In this issue, we've spent some time both describing this year's worldcon and
looking forward to next year's worldcon, but now it's time to look back at some of
the worldcon's of decades past. We met the writer and the subject of the following
article at ConFrancisco, the 1993 Worldcon. Besides being co-chairs of the 1954
Worldcon (San Francisco's SFCon), they were also very active in the Bay Area fandom
of the 1950s. Here are some recollections of that time.
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Science fiction came to me in the form of a man -- a large-sized visionary. I was interested in his mind, and Les was interested in my big b------, er, best interests. Sf has been defined as the extrapolation of science and fact projected into time and space. This is as good a definition of Les as any.
If this projection stretches fact or exaggerates science, the result is fantasy. Frequently, the line between sf and fantasy is indistinguishable, and sometimes, too, it's difficult to know if Les is real or imaginary.
Les came a-wooing with a copy of The Black Flame. In it, the protagonist wears a gown of Alexandrites, so when Les told me Alexandrites sold for $10,000 a carat and promised to drape me in them, my answer was YES YES YES YES YES (exactly like Sally to Harry).
For years, Les talked to me in science fiction, but football and finals jammed my receiver. But one day, an impressive mushroom filled the sky above Hiroshima, and sf became fact.
The world of sf, as you all know, is a crazy, mixed-up business. There's much that Bill Lundigan, ZIV, and The Twilight Zoners are keeping from the public. The conventions, for instance. These conclaves attract the entire gamut -- fen, pros, publishers, editors, child geniuses, and the lunatic fringes. Where the legitimate attendees stop and the lunatic fringe begins, puts us right back to where sf ends and fantasy begins. No easy distinction.
A popular topic at conventions is 'How Old I Was When I Started Reading SF'. For a long time, the champion was Les, who claimed to have started at minus four months. He was a well-read fetus. Then, Ron Hubbard and Dianetics showed memory could travel back through the originating sperm and ova. (Thus explaining split personalities and science fiction writers.)
Les was writing sf for almost as long as he read it. He first wrote to editors. His published letters filled several scrapbooks, and he developed a certain reputation (mostly unprintable). After we married, Les generously included my name, too, and a rumor spread we were 15-year-old twin brothers.
Les's letters attracted a character named Lee Jacobs -- who wouldn't drink coffee and liked macaroni/ cheese casseroles made with chocolate milk. He convinced us to co-publish a fanzine, and we named it Orgasm. The title was symbolic, but other fanziners found it lewd and offensive. (Anyone who finds orgasms lewd and offensive, please stand up.) So we shortened it to The Big O. We had competition from Oasis Cigarettes. (Anybody out there remember Oasis Cigarettes?)
Having tasted fame and poverty -- our entire income went into paper and postage -- we decided to attend the upcoming sf convention in New Orleans (1951). We thought if we exposed ourselves, folks might see we weren't 15-year-old twin brothers. I loved New Orleans and hated the cooking. Nine months later, we knew why -- Dana Cole, permanent sf convention souvenir.
In 1952, Les wanted to show the world his reputation as a crackpot was unfounded...so he claimed a hunk of the moon. He really just wanted to be an altruist; the theory went like this: Les claims a hunk of the moon, applying to the United Nations. The UN denies the claim, but in doing so establishes itself as the moon's governing body, thus making our solar system safe for democracy. Unfortunately, they didn't get it.
The 'moon claim' project was as legal and scientific as Les could make it: a graduate student of astronomy surveyed the area; an attorney wrote the legalese; an ad expert laid out the campaign; contacts in the newspaper underground were alerted to assure front-page coverage. The news releases were slanted to match each local paper's personality. The result came off as smoothly as chicken fat on chopped liver. For three days, Les answered the phone as I clipped newspapers. The 'moon claim' story was printed in every one of the Bay Area newspapers; it went out on the wire services and appeared in newspapers around the U.S., Europe, South America, and Australia. Scrap books were filling up like crazy.
Besides 'moon claim' scrapbooks, there was another one that contained rejection slips. Les was told that when he started receiving personalized notes as rejection slips, he'd be just around the corner from selling. That corner lasted six years, but the rejection slips made great reading: Boucher, Campbell, and Horace Gold -- the best of the best. His first published story went to a British sf mag, and he was paid in ha'pennies. That's what Les's share came to after the agent got his fee. A first sale is portent of wondrous things to come, and we were prepared to fill another scrapbook -- with checks.
In 1952, the World Science Fiction Convention was in Chicago. Sf had become a way of life with us (which we were fortunate enough to outgrow), so Les quit his job and together with four month old Dana and two friends, we drove non-stop to the convention. For three days (along with six other 'Little Men') we lived high, thirty-two floors up in the $100-a-day penthouse suite, noshing on hot dogs and wondering what we would live on when we got back to Berkeley.
In October 1953, Lance Cole arrived, and wanted to go to an sf convention like his brother Dana. So we gave him one. Les and I got a chance to put on the SFCon in San Francisco, in 1954. We had expert help from other amateurs. For a year, we prepared publicity, brochures, and programs. We included an sf art exhibit at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (original oil Bonestells, among others), and a chamber opera of a Bradbury story, Tony Boucher narrating. We combined the Westercon with the Worldcon to make it a four day convention, and we doubled the registration fee from one dollar to two dollars!
Strange things happen to sf convention committees; after the affair, members of the committee are never seen nor heard from again. It wasn't until last year (1993), again in San Francisco, that Les and I surfaced again, prodded by Dave Aronovitz and nurtured by Richard Lynch. (Incidentally, Dave Aronovitz now owns all the Cole scrapbooks and all other of our sf memorabilia.)
The crowning moment of my life with a science fiction came at two o'clock in the morning in Altadena, in 1956. The phone rang, and Alvarez of the New York Post wanted to talk with Lester Cole. I shook Les awake, and he started to rehearse his acceptance speech for a Pulitzer prize.
"Hello," greeted the cheerful voice long distance. "We want to know what you've been doing for the past ten years since the House Un-American Activities investigations forced you underground..."
"No, no," Les cried in frustration. "That's the other guy!"
"But aren't you a writer?"
"And aren't you Lester Cole?"
"Yes. But you're thinking of the other Lester Cole. I write science fiction."
We finally got back to bed. Les eventually convinced Alvarez that there was another Lester Cole -- one of the Hollywood Ten -- but I lay awake longer, unconvinced. I know how many other Les-es I've been living with all these years!
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Half a century has passed, and I'm still finding new Les-es: he's a 15-year-old twin brother, a novelist, a grandfather, and a sex object. I'm still not sure if he's science fact or fiction...
Title illustration by Alan Hutchinson