Another prominent New York City fan of the 1960s was Fred Lerner, who was largely
responsible for the birth of academic-related interest in science fiction that
eventually led to the establishment of the Science Fiction Research Association in
the early 1970s. However, during the early and middle 1960s, he was active in many
of the myriad New York science fiction fan clubs of that time. Here is his
remembrance of that era, and some of those organizations.
"Stranger in a Strange Land is garbage!"
The Columbia College dormitories were quiet at the end of December 1962, and the desk clerk in Livingston Hall didn't have much to do. So he had plenty of time to talk about science fiction with an otherwise unoccupied freshman. I had been praising a recent Heinlein novel when our conversation was interrupted by an unsolicited comment from a passer-by.
I turned to confront the interloper, but soon found myself listening more than talking. Carl Frederick's opinions of Heinlein may have been misguided, but he knew something that I didn't, something that I very much wanted to know. He was active in Fandom, and I wanted to be.
I knew that Fandom existed. I'd read Sprague de Camp's Science-Fiction Handbook, and I'd purchased a copy of Robert Bloch's The Eighth Stage of Fandom during a visit to Stephen's Book Service, the shabby storefront a few blocks off Book Row that was the first science fiction bookstore in the world. I had heard some of the speeches from a World Science Fiction Convention on New York's eclectic radio station, WBAI-FM. I knew that there was a subculture of people with a serious interest in science fiction, and I wanted to be a part of it. But I didn't know where to begin.
Well, it was steam engine time. Had I not met Carl, I surely would have learned about local fan clubs and conventions if I continued to visit Stephen's. A chap I knew in high school had a friend who was active in Fandom, and no doubt our paths would eventually have crossed. My primary extracurricular activity was WKCR-FM, the campus radio station, where I was general dogsbody on a book program called "The Printed Word." I was allowed to do an interview of my own, and surely my chosen guest, John Campbell, would have put me in touch with one of the local clubs.
As it happened, Carl steered me to the Evening Session Science Fiction Society at nearby City College, and I soon got into the habit of spending my Friday evenings at its raucous meetings and the convivial post-meeting gatherings in the HiLite Bar a few blocks away on Broadway. Many of the folks I met at my first meetings are still active in Fandom: Elliot Shorter, Jake Waldman, John Boardman, Ed Meskys, Bruce Newrock, and Stu Brownstein. Locus wasn't even a gleam in the eye of Charlie Brown, whose interests were concentrated on his forthcoming marriage to Marsha Elkin. Some of the other folk I remember from those days don't seem to have remained in Fandom: Judi Sephton, Barry Greene, and Joan Neufeld (later Serrano) were among the most active members in those days.
The club's cumbersome name was routinely abbreviated to 'Sci-Fi', evidence perhaps of its less-than-sercon attitude toward science fiction. Like other college-based SF clubs of the time, its business meetings were considerably more drawn out than necessary, prolonged by punning, mock parliamentary procedure, and other manifestations of young fans revelling in their eccentricity. It could get tiresome: I remember the disgust which a typical meeting engendered in an SF-loving friend whom I had brought along. But there was more to the club than fooling around.
The subsidy that Sci-Fi received from the CCNY student government was generous enough to allow inviting the occasional guest speaker. This was more often than not Randall Garrett under one of his many pseudonyms; after his talk he would translate the five dollars allotted to buy him dinner into a few pitchers of beer at the HiLite. I don't remember anything of the talks he gave at Sci-Fi meetings, but I have never forgotten something he told me as we were walking together to the 137th Street subway station late one Friday night: "Anybody can write a story when he's got a story to tell. The true professional is the man who can write a saleable story when he hasn't got a story to tell."
Sometimes the program was a film, usually a Republic serial with a title something like "Flying Disk Men from Mars." We would watch all twelve episodes in one evening, with the bridge fanatics among us scrambling between reels to a makeshift card table to get in a hand or two while the projectionist was getting the next part ready. And toward the end of the school year we would argue passionately how to cast the club's corporate vote for the Hugo awards.
Few of Sci-Fi's members were actually enrolled at the School of General Studies of the College of the City of New York, but there were enough genuine Evening Session students to hold the required offices. This guaranteed meeting space and speaker fees. Otherwise the club had little contact with the college, and less interest in the internal politics of its student government. Our interest was in science fiction, in Fandom, and in each other. Some of the people I met at my first meeting are among my closest friends in Fandom to this day.
It was through Carl Frederick, John Boardman, Jake Waldman, and Elliot Shorter that I was introduced to the rest of the New York fan scene. The Eastern Science Fiction Association met monthly in Newark. Led by the likes of Sam Moskowitz, Lester Mayer, and Julius Postal, it was a sercon group. On the first Sunday afternoon of each month we'd gather in a basement meeting room of the Newark YMCA to hear a guest speaker, usually a prominent writer or editor. Afterwards most of us would walk a couple of blocks down Broad Street to Child's Restaurant to join our guest at dinner.
