Nycon in 1939, the first world science fiction convention, began the new era. Reports, speculations, controversies, nostalgia have revolved around it for sixty years. Back in 1989, Greg Thokar, the Hugo-nominated editor for the Noreascon Three Program Book, took on a wonderful fan history project to commemorate a half century of world science fiction conventions. A section of that book consisted of reminiscences about all the worldcons to date, each as experienced by one of its attendees. The lone exception was for the inaugural Nycon, where there were ten different contributors: Forrest J Ackerman (who originated the name 'Nycon' for the convention), Milton A. Rothman, Julius Schwartz, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Robert A. Madle, Harry Harrison, John Baltadonis, Charles D. Hornig, Sam Moskowitz, and myself.
From the many thousands of words, a fascinating picture emerges of the events of that very first worldcon. Additional material about the first Nycon can be found in a wealth of other sources. Fred Pohl's memoir, The Way the Future Was, for instance, explains the personal background which brought about Nycon's reputation for antagonistic behavior. Sam Moskowitz, in his The Immortal Storm, has voluminous comments and historical references about the event, while Damon Knight provides a fascinating down-and-dirty behind the scenes examination of the Nycon in The Futurians.
So, given all of this, I see a difficulty -- what am I to do for this Mimosa article not to be merely repetitious, going over again what has already been said? What follows is my attempt to resolve the predicament. It is Nycon from a personal viewpoint.
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July 1, 1939 -- The cardboard box on my lap contained 200 yellow pamphlets. On the cover of each was the bold black line: A WARNING! To me, they were 200 firecrackers whose noise could reverberate forever in the chronicles of fandom. Each pamphlet was an eight page booklet formed from a single 9x12 pulp sheet, rather more brightly orange than yellow. Above the arresting warning was the printed instruction: "Important! Read This Immediately!"
The box rested on my lap as I rode The Short Line bus out of the mountains. It was Friday afternoon and I was making the hundred mile trip from Monticello, New York, to Gotham for the holiday weekend. The destination was my mecca, Caravan Hall, in Baghdad on the Hudson -- the ultimate goal at last, the World's Science Fiction Convention.
My secret "subversive" action was to have a permanent effect on the lives of six famous fans: Frederik Pohl, Donald A. Wollheim, Cyril Kornbluth, John B. Michel, Robert A.W. Lowndes, and Jack Gillespie -- Futurians all. Through the confusion, other Futurians, me included, escaped such ignominious fate, among them Isaac Asimov, Richard Wilson, and Dirk Wylie.
In June 1939, I was back from my Freshman year in college and working at my family's local weekly newspaper and job shop. Far away downstate, the newly-formed Futurians fan group was my news source about the gathering to coincide with the New York World's Fair. Three outsiders had taken over as leaders, the 'Triumphant Trio' -- a new counter force called New Fandom formed by the teaming up of the dynamic young Sam Moskowitz, fanzine publisher James V. Taurasi, and the older, former ISA fan club leader William S. Sykora whose unrecognized paranoia was at the root of so much trouble.
Obviously, my fannish friends weren't in charge. Nor was I playing any role, having been away from the scene, inactive for nearly a year. Ironically, the person who had originated the worldcon idea and who was initially its organizer and leader, Don Wollheim, was out in the cold. With his power lost by mistakes, inattention and abrasiveness, he had surrendered the struggle and had become an unofficial, non-welcomed participant. Ignored and now a mere observer, he led the dispirited Futurians.
So what role could I play?
I was concerned about the trend by usurpers to dominate clubs and conventions, so I decided I could use the print shop to manufacture some kind of follow-up about my long and intense interests in creating conventions. I planned a handbill for distribution to con-goers. A mimeographed or hectographed product, too commonplace, would be easy to ignore. Photocopying was not yet available, but a printed handbill, by my own labor, was within my means.
As I fumbled at type-setting on the Innertype (Linotype) machine in the shop basement, Tony Palumbo, the regular operator, took interest in my project, luckily for me. He was a dedicated union man and was delighted to help confront the authoritarianism I depicted. He set the type while I laid out the lead slugs, locked up the chases, and, by work-and-turn, hand-fed the small Chandler press. By Friday night, with my undisclosed propaganda, I was in the home of my friend Dick Wilson in Richmond Hill in the borough of Queens. I may have confided in him about my plan for distribution -- I certainly didn't tell any other Futurian. The glory or the blame would be, in due time, all mine.
