Another fan who has been around nearly as long as fandom itself is Dave Kyle, who
has taken part in fan activities in seven different decades. That, combined with
Dave's interest in fan history, might qualify him for the title of
'Fan-Archeologist-in-Chief. This next installment of Dave's look back at the early
days of fandom takes a look at the very earlžest science fiction conventions, and
some of the events surrounding them that shaped the later course of
An appalling thunderbolt slammed my personal fannish world in April 1936, barely three years after I had discovered it. Hugo Gernsback had disappeared. Wonder Stories had disappeared. My first short story, advertised for its next issue, had disappeared into what-might-have-been.
However, another three fresh years, from 1936 into 1939, lay ahead, to end my teens. In the late summer of '36, out of Monticello High School, finances had changed my plans from attending Dartmouth College to an art school in New York City instead. This brought me directly into the world center of science fiction fandom.
The Art Career School was in the penthouse of the Flatiron Building facing Madison Square. My base was the McBurney YMCA on 34th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, two long crosstown blocks away. Across the street from the Y was an old and faded hotel, The Chelsea, which became in later years the permanent way-station for Arthur C. Clarke whenever he was in the United States.
I made only one very close friend at the school, John R. Forte, jr. Like me, he was crazy over Alex Raymond's marvelous drawings of Flash Gordon and later, through my efforts after the War, became a science fiction illustrator. My real circle of friends, however, became the fannish crowd in the greater New York urban area, the future Futurians: Pohl, Wollheim, Wilson, Wylie, Michel -- even the strange sort-of genius, William S. Sykora. Dick Wilson was my first contact and remained my closest friend for the rest of his life. Within months, I met out-of-towner "Doc" Lowndes and introduced a very young James V. Taurasi to my new world, which marked the beginning of his meteoric rise in regional fannish affairs.
I immediately became a regular part of the International Scientific Association -- the legendary ISA, styled as an 'experimental science' club, a remake of the International Cosmos Science Club. We met at least monthly, in Sykora's basement, in the Borough of Queens. The ISA was my postgraduate class in sf society and fannish ways. The members were extremely young men, exceedingly bright and precocious, many with Marxist thoughts and in youthful Communist activities, but they didn't try to indoctrinate me. Fans were universally tolerant, idealistic liberals -- and often rather naive. The fact that Don Wollheim, as radical as his comrade John Michel, wore a Kansas sunflower pin in support of the Republican candidate for President of the United States, was, to me an up-state boy, pleasantly reassuring.
By the end of my first month as a Manhattanite, I had rapidly evolved from a typewriter, fanzine fan into a socializing, intimate, shaker-and-doer. I was to help make history on Sunday, October 22, 1936, by my attendance at the very first science fiction convention. That event, which came to be called 'The First Eastern Science Fiction Convention', came about when five sf fans from New York traveled by train to Philadelphia to meet a handful of Philly Phans. The idea probably was generated by the two leaders of the ISA, Wollheim and Sykora. The other three New York fans who took that short train ride were Frederik Pohl, John B. Michel, and me. Meeting us at the Broad Street Station in Philadelphia were Milton A. Rothman, Oswald Train, Robert A. Madle, and the guy who took our picture for immortality, John V. Baltadonis.
We met in Baltadonis's father's empty barroom. We had a 'business' session, and to the best of my memory, it was I who proposed that we call ourselves a 'convention', just because the previous months had been awash with the national conventions of the Democratic and Republican political parties. Why couldn't we be a convention, too, even if we had no serious agenda? Didn't we represent a flourishing fandom? Fred Pohl took 'official' meeting minutes for posterity, but their whereabouts are now unknown -- neither he nor I remember precisely what we discussed, only that we all should meet again soon, this time in the New York area.
Most vivid in my memory was the Philly skyline when we left for home that evening. Dominating the center of the city, high on a skyscraper, were four gigantic red neon letters -- PSFS. They actually stood for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (or some such), and I remember joking about the extravagant publicity the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society had created to impress the ISA.
