We stay in the 1950s, sort of, for a detective story of true fan historical
significance. One of the most zealous fans ever to achieve the ideal of FIAWOL was
the legendary Indiana fan Claude Degler. He was truly unique, to the point where
it's not easily possible to separate reality from legend in the accounts that have
been written about him over the years. The Degler mythos was enhanced by his abrupt
departure from fandom in 1951, almost as if he were the fan equivalent of Ambrose
Bierce. And now, more than fifty years later, a determined effort has been made to
find out exactly what became of him. Here's the results...
I didn't know what to do. Rich had invited me to contribute something to Mimosa 30, and I desperately wanted to be part of this historic issue, but my trove of fannish lore is quite limited. Over the past 40 years and more, my relationship to fandom has been essentially passive. I haven't hobnobbed with any legendary fans of yore or participated in any historic firsts.
Oh sure, there was the time in the early 1970s when I was the guest speaker at a magazine writers' group in New York, and during dinner I found myself seated across the table from Mort Weisinger. But the rest of the table was full of mundanes who wanted to cultivate me as a paying editor, so it wasn't a suitable moment to chat about the era when fans lived in caves, dressed in animal skins, and duplicated their fanzines on hectographs. After the program I looked for Mort, but he was gone. No story there.
And yes, I did attend the very first Windycon in Chicago. But I just walked over to the host hotel from my office during the noon hour. I recall admiring the Schoenherr illos for one of the Dune serials in Analog. When I looked up, Gene Wolfe was standing beside me. I complimented him on the narrative resonance in "The Fifth Head of Cerberus." Then I went back to the office. Could I spin a Mimosa essay out of scraps like this? Not hardly.
Then one gloomy, drizzly Indiana afternoon, the propeller on my beanie started spinning. I knew what I could do. Lacking old fannish experiences to write about, I could create new fannish experiences to write about. I could go looking for Degler.
Indiana fandom has produced a number of notables. Catherine (C. L.) Moore was corresponding with Lovecraft and selling to Weird Tales while working as a bank clerk in Indianapolis in the 1930s. Oscar, an articulated skeleton who served as mascot of the fan group in Decker, Indiana, was seated on the stage at Chicon I. Ted Dikty and Marty Greenberg were active in the Fort Wayne fan group around 1940. The Coulsons published their Hugo-winning fanzine Yandro for decades. Ray Beam's collection of SF pulps was featured in a statewide public television program. George Willick makes aging pros uneasy with his "gone but not forgotten" web site.
But towering above them all is the figure of Claude Degler. The theme of this issue is "fandom as a way of life," and no one believed in fandom more than Degler, to his ultimate rue. Harry Warner Jr. has told the story well in All Our Yesterdays, and Dal Coger provided some personal recollections in Mimosa 5 (reprinted in M28).
Degler first appeared at Chicon I in 1940, hailing from New Castle, Indiana. Initially, he had every prospect of achieving conventional prominence as an actifan. In 1941, he began publishing the fanzine Infinite in collaboration with fellow Hoosier fan Leonard Marlowe. At the second Michicon in 1942, fans gave one-minute speeches at the opening session, with Degler and Walt Liebscher sharing honors as the best orators. Ted Dikty appointed Degler chairman of the Indiana Fantasy Association when Dikty left fandom.
Hitchhiking across the continent, Degler became a Traveling Jiant, showing up on fans' doorsteps from L.A. to New York. No other fan of that era traveled as widely or visited so many other fans in their home territories. But here was the beginning of Degler's woe, because many fans were leery of indigents showing up on their doorsteps, uninvited and imposing on the nascent fan tradition of hospitality. Annoyed fans began dealing with Degler like a stray dog -- refusing to pat him on the head or feed him, for fear he wouldn't leave.
