Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Go set a playwright

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If you follow theatrical gossip as avidly as I do, you’re probably aware of the unexpected drama that briefly surrounded the new Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which was written for the stage by Aaron Sorkin. In March, Lee’s estate sued producer Scott Rudin, claiming that the production was in breach of contract for straying drastically from the book. According to the original agreement, the new version wasn’t supposed to “depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters,” which Sorkin’s interpretation unquestionably did. (Rudin says just as much on the record: “I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics. It wouldn’t be of interest. The world has changed since then.”) But the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. As a lawyer consulted by the New York Times explains:

Does “spirit” have a definite and precise meaning, or could there be a difference of opinion as to what is “the spirit” of the novel? I do not think that a dictionary definition of “spirit” will resolve that question. Similarly, the contract states that the characters should not be altered. In its pre-action letter, Harper Lee’s estate repeatedly states that the characters “would never have” and “would not have” done numerous things; unless as a matter of historical fact the characters would not have done something…who is to say what a creature of fiction “would never have” or “would not have” done?

Now that the suit has been settled and the play is finally on Broadway, this might all seem beside the point, but there’s one aspect of the story that I think deserves further exploration. Earlier this week, Sorkin spoke to Greg Evans of Deadline about his writing process, noting that he took the initial call from Rudin for good reasons: “The last three times Scott called me and said ‘I have something very exciting to talk to you about,’ I ended up writing Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, so I was paying attention.” His first pass was a faithful version of the original story, which took him about six months to write: “I had just taken the greatest hits of the book, the most important themes, the most necessary themes. I stood them up and dramatized them. I turned them into dialogue.” When he was finished, he had a fateful meeting with Rudin:

He had two notes. The first was, “We’ve got to get to the trial sooner.” That’s a structural note. The second was the note that changed everything. He said, “Atticus can’t be Atticus for the whole play. He’s got to become Atticus,” and of course, he was right. A protagonist has to change. A protagonist has to be put through something and change as a result, and a protagonist has to have a flaw. And I wondered how Harper Lee had gotten away with having Atticus be Atticus for the whole book, and it’s because Atticus isn’t the protagonist in the book. Scout is. But in the play, Atticus was going to be the protagonist, and I threw out that first draft. I started all over again, but this time the goal wasn’t to be as much like the book as possible. The goal wasn’t to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and then gently transfer it to a stage. I was going to write a new play.

This is fascinating stuff, but it’s worth emphasizing that while Rudin’s first piece of feedback was “a structural note,” the second one was as well. The notions that “a protagonist has to change” and “a protagonist has to have a flaw” are narrative conventions that have evolved over time, and for good reason. Like the idea of building the action around a clear sequence of objectives, they’re basically artificial constructs that have little to do with the accurate representation of life. Some people never change for years, and while we’re all flawed in one way or another, our faults aren’t always reflected in dramatic terms in the situations in which we find ourselves. These rules are useful primarily for structuring the audience’s experience, which comes down to the ability to process and remember information delivered over time. (As Kurt Vonnegut, who otherwise might not seem to have much in common with Harper Lee, once said to The Paris Review: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”) Yet they aren’t essential, either, as the written and filmed versions of To Kill a Mockingbird make clear. The original novel, in particular, has a rock-solid plot and supporting characters who can change and surprise us in ways that Atticus can’t. Unfortunately, it’s hard for plot alone to carry a play, which is largely a form about character, and Atticus is obviously the star part. Sorkin doesn’t shy away from using the backbone that Lee provides—the play does indeed get to the jury trial, which is still the most reliable dramatic convention ever devised, more quickly than the book does—but he also grasped the need to turn the main character into someone who could give shape to the audience’s experience of watching the play. It was this consideration, and not the politics, that turned out to be crucial.

There are two morals to this story. One is how someone like Sorkin, who can fall into traps of his own as a writer, benefits from feedback from even stronger personalities. The other is how a note on structure, which Sorkin takes seriously, forced him to engage more deeply with the play’s real material. As all writers know, it’s harder than it looks to sequence a story as a series of objectives or to depict a change in the protagonist, but simply by thinking about such fundamental units of narrative, a writer will come up with new insights, not just about the hero, but about everyone else. As Sorkin says of his lead character in an interview with Vulture:

He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.

