On Saturday, August 30, 1998, at just about the same time that Curt Phillips was
involved in a fire/rescue situation in southwestern Virginia, we were in San Antonio,
Texas, at the nominees' reception just before LoneStarCon's Hugo Award event was set
to begin. And earlier that same day, we presided over a two-hour interview with
Forrest J Ackerman. In Mimosa 21, Forry described his connections to two of
the most revered cinematic legends of the science fiction genre. This latest
installment of Forry's series of autobiographical essays remembers some of science
fiction's literary giants.
As of 1998, I've been involved with science fiction for 72 years. I wasted the first nine years of my life, but in October 1926, I got going in the world of science fiction. I never dreamed, as a boy of nine, one day I would meet the author of The War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Time Machine. But one day in 1939 -- before the first World Science Fiction Convention was held later that year -- Mr. Wells came to Los Angeles for a lecture, and you may be sure that I was one of the first people into the auditorium. I noticed that nobody seemed to be recording him; it was the short-lived period of the wire recorder rather than tape that we have today. I was reminded that when I was a youngster in school, a man whose grandfather heard Abraham Lincoln give the Gettysburg Address had been so impressed by it that he'd gone home and stood in front of a mirror, tried to take the Lincoln stance and speak like him, and now this was being passed on to us. So I thought, well, I had better be like the 'Lincoln' boy and capture H.G. Wells in my mind.
Well, because he was this incredible literary giant in the science fiction field, I guess I was expecting kind of an Orson Welles -- a deep, booming impressive voice. So I was quite surprised by this squeaky voice that came out of this small roly-poly ruddy-complexioned gentleman with thin graying hair. He said, "I am going to towk to you for about an 'owah. Today east is west and west is east, and they are coming togethuh with a bang." And indeed he was unfortunately quite prophetic because before long we were off and running into our war with Japan.
Well, I went up on the stage afterwards, took my copy of one of my favorite H.G. Wells novels, Star Begotten, and he signed it for me. Some years later, when I was visiting William F. Temple in England, and he took me to a home that H.G. Wells had lived in which was now turned into a bed-and-breakfast affair. Each room was interesting. They would have the title on the room of one of Wells' works like The Sea Lady or The War of the Worlds. I believe my wife and I stayed in the Sea Lady Room, and we slept in a bed in which H. G. Wells's two sons had been born.
On another occasion, in London, I went outside to the city where he had written The Time Machine and just as in years before, when I went to Tarzana and asked where Edgar Rice Burroughs lived, I met many people who raised their eyebrows and said, "Edgar Rice who?" I could not believe that, where H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, I couldn't just stop anybody on the street and they would immediately direct me to it. I had to go to a library and even there it took some doing. All they could say was, "Well, he's on that certain street, we don't know just what number." Finally, I rang a doorbell and the gentleman said, "Yes, this is where he had written The Time Machine." And I guess that is about the sum of the substance of my connections to H.G. Wells!
Anyway, speaking of Edgar Rice Burroughs, as I said, I had tried to look him up in Tarzana where he lived, and I was flabbergasted to find that the average citizen there didn't seem to have heard of him. I knew that in 1912 his first work had appeared titled "Under the Moons of Mars" which nowdays we think of as A Princess of Mars. Back then he felt such a garish tale might embarrass his family, so he came up with the pen name of 'Normal Bean'. In 1912, 'bean' referred to your head, so this was his way of telling his readers that his head was on straight. But unfortunately, one of his editors must not have thought that 'Normal' was a "normal" name, and it got changed to 'Norman', and the whole point of the pun was lost.
When I visited him, I took along "Under the Moons of Mars," the first magazine publication of Tarzan of the Apes, and a rarity of the time, "Beyond Thirty." I had wanted him to sign them with his pen name: "Mr. Burroughs, just this once would you sign this as 'Normal Bean'?" He was agreeable: "Why, yes, certainly, young man." But he was about 70 years old at the time; there were other fans present, and he got distracted. His mind kind of wandered and before I knew it his hand had written 'Edgar Rice Burroughs', just as it had done thousands of times before.
One down and two to go. "Mr. Burroughs, could you sign this one as your pen name?"
