Elliot K. Shorter (1939-2013)

Elliot K. Shorter at HexaCon, in 1980, a convention in Lancaster, Penna. Photo by © Andrew I. Porter.

Elliot K. Shorter at HexaCon, in 1980, a convention in Lancaster, PA. Photo by © Andrew I. Porter.

Legendary fan Elliot K. Shorter died from complications of cancer on October 1 after spending his last days in hospice care. Shorter, who once stood 6’ 4” and served as a military policeman with the U.S. Army in Germany, started attending conventions in 1962 and was one of the few African-Americans in Sixties fandom.

The sources of his popularity are evident from Shorter’s platform on the 1970 TAFF ballot –

Always visible at a convention or fan gatherings due to his height and girth, with or without a guitar slung on his back. But the important thing about Elliot is that he is fun! Fun to talk with, sing with, get drunk with, turn a mimeo crank with.

He won that TAFF race over Charlie Brown and Bill Rotsler, in the process becoming one of the 1970 Worldcon guests of honor. Heicon had decided prior to the convention to select the TAFF winner as its Fan GoH.

His was a name to conjure with among LASFSians when I joined the club in 1970 because at the previous year’s Worldcon he had confronted another force of nature, our eminent local genius Harlan Ellison. Decades later James Frenkel recalled that scene at St. Louiscon for Tor.com —

During the masquerade, some guy with a sword had managed to find a seam in the big movie screen that nobody retracted while costumed people tromped across the stage. $1500 worth of damage to the screen ensued. So Harlan suggested that we all chip in a buck to help fix the screen. With 1600 people there, that would work. And it did, eventually. Of course, it’s hard to make sure there’s EXACTLY enough money for the purpose. There was, in fact, more money passed to the dais. What to do with the extra money?

Harlan suggested that it be donated to the very new Clarion Writers Workshop. He was (of course) an eloquent advocate for this cause, a workshop devoted to fostering the SF writers of tomorrow. Sounded good to me…but not to everyone. That was when Elliot Shorter, a bookseller, a New Yorker, a very, very tall, imposing man of color whose bulk rose more than a full foot over Harlan as he stood up and said, in his surprisingly high-pitched but at that moment quite audible and angry voice, “Now wait just one darned minute, Harlan.” There followed a rather dramatic moment in which Elliot advanced on Harlan, and many in the room held their breath…

Elliot quite reasonably pointed out that people had sent their dollars up to the dais to fix the screen, not to support Clarion, and it wouldn’t be fair to simply take the excess for a different purpose without first asking the assembled multitude if this was what they preferred. After a certain amount of fannish discussion it was finally decided to use the extra money to establish the Worldcon Emergency Fund, for things like emergency screen repair and other possible Worldcon needs. This has come in very handy on occasion, most notably when a Worldcon in the early 1980s wound up with a significant financial shortfall.

Shorter belonged to the Tolkien Society of America, Hyborean Legion, the City College of New York SF Club, ESFA, Lunarians, Fanoclasts and NESFA.

He was among the Founding Fellows named to the Fellowship of NESFA in 1976.

He joined the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) in 1968 where he was known as Master El of the Two Knives. He was part of the Barony of the Bridge (established 1973) longer than anyone else.

He worked on his friends’ fanzines, helping to produce issues of Locus and Niekas. He wrote the beginnings of his TAFF trip report for The Spanish Inquisition (1976) but it remained unfinished.

He served NYCon 3, the 1967 Worldcon, as Sergeant-at-Arms and was immortalized in Jack Gaughan’s NYCon3 Comics. Andrew Porter explains the issue’s cover —

Shorter is shown walking down the ramp holding another NYCon committee member, rich brown. I’m the big guy in the back, with glasses. The others on the ramp, from the bottom, are Ted White, Dave Van Arnam, Mike McInerney, Robin White, and John Boardman.

NyCon Comics

As Parliamentarian of Noreascon I (1971) he perfected the wording of a new rule that allowed mail-in site selection voting for the first time.

He was part of the “7 for 77” bid committee, a slate of East Coast fans who proposed to run a Worldcon in Orlando. They won, but their convention hotel went bankrupt and refused to honor its contract, causing the Worldcon to move to Miami Beach.

For awhile Shorter ran Merlin’s Closet, a bookstore opened in 1979 in Providence, RI which specialized in SF and fantasy.

As a public figure, Shorter operated in dynamic tension between people’s sense of affection and intimidation, which led to many dramatic moments in his fannish resume.

