The Degler Legend
by Dal Coger
In the autumn of 1942, I attended my first science fiction convention, at the Otsego Hotel in Jackson, Michigan. Michicon II had about 30 fans in attendance, and boasted such luminaries as Edward Elmer "Doc" Smith. E. E. Evans, Oliver Saari (an engineer who wrote a few SF stories), and a 16-year-old Frank Robinson. Also in attendance was Claude Degler, an Indiana fan who was soon being referred to in fandom as "Clod."
Claude might have been cast as Ichabod Crane, but only in a silent movie because of his nasal Hoosier accent. He was unkempt in appearance, unwashed, and (as I found later) traveled by hitchhiking. His great dream was to unite all of fandom into a single organization which he had named "The Cosmic Circle." Why this was needed was never clear, since fandom already had, and was supporting the N3F (National Fantasy Fan Federation). In pursuit of his dream Claude traveled across the country, incidentally enjoying the hospitality of fans, all and sundry, and somehow finding the resources to produce fanzines of various titles, but all promoting cosmic consciousness.
Bob Tucker, in Le Zombie (November, 1943) wrote a piece, "Take to the Woods, Men, Degler's Coming!" An excerpt: "Cosmic Circle Claude they calls him -- the wandering willy from some place in Indiana. He's covered most of the 48 states in the last several months, plus parts of Canada and it is rumored Mexico. He has visited (ouch) and sponged upon hundreds of fans from Quebec to Live Oak, from Rockland to Los Angeles. He is busily engaged in organizing an international fan club: The Cosmic Circle. Even if he has to borrow without permission a half dozen well-known fan names to lend prestige to the club."
My second meeting with Claude was at the Los Angeles SF gang's clubhouse on Bixel Street. I was a soldier stationed at Camp Haan, and Forry Ackerman and Morojo had made me welcome. Like all service fans, I was permitted to flop over the weekend in the clubhouse, and frequently spent Saturday nights there while on a weekend pass. Degler arrived in L.A. and stayed for some time, using the clubhouse as headquarters and, I suspect, running off his various publications on the club's mimeo machine.
At some point, Degler was the 'victim' of the great exclusion act. It isn't clear in my memory when this occurred, but it was probably after I saw him in L.A. Earlier, I believe, Claude had shown up at Slan Shack and made a pest of himself. This led Al Ashley to produce an item, The Stefan, a four page mimeo fanzine, "published for FAPA, March 1943." It is a parody of "The Raven" in 18 verses of 11 lines each.
The next time Degler showed up at the Ashley place he was simply told to get lost. He had made of himself, Abby Lou Ashley told me while I was home on leave, an absolute nuisance, consuming vast amounts of food, which was not that easy to procure since there was food rationing. I suspect Claude simply tanked up where there was a chance. He was as thin as a rail. Degler did not take his 'exclusion' kindly, likening it to the great exclusion act at WorldCon 1939 in New York when Moskowitz and company excluded Wollheim and the Futurians. Some fans supported him. Most who had encountered him did not.
In L.A., Claude had taken to referring to himself in some of his writings as "Don Rogers." Mel Brown, a Los Angeleno fan, promptly nicknamed him "Two Buck Rogers." This was a reference to the going price of a hooker, allegedly, and was probably unfair to Claude. I doubt he had time for sex.
Claude's publication for FAPA, The Cosmic Circle Commentator, led to a number of burlesques in one of the FAPA mailings of that winter of 1943-44. (I left California for military reasons in April or May 1944 and essentially left fandom that fall, only returning in the early 1970s.) Claude committed such howlers as describing one fan as "stolid and imaginative," and listing his membership in the Cosmic Circle as "under a thousand."
By March 1944, Claude was back in Indiana (Newcastle, I seem to recall) and a new flood of material was coming out, some of it referring to "Don Rogers." Also at that time there was a number of suspiciously similar publications, but with improved spelling, written by "Frankfort Nelson Stein," commonly Frank N. Stein.
We left fandom about the same time, apparently. Mine was involuntary, because I went overseas in the U.S. Army and didn't return for five years. I have often wondered about Claude/Don/Frankfort since then. Several years ago Bob Tucker swore he saw him outside a convention in Indiana.
The fact is, I sort of liked Claude. He had a dream and sacrificed everything for it. Certainly, he could have bathed more often. And used a change of clothes. His writing was crude, but in that as in much else he might have benefitted by more generous treatment from the fan community. Fans in their adolescence are fre-quently ugly ducklings, introverted, poorly socialized, and lacking in social graces, even though Claude was not an adolescent, being at least in his twenties.
Fandom would be a poorer place without such characters.
- - - - - - - - - -Dal Coger's article about Degler elicited several comments, the most insightful of which was from Mike Glicksohn, who observed that, "If it were only Claude's rather naive ideas about the superiority of fans that had passed into fanhistory, I doubt he'd be the legendary fan he is today. But when his oddball ideas were coupled with his less-than-savory personal habits, the result was a figure of mythic proportions." Indeed.
It took about eight months before the next issue of Mimosa appeared, partly because it took us quite a while to recover from the move north. (We were in a hotel for two-and-a-half months!) Mimosa 6 was meant to be a "Welcome to Maryland" issue -- among the contributions were an article from Dave Kyle, the Fan Guest of Honor at the 1983 Baltimore Worldcon, which was the first article in his long-running series of remembrances about past fan eras, and also an article from Croatian fan Bruno Ogorelec, which we received a few days before we left Tennessee (a kind of going-away present?).
What really made M6 a "Welcome to Maryland" issue, though, was an article by Harry Warner, Jr. After we moved to Maryland we were so excited about the prospect of finally meeting Harry that one of our first out-of-town trips while we were getting settled in was a visit to 423 Summit Avenue in Hagerstown, which is in a nice residential neighborhood. His article for Mimosa 6 was about another house in that neighborhood:
illustration by Dave Rowe