By early Saturday morning, box in hand, I had arrived at Caravan Hall in mid-town Manhattan, on East 59th Street. Avoiding the elevator, I climbed the three flights of stairs and hid my secret papers behind the cold, old-fashioned heating radiator.
I went back downstairs and joined Dick Wilson outside on the sidewalk. It was a beautifully clear and sunny day, and the pavement had not yet grown hot in the morning sunshine. Almost everyone around wore white shirts with ties; some had fedora hats. For all our liberal ideas, we the young were extremely conservative and conformist in our clothing. Don Wollheim's 'uniform' was a dark suit with dark hat and, in inclement weather, an ubiquitous umbrella. Unfailingly, we very much conformed to the culture of the day in the height of the Great Depression.
Of the few fans milling around, some I knew personally and some I knew by reputation. I was awe-struck to see so many celebrities. There were several strata represented. At the bottom were the young fans, like me and Dick, known in fandom by the printed word. Just above our level were the Big Name Fans, and then the BNFs who were turning into pros. Finally, there were the pros themselves.
One of the BNFs present was actually THE Big Name Fan. Forrest J Ackerman, unmistakable, what with '4SJ' emblazoned on his shirt-front, was there all the way from California, wearing his eye-catching street costume with green cape and baggy breeches derived from magazine illustrations drawn by artist Frank R. Paul. He was to me, even then, Mr. Science Fiction Fan, the guy who brought me into active fandom through the letter columns of Wonder Stories. And nearby was his neophyte fellow Californian, Ray Douglas Bradbury, only just starting on his way up the celebrity ladder and bucking the stereotypical dress code by an open shirt collar. (I remember later his colorfully striped T-shirt -- West Coast garb seemed strange in our big city.) On the other side of Forry was the other great BNF of the day, Jack Darrow. What a sight I saw: the two Biggest Name Fans in the world, standing next to each other -- the original young directors of the Science Fiction League!
And over there was Julius Schwartz, one of the very first of our breed, famous for his fanzine editorship, a BNF who was also a professional! Standing next to him was his closest friend, Mort Weisinger, now a genuine professional editor taking up where Hugo Gernsback had left off (and secretly resented by me for debasing Wonder Stories into Thrilling Wonder Stories). Why, they were no more than Don Wollheim's age, still in their twenties! Julius had a face as distinctive as Don's, both with angular features and large noses supporting eyeglasses. Schwartz's speech was forceful and all the time his face was lit up with enthusiasm and good humor. To those around him, he was simply 'Julie', but I dared not break into the conversation. As for Weisinger, to me he was like a smiling Buddha, burly and confident. They were so different from the much younger, esthetic looking Charles D. Hornig, editor of the defunct Wonder Stories who had accepted my very first short story.
The brightest star of all was John W. Campbell, Jr., peering owlishly through his steel-rimmed glasses. Isaac Asimov was present as a lukewarm Futurian and not yet blossomed out into an extrovert with his distinctive flamboyant, loquacious style. Published that spring, he had a head start on Bradbury and was about to become one of Campbell's many famous prodigies. Isaac wore the typical brown, horn-rimmed glasses which made him look older and wiser than his nineteen years.
Quite remarkable to me was seeing so many females -- young and old. The Guest of Honor, artist Frank R. Paul, had brought one of his three lovely daughters, and the legendary Ray Cummings, so distinctive with his magnificent, thick crown of pure white hair, had brought his 12-year-old daughter. The traveling companion of Forry Ackerman, Morojo (the Esperanto acronym for Myrtle R. Douglas), was present in costume, though hers was rather more subdued than his. Doris Baumgardt, a.k.a. Leslie Perri, darkly stunning, would be the future Mrs. Fred Pohl. Author Malcolm Jameson's daughter, Vida, in later years would be a frequent visitor to the Hydra Club. Robert D. Swisher and John W. Campbell, Jr., had their wives, Frances and Dona, with them. And then there was the attractive Connecticut fan, Trudy Kuslan, whom I tried to impress by surreptitiously slipping her a copy of my yellow pamphlet with a casual comment, "You're the first to know," or some similarly stupid remark. It was a big mistake.
The confrontation began around noon.
Five of the six doomed Futurians stepped out of the elevator and were immediately confronted by Jimmy Taurasi who barred their way into the hall. They had not known then that the three leaders of Nycon had discussed barring them from the convention. Naturally, an argument ensued. Stocky Taurasi was ready for physical battle against those Futurians who were strong of mind but not of body. Even so, Jimmy called for police help and waited for his two comrades. When Sam Moskowitz appeared, the argument continued, but he dismissed the police. Moskowitz had confidence in his muscle, having claimed "my greatest enthusiasm is boxing."