Julie Postal served as Director of the ESFA during much of the early 1960s, but that wasn't the only group he was involved with. He was the leader of a group of cinema buffs that called themselves the Informal Film Society, many of whose members and hangers-on were fans. They met in a shabby office building somewhere south of midtown to look at films: all kinds of films, whatever a member or friend might happen to bring in. At one session we viewed American propaganda films from World War II; at another we saw surreptitious footage of Haitian voudoun rites, smuggled past a disapproving U.S. Customs.
There was no single group that brought all of New York Fandom together, though one club had a name that suggested otherwise. Nobody ever called the New York Science Fiction Society by its official title; it was always the Lunarians. Once a month, on a Saturday night, we gathered at Frank Dietz's apartment in the Bronx. The club's ostensive purpose for existence was to put on the annual LunaCon, and in fact any LunaCon member was thereby deemed a sort of associate member of the Lunarians. But active membership was conferred upon those applicants who had passed the Membership Committee's muster and voted in at a club meeting. This furnished plenty of opportunity for contention at the business meeting with which each monthly gathering began, as did the year-long discussions over how the LunaCon was to be run and who was to run it.
Occasionally the business meeting considered other topics. I remember a weighty discussion as to why Sam Moskowitz failed to appear in costume at the club's Christmas party. There was some question as to whether he had been meant to wear a Santa Claus outfit or his birthday suit, and somehow I was appointed to head a committee to establish the facts of the case. My motion to table my report to the 227th meeting was passed, establishing by this precedent a convenient repository for unwanted business. (A few years back, the 227th meeting finally arrived. Brian Burley and some other Lunarians tried to get me to attend and help clear up all the old business that I had gotten the club to postpone until then. But by then the idea of leaving Vermont to spend an evening arguing about such matters with a roomful of Lunarians had lost much of its erstwhile appeal. I never did find out the outcome of that meeting.)
The Fanoclasts were the other prominent fan group in New York. A tight-knit group whose meetings were hosted by Ted White, it was strictly invitational. Its membership overlapped little with other New York clubs: John Boardman was about the only person active across the fannish spectrum. This aloofness was less a matter of personal dislike than of lack of shared interests. The ESFA was about as sercon as a club could get. The Lunarians were -- if the term can credibly be applied to a fan group of the early 1960s -- bourgeois; despite the foolishness of their business meetings, the real purpose of the club was the informal conversation that followed the ritual "adjournment for coffee and cake." The Fanoclasts were the legendary hotbed of fannish Fandom in New York; they were highly conscious of the legends that surrounded their alternate-Friday-night meetings, and worked assiduously at sustaining and increasing them.
What little I knew of the Fanoclasts I knew at second hand, as I was not invited to membership for several years. Most of the members didn't know me, and my active participation in the ESFA and the Lunarians doubtless cast me as too sercon for the group. By the time I began attending Fanoclast meetings I had come to know several members through the Fannish Insurgent Scientifictional Association, an open club founded by Mike McInerney and Earl Evers to meet on the Fridays when there were no Fanoclast meetings.
FISTFA welcomed anyone who cared to attend, and attracted a very mixed crowd. In addition to hardcore fans of many persuasions, and whatever out-of-towners might be in New York for the weekend, there were occasional visitors whose interests barely overlapped those of the regulars. When Dick Plotz placed an ad announcing the formation of the Tolkien Society of America, Mike McInerney invited him to a FISTFA meeting. He only turned up once or twice; I imagine that the shabby apartments in old-law tenements -- bathtub in the kitchen, common toilets down the hall -- where the club met weren't too inviting. But the scruffiness of the surroundings didn't deter Harold Palmer Piser. An elderly gentleman whose passion was bibliography, he had undertaken to compile an index to fanzines. He had no discernable interest in science fiction or Fandom; but the fanzine literature was virgin territory, save for the Swisher-Pavlat fanzine index from the 1950s that he set about to update. His interests sometimes diverged from the strictly bibliographical; he was an occasional participant in the poker games that usually took place in one corner of Mike's living room. (Piser never completed his bibliography, and upon his death his notes were destroyed; we were told that this had been done at his explicit request.)
It was at FISTFA meetings that APA-F was begun, the first of the weekly apas. It was soon imitated by fans in Los Angeles; soon both APA-F and APA-L had transcontinental memberships. The rapid feedback afforded by weekly apas lured into fanzine writing many New York fans whose activity had until then been limited to clubs and conventions. The idea spread to other regions, and took various permutations. Perhaps its most lasting fruit was MinneApa, a tri-weekly local apa in the Twin Cities in which an entire generation of aspiring professionals began their literary apprenticeships. In June 1966, I graduated from Columbia, and in September of that year enlisted in the U.S. Army. For a couple of years my links with New York Fandom were limited, and when I returned to Columbia to attend library school in July 1968 it was to an entirely different fan scene.
But that's another story...
All illustrations by Charlie Williams