Remembering Harlan Ellison and His Place in My Life

By Ted White

HARLAN ELLISON (left) presenting Ted White with a Hugo award at the 1968 World Science Fiction Convention in Oakland, California. (Photo: Courtesy William Rotsler)

Harlan Ellison is dead at 84.

That’s a bit hard for me to grasp. Harlan was a force of nature throughout most of my life.

I met Harlan when he was 21. I was 17. We were in Cleveland for the 1955 World Science Fiction Convention. We’d been corresponding for two years, but this was our first face to face meeting.

Harlan was trying to sell someone a subscription to his fanzine, Dimensions. “Hey, Ted!” he called me over. “Tell her what a great fanzine Dimensions is!” I did, because it was, its pages packed with contributions from some of the top professional science fiction writers and many of the top fan writers. What I didn’t say — because I didn’t know it then — was that Dimensions had already seen its last issue.

The talk of that convention was an issue of Lowdown magazine — a sleazy competitor to the popular Confidential, an equally sleazy tell-all magazine of that era — which Harlan was brandishing. Lowdown had a cover story about a juvenile delinquent, a Brooklyn gang member, named Cheech Beldone. Harlan had written it — “but they rewrote it into a first-person story by Beldone!” — and it was his first professional sale. He was alternatingly proud and anguished, proud of his sale, and anguished at what he said the editors had done to it. Throughout the convention the story became the butt of many jokes. Harlan was not universally liked then.

Harlan Ellison was a small man, who was only five feet, two inches tall. Some have speculated that this gave him “a Napoleon complex.” He was a dynamo of energy, a fast-talker, and annoying to some. He had been a controversial figure in science fiction fandom, then a small community of only a few hundred people. He stood out, unique among his peers. I was glad to be his friend. We shared a suite in the convention hotel with three or four other fans, and at one point Harlan noticed the typewriter I’d brought to the convention. It was an ultra-thin portable, about the size of a thick phone book.

“I must have that typewriter, Ted,” he told me. “I need it.” He demanded I sell it to him. I had no intention of selling it, but Harlan was a terrific salesman and over the course of the convention, he wore me down, and I sold him the typewriter. He gave me ten or twenty dollars down on it and promised me the remainder — several hundred dollars — later.

As I subsequently heard from Harlan, he used the typewriter to write a story on his return flight to New York City, and then a week or two later loaned it to a New York fan named Ken. Ken, an unemployed movie buff, pawned the typewriter and lost the ticket. Typewriter gone. End of story?

Not quite.

Several years passed. Harlan married and was then drafted into the army. We saw each other at a few conventions, and on each occasion he assured me he hadn’t forgotten his debt to me, but right then he didn’t have the money. In 1959 I moved to New York City with my first wife to begin a career as a professional jazz critic and subsequently a writer and editor of science fiction. By then Harlan was living in a Chicago suburb, working as an editor.

But in early summer 1960 Harlan moved back to New York City, divorced from his first wife. For several months he stayed with us in our Greenwich Village apartment on Christopher St. Then he got an apartment of his own just three doors up the street.

Proximity to me reinforced in Harlan his need to settle his debt to me. But Harlan was scuffling as a freelance writer; he had no regular income and coming up with an extra several hundred dollars wasn’t easy for him. But one August evening we went to a party in the Bronx and there encountered Ken, whom Harlan hadn’t seen in nearly five years. Harlan braced him for the money. Ken had effectively stolen the typewriter after all, and clearly owed Harlan, who owed me. Harlan was forceful in his demands, but Ken, still without a real income of his own (later he would edit a movie magazine), gave Harlan no satisfaction.

But he did something else. He told his best friend about Harlan’s demand, and the colorful threats Harlan had made. His best friend told his mother. The mother was a crackpot who routinely complained to the FBI that her son’s antagonists were “Commies.” She called the NYPD and told them Harlan was a heroin dealer.

Ironically, Harlan did not use drugs or intoxicants of any kind, abstaining from both alcohol and caffeine (but he did sometimes smoke cigarettes or a pipe, I think for the image more than any other reason). When we went to jazz clubs together he ordered a glass of orange juice, which he could pass off as a Screwdriver.

When the police arrived at his door, Harlan was flabbergasted at the notion that he was a drug dealer, and freely allowed them to search his small apartment. In his closet, on a high shelf and in a box, they found three things: a small revolver, a set of brass knuckles, and a switchblade. They promptly arrested Harlan for possessing an unlicensed gun. New York City had very tough gun laws.

Harlan spent the next 24 hours in jail, in “The Tombs,” in lower Manhattan. He was arraigned the next day, in the middle of a rare hurricane hitting New York City.

