Bucconeer was the 1998 Worldcon, but there are other types of world conventions
besides the science fiction one. The mystery genre, for instance, has its own
worldcon -- Bouchercon, which was actually started by science fiction fans out in
Los Angeles. This brings us to our next article, about a science fiction worldcon
and the mystery surrounding its Mystery Guest. It's time to introduce detective
Howard DeVore with his report on solving this mystery...
When Sam Moskowitz died last year, it triggered memories of the 1955 Worldcon, in Cleveland. That was a very interesting worldcon; it was the only time Isaac Asimov was a worldcon Guest of Honor, and it was only the second time the Hugo Awards were presented. Sam Moskowitz played an important role at that convention. In many of the obituaries written about Sam, it was mentioned that he was that convention's 'Mystery Guest'. It's true, he was. But it's more complicated than that, so I'm going to tell it my way. You see, Sam wasn't the committee's first choice.
The Clevention committee won their bid at the SF Con, the 1954 Worldcon, and almost immediately began thinking of gimmicks to stir up attention (and generate some memberships and money for the convention). Perhaps they should honor one of fandom's best people -- a special person, someone long involved in fandom and universally respected. To add to the suspense, they could also hold a contest -- print a silhouette in the progress reports and let the membership guess who it was.
So the committee announced that they would honor one of fandom's pioneers, but to add some intrigue, the selection would remain a mystery, even to the person selected, until the convention began. At the banquet the first night of the convention they would announce who he was and the fact that they were picking up the cost of his room -- and only the room, mind you, not meals nor travel expenses. It actually wouldn't cost them anything at all, as the hotel was supplying the free room.
Nowadays things are different, but back then, Labor Day was traditionally a lousy week for the hotel business. Especially for the Manger Hotel in Cleveland, the site of the convention. If the committee could fill a couple hundred hotel rooms, there would be no charge for the Manger's convention facilities, and the hotel would even provide free-of-charge a suite and a few sleeping rooms that the committee could use for themselves. The committee chairs (Nick and Noreen Falasca) would take the suite and Guest of Honor Isaac Asimov would get a free room, with yet another free room they could assign to their special guest.
It all made financial sense. In those days there were no buckets of money to spread around and Brinks did not send around a truck to carry away a worldcon's daily receipts. During most of the 1950s, a complete worldcon membership cost one dollar, attending or non-attending. (In 1959, Detroit raised the membership fee to two dollars and was criticized for doing so.) Total income was primarily $500 for memberships plus the receipts from auctions of artwork donated by science fiction magazines. You might buy an original cover painting by Finlay or Frank R. Paul for $10 or $15. Black and white interiors by Emsh or Freas might wind up stacked on a table -- your choice for 50 cents. I have a number of them in my own collection, each purchased for less than a dollar.
And so the committee's selection for 'Mystery Guest' was Robert Bloch. Bloch had already sent in his dollar and announced that he would be there; he'd been contributing to fanzines since 1933, frequently appeared at Midwestcon and was universally liked. There could be no finer choice. They prepared a silhouette of his head and started using it, but if you looked closely it might resemble Robert Bloch, but it might also resemble a hundred other fans.
There was apparently one other decision the committee made concerning Bloch -- they wanted him to be their Toastmaster, and this they did communicate to him. In his autobiography, Once Around the Bloch, Bloch stated that he was asked to be Toastmaster at the 1955 Worldcon but had to turn it down because he was broke and couldn't afford to go. Earlier, I mentioned that the convention's Guest of Honor was provided a free room. But not the Toastmaster. Back then, being Toastmaster would have been an expensive operation. There was the bus fare from Milwaukee (probably about $15). A nice room could cost you another seven or eight dollars a day. Bloch informed the committee that he could not be present.
They'd lost their Mystery Guest!
The only way to get him back was to offer to pay his expenses. But that was unplanned, and would have upset their budget. Ben Jason was the convention's treasurer and I can well imagine the fight he would have put up against unnecessarily spending money. So the decision was made, and Bloch was out.
But now there was a problem -- they had this contest but they no longer had a Mystery Guest. They had to find a new one, and quick! It had to be someone important, but beyond that it didn't really matter -- no one knew, and when it came down to it, one Mystery Guest was as good as another. It wasn't until they took a closer look at the silhouette they'd been using that someone remarked that it looked a lot like Sam Moskowitz, and hey! SaM was a big name fan, wasn't he? And so that was how Sam Moskowitz became the Mystery Guest at the 1955 Worldcon.
But there's more...
Ben Jason confesses that his memory sometimes fails but he does remember that Dave Kyle and Moskowitz were sitting at a table during the banquet when the buildup for the announcement started. Various events were related about the Mystery Guest's fannish past, things that seemed to describe Dave Kyle -- so much so that Sam became convinced that Dave was the one. He turned to Dave saying, "Dave, you're the Mystery Guest! You'll have to give a speech!" And at that moment the speaker announced that Sam was the Mystery Guest.
Ironically, it turned out that Bloch did in fact attend Clevention. In his autobiography, Bloch mentioned that when the editor of F&SF, Tony Boucher, learned that Bloch would not be going to Cleveland, he phoned him and offered to buy a story sight unseen if Bob could do it instantly, which would provide the money for Bloch to go. Bloch wrote "All On a Golden Afternoon," perhaps appropriately, in just one afternoon; he sent the story to Boucher, and received the money in time to attend the convention. The story ran to about 11,000 words, and at 3¢ per word, that would have provided him $330 -- I guess he lived high on the hog that week!
I have no reason to believe that Sam or Bloch ever knew of the switch and I'm maybe the last person who knows the facts. How do I know? In the 1950s, Detroit and Cleveland fandoms were close, and I was told all of this by someone on the Cleveland committee (but I'm not sure exactly who). It was all a long time ago. When I considered writing this account, I was somewhat reluctant, since both Sam and Bob were friends of mine and I would not dishonor them for any reason. But I can't see how it matters any longer.
Much of this narrative is based on my memory, but I also checked some sources. Roger Sims, one of Detroit's most active fans of that era, vaguely remembered some of these events, but wasn't really sure. Ben Jason said he knew nothing of it and didn't even think it ever happened, but admitted that he had relatively few memories of that convention. And when I called Noreen Falasca Shaw, the co-chair of the convention, she also was not sure that it happened that way. At that point there was no one else to turn to, so I was going to drop the whole thing. But three days later, Ben Jason called me back and said that after he had thought about it, I was probably right. He did now definitely remember that Bloch was to be the convention's Toastmaster, but there was a problem with money so they picked another toastmaster, and then Bloch showed up after all.
Sam would go on writing for another forty years, publishing many books and articles, and by the time of his death in 1997 he was known as a major researcher of science fiction. Before the decade of the 1950s was over, Bloch would be working in the 'flicker factories' of Hollywood, and he would soon earn the money and fame that had eluded him earlier.
I don't suppose it mattered who was the 'Mystery Guest' but our history is so easily lost that I thought I ought to contribute my knowledge of the event.
Title illustration by Kip Williams