In other words, Sorkin’s new perspective on Atticus also required him to rethink the roles of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, which may turn out to be the most beneficial change of all. (This didn’t sit well with the Harper Lee estate, which protested in its complaint that black characters who “knew their place” wouldn’t behave this way at the time.) As Sorkin says of their lack of agency in the original novel: “It’s noticeable, it’s wrong, and it’s also a wasted opportunity.” That’s exactly right—and I like the last reason the best. In theater, as in any other form of narrative, the technical considerations of storytelling are more important than doing the right thing. But to any experienced writer, it’s also clear that they’re usually one and the same.

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2018 at 8:39 am

The dark side of the limerick

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“As almost nothing that has been written about the limerick can be taken seriously—which is perhaps only fitting—a few words may not be out of place here,” the scholar Gershon Legman writes in his introduction to the definitive work on the subject. Legman was one of the first critics to see erotic and obscene folk forms, including the dirty joke, as a serious object of study, and The Limerick puts his singular intelligence—which is worthy of a good biography—on full display:

The limerick is, and was originally, an indecent verse form. The “clean” sort of limerick is an obvious palliation, its content insipid, its rhyming artificially ingenious, its whole pervaded with a frustrated nonsense that vents itself typically in explosive and aggressive violence. There are, certainly, aggressive bawdy limericks too, but they are not in the majority. Except as the maidenly delight and silly delectation of a few elderly gentlemen, such as the late Langford Reed, and several still living who might as well remain nameless, the clean limerick has never been of the slightest real interest to anyone, since the end of its brief fad in the 1860s.

Legman describes the work of Edward Lear, the supposed master of the form, as “very tepidly humorous,” which seems about right, and he apologizes in advance for the vast collection of dirty limericks that he has prepared for the reader’s edification: “The prejudices, cruelty, and humorless quality of many of the limericks included are deeply regretted.”

But a metrical form typified by prejudice, cruelty, and humorlessness may end up being perfectly suited for the modern age. Legman claims that “viable folk poetry and folk poetic forms,” aren’t easy to duplicate by design, but it isn’t an accident that two of the major American novels of the twentieth century indulge in limericks at length. One is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which includes a remarkable sequence of limericks in which young men have sexual relations with the various parts of a rocket, such as the vane servomotor. The other is William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, which prints numerous limericks that all begin with the opening line “I once went to bed with a nun.” In his hands, the limerick becomes the ideal vehicle for his despairing notion of history, as a character in the novel explains:

The limerick is the unrefiner’s fire. It is as false and lifeless, as anonymous, as a rubber snake, a Dixie cup…No one ever found a thought in one. No one ever found a helpful hint concerning life, a consoling sense. The feelings it harbors are the cold, the bitter, dry ones: scorn, contempt, disdain, disgust. Yes. Yet for that reason. nothing is more civilized than this simple form. In that—in cultural sophistication—it is the equal of the heroic couplet…That’s the lesson of the limerick. You never know when a salacious meaning will break out of a trouser. It is all surface—a truly modern shape, a model’s body. There’s no inside however long or far you travel on it, no within, no deep.

Both authors seem to have been drawn to the form for this very reason. And while Gass’s notion of writing “a limrickal history of the human race” may have seemed like a joke twenty years ago, the form seems entirely appropriate to the era in which we’re all living now.

Another prolific author of limericks was Isaac Asimov, who clearly didn’t view the form as problematic. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, with typical precision, he writes that his first attempt took place on July 13, 1953. A friend challenged him to compose a limerick with the opening line “A priest with a prick of obsidian,” and after some thought, Asimov recited the following:

A priest with a prick of obsidian
Was a foe to the hosts of all Midian,
Instead of immersion
Within a young virgin
’Twas used as a bookmark in Gideon.

“I explained that the ‘hosts of Midian’ was a biblical synonym for evil and that ‘Gideon’ was a reference to a Gideon Bible, but no one thought much of it,” Asimov writes. “However, when I challenged anyone present to do better, no one could.” Asimov was encouraged by the experience, however, and he soon got into the habit of constructing limericks in his head “whenever I was trapped in company and bored.” Not surprisingly, it occurred to him that it would be a shame to let them go to waste, and he convinced the publishing house Walker & Company to let him put together a collection. Asimov continued to write limericks with “amazing speed,” and Lecherous Limericks appeared in 1975. It was followed by six more installments, including two collaborations with none other than the poet and translator John Ciardi.

