000 lps? They're heavy. You can't lift a stack of much more than fifty albums at a time, especially if you plan to carry it up four flights of stairs. Sylvia had asthma and tried to climb those stairs as infrequently as possible. I couldn't ask her to help carry the records. So I called up Larry Ivie, who was the only other person I could think of then who wasn't tied to a rigid work schedule (he was a struggling artist), and he came to help.
It was summertime in New York City. None of us had air conditioning, except maybe Linda. I don't recall it being a terrifically hot day, but it was warm enough. With Sylvia holding fort in our apartment and Harlan watching forlornly from his, Larry and I began the long and arduous task of carrying stacks of records from Harlan's to my place.
Midway through the task, Sylvia, Larry, and I agreed that once we had everything in our place, we'd tell Harlan he could have it back -- but that he'd have to carry it himself.
I knew I couldn't keep his collection and cabinets. It was a silly bet. Hell, it was a stupid bet, compounded by Harlan taking an advance peek (Linda, it turned out, had gotten back Sunday evening, as Harlan had known she would), and, upon realizing he'd lost the bet he'd foisted upon me, typing up those silly, obvious, taped-over labels. Harlan should be taught a lesson, we agreed -- but he should get his stuff back.
By now, Harlan's records were in stacks covering much of my living room floor, the cabinets soon to follow. I'd pushed furniture to the side to make room.
I'd arrived at the top of the stairs at my floor with another stack of records, Larry Ivie just ahead of me, when I heard quick steps on the stairs behind me. I was still holding the stack of records, about to set them down on the floor, when Harlan burst through the open door behind me.
He was brandishing a gun. It was a small revolver, and I'd seen it once before when he'd shown me his 'lecturing exhibit', of a gun, a switchblade, and brass knucks, which he kept in a box in his closet.
"Okay, Ted," Harlan snarled. "Fun's over. Pick that stuff up and take it back to my apartment -- and I mean now!"
He'd been looking more and more disheartened each time we'd taken another stack of records from his apartment, but I'd never expected this. He had snapped. He'd been watching his prized collection disappear, for all he knew for good, probably kicking himself for ever getting into the whole thing, and at some point his disappointment had turned to anger. Perhaps it had been addressed initially at himself, but by the time he appeared in my apartment, waving his gun, his anger was directed at us.
"Don't make me shoot you, Ted," he said. "I'll aim at your legs, but if I hit your knees that's very painful." His revolver looked like and probably was a .22, but from a distance of eight to ten feet, it could not only be fairly certain of hitting me, but might do significant damage. And Harlan appeared to be in a state in which he'd not hesitate to shoot. It was the first time in my life a gun had been pointed at me, and to this day the scariest.
I'd never seen Harlan like this, in such a rage. He could easily go over the top, I thought. He'd demonstrated the capability to do so in other situations, ones that didn't involve me or guns.
"We were going to give them all back to you, Harlan," Sylvia said.
"I know you are -- right now!" Harlan responded. "Pick some up," he said to Larry, who had been watching all this with a bemused look on his face.
I was still holding the stack of records I'd just carried up. "Here," I said, thrusting them at Harlan. "You take them."
He dodged back. "No, Ted," he said, "I've got the gun. You carry the records. All of them. Back to my place. Now!"
So Larry and I carried all the records -- over two-thirds of Harlan's collection -- back to Harlan's apartment. Back down all those stairs (and back up again for more). We were covered with sweat, and getting more and more pissed at Harlan, who wasn't being 'taught a lesson' after all, but who was autocratically directing us with a gun. (Harlan waited in my apartment until the last load went out; Linda held fort at his apartment, giving us sympathetic looks but otherwise staying out of it.)
That's pretty much how the bet ended. I'd won, and I'd lost. I'd enjoyed a brief roller-coaster ride of emotions as I'd contemplated and then lusted after Harlan's collection, and I'd put in half a day's physical labor, carrying records back and forth with the unfortunate (to be caught up in this) Larry Ivie. It had been a joke gone sour, all around. Harlan had lost, too. He'd lost a lot of my respect for him -- not for pushing a stupid bet in the first place, but for the way he'd handled it at the end. He should have carried the records back, at the very least.
We fed Larry an early dinner, in gratitude for all he'd done and gone through, and were sitting around feeling depressed and let down when the phone rang.
It was Harlan. He was apologetic. The gun, he said, had been unloaded. I'd never been in any real danger. He was sorry and he wanted to make it up to us. Come on over, he said. He'd bought a cake to share with us as a peace offering.
It was a good cake.
All illustrations by Peggy Ranson