He replied, "Oh, yes, of course, young man!" But somebody distracted him again, and there was 'Edgar Rice Burroughs' again. One more chance...
I turned around and hand-signaled the other fans to be quiet this time. I gave the magazine to Mr. Burroughs, and as I watched intently, he wrote: 'to F.J. Bean...', and then seeing his mistake, said, "Oh, no, what have I done?!"
It was clear that the fates had conspired against me. So I said, "All right, Mr. Burroughs, for you I will change my name." And that eventually became one of my fifty or so pseudonyms: 'F.J. Bean'.
Burroughs was not the first author I had become acquainted with who used a pseudonym, however. Many years earlier, before I had moved from San Francisco to Hollywood, I had read a series by an author named Aladra Septama, in Amazing Stories Quarterly, about an alien called 'Tani of Ekkis'. After some investigation, I found that 'Aladra Septama' was actually a lawyer named Judson W. Reeves who lived right there in San Francisco! So, as a kid going to high school, I got enough nerve one Saturday morning to meet him. I had earlier phoned him and he had invited me over. When I walked in the door, my eyes bugged out; the first issue of Amazing Stories I had ever seen had been dated October 1926, but here was a May, and a July, and a June, and an April! I couldn't believe it; I was really in Wonderland! And to top things off, he very graciously gave me my choice of a couple copies of those first year Amazings.
I should also mention something about one other writer who was very friendly with fans. That would be Dr. David H. Keller, who really was a pioneering science fiction author. His claim to fame was that he had in his stories more babies per square paragraph than any other author. In reading his work it always seemed to me like it was a translation, but not from French or German or Russian or anything... I didn't know from what. Well, when I met him I found it may have indeed been a translation. When he was born, his mother lavished all her love and attention on his little sister and paid virtually no attention to little David. So, as a result, he closed his ears and wouldn't pay any attention to anything she said; he wouldn't even learn English.
Instead, he created a language all his own, which he taught to his sister. And if anybody wanted to communicate with little David, they had to talk to the sister and she would translate it into their personal language. When he was five or six, he was sent home from school because they thought he was the village idiot. People would talk to him and he obviously didn't understand them, so he paid no attention. There's no telling how long this could have gone on, but when his sister was about seven or eight years old she suddenly died. After that, he was forced to learn English. He told me although he could not recall his personal language in his waking hours he often dreamed in it. So I suppose you could say, in a way, in his fiction he was translating from his private language.
Anyway, as an adult, he became the superintendent of the insane asylum in Pennsylvania. He said there was one woman who could have lived out in society, but every once in a while, like Whistler's Mother, she would go off her rocker, so she decided it would be best if she lived in the asylum where when she had a spell they could take care of her. Well, Dr. Keller said he realized one time when she was going to have a spell because, he said, in real life there were very few women who found him very attractive. But when she was crazy she was crazy about him! So one night she began winking at him, being very flirty, so he warned his staff, "You better keep an eye on her, she's going to have one of her spells." Well, sure enough, about midnight he got an S.O.S. on the telephone from one of his staff; when he went to the asylum he found a semi-circle of the staff at the front of the building. She was up on the roof. During the day some repairmen had left a lot of bricks up there, and she was hurling bricks at everyone down there. Dr. Keller realized that anybody who climbed up there to try to talk her down might be risking their life. But after all, he was the superintendent, so he decided to go up there.
When he put his head up above roof level, he saw her standing there, brick in hand. One wrong word and he'd have had it! He said basically, he never lied to insane individuals, because they could always see right through you. But knowing how she felt about him when she was crazy, he threw his arms wide and cried out, "Come to me, my darling!" She dropped the brick and like an express train she ran across the roof and threw herself on him. The roof was sloped, and they began sliding down it. One of the members of the asylum staff finally had to come up there with a rope and lasso them to rescue them!
Dr. Keller, with a straight face, once told me, "I have such an ego, I pay people fifty cents an hour to let me brag about myself." As I mentioned, he liked science fiction fans a lot. I do believe he gave away more fiction for fanzines than he ever sold to paying publications!
All illustrations by Teddy Harvia