That 1936 social 'convention' had a very important result. The ISA began preparations, under the vigorous leadership of Sykora and Michel, to have a return engagement in New York City in February of 1937. Wollheim and Pohl went about creating a 'special convention issue' of the club publication which appeared that January. That issue of The International Observer was truly remarkable -- a thick, large-size mimeographed fanzine with a fancy silk-screened cover that sold for ten cents! The contributors were almost a roll of honor: A. Merritt, Doc Smith, Edmond Hamilton, H. P. Lovecraft, Jack Williamson, Ray Palmer, and many others, both pro and fan. I don't remember my contribution and the copy I once had is now long gone.
The February 1937 gathering in Bohemian Hall at Astoria, Long Island was, for the times, an enormous success, bringing together so many professionals and fans. The ISA activists arrived early -- myself, Sykora, Wollheim, Michel, Pohl, together with Wilson, Dirk Wylie, Lowndes, and Jack Robbins Rubinstein. Also attending were George R. Hahn and Herbert E. Goudket, who was the most senior and serious of us all. Goudket, as I remember, had been chosen to act as chairman. At that convention I met for the first time newer fans such as James Blish, William Miller, and Willis Conover, and others like Julius Schwartz, Mort Weisinger, Charles D. Hornig, and Conrad H. Ruppert, who had been active since the dawn of fandom. Fans also came in from Philadelphia, of course, and in all, there were maybe thirty or even forty people present.
Unfortunately, no comprehensive written coverage of this truly remarkable event ever appeared, and only a few fanzines eventually carried some brief news notes. The most important result was the focus on the upcoming New York World's Fair in 1939 as being propitious for another big convention. Don Wollheim became the head of an exploratory committee, with Sykora, Bob Madle, and John J. Weir, who was noted for his literate fanzine Fantasmagoria. That February 1937 convention became known as the 'Second Eastern' and led, quite naturally, to the 'Third Eastern' in Philadelphia in the fall of 1937.
Through the second half of 1937 and the first half of 1938, I was hard at work at my family's print shop and its weekly newspapers. I was saving up again for college. I knew most of what was happening in metropolitan New York fandom, but I wasn't on the scene, being more of a long distance observer. During that time, I was making regular pilgrimages back to the world of the Futurians, a two hundred mile round trip. Nevertheless, I was there on October 30, 1937, when the 'Third Eastern' returned to Philadelphia. The New York metropolitan group who went was much larger than the previous year's excursion. Besides the original five, there were Wilson, Schwartz, Taurasi, and Goudket, as well as Sam Moskowitz, Dan Burford, Leon Burg, Robert Thompson, Jack Gillespie, and Mario Racic, jr. I had to make a special trip from Monticello via New York City to be there.
The seeds of 'radicalism' were forcefully sown at that convention with the politicizing of worldly social issues linked to science fiction. Because of John Michel's stammer, his fierce, inflammatory speech, "Mutation or Death," was delivered by Don Wollheim, and extensive discussion developed afterwards among fans nationwide. One published report stated that "Kyle, one of Wollheim's inner circle, harangued at great length against the Michel speech." I was always for Utopian dreams, but I was never sold on 'Michelism'.
Dick Wilson had, toward the end of November 1937, created a weekly fanzine full of fannish news, under the title of The Science Fiction News Letter. In the January 1938 News Letter, Wilson commented on a report of the Third Eastern convention that had been written by Moskowitz, who had now begun to be very active in fandom, and published in the January 14th issue of Olon Wiggins's Science Fiction Fan. Wilson said that Moskowitz's report "was the first unbiased view" of the convention. Moskowitz had written that "the bombshell of the evening was perpetuated by Donald A. Wollheim, who expressed some very good arguments as written by John B. Michel, but degenerated these arguments into a political issue. For over an hour, pros and cons were rung on the subject by D. A. Kyle, J. B. Michel, D. A. Wollheim [and others] who were apparently talking about the possibilities of a world state. Mr. [Lloyd Arthur] Eshbach squelched the discussion very effectively by proposing that a motion be made that the convention be adjourned. He came, he said, to listen to a science fiction discussion and not a pseudo-political argument. The motion was carried and the meeting was called to an end."
A week later, in the Fan, Wollheim implicitly disagreed with his friend Wilson's evaluation by claiming the report was completely inaccurate and proof of the "utter stupidity of a large portion of the so-called fans" and "ignores all the intellectual aspects of the convention for the purely inane and frivolous." Thus began the bitter feud between Wollheim and Moskowitz which would grow at the next convention, in 1938, and climax later at the First World Science Fiction Convention, in 1939.