Before the start of the Discon II Masquerade (1974), when emcee Jack Chalker announced “No flash photography,” someone in the audience (by pre-arrangement) stood up and took a photo using a flash. Michael J. Walsh describes what happened next —

Jack looked pained, called out and from either side of the stage came Elliot and one other linebacker sized fan. Into the audience they went, the camera (a prop of sorts) was rather publicly broken, the miscreant dragged up on stage and then off stage. Whereupon loud thwacking sounds were heard along with cries of pain.

“Remember: no flash photography,” said Jack.

Oddly enough there were no flash photographs taken during the masquerade.

Also, as Morris Keesan recently recalled for File 770

My favorite Eliot Shorter moment occurred one evening when I met Eliot and some other folks for supper in Harvard Square, after they had been participating in some sort of SCA event on the banks of the Charles. We went to The Stockpot, a salad-bar-and-soup restaurant, and at the end of the salad bar, there were some loaves of bread, along with knives for cutting slices of bread. Eliot tried using one of these flimsy bread knives, and became quickly frustrated with its lack of effectiveness, and muttering something like the Crocodile Dundee “That’s not a knife. This is a knife.” line, innocently pulled a large, and very sharp, knife from its scabbard on his belt, and used it to cut himself a slice of bread. The looks on the faces of the elderly couple next to him as he pulled out his knife were priceless. They calmed down a little bit when they realized what he was using the knife for, but I don’t think they had fully recovered from the shock by the time we left.

Shorter was fictionalized as “George Long” in the Niven/Pournelle/Flynn novel about fandom, Fallen Angels. Some believe he is also the model for “Shorty Mkrum” in Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

Prior to his final illness Shorter spent the last five years in declining health, suffering the amputation of a foot in 2008, while cared for at VA and other hospitals.

Master El in SCA garb at Black Rose Ball in 2010.

Master El at Black Rose Ball in 2010.

[Thanks to Andrew Porter and Vijay deSelby-Bowen for the story.]

27 thoughts on “Elliot K. Shorter (1939-2013)

  1. I met Elliott at the first con I attended 40 years ago. He was this gentle giant and so very erudite. I shall miss him.

  2. “He was part of the “7 for 77” bid committee, a slate of East Coast fans who proposed to run a Worldcon in Orlando.”

    Very tiny correction: the “7 for 77” committee included Martha Beck and Rusty Hevelin, and I think Joanne Wood, though my memory is less sure of the last at the moment. The eventual split in the committee led to the Midwestern contingent leaving, but it was an East Coast/Midwest bid committee, rather than a bid of exclusively “East Coast fans.”

  3. This is a very nice obit, Mike. I’m very sad at losing Elliot, but very glad I got back in touch with him via email a few years ago, and stayed in touch until about a year ago. I’m particularly glad that I wrote him an email about how much he’d meant to me as a young fan, trusting me to run major departments at Lunacon when I was only 16, and Worldcon departments (before there were such a thing) when I was 18. Elliot was always warm and welcoming (if a bit grumpy at times), highly capable, and will be sorely missed by those of us who had the privilege of being his friends.

    One vivid memory is of El and Faye Ringel and Anna Vargo and myself in our car expedition from NYC to Kansas City in 1976, only to irreparably break down half-way there, and have to fly anyway.

    Another is when I ran Facilities at Lunacon ’76, and Elliot and I cornered and caught Rex Weiner of Pie-Kill, Incorporated, after he’d attempting pieing Ted White at the GOH event after being paid to do so by Charles Platt, whose nametag he wore, having been clumsily altered by magic marker to read “Charles Blatty.”

    El and I both charged after Weiner (we didn’t know who he was until later, of course), and given that we were on something like the 14th or 21st floor of the Hotel Commodore, after Elliot and I had gone down 2 flights of stairs after Weiner, who was running down the stairs as fast as he could, I left for the elevator at the next flight, and had time to spare to meet Mr. Weiner a floor above lobby level, where El had been right behind him, and we more or less mutually tackled Weiner.

    Note that it is hella more significant to be tackled by Elliot Shorter than me.

    I’ll miss him.

  4. El’s size could be useful. He played a number of small parts in _The Decomposers, or, Rivets Has Risen from the Grave_ at the 1979 Boskone, but also was very effective glaring the disco next door into reducing the volume so we could hear ourselves rehearse. (The fact that he was dressed as Tarzan’s _waziri_ and carrying a spear taller than he was probably helped….)