Oh-oh! Just as some good-behavior compromise seemed to be winning the day, the yellow pamphlet appeared, thrust into the hand of Moskowitz by Louis Kuslan. Evidently, Trudy had passed my gift on to her brother. Moskowitz scanned it and was angered. John Michel, the remaining sixth candidate for ostracism, then appeared and became an on-looker as Wollheim denied absolutely any knowledge of the pamphlet or that the Futurians were responsible for its publication or distribution. I had stirred up a hornet's nest. But my tirade, with its purple prose about "ruthless scoundrels," had ended optimistically with peace and harmony by stating: "Who are we that have published this? We are science fiction fans, young men who believe that science fiction is a new type of literature which must not have its future destroyed by any selfish interests. Despite anyone, or anything, the 1939 World's Science Fiction Convention is bound to be a success! And should the Convention Committee decide that democratic methods are best we will be the first to admit that they deserve full credit and praise for this gathering for the three days. May science fiction prosper!" I had attributed the pamphlet to a special 'committee', in effect, anonymously, and was actually rather proud of my contribution toward democracy. I was startled later by Moskowitz's misrepresentation that I branded New Fandom as a puppet in the hands of the professionals. And I had never dreamed that such famous and important fans could ever be banned. So, I just watched the dispute and kept silent.
"Ah, ha!" Poking around the radiator, Moskowitz discovered my cache of yellow booklets. And then, a further, louder, "Ah, ha!" -- he also brought to light a plethora of other 'subversive' material just waiting for the Futurians to place on the table with the approved fanzines and books, most to be auctioned off at the day's close. To Moskowitz, the Nycon was obviously on the verge of disastrous contamination from some serious radical propaganda which spoke of a world in turmoil.
There was to be no propaganda from the Futurians, no speeches, no disruptions of any kind, and a pledge of "orderly" conduct -- these were Moskowitz's conditions for admittance. But this gag order was not acceptable to Wollheim and the other five Futurians, as it had not been imposed on anyone else. When Sykora, the unofficial co-chairman, arrived, he agreed that the official chairman was making the right decision. The banning became official policy. How did other Futurians make it in? Moskowitz has written that they were admitted because they agreed to his required promise to behave, but none of them ever did make any such promise. It was inconceivable that any of them would. I most certainly didn't.
Before the meeting opened on Saturday (with more than 200 people present), frantic efforts were made by some to correct the injustice. While the banned Futurians retired to a nearby cafeteria -- for decades the favorite kind of place for socializing, arguing and conspiring about science fiction -- action swirled around the blissfully unaware Olympian gods who took little notice. Frances Swisher and Morojo appealed to the leaders for reason, to no avail. Milton A. Rothman, the respected East Coast BNF, was the self-appointed liaison/courier running back and forth between the hall and the cafeteria. During intermissions I had no confiscated yellow pamphlets to hand out, but I did pass out a quickly prepared notice of a Futurian meeting, a "Free Convention for all of fandom," to be held someplace at some set time.
All during the meeting there was the undercurrent of repressed feelings, with only brief flashes from some sympathizers. Several attempts were made to make the general audience aware of the drama that was still in progress. The tight control of the leadership prevented airing the issue. Asimov, raised to the level of a pro, was too star-struck to comprehend. Leslie Perri several times did her best to raise the issue, as did others such as me. Not a chance.
According to Moskowitz, "The only potential source of further trouble came while Sykora was introducing the notables present. At that time David Kyle rose and attempted to make a motion that the six barred fans be allowed to enter the hall. Sykora, however, declined to recognize the motion. ... Later, after nearly everyone had left that hall, a telegram signed 'Exiles' arrived for David Kyle, requesting him to announce the 'Futurian Meeting' and offering regards 'to the tyrannous trio'. The committee regarded this as a delayed signal for Kyle to create a disturbance at the gathering." The committee of three had pulled it off for the moment -- the repercussions came whistling in later.
And so the convention went on. For the entire day there was much hubbub which kept me from examining the wealth of items on display around the rooms, though I did get a copy of the Souvenir Book, with its gorgeous (for us) shining, gold cover -- it was a production by Conrad H. Ruppert which Julie Schwartz had made possible by the solicitation of advertisements. There might have been a membership fee, but if so it would have been nominal, such as a dime. The convention had arranged for a refreshment stand, but I didn't even have five cents to squander on something to drink -- any money I had would have gone to one of the auctions.