My participation in the Third Eastern convention, as I hazily recall, was not concerned with the personalities involved, but with examination of the philosophical idealism of science fiction and its optimistic visions of the future and the expression of revulsion over the rise of Fascism. Damon Knight, in his fascinating book The Futurians, explained: "Others in Wollheim's circle were indifferent or hostile to Communism. David A. Kyle, who lived with his family in Monticello, was brought up a Republican, and although he enjoyed playing at being a Bolshevik -- wearing a red hat [beret] and marching in the May Day parade -- he never took it seriously."
Perhaps the Wollheim-Michel extremism was the commencement of Will Sykora's own extremism with Wollheim and his coterie, which would soon fester in the spring of 1938. With the destruction of the ISA by mutual antagonism of its leaders, Wollheim now had an even greater conflict than with Moskowitz brewing -- he and Sykora were hardening into mortal enemies. For these reasons, the continuity of the Eastern Conventions became, by default, the project of Sykora, with Moskowitz's help. The radicalism and personal animosities that surfaced at the Third Eastern were the sour fruit which would inevitably ripen at the Fourth Eastern.
And so it came to pass that on Sunday, May 29, 1938, the First National Science Fiction Convention, ostensibly the Fourth Eastern, was held at the Slovak Sokol Hall in Newark, New Jersey. This was Moskowitz's territory -- the convention site was the same place where he would rule the roost with the Eastern Science Fiction Association for years afterward. Sykora had planned well, and the event was widely advertised. Fanzine editors had been enlisted in the cause, and special issues proliferated at the convention. Speeches had to be submitted for approval in advance, which eliminated Wollheim and Michel from the program -- instead, they each had printed booklets of their controversial messages for distribution. The attendance was the largest yet, well over one hundred. Astounding's new editor, John W. Campbell, jr. himself, showed up, plus many popular professionals, including Standard Publications editorial director, the legendary Leo Margulies.
The program was varied and enjoyable, with Campbell revealing himself to be very interested in fandom. Sykora soon took aim on 1939, and moved for chairman Moskowitz to appoint a temporary or permanent committee to plan a world convention. When questions were raised and debate developed, Herbert Goudket, in the interests of harmony, succeeded in having the motion tabled. After a recess, when most professionals had left, Sykora replaced Moskowitz as chairman and took up the issue of sponsorship. Bearing in mind the pending idea of a world convention planning committee, I moved that an organization be formed for that purpose, and the motion passed unanimously. But then, Sykora entertained a motion that would authorize himself to appoint a temporary committee, which in turn could choose a larger, permanent committee. There was a lot of argument, as this would do away with the original committee from the Second Eastern that was headed by Wollheim, but in the end, the motion passed. Sykora then appointed a five person temporary committee that included himself, along with Moskowitz, Goudket, Chester Fein, and Walter Kubelius.
That was when I caused trouble. I protested that a group wasn't being represented, thinking of the Wollheim-Michel-Pohl faction. Sykora maintained that he recognized no group distinction and should there be any such oversight he could always remedy it in the permanent committee. I do remember that I got quite upset and vocal about this, but discussion ended with a contested adjournment when a majority of the disinterested audience chose to end the bickering. I hurriedly wrote out a petition of protest and solicited signatures. Many signed, some passionately, some indifferently. The convention leaders, however, unfairly charged that I fraudulently obtained signatures by the simple deception of asking for autographs. At any rate, the result was notarized and later passed around to others, but as far as I know it was never published, and the original is now long lost.
From that point, Sykora and Moskowitz moved quickly. Fearful of the Wollheim-Michel clique, the dynamic young Moskowitz convinced Sykora of the need to create a counter force called 'New Fandom'. Moskowitz was deeply involved in the fanzine world, so he built on a moribund fan organization, obtained needed fanzine publicity, and debuted an impressive new fanzine to win the acceptance of the critical professional magazine editors and publishers. By the autumn of 1938, the two were indisputably in control for the big event in the following year.