And the uncomfortable fact about Asimov’s limericks is that most of them frankly aren’t very good, funny, or technically impressive. This isn’t a knock on Asimov himself, but really a reflection of the way in which the limerick resists being produced in such a casual fashion, despite what thousands of practitioners think to the contrary. (“Amateurs amble over everything like cows,” Gass writes in The Tunnel. “The A which follows so many limericks stands for Amateur, not for Anonymous.”) Asimov was drawn to the form for the same reason that so many others are—it’s apparently easy, superficially forgiving of laziness, and can be composed and retained without difficulty in one’s head. And it’s no surprise that he embraced it. Asimov didn’t become the most prolific author in American history by throwing anything away, and just as he sent the very first story that he ever wrote as a teenager to John W. Campbell, who rejected it, he didn’t have any compunction about sending his first batch of limericks to his publisher, who accepted the result. “One good limerick out of every ten written is a better average than most poets hit,” Legman accurately writes, and Asimov never would have dreamed of discarding even half of his attempts. He also wasn’t likely to appreciate the underlying darkness and nihilism, not to mention the misogyny, of the form in which women “generally figure both as villain and victim,” as Legman notes, while also calling it “the only kind of newly composed poetry in English, or song, which has the slightest chance whatever of survival.” Gass, and presumably Pynchon, understood this all too well, and the author of The Tunnel deserves the last word: “Language has to contain…emotions. It’s not enough just to arouse them. In a perverse way that’s why I use a lot of limericks, because the limerick is a flatterer, the limerick destroys emotion, perhaps it produces giggles, but it is a downer. It’s an interesting form for that reason.” And it might end up being the defining poetry of our time.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2018 at 8:26 am

The long night

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Three years ago, a man named Paul Gregory died on Christmas Day. He lived by himself in Desert Hot Springs, California, where he evidently shot himself in his apartment at the age of ninety-five. His death wasn’t widely reported, and it was only this past week that his obituary appeared in the New York Times, which noted of his passing:

Word leaked out slowly. Almost a year later, The Desert Sun, a daily newspaper serving Palm Springs, California, and the Coachella Valley area, published an article that took note of Mr. Gregory’s death, saying that “few people knew about it.” “He wasn’t given a public memorial service and he didn’t receive the kind of appreciations showbiz luminaries usually get,” the newspaper said…When the newspaper’s article appeared, [the Desert Hot Springs Historical Society] had recently given a dinner in Mr. Gregory’s memory for a group of his friends. “His passing was so quiet,” Bruce Fessler, who wrote the article, told the gathering. “No one wrote about him. It’s just one of those awkward moments.”

Yet his life was a remarkable one, and more than worth a full biography. Gregory was a successful film and theater producer who crossed paths over the course of his career with countless famous names. On Broadway, he was the force behind Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, one of the big dramatic hits of its time, and he produced Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, which deserves to be ranked among the greatest American movies.

Gregory’s involvement with The Night of the Hunter alone would have merited a mention here, but his death caught my eye for other reasons. As I mentioned here last week, I’ve slowly been reading through Mailer’s Selected Letters, in which both Gregory and Laughton figure prominently. In 1954, Mailer told his friends Charlie and Jill Devlin that he had recently received an offer from Gregory, whom he described as “a kind of front for Charles Laughton,” for the rights to The Naked and the Dead. He continued:

Now, about two weeks ago Gregory called me up for dinner and gave me the treatment. Read Naked five times, he said, loved it, those Marines, what an extraordinary human story of those Marines, etc…What he wants to do, he claims, is have me do an adaptation of Naked, not as a play, but as a dramatized book to be put on like The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial…Anyway, he wants it to be me and only me to do the play version.

The play never got off the ground, but Gregory retained the movie rights to the novel, with an eye to Laughton directing with Robert Mitchum in the lead. Mailer was hugely impressed by Laughton, telling Elsa Lanchester decades later that he had never met “an actor before or since whose mind was so fine and powerful” as her late husband’s. The two men spent a week at Laughton’s hotel in Switzerland going over the book, and Mailer recalled that the experience was “a marvelous brief education in the problems of a movie director.”