    Gary is correct about about Joann(e?) Wood being on the committee, but not about her geography (unless there was another BNF of that name at that time); Ed and Joann were still living in Hartford CT through Noreascon 2 (1980), where she ran the masquerade. They did move to Texas some time later (IIRC following her job at American Airlines), but not until well after Suncon.

  5. Saddened to learn of his passing.

    Trivia: The “two knives” that gave him his epithet were a stylized “H” pin he borrowed from Judy Harrow.

  6. I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if the voice of one great Fan was silenced, leaving a hole that will be difficult to fill, if possible at all.

    It is a sad day when we lose one of us. It is even more poignant when it is someone as admired as Elliot. For reasons connected to, but outside of fandom, he was family back in the day.

  7. “Put the blueberry away for a year, it needs it. But this, this is good mead and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

    I had the pleasure of Master El’s company one night around the O’Choda fire at Pennsic. His kind words about my first batch of mead inspired me to keep making it.

    He will be missed.

  8. I met Elliot at City College in 1960, at a Folk music session, and we became friends. City had a science fiction club that had few members and was failing. Elliot, Marsha and I joined and the club became a success. In the years we were there, almost every writer in the New York area was a guest at our meetings.

    Elliot and I were also active in City’s House Plan Assoc. I also remember parties and bridge tournaments at his house.

    When we wanted to describe Elliot to someone, we would say Rosie Greer looked like him. (Younger football fans may not get that.)

    Elliot was drafted into the Army and did basic training at Fort Dix. A group of us packed into my car and went to visit him. We almost got into trouble by taking a wrong turn, but when we asked if anyone knew him, we were escorted to a parking spot while someone went to get him. We thought it strange when he told us that he was going to MP training, since he was one of the gentlest people I have ever known. He told us later they teamed him up with a smaller soldier who had a bigger mouth. When he spoke, all one had to do was look behind him and see Elliot, and they usually complied.

    I will miss him.

  9. I met Master El 15 years ago at URI when I joined the SCA. One of my favorite moments was when my son Elliott was a baby. I “introduced” Master El to Elliott and the first thing he did was scowl at me and say “And how do you SPELL Elliott” so I told him with two Ls and two Ts to which he responds with a smile “oh good, now people will be able to tell us apart!” I think the fact that Master El was a 6’4 Elderly man of color and Elliott was a 3 month old 2 ft tall blond newborn might have helped tell them apart but at least on paper they were also different :). He will be missed.

  10. Master El was a wonderful storyteller and I enjoyed meeting him. Several Pennsics ago, I had the pleasure of sitting with El and Og both of whom shared stories of the days of “when rocks were soft and dirt was new.” I will miss him.

  11. I had the honor of meeting Master El for the first time 30-odd years ago at Pensic XVI or XVII (not sure which; time flies.) I was a very green SCA newbie and had been asked to run a message to El of the Two Knives, this “great big black guy over by the Pagan Sisters Tavern, you can’t miss him.” I’m a 5-foot-nothing woman of no particular noticability and I expected to ask a half-dozen or so tall people if they were this ‘Master El’, but when I got to the tavern this HUGE thundercloud of a man was looming over everybody there, leaning on a counter and chatting with a friend. I was more than a little intimidated; he noticed me lurking, though, beckoned me forward and accepted my message like a king in his court.
    Ride well, El; you’ll be missed.

  12. I knew El via SCA, Merlin’s Closet, and RISFA. Those of you who knew him and tell stories of his fame miss one very important facet of his personality: He was the most humble man I knew.

    My favorite story that he told was this: He lived in an apartment in the Bronx, with many of the books that would one day line the shelves of Merlin’s Closet. One day the super knocked on his door and asked him to come look at something in the next apartment, which was empty.

    Some miscreants had broken out the wall between the two apartments, broke through the back of the bookshelf they found blocking their way, removed the books, found another board, broke through that, removed the second layer of books, and found yet another board, the back of yet another book shelf. At that point, they had given up, left the mess. and left.

    The world is a smaller place without him.

  13. I fought him (and lost) in my first battle in the East Kingdom back in the mid 70’s. ( he fell on me! good move on his part but damn he was big!) I think I will keep him in my heart and memory as that awesome opponent.

  14. I did not know Elliot but I knew Master El. The SCA allows you to be anyone you would like to be and based on this wonderful eulogy, it appears that we, of the SCA, were all fortunate that El seemed to like being Elliot. I know I speak for many of my SCAdian brethren that we share your loss as it is the same as ours. El was valiant in his demeanor, eloquence and the way he lived. We are all the better for knowing him and all diminished for his passing.

