Life in Fandom, Vintage 1951

While I’m impressed that Google can search Life magazine’s photo archive, it’s had no practical impact on my blogging – my posts don’t call for pictures of Dwight Eisenhower, Rita Hayworth and Jackie Kennedy. And when Google Books made 1800 complete issues of Life available online September 23, I supposed bloggers would attach the most significance to Google’s first having secured permission of the copyright holder. Not so!

Bill Higgins (I hear) was the first to discover within this massive collection something of unique fanhistorical interest. He triggered an internet stampede by posting the Google Books link to Winthrop Sargeant’s article in the May 21, 1951 issue of Life – “Through the Interstellar Looking Glass” – an astonishingly well-informed narrative about science fiction fandom. Such accuracy and sensitivity to fannish nuance remains beyond the capability of today’s journalists, so the achievement is all the more remarkable having come at a time when fans identified themselves with propeller beanies. (*)

Sargeant not only got the facts right, he also had remarkable sympathy for fandom’s received wisdom on many points, such as:

…the modern science fiction fan tends to be a little suspicious of any contemporary STF writer who, like Ray Bradbury, gives moral ideas and human problems precedence over invention and discovery.

James V. Taurasi, Forrest J Ackerman and various Detroit fans were Sargeant’s sources, according to A Wealth of Fable. These sources even arranged to have Life magazine put the slug on assorted science fictional embarrassments like the Shaver Mystery. (Richard Shaver is little remembered now, but back in the day when Bob Stewart invented a dartboard with pictures of annoying pros taped to it, players got 10 points for Ellison and 7 for Shaver.)

You can find good links to the article at Ansible or The Crotchety Old Fan.  

The visual pièce de résistance is the two-page spread devoted to a panoramic photo of pros and fans at a Hydra Club banquet. Curiously, no one in the photo is identified in the caption. I’d sure like to know what names go with all these faces.

The Hydra Club was a group of New York writers — Frederik Pohl was one of the nine heads who founded it. Dave Kyle says in “The Legendary Hydra Club” (Mimosa 25) that the banquet photo Life published was taken at the Hydras’ New York Science Fiction Conference of July 1-3, 1950. Hydras organized it and invited ESFA members to participate, too.

The photo may include any or all of the Hydra members named in Kyle’s article: Judy Merrill, Sam Merwin, Jerry Bixby, Isaac Asimov, Harrison Smith (Publisher of The Saturday Review of Literature), Bea Mahaffey, Walter Bradbury (Doubleday), Groff Conklin, Frederick Fell, Robert Arthur, Dr. Tom Gardner, Dr. David H. Keller, Will F. Jenkins (Murray Leinster), and Phil Klass.

Sargeant’s article would have been just the beginning of respectable mass media attention to fandom had things happened according to plan. The 1952 Worldcon in Chicago drew representatives from Look, Life and Time. Unfortunately, as Warner writes in A Wealth of Fable, when the representatives of the Luce magazines found Look photographers taking pictures of a ballet which University of Chicago students had worked up, they walked out in a huff. All three magazines turned up their noses and published nothing about the con.

(*) Mind you, John Hertz and I are quite fond of ours. However, we’d be silly to think wearing them confers upon us any authority with reporters.

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2 thoughts on “Life in Fandom, Vintage 1951

  1. Bill Higgins (I hear) was the first to discover within this massive collection something of unique fanhistorical interest.

    Far as I know. Having learned that Life back issues were available online, I began punching in “rocket belt”, “cyclotron,” and other stuff that interests me. I was looking for the earliest references to “science fiction” when I found this. (And the term “scientifiction,” long obsolete by 1951, also appears in the article, so a search on that would also have worked.)

    The article was noted in fanzines of the time– after all, several of them are named!– so this is merely a “rediscovery.” It is also referenced in various publications dealing with the Shaver hoax or Dianetics.

    Check out the letter column of the June 11, 1951 issue for responses from prominent SF figures.

    I’ve been having great fun finding stuff in the Life photo archive since it was placed online last November. Now we can look at the text of the magazine, too. Here’s a genuine mystery I found:[email protected]/moonballet/moonballet.html

  2. “You can find good links to the article at Ansible or The Crotchety Old Fan.”

    Cough (with various other links).

    Walter Willis is also among the many who wrote about the piece at the time.

    “The 1952 Worldcon in Chicago drew representatives from Look, Life and Time.”

    The TASFiC, (also known as “Chicon II”) of course, was famous and infamous for the vast degree of effort they went to to publicize the convention to the general public and media, advertise it, and otherwise draw in as many people as possible, and make it as large as possible.

    This was the first major iteration of the arguments between those in fandom outraged at this attempt to bring in a lot of people not known to fans, and those who wanted to Bring The Word Of Science Fiction and Fandom to the larger public.

    It was all endlessly written about in fanzines back in 1950-51.

    Good thing those arguments were settled back then, so we never had to hear them again, eh?

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