In the end, sadly, this version of the movie was never made, and Mailer deeply disliked the film that Gregory eventually produced with director Raoul Walsh. It might all seem like just another footnote to Mailer’s career—but there’s another letter that deserves to be mentioned. At exactly the same time that Mailer was negotiating with Gregory, he wrote an essay titled “The Homosexual Villain,” in which he did the best that he could, given the limitations of his era and his personality, to come to terms with his own homophobia. (Mailer himself never cared for the result, and it’s barely worth reading today even as a curiosity. The closing line gives a good sense of the tone: “Finally, heterosexuals are people too, and the hope of acceptance, tolerance, and sympathy must rest on this mutual appreciation.”) On September 24, 1954, Mailer wrote to the editors of One: The Homosexual Magazine, in which the article was scheduled to appear:

Now, something which you may find somewhat irritating. And I hate like hell to request it, but I think it’s necessary. Perhaps you’ve read in the papers that The Naked and the Dead has been sold to Paul Gregory. It happens to be half-true. He’s in the act of buying it, but the deal has not yet been closed. For this reason I wonder if you could hold off publication for a couple of months? I don’t believe that the publication of this article would actually affect the sale, but it is a possibility, especially since Gregory—shall we put it this way—may conceivably be homosexual.

And while there’s a lot to discuss here, it’s worth emphasizing the casual and utterly gratuitous way in which Mailer—who became friendly years later with Roy Cohn—outed his future business partner by name.

But the letter also inadvertently points to a fascinating and largely unreported aspect of Gregory’s life, which I can do little more than suggest here. Charles Laughton, of course, was gay, as Elsa Lanchester discusses at length in her autobiography. (Gregory appears frequently in this book as well. He evidently paid a thousand dollars to Confidential magazine to kill a story about Laughton’s sexuality, and Lanchester quotes a letter from Gregory in which he accused Henry Fonda, who appeared in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, of calling Laughton a “fat, ugly homosexual”—although Laughton told her that Fonda had used an even uglier word.) Their marriage was obviously a complicated one, but it was far from the only such partnership. The actress Mary Martin, best known for her role as Peter Pan, was married for decades to the producer and critic Richard Halliday, whom her biographer David Kaufman describes as “her father, her husband, her best friend, her gay/straight ‘cover,’ and, both literally and figuratively, her manager.” One of Martin’s closest friends was Janet Gaynor, the Academy Award-winning actress who played the lead in the original version of A Star is Born. Gaynor was married for many years to Gilbert Adrian, an openly gay costume designer whose most famous credit was The Wizard of Oz. Gaynor herself was widely believed to be gay or bisexual, and a few years after Adrian’s death, she married a second time—to Paul Gregory. Gaynor and Gregory often traveled with Martin, and they were involved in a horrific taxi accident in San Francisco in 1982, in which Martin’s manager was killed, Gregory broke both legs, Martin fractured two ribs and her pelvis, and Gaynor sustained injuries that led to her death two years later. Gregory remarried, but his second wife passed away shortly afterward, and he appears to have lived quietly on his own until his suicide three years ago. The rest of the world only recently heard about his death. But even if we don’t know the details, it seems clear that there were many stories from his life that we’ll never get to hear at all.

The Bad Pennies, Part 4

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On June 10, 2014, the author Deirdre Saoirse Moen published an email on her blog from Moira Greyland, the daughter of Marion Zimmer Bradley. In a few short paragraphs, Greyland devastatingly described the extent of the abuse that she had suffered at the hand of her mother: “The first time she molested me, I was three. The last time, I was twelve, and able to walk away…I put [her stepfather Walter Breen] in jail for molesting one boy…Walter was a serial rapist with many, many, many victims…but Marion was far, far worse. She was cruel and violent, as well as completely out of her mind sexually. I am not her only victim, nor were her only victims girls.” Later that year, Moira’s brother Mark gave an interview in which he corroborated her claims, while also revealing the difficulty that he had felt in speaking out:

There was always drama and there was always the invisible blade of what would happen if all of this dreadful secret got out. The atmosphere of fear of discovery was simply everywhere and there was no place to hide. Worse, I was ashamed. When you are small you believe stuff, and I felt with my whole heart that I was responsible when she would go bad. There was absolutely no way I was gonna drag the mountain onto my head…And nobody spoke. Everything was always fine and that was my clown suit. I thought everyone knew and that I was such a bad person no one would speak to me. My echo chamber filled me with such fear of exposure I would do anything to make the shadow go away. And I did.