While on the road, Degler was the epitome of fan poverty. Fans today can't imagine the threadbare existence of many fans of the 1930s and early `40s, riding the boxcars to Worldcons or rummaging through the trash behind hotels to recover copies of Amazing Stories discarded by departing patrons. There's a reason the Futurians moved every few months -- they couldn't pay the rent. There's a reason fans were greyhound-thin in those days -- food cost money.
But Degler outdid them all. Living on the road, he was unkempt and often unwashed. One legend has Degler surviving a Worldcon on an exclusive diet of grape jelly. The Ashleys in Battle Creek were incensed by the way he gobbled up the grub they prepared for Michicon guests, when wartime rationing made feeding the multitudes particularly difficult.
Degler's second mistake was seizing upon various ideas floating around fandom and extrapolating them into grandiose schemes of Nietzschean transfiguration. It was generally believed, with some support from psychological tests, that fans were more intelligent than the mundane population. Degler proclaiming that fans represented a new strain of mankind, Cosmic Man, a superior mutation (fans are Slans).
The Battle Creek fan group had played with the idea of creating a fan housing development with communal benefits. Degler proposed the creation of a Utopian fan community in the Ozarks (fans are Shakers?).
Fandom was to be united and Cosmic Consciousness achieved through Degler's all-encompassing organization, the Cosmic Circle. Everywhere he went, Degler designated the fans he met as officers of non-existent organizations, all of which were branches of the Cosmic Circle. In its fullness, the Cosmic Circle claimed 47 regional, state, and local affiliates. The CC organizational chart would have shamed the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Many fans of the day were impecunious, and many neos went overboard in their fannish enthusiasms. But there was something about Degler's combination of hobo shabbiness, fanciful tales of adventures on the road, and delusions of grandeur that provoked many fans to mockery and some to full-blown hostility.
But Degler wasn't the complete derelict of repute. He worked in Indianapolis for several months to grubstake his second national tour. He paid $10 for a life membership in LASFS and helped to pay the clubhouse rent. At least one fan with the courage to loan him money dropped a jaw when Degler repaid the loan without being asked.
Degler also realized when he had gone too far, which suggests that he wasn't simply a mental case (though he may have been that too, according to Jack Speer's investigations around New Castle). Both Bob Tucker and Harry Warner have testified that Degler enjoyed antagonizing his enemies and fanning the flames with tit-for-tat counterattacks in the pages of his CC fanzines. But in 1944, perhaps in reaction to Speer's revelations, Degler resigned from the Cosmic Circle, apologized to the fans he had attacked, and retracted his recent writings. Once again on the road, he was last seen in August of that year by Raymond Washington in Florida, after which he vanished from fandom.
At least, he vanished as "Claude Degler." In 1947 he arrived in Philadelphia two months ahead of the Worldcon, attended PSFS meetings under the name John Chrisman, and impressed local fans with his quiet demeanor. His true identity wasn't revealed until Tucker recognized him at Philcon. He was in New York City, using the name John York, in 1949. The next year he was using his own name, issuing a list of SF books and magazines for sale from New Castle and manning a huckster table at the Portland Worldcon. In 1951 he was in California, sometimes introducing himself by another of his noms-de-fanac, Don Rogers. After that, there were no confirmed sightings for 30 years.
Then, in one of the most astonishing moments of Tucker's life, Degler reappeared here in Indianapolis in 1981 over the 4th of July weekend at the first InConJunction. Tucker was hurrying across the hotel foyer from one panel assignment to another. The greeting came from behind him. "Hey, Tucker, how are ya?" After 35 years, he recognized the distinctive, nasal Hoosier drawl before he looked around.
Tucker greeted Degler affably. He explained that he was on a panel starting immediately, but he would be glad to talk and asked Degler to meet him afterward. Tucker fulfilled his panelist duties and returned to the lobby, but Degler was gone.
This incident demonstrates that Degler was living in the Indianapolis area in 1981. Apparently, he saw Tucker interviewed on local television and stopped by the hotel to see if anyone remembered him (!). After the con, Tucker asked Ray Beam to try to locate Degler, but Ray was unsuccessful.
