My Night With Harlan Ellison, Part I

Copyright © 2006 Laurie D. T. Mann

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If you were at the Hugo Ceremonies at L.A.Con IV, you might have noticed a woman in a blue dress standing behind Harlan Ellison when he was making a presentation during the awards. That was me. Through a weird set of circumstances, I wound up trying to “wrangle Harlan” for the Hugos. It was a weird evening indeed, for a number of reasons.

The Short Term Background: I would love to run the Hugo Ceremony some day, so I volunteered to be Kathryn Daugherty’s assistant for the L.A.Con IV Hugo Ceremony. I spent most of Saturday afternoon talking with nominees and designated acceptors, making sure they understood the lay of the stage, what the podium was like, and how to exit. This turned out to be the fun part of the job.

Arena Photo During Rehearsal by John Scalzi

Photo by John Scalzi

I knew the job during the ceremony was to do anything Kathryn wanted me to do. Most of that was not too taxing – checking the seating arrangements, running little errands, nothing particularly difficult. Why, I even had enough time to get my picture taken with Kathryn and Ruth Sachter (Hugo Administrator John Lorentz’s wife and a very old friend of mine):

Kathryn Daugherty, Laurie Mann, Ruth Sachter at the L.A.Con IV Hugo Ceremony

Photo probably by Jim Mann

Financial Aside: Yeah, I know I’ve complained about being “house poor” of late, so how did I get such a great dress? It was on sale for $36.

I’m not overly “star struck” by people I meet at cons. I’ve known many of the nominees and Hugo ceremony participants for a long time, as I’ve helped to run cons for 30 years. Heck, Dave Kyle has slept in my house, I’ve been getting Dave Levine and Kate Yule’s Bento since the early days. I’ve been on panels with Connie Willis. I was on GEnie with C.Doctorow before he was famous. I’ve followed the wonderful world of John Scalzi in his blog. But, I was more than a little tired by the Saturday of Worldcon, and the Hugo Ceremony tends to make me very hyper.

So Kathryn told me to help get the Hugo nominees out of the pre-reception and into the audience. Most people got moving without much encouragement. But one presenter who wasn’t budging was Harlan Ellison, who was busy eating reception snacks. With more than a little trepedation, I told Harlan it was time to go out to the arena.

“Can I take my food with me?”

“Well…no…” (and when was the last time you saw people bring food into the Hugo ceremony?)

“What are you, demented?” (or words to that effect; I was not quite shaking in my sandals, and once a writer whose works you’ve adored refers to you as “demented,” you tend to lose track of the exact sequence of words…)

The Long-Term Background: I’m well aware of Harlan’s temper. While I don’t think he ever saw my name badge, I’d been the indirect recipient of Harlan’s ire several times in the past.

The Even-Longer-Term Background: When I started to read SF in 1973, I was 16 and completely fell in love with the writing of many SF writers but especially the writing of Harlan Ellison. When I started to write SF, I wanted to write with the kind of emotional wallop that he did. I loved Harlan’s writing so much that when I met Anne McCaffrey at Boskone 12 in 1975, I told her I wanted to be the next Harlan Ellison.

She rolled her eyes at me, and I didn’t exactly understand why at the time.

I met Harlan in 1976 at an Ohio college convention that was so badly managed it earned the nickname of “4th Disaster Con” by Saturday. Harlan was very pleasant, and even signed my copy of Rockabilly, a book I’d been warned that Harlan would rip up when someone handed it to him. Instead, he signed it, looked at the cover and laughed. The back cover had a photo of an extremely young Harlan Ellison in a trenchcoat with a cigarette dangling from his lips.

A few years later, I attended a reading Harlan gave in Pittsburgh. For the first time, I was a little disappointed in his writing. His stories were still good, but not great. Harlan irritated me further by harassing a female college student who was his minder from the stage. She was so embarrassed by him that she left the hall.

I reviewed Harlan’s readings for a tiny (about 60-copy count) fanzine, giving an honest assessment. The editor called me a few months later to say that Harlan had called him and chewed him out over the phone over my review.

Oh-oh….

Now, Harlan never did call me to chew me out. I’m not sure how I would have reacted, but I never had to find out then.

I saw Harlan at Noreascon II in Boston in 1980. He gave a very entertaining, Harlanesque talk and was generally quite pleasant all weekend. That was the weekend he bought the famous Barclay Shaw carved desk. I think it was also the weekend he met his future wife, Susan. I shared an elevator with him and I guess he’d completely forgotten that I’d once mightily offended him. Either that or he didn’t see my name badge. Either that or maybe he viewed bothering pregnant women as “off limits.”

I didn’t see Harlan much in the ’80s or ’90s. He was on the West Coast and I was on the East. But, in the mid ’90s, my husband Jim edited Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Fiction of Cordwainer Smith. The Paul Linebarger estate was a strong supporter of the project, and wanted all of Smith’s short works to be included. Including a piece Harlan had bought over twenty years previously for the still-unpublished The Last Dangerous Visions. We heard Harlan was very angry about people who were publishing anything intended for The Last Dangerous Visions. Legally, however, NESFA Press had the consent of the estate, which was all that mattered.

At some point in the ’90s, Harlan was a guest at Readercon, and apparently it turned into a long rant against NESFA Press for daring the publish this story.

Oh-oh…

So, back to the present.

All the other Hugo nominees and presenters were heading for the auditorium, and Harlan seemed pissed at me for trying to get him to follow directions. I don’t deal really well with angry people, particularly ones who I had to try to be nice to. I stepped back for a minute and took a deep breath.

I tried to be diplomatic. “We need to get all the presenters and nominees to the floor.”

“You’re being awfully twitchy,” Harlan said. “I’m taking this with me.”

Unwilling to fight with him, I just nodded and said, “Follow me.”

So Harlan and Susan were near the end of a big line of people. I managed to jump around some of them, trying to find good seats for Harlan and Susan. As a presenter, Harlan needed to be either in a front row seat or on an aisle. And most of these seats were already gone.

Part II

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