Once bailed out and back in his apartment, Harlan told my wife and me about his experiences, which shocked and horrified him. He was upset. So I suggested he write up his experiences for The Village Voice, where he was then a columnist — he’d walked into their storefront offices on Sheridan Square and sold a regular weekly column to them — and this he did. The next issue had a headline across the top of the front page, “Harlan Ellison – Buried in the Tombs!”

The box the police had found was, Harlan said, a box of props he used for lectures he gave on juvie gangs. He had, he said, run with a gang in Brooklyn’s Red Hook area in the mid-’50s, to get material to write. Hence the “Cheech Beldone” piece in Lowdown.

Frankly, I have my doubts about that. During the period in question Harlan shared an apartment with Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett (both science fiction writers). He worked in a Times Square bookstore. During his spare time, as Silverberg recalls, Harlan was mostly at his typewriter, writing stories. All three men had a contract with two science fiction magazine publishers to write a specific number of words of science fiction each month, for a monthly check. Harlan was churning out stories, many under pseudonyms, at a great rate. Silverberg discounts Harlan’s stories about running with a juvie gang, but Harlan did subsequently publish a novel about those gangs. He also published a book called “Memos From Purgatory.” It was “non-fiction,” and an expansion of “Buried in the Tombs.” As he explained to me before it was published, there just wasn’t a book’s worth of material in the experience. So he folded in the juvie gang stuff, “meeting” an old gang acquaintance in jail, and using his story to fill out the book. He apologized to me for the fiction and told me he’d dedicated the book to me. He also paid me the money he’d owed me for over five years.

There are a lot of stories about the man. I’ve told several of them myself. Some revolve around his prodigious energy and output. Others around his entertaining style of dealing with people. Yet others about his never-finished anthology, “The Last Dangerous Visions” (still in limbo, with hundreds of stories purchased decades ago). He moved to Hollywood in 1961, splitting with his second wife (to whom I had introduced him in 1960) in the process, and started generating a whole bunch of new stories – one of which, concerning an encounter with Frank Sinatra, was written up by Gay Talese in Esquire magazine in 1966.

Harlan was famous for writing finished stories in bookstore windows, on display to passersby. In 1960, while he was living with us, we had a small party (maybe a half-dozen people), during which he wrote a complete story, “Daniel White For The Greater Good.” He’d write a couple pages, then command everyone’s attention while he read them out loud, and then continue. It was a good story, subsequently anthologized after its original magazine publication.

I noticed Harlan’s writing habits. In those pre-computer days of typewriters, he would insert a “sandwich” into his typewriter consisting of a top sheet, a carbon sheet, a second sheet, another carbon and a third sheet, producing an original and two copies.

Harlan’s first-drafts were his final drafts. If he made an error — took a story in the wrong direction — he’d discard that page and start it anew, from the top. He rarely made “typos” — mistyping errors — and turned in very clean manuscripts, all first and final drafts.

He had learned to do this early in his writing career. Even as a fanzine writer he wrote “on stencil” single drafts for his mimeographed publications. As a professional writer he valued speed — the need to turn out a lot of material in as short a time as possible. He had those contracts to do a set wordage every month. He came in on the very end of the pulp magazine era and the “pulp hacks” like John D. MacDonald who supported themselves as writers with prodigious outputs. He saw himself being in that tradition.

He had a lot of energy and it didn’t go solely into his writing. He was very fit and could do athletic tricks, like suspending himself sideways from a streetlight pole. We lived in a fourth-floor walk-up (no elevator). He bounded up those stairs.

We hadn’t met face to face for years, but we kept in touch, mostly by phone. “Ted!” he’d bark. “Why do I always come out looking bad in your stories?” That was after I’d written a piece called “The Bet” for a fanzine about how Harlan lost his record collection in a bet with me, and reclaimed it by threatening me with that revolver he kept in his closet. He threatened to shoot me in the leg. Losing the bet had unhinged him; he’d been sure he was right (and wasn’t). He convinced me that he might actually shoot me. Later of course he fulsomely apologized.

I wanted to visit him when I was in Los Angeles last year. Our mutual friend Greg Benford tried to set it up. But Harlan wasn’t seeing anyone by then. The man I’d always known as thin and wiry had gained a lot of weight and was confined to his bed. He’d had a heart attack and strokes. I don’t think he wanted people to see him in his current state.

An entertaining speaker, he’d once popped up on late-night TV talk shows like Tom Snyder’s. Now he was diminished. That had to be hard for him.

But throughout his life he was larger than life, a force of nature, exuding a strength that exceeded his physical dimensions.
I’ll always be glad I knew him.