Twenty years later, the trail was cold. The first thing I did was check the phone book, finding seven Deglers but no Claude in the metro area. Oh well, I didn't think it was going to be that easy! Then I queried the local fan community. No one still active was aware of the 1981 apparition or any contact before or after that event.
Then I turned to the modern standby, the World Wide Web. The Social Security Death Index provided encouraging news -- no Claude Degler born in the 20th century was listed (current to November 2001), so Degler was either still alive or never got a Social Security number. A query left on the Degler message board at Ancestry.com drew no responses, so the genealogists of the Degler family tree seem to be unaware of this particular twig. I poked around on a number of other web search services such as the InfoSpace People Finder, Online Detective, etc. Accessible data revealed no Claude Degler and they wanted fees for deeper searches or software downloads, which I wasn't willing to pay for a crapshoot.
Oh well. One of the local fans had suggested that I consult the City Directory, purportedly based on a door-to-door canvas and listing all the adult residents of each domicile, both homeowners and roomers. I trekked down to the main library and checked the Degler listings in each of the huge annual volumes. No Claude in the 2001 or 1981 editions, so he wasn't a tabulated resident of Indianapolis or the surrounding Marion County now or then. Since he was certainly in the area in 1981, he had evaded enumeration or lived in the suburban areas beyond Marion County.
Then I made a curious discovery. I checked earlier volumes in case he had resided within the city in prior decades. There was no listing for Claude Degler. But beginning in 1949, a Doris Degler was listed as a roomer in the home of Virgil and Alta Smith, and her name was followed by the parenthetical information "(widow of Claude)." The listing remained the same until 1968, when the widow datum was dropped and the additional information "housekeeper" added. The listing ended in 1973, presumably when Doris died or moved away.
What was going on here? The Social Security Death Index lists two Claude Deglers born before 1900 and now deceased, one in Washington, one in Wisconsin. What are the chances that the widow of one of these men would relocate to Indianapolis, the home territory of our Claude Degler? Or did our Claude get married between 1944 and 1947, then fake his death so as to produce a widow by 1949? Or did the couple split up, with Doris assuming the guise of a widow to avoid the stigma attached in those days to divorce or abandonment? Or was her Claude someone else entirely, someone who never got a Social Security number and so avoided the Death Index? Another mystery.
Time was running out and the Mimosa deadline looming, so yesterday I took a day off work and drove the 60 miles to New Castle. I had one thin clue to pursue. In All Our Yesterdays, Harry Warner mentioned that Degler had left Los Angeles in 1951, saying that his mother had died. This would be a matter of public record. A death notice in the local newspaper ought to include an address, names of other family members, something tangible. Jack Speer had identified one Vergie Degler as owner of a post office box that Claude had used, presumably his mother.
I found the New Castle library, my steps dragging at the prospect of scrolling through each microfilmed issue of the local paper for the whole year, looking for that one entry. But to my utter joy, I discovered that some benefactor of mankind had prepared a card catalog of all deaths in New Castle for the past century and more. It was the work of a moment to pull out the "D" drawer, riffle through the cards to Degler, and lo, there it was: "Degler, Vergie, The News Republican, Nov. 1, 1950, p. 1." But wait. The preceding card was for "Degler, Robert" with the same reference information. Vergie and a husband or son, killed together in a highway crash? A fire? A gas leak?
It was worse than I imagined, but I had to wait an hour to learn the awful facts because someone else was using the only microfilm viewer. I went to lunch at Wendy's, where I started reading Zombies of the Gene Pool by Sharyn McCrumb (Ballantine 1993). I picked up a copy on eBay because one of the local fans told me that Degler was mentioned in it (he was, page 28), and it had arrived coincidentally that morning. Back at the library I loaded the 1950 reel of The News Republican into the viewer, spun it forward to November 1, and discovered why the deaths of Vergie and Robert Degler were reported together on page 1. The lead headline read: "Police Probe Probable Murder-Suicide Here."