Lack of funds also kept me out of the banquet on Sunday evening. Much as I revered Frank R. Paul, a man perhaps more venerated than his old boss Hugo Gernsback, I couldn't afford the one dollar ticket. But I wasn't the only one -- there were a total of only thirty-two diners. I think it was a great loss that the country couldn't hear Frank R. Paul's marvelous speech, "Science Fiction, the Spirit of Youth." He was undoubtedly the most popular person in our sf world -- a sweet, warm person with a quiet, gentle manner. He talked of this "meeting" of "rebellious, adventurous young minds" eager to discuss freely subjects unlimited. How ironic!
On Sunday, the attendance was down to less than a half. The reason was not disenchantment; I believe, it was because the day was restricted to science programs, the science fiction phase being concluded. There was great satisfaction when the Futurians met that day and the next, with many interested fans. The cafeteria was their initial assembly place, and Brooklyn was the site of the 'free' convention. I was very pleased by Ackerman's later comments about a critique session held afterwards: "I personally was very impressed by the very fair way in which the Nycon was analyzed. 'If the reason for the convention,' said the speaker, 'was for fans to meet the pros, to exchange autographs, to see movies, etc., then we would have to say that the convention was a success. If this first meeting of readers and authors should have produced some discussions, some resolutions, then we would have to say it was not.' The Futurians, as they were called (or, later, Michelists) were politically oriented fans who felt that science fiction had a mission, was more than just fun and games, should have gone on record on this historic occasion as being opposed to war or in favor of interplanetary exploration or something of a substantial nature."
My evaluation of Nycon, by hindsight after 60 years, is simple: For all of fandom, not just the professional aspect, it was a big success. Sykora, Moskowitz and Taurasi did as good a job as could have been expected -- the Futurians might not have done it as well. But for fledgling New Fandom, ostensibly the world-wide sponsoring organization -- and in particular, for Sykora, Moskowitz and Taurasi -- the result of Nycon controversies and official actions was very close to an absolute disaster.
And I was there, both as spectator and unexpected participant -- I really was there, really there! Wow!
- - - - - - - - - -Some of our readers observed that even though the events at the 1939 Nycon were some of the defining moments of the early era of fandom, a sense of perspective about the unpleasantness that occurred there is helpful. William Bains wrote us that "what comes across is a sense that this was a vindictive, inept squabble between teenagers who ought to have known better even then, and certainly should now." Gary Deindorfer commented that "It is difficult to realize how young these pioneering, legendary fans and pros were. Perhaps that explains in part their contentiousness; they hadn't aged enough to mellow a little. Plus the whole nature of their feeling themselves set apart by their passion for science fiction and fandom, then such a beleaguered thing, ignored or scored by the general public. There were Jiants in those days, even if they were just kids." As for Dave's detailed re-telling of the events, Derek Pickles wrote us that "I am amazed and humbled by, and jealous of Dave Kyle. Why should Dave have a photographic memory for names, places and colours when I can't remember the name of the person I see in the mirror every morning? I went to a reunion of my primary school class of 1939 and knew not a single name of the dozen or so (of 32) who showed up -- everyone knew me, though, and one of the women even kissed my cheek, making me wonder if she was one of the girls I'd gone into the field behind the school to play 'show me yours and I'll show you mine'."
And so it was on to Mimosa 23, which was published in January 1999 and had a 'Bucconeer' theme -- some of the illustrations for the issue featured pirates, crabs, and even a pirate crab. Contents of the issue included another installment of Mike Resnick's "Worldcon Memories," Howard DeVore's recollection of the 1955 Worldcon and it's Mystery Guest, Dave Kyle's appreciation of the living legend that is Forrest J Ackerman, Jeanne Mealy's look at the similarities between the Minnesota State Fair and science fiction fandom, Cato Lindberg's remembrance of "When Fandom Came to Norway," Forry Ackerman's remembrance of the early days of Los Angeles fandom, and Ron Bennett's remembrance of a British convention that became memorable because of its hotel. Mimosa won its fifth Hugo Award at Bucconeer, and the Award was presented to us by the convention's Fan Guest, Milton Rothman, who was one of the founders of Philadelphia fandom many decades ago. One of the other Philly fans active back then was John Baltadonis, who passed away about a month before Bucconeer. Bob Madle, who was John's boyhood friend, wrote a remembrance of him that we published in M23. Here it is again:
Bottom illustration by Sheryl Birkhead
All other illustrations by Charlie Williams