  15. I knew Eliot from, I think, Ed Meškys’s NIEKAS collating parties and some cons in the 60s. And yes, Bruce, I remember confusing him with Rosie Greer, in the context of “Now, who do I remember being quoted as saying that?” He was a good guy, and I’m sorry he’s gone.

  16. I met Elliot Shorter once, at an Eastercon in the UK; but I know he was a legend throughout fandom. Curiously enough I have a friend who is also 6 ft 4 in, African-American, bearded, and formerly in the SCA; I wonder if the two ever met back a couple of decades ago. I’ll have to ask.

  17. Thanks to everyone for sharing their stories. I’m sure there are many more out there.

    New York fandom hasn’t been the same since he left us for Providence, but until now at least I could still imagine him looming somewhere to our north.

    I met Elliot when I was a neofan, probably in 1970. He was the most wonderful combination of imposing and welcoming, combining dignity and warmth. I was honored to have him as a friend. He was one of the very few people in fandom allowed to call me “Moishe.”

    There will never be another like him.

  18. Thanks for this wonderful obit to El. I have known him since 1983 and he was and always will be a big part of my life. He was my staunch supporter for many years in the SCA and was always there if I ever needed him. You’ve definitely got it right, El loved life and loved to celebrate it. He believed in a sense of right and fairplay. We have come to know that no shenanigans could ever get by El, at least in his opinion. It’s good to know from the stories shared that he was consistent. For if he thought something was amiss, he thought nothing to speak his mind — no matter how long it took — and we patiently waited for him to finish because his heart was always in the right place. He may have been El Shorter, but there was no shortness to his speeches or his passion. The memory of him holding court at Pennsic War Court before many of the heads of the Society’s chapters (kingdoms) because he thought the War games were not fought with integrity without malice will be forever branded in history. He stood for what he thought was right and did not care about popular opinion. He was against being “politically correct” long before the words were coined. But I also want to talk about his kindness. In many ways he was a father figure to us all. Thanks El for being a part of my life these past 30 years. I will tell stories of you for many years to come. Godspeed.

  19. I met Master El for the first time when I moved back to Carolingia (Boston) in 1990. in addition to all of his other talents listed above, he was a wonderful storyteller and could entertain folks for hours with tales of the SCA in its early days. I will never forget his wonderful telling of Pennsic IV, at which he was EK Seneschal (which included two refrains: “And it rained . . . .” along with “El is smiling! Everything must be OK.”)

    We are all diminished by his passing. A legend has left us. Vivat!

  20. I never drink a Vernor’s (a super-ginger ale) without thinking of him.
    He often visited Horde Camp at Pennsic, and when I offered a share of our cooler, his eyes positively sparkled in the dark when I mentioned that Cian had brought some Vernor’s. We always brought an extra can or two from then on, “in case El can make it.”
    He will be missed.

  21. I met El decades ago in the SCA, and he often came to events in our barony. And I saw him often at SF cons. He was honorable and witty and a delightful storyteller, and I grieved every time I heard of yet another downturn in his health. We are all the poorer for his loss.

  22. A few weeks before Elliot passed, I finally got around to writing him a letter. I’ve shared it on FB so I think it only appropriate that I share it here. I hope he had a chance to read it:

    After hearing your unfortunate news, I wanted to send you a note to let you know about the influence you’ve had on my life.

    Way back in 1976 we met for the first time while working on Suncon. I was 18 or so at the time. I was already a pretty involved fan when I discovered that Don and Grace Lundry lived in the same southern New Jersey town as I did; a phone call later I found myself working on the convention, practically living at the Lundry’s as we handled everything for the con with pre-PC and internet technologies.

    I think the first time we actually met was either during a trip to NYC when, following a fan group meeting at Andy Porters I ended up with a bunch of folks at Wo Hops. That or during a con com meeting at John Boardman’s house. This was right around the time that John got bit by a feral cat and nearly lost a finger due to infection if that helps set the time period for you.

    Anyway, I know we interacted on any number of occasions at committee meetings and various east coast cons during the run-up to Suncon – Balticons, Lunacons, Disclaves, Philcons….

    I suppose I reacted to you the way I did to every other fan I was meeting at the time, my fannish baptism by fire.

    Ultimately you may recall that Don put me in charge of managing the Hugo Banquet – working with the hotel catering staff, planning out the scheduling of events (getting the slides together for the intro was a bitch), setting up the layout of the tables AND making the fateful decision to allow “assigned seating” at the banquet.