Not surprisingly, these revelations sent a shockwave through the science fiction and fantasy community, with many writers—including those associated with Bradley’s fiction series and magazine—speaking out against what John Scalzi called the “horrific” allegations. Yet while the full extent of Bradley’s abuse may have been unknown, her culpability in Breen’s crimes had been public knowledge for years. In 1998, Bradley testified in a series of depositions about her relationship with her husband, in which she admitted that she was fully aware of his behavior. When asked why she had defended him from accusations of child molestation during the buildup to the World Science Fiction Convention in Berkeley, she responded that she had felt that it was “nobody’s business” but Breen’s. And her involvement went far beyond the decision to keep silent. As the writer Stephin Goldin, whose stepson was abused by Breen, writes in a discussion of the case, which was published shortly after Bradley passed away:

[Bradley] actively aided and abetted her husband, Walter Breen, in the sexual abuse and molestation of children. Before people cast too many tears over her death, they may wish to learn some of the harm she helped perpetrate in the world as well…[Bradley] admits having deliberately covered up her husband’s involvement in activities she knew were illegal and harmful. She took some pains to tell Walter not to molest her own children, but she didn’t care in the least what he did to other children. Readers will be able to judge for themselves the sort of moral character this woman possessed.

And while this information was publicly available for fifteen years before the disclosures by Bradley’s children, they remained largely unknown outside a relatively small circle of fans.

So what happened in the meantime to inspire such a strong response to the statements from Moira and Mark Greyland? I can think of several possible reasons, all of which may have played a role. The first is that our culture has simply changed, which comes close to being a tautology. Another is that the accusations from Bradley’s children are more horrifying, because they indicate that their mother was an abuser as well as an enabler—although this doesn’t explain why her involvement with Breen had gone mostly unremarked until then. The third, which I think gets even closer to the truth, is that the fact that this information was rapidly disseminated online made it harder to ignore. (As Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker write in an article in CoinWeek: “Consider this: as a hobby and an industry, we’re actually quite fortunate that the Breen scandal erupted when it did. Had Breen’s crimes come to light in the Internet Age, the hobby as a whole could have been implicated.” And you could say much the same of the science fiction community.) A fourth explanation is that it can be difficult for us to collectively catch up with allegations that have existed for a long time, until they’ve been catalyzed by a fresh piece of news. As the events of the last two years have made clear, there’s a huge backlog of horrific behavior on the part of our artistic and literary heroes that we haven’t yet processed, in large part because we’ve been preoccupied with developments in the present. I’ve made this point before about Saul Bellow, among others, but an even more relevant example is the Nobel laureate André Gide, whose abuse of young boys was remarkably similar to Breen’s. A lot of this information is out there, but it’s been grandfathered into the conversation, and we don’t always pay attention to it until we don’t have a choice.

But there’s one more factor that may be the most significant of all, and it brings us full circle to Breen’s mentor. William Herbert Sheldon’s crimes were of a different kind, but he benefited from the existence of subcultures that allowed him to operate for years without scrutiny. The Ivy League nude posture photo scandal, as its name implies, depended on the existence of a relatively closed world that permitted Sheldon’s work to continue. I suspect that much the same holds true of the community of numismatists, who trusted him with access to rare coins that he quietly switched out for his own inferior samples, mostly because he could. And it’s worth noting that these were groups of people who presumably thought of themselves as more intelligent than average, which might actually allow such behavior to go unchallenged for longer. Breen, who became involved with Sheldon through their shared interest in both coins and gifted children, could hardly have failed to notice this. (While writing this post, incidentally, I became aware of the novel Wild Talent by Wilson Tucker, first published in 1954, about a telepath named Breen who is conscripted to work for the government. The main character is undoubtedly named after Walter Breen—Tucker named characters after prominent fans so often that it inspired its own term of art. And the timing, which seems too perfect to be just a coincidence, makes me wonder if there might be something to Jack Sarfatti’s claims about Breen and Sheldon’s work on psychic powers with children in the early fifties.) Science fiction, of course, is another such subculture. Or at least it used to be. Nowadays, it’s embedded in the mainstream, which makes it harder for predators to work undetected, or for their crimes to be covered up for long. Bad pennies, as we’ve all seen, can appear in any context. And the best way to deal with them may be to let the truth circulate as widely as possible.