On the previous morning J.W. Allen, father of Mrs. Degler, had discovered the body of 26-year-old grandson Robert at the family residence. In Robert's pocket was a note stating that he had shot and killed his mother on October 20 and buried her in the unfinished basement of another family home three miles outside town. Mrs. Degler's body had been exhumed, and the state police were performing handwriting analysis to ascertain whether the note was in Robert's handwriting. "Another brother, Claude Degler, alleged to have been a former patient at Easthaven [mental health facility] in Richmond was also being sought by police Tuesday afternoon."
On November 10, another headline announced: "Degler Case Now Closed. Absolve Brother Claude Of Any Part In It." Robert's handwriting had been authenticated, and local authorities had learned from the Los Angeles police that Claude had registered at a hotel there on September 16 and had been in the area ever since. The L.A. police also reported that Robert had registered at the same hotel for one night on October 26. Between the murder on October 20 and his suicide on October 31, he had traveled 2,000 miles to Los Angeles, spent one day with his brother, and then returned to New Castle.
The police were at a loss regarding a motive, but it seems to have involved a combination of depression, despair, and powerful emotional relationships. Robert's note said: "I am so worried and love mother so much and she is so worried and nervous and everything. It seems so helpless. I was almost out of my mind. I shot and killed mother Oct. 20 and in blind fear buried her in the basement of our country place. I thought about suicide then but was so shocked and scared. Maybe this is the best for everyone. May the Lord have mercy."
Frankly, I wish I hadn't discovered this information. Rather, I wish I could have reported that I succeeded in tracking Degler and found him living in serene retirement in the Ozarks on the proposed site of Cosmic Camp, where fans with cosmic minds were invited to bring their womenfolk and produce the coming generation of Cosmen. Alas, with Mimosa's deadline imminent, I had to call a halt. I intend to keep looking, but this morning I closed this phase of the quest at the Holiday Inn at 21st Street and Shadeland Avenue. I paused in the foyer outside the function rooms, where the 1981 encounter between Degler and Tucker had occurred. There is no plaque on the wall, nothing to commemorate this fanhistorical event. After a moment I heaved a sigh and left. For now, Claude Degler will have to remain a legend.
But why did such an unprepossessing figure become a legend? First, I think, because of his ubiquity. Degler met many fans on his travels, and those who hadn't met him could nervously anticipate doing so, at any moment and without warning. (Degler had copied Julius Unger's mailing list of 700 fans and knew where everyone lived. Both Tucker and Warner have described Degler's surprise appearances at their doors and the diplomatic gymnastics they performed to remain cordial without actually admitting him into their homes.)
Then there was the contrast between grubby reality and Degler's self-image. In decrying his expulsion from the LASFS, he described himself as "the director of the Planet Fan Federation, president of the Indiana Fantasy Association, and representative of the Dixie Fan Federation, on tour of fandom as an ambassador in Los Angeles." He coined an abiding fannish catchphrase when he suggested that this outrageous act might "plunge all fandom into [a] war." Such pretentiousness plunged all fandom into mirth.
And finally, Degler's career must have shaken the faith of fans in the validity of fandom as a way of life. Degler was a total fan. On a metaphysical level, Degler cast a harsh spotlight on the Manichean duality of FIAWOL and FIJAGH, the eternal battle between Darkness and Light.
Although a common object of derision, Degler wasn't scorned by all. Wollheim deprecated Degler's excesses but admitted that he basically agreed with every one of Degler's ideas. Ackerman defended him because of his total dedication to fandom. Though wishing Degler had bathed more often, Dal Coger summed up his feelings about this legendary figure in Mimosa: "The fact is, I sort of liked Claude. He had a dream and sacrificed everything for it. ... Fandom would be a poorer place without such characters."
Claude Degler believed that fandom is a way of life. In his enthusiasm, he discovered too late that sometimes, life sucks.
All illustrations by Craig Smith