In this reminiscence, the Mimosa editors insisted I include "some description of these conventions [the First and the Fourth] ... two of the most important fan events of all time." I could write more, but this is enough.
The First National also marked the period when fanzine publishing reached a crescendo of sound and fury. My protégé, Jimmy Taurasi, inspired perhaps by my ambitious Phantasy Legion cooperative publishing ideas, became a whirlwind of action. Except for some encouragement and the use of my mimeograph machine, I had little to do with his Cosmic Tales and a raft of magazines in a year which had an explosion of fanzines. Jimmy was a hard worker of some talent, but he couldn't match up with his exceptional competitors. However, his imperfect weekly, Fantasy News, developed into an important regular publication. Wilson's News Letter was an extremely literate and well-produced product, but Taurasi's News, crude as it was, did actually become a true news source.
When the summer of 1938 ended, I went to college at the University of Alabama. In my first month in the south, the Futurians officially came into existence, back in New York City. Under the dignified name of 'The Futurian Science Literary Society', its first open meeting was held on September 18th. The Futurian Society was not a club like a branch of the old Science Fiction League, the ISA, or the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, but rather a group of like-minded and very independent fans. As an absent compatriot, I automatically became a member. One week later, Taurasi, encouraged by Sykora, created the Queens Science Fiction League chapter. Taurasi's enthusiastic help in promoting New Fandom in his weekly news sheets was very effective and the QSFL chapter rose to great prominence. As a result, Taurasi earned the right to be the third member of the Moskowitz-Sykora-Taurasi 'triumvirate'. Wollheim valiantly fought the opposing tide for control of the upcoming World's Convention, but in the end, eventually ungraciously threw in the towel. He and the rest of the aborning Futurians were out in the cold.
So that was 1938! It was the year the biggest fan feud of all time started. But it was also the year when the Martians invaded the earth...
Great melodramatic moments in history brand themselves on the human mind. That's what happened for twenty-four hours starting on the evening of October 30, 1938, in my second month as a 'Bama freshman. On that night before Halloween, panic swept across America -- well, among enough people, that is, to cause a worldwide stir. Intelligent men, women, and children who were listening to the radio that evening really believed that Martians had invaded earth, and that the east coast of the United States was being destroyed by tentacled metal machines and deadly heat rays.
It was a realistically-presented science fiction story that had caused all the commotion, of course. Two people with sound-alike names were responsible: a precocious Orson Welles had presented H.G. Wells's famous War of the Worlds in a new, modern form. And by nine o'clock that evening Welles had made himself a notorious reputation. I was unaware that it was even being broadcast. One of my college roommates rushed into our room, rather breathless and disturbed, to announce that the earth was being invaded and that I should turn on the radio set and listen. It didn't take long to recognize the story and to note the Mercury Theater disclaimer. I was sorry that I had missed most of it.
Incredibly, the next day was awash with all kinds of repercussions. Some northern students had phoned home in panic. The morning newspapers had sensational headlines and detailed stories. My reaction was that of a smug teenager amused at the outburst of stupidity.
Near the end of 1938, I went home for Christmas vacation at the minimal cost of some gasoline money paid to a Jersey City student car-owner. In the inside pocket of my long overcoat was a pint of White Lightning, an illegal distillation I had purchased in a remote meadow which was its distribution point for University students. It was my holiday present to my close pal, Dirk Wylie, a.k.a. J. Harry Dockweiler, who fancied himself as a younger Ernest Hemingway, complete with trenchcoat, fedora, and manly habits.
I met Dirk in Manhattan on my way home, and we took the Independent subway to his home in Queens Village, Long Island. At the last stop, we went through the wooden exit gates, and somehow the bottle moved from under my armpit, and slid rapidly down inside my long coat. I frantically attempted to halt its race toward destruction. Failure! It smashed on the concrete floor, and from amidst the shards of glass rose an overpowering aroma. We were alone in the bowels of the 169th Street Station, shocked. We clasped each other's shoulders and wept -- he, for his vanished drink and I, for my special present to a friend.
Not too many months later, on St. Valentine's Day of 1939, I marked my second decade of existence. Farewell, teens, farewell! I was an adult -- I was now twenty. Ahead of me was the revolutionizing era of the world conventions...
All illustrations by Joe Mayhew