    I’m also pretty sure that Don (or someone – perhaps even yourself) thought that it might be a good idea to have someone with a bit more experience watching over my shoulder and keeping an eye on things.

    Minor disaster struck on the Saturday afternoon before the banquet when a bunch of attendees decided that they wanted to change their table mates – all at once and some multiple times.

    I remember you stopping by the banquet reservation table we had set up and asking how things were going. You offered some advice I don’t remember (which I know I followed) – but looking back now I think it must have been pretty obvious to you that there were going to be some problems with the seating at the banquet.

    Comes the hour of the big event; fans and pros are filtering in wearing their finest (in some cases); Robert Silverberg and Jack Williamson are up on the dias along with several committee members at the head table. I’m at the door checking tickets. You were somewhere in the background, hovering and quietly watching.

    After about 15 minutes I noticed that there was a knot of fans who obviously had a problem. I called them over and asked what the issue was. “Someone is sitting at OUR table…and there’s two table eights. There’s not enough tables and we PAID for tickets!”

    I fumphered and dithered: It was the biggest night in fandom and I’d screwed up. Everyone from Jack Williamson on down would hate me for the rest of my life. I’d never be allowed to read a science fiction novel again. People would be writing about this in The Alien Critic and Science Fiction Review, Locus and Algol for ages – and after reading, fans everywhere would spit on my name.

    I was in absolute and utter panic when someone laid a hand on my shoulder, It was you, Elliot.

    You leaned down and said very calmly and reassuringly: “Close your eyes. Count to ten slowly. Do it!” I complied and when I’d finished counting to ten you said “NOW go solve your problem”.

    And I did. I found the hotel catering officer, had him set up two more tables, made my apologies to the inconvenienced fans and everyone soon tucked in to their rubber chicken and an evening of Bob Silverberg’s signature toastmastering.

    You said the exact right thing, in the exact right way, at exactly the right time and it has stayed with me ever since. For almost forty years I’ve been hearing that voice in my head whenever panic threatens, and I’ve never had a panicky moment since as a result.

    I wanted to thank you for that Elliot. It’s had a profound influence on my life. I’ve tried to pass that lesson on to others and hope I’ve succeeded with at least one other person the way you did with me.

    So thank you very much for being who you are and for what you did for me lo those many years ago. Good luck and have a safe and pleasant journey.

    Sincerely,

    Steve Davidson
    Former Hugo Banquet Manager for Suncon, the 35th Worldcon
    and now Publisher and Editor of Amazing Stories

  23. Elliot’s passing is a loss to all of us who knew him. I was fortunate in considering him a very close friend in the 70’s. He and I had a few fanish escapades together.
    In particular, there was the trip to HEICON, the Heidelberg WorldCom where he was the TAFF delegate.
    While I was organizing the group flight, I was also teaching an Army reserve course which had as handouts, big topographic maps of the Heidelberg area. When the course was over, I scarfed up all the maps I could find with the idea of offering them to those on the flight. The details of getting on the plane were best recorded in Elliot’s own words in the beginnings of his TAFF trip report. His report is accurate as I was still a young, brash, no-nonsense sort of guy.
    After we boarded the flight, the maps were available to those who spoke up fastest. Elliot spoke up quickly, got the map, and settled down to review it. Rather quickly he came up for air and demanded “WHERE DID YOU GET THESE?” I explained that they were used in an army course demonstrating how the U.S. might defend the Fulda Gap. He than explained, “I spent my time in Germany as an MP guarding these classified maps since everyone knew this was how the Russians would attack. And you just hand them out like scrap paper!”. Well, yes, that was Elliot
    After his adventures at HEICON which involved (among other things) subduing some unruly political activists, we traveled together to sightsee Germany. He proceeded to give me a few pointers on how MP’s are taught. The classical one was when an MP had to stop an officer with a woman in the car with him. “It’s always ‘sir’ and ‘yes sir’ to the officer and if it was necessary to talk to the woman in the car, that was ‘the officer’s lady’. One was not to make assumptions that it was his wife, a casual floozy, or some local prostitute. It was ALWAYS ‘the officer’s lady’.”
    And then there was some fun at the St. Louis Worldcon (St. Louiscon) and the movie screen mentioned above. But I remember it a little bit differently. When he stood up to protest, his words were “Just a cotton-picking moment!” This coming from a large six foot plus black man left Harlan (and most of the room) with their jaws dropping. Not quite as politically correct as Jim Frenkel remembers.
    He and I had some good times together and I will remember him fondly.

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