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December 6, 2018 at 9:11 am

The Bad Pennies, Part 3

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On September 4, 1964, the annual World Science Fiction Convention opened its doors at the Hotel Leamington in Oakland, California. The guests of honor included Leigh Brackett, Edmond Hamilton, and Forrest Ackerman, with Anthony Boucher serving as toastmaster, but the conversation that weekend was dominated by a fan who wasn’t there. After a heated debate, Walter H. Breen had been banned from attendance by the convention committee, for reasons that were outlined by Bill Donaho in a special fanzine issue titled “The Great Breen Boondoggle, or All Berkeley Is Plunged into War.” (The newsletter was privately circulated, and Donaho asked that it not be quoted, but the complete text can be found online.) As Donaho makes abundantly clear, it was common knowledge among local fans that Breen—who had moved to Berkeley in the fifties—was a serial abuser of children. Four cases are described in detail, with allusions to numerous others. I won’t quote them here, but they’re horrifying, both in themselves and in the length of time over which they took place. Donaho writes:

Walter’s recent behavior has been getting many Berkeley parents not just alarmed, but semi-hysterical. If Walter is in the same room with a young boy, he never takes his eyes off the kid. He’ll be semi-abstractedly talking to someone else, but his eyes will be on the boy. And if the kid goes to the bathroom, Walter gets up and follows him in…Knowing Walter I can readily believe that he was completely oblivious to the obvious signs of strong objection. Those who say Walter is a child are right and as a child he is completely oblivious to other people’s desires and wishes unless hit on the head with them.

In the meantime, the prominent fan Alva Rogers said that he felt “great reluctance” to exclude anyone from the community, and he had a novel solution to ensure the safety of his own children whenever Breen came to visit: “He wanted to protect his kids of course, but that the situation was adequately handled at his house by having them barricade themselves in their room.”

But the most unbelievable aspect of the entire story is that no one involved seems to have disputed the facts themselves. What remained a source of controversy—both before the convention and long afterward—was the appropriate action to take, if any, against Breen. As Donaho writes of the reactions of two influential fans, with the name of a child redacted:

They swung between two points of view. “We must protect T—” and “We’re all kooks. Walter is just a little kookier than the rest of us. Where will it all end if we start rejecting people because they’re kooky?” So they swung from on the one hand proposing that if Walter wasn’t to be expelled, then the banning from individual homes should be extended so that club meetings were only held in such homes, and on the other hand calling the whole series of discussions “McCarthyite” and “Star Chamber.” “I don’t want Walter around T—, but if we do such a horrible thing as expelling him, I’ll quit fandom.”

On a more practical level, some of the organizers were concerned that if they banned Breen, they would also lose Marion Zimmer Bradley, who married him shortly before the convention began. When informed of the controversy, Breen explicitly threatened to keep Bradley away, which led to much consternation. Donaho explains: “Many of us like Marion and all this is not a very pleasant welcome to Berkeley for her. Not to mention the fact that it’s going to severely strain her relations with almost all Berkeley fans, since naturally she will defend Walter…We feel that she most probably at least knows about some of Walter’s affairs with adolescent males but believes in tolerance.”

Even after the decision was made, the wounds remained raw, and many writers and fans seemed to frame the entire incident primarily in terms of its impact on the community. In the second volume of his biography In Dialogue With His Century, William H. Patterson quotes a letter that Heinlein sent to Marion Zimmer Bradley on July 15, 1965:

The fan nuisance we were subjected to was nothing like as nasty as the horrible things that were done to you two but it was bad enough that we could get nothing else done during the weeks it went on and utterly spoiled what should have been a pleasant, happy winter. But it resulted in a decision which has made our life much pleasanter already…We have cut off all contact with organized fandom. I regret that we will miss meeting some worthwhile people in the future as the result of this decision. But the percentage of poisonous jerks in the ranks of fans makes the price too high; we’ll find our friends elsewhere.

Patterson, typically, doesn’t scrutinize this statement, moving on immediately to an unrelated story about Jerry Pournelle with the transition: “Fortunately, not all their fan interactions were were so unpleasant.” His only discussion of the incident takes the form of a footnote in which he quotes “a good short discussion” of the Breendoggle from a glossary of fan terms: “The sole point fans on both sides can agree upon is that the resulting feud had long-lasting effects [and] tore the fabric of the microcosm beyond repair…The opposing forces retired to lick their wounds and assure themselves that they had been undeniably right while the other side had been unmistakably wrong.”

By now, I hope that we can arrive at another “single point” of agreement, which is that fandom, in its effort to see itself as a place of inclusiveness for the “kooks,” disastrously failed to protect Breen’s victims. In 1991, Breen was charged with eight felony counts of child molestation and sentenced to ten years in prison—which led in turn to a comparable moment of reckoning in another subculture in which he had played an even more prominent role. Breen was renowned among coin collectors as the author of such reference works as the Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, and the reaction within the world of numismatics was strikingly similar to what had taken place a quarter of a century earlier in Berkeley. As Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker write in an excellent article in CoinWeek:

Even in 1991, with the seeming finality of a confession and a ten-year prison sentence, it was like the sci-fi dustups of the 1960s all over again. This time, however, it was coin collectors and fans of Breen’s numismatic work that came to his defense. One such defender was fellow author John D. Wright, who wrote a letter to Coin World that stated: “My friend Walter Breen has confessed to a sin, and for this, other friends of mine have picked up stones to throw at him.” Wright criticized the American Numismatic Association for revoking Breen’s membership mere weeks after awarding him the Heath Literary Award, saying that while he did not condone Breen’s “lewd and lascivious acts,” he did not see the charge, Breen’s guilty plea or subsequent conviction as “reason for expulsion from the ANA or from any other numismatic organization.”

It’s enough to make you wonder if anything has changed in the last fifty years—but I think that it has. And the best example is the response to a more recent series of revelations about the role of Marion Zimmer Bradley. I’ll dive into this in greater detail tomorrow, in what I hope will be my final post on the subject.

The Bad Pennies, Part 2

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William Herbert Sheldon achieved his greatest fame by classifying human beings into degrees of three basic categories—ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph—based on their physical proportions. At exactly the same time, and with far more enduring results, he did something similar for rare coins. In 1949, he developed what became known as the Sheldon coin grading scale, a modified version of which is used to this day by numismatists and coin collectors. In his book Early American Cents, Sheldon notes that numismatists gain much of their knowledge from studying photographs of coins, and he continues:

A workable idea can be formed as to how the various shades of condition from a poor coin to a perfect coin can be scaled or graded. This progression is of course a continuum, not a series of discrete steps, and for those who think quantitatively rather than adjectivally it is more accurate to grade coins on a numerical scale than to try to fit them into a series of adjectival pigeonholes.

Sheldon goes on to provide “a quantitative scale of condition” for the coins known as large cents, ranging from 1 to 70, with the highest rating reserved for specimens in an uncirculated state. And while I don’t know enough about Sheldon to speculate on the direction of influence, the entire project was strikingly similar to his work on somatotypes, which classified individuals on a quantitative scale, ranging from 1 to 7, based on the close examination of photos.

Both aspects of Sheldon’s career were also tainted by what appears to have been a deep streak of dishonesty. One of his former assistants, Barbara Honeyman Heath, said decades later that Sheldon had “mutilated and manipulated the materials” for his book Atlas of Men, and an even stranger scandal emerged after his death. In the course of his research on large cents, Sheldon frequently studied the examples held by the American Numismatic Society in New York, including a collection donated by the numismatist George H. Clapp. As a legal filing states:

ANS took physical possession of the Clapp collection in 1947. At some time after ANS’s receipt of the Clapp collection and before 1973, a number of coins were surreptitiously stolen from the Clapp collection by someone who replaced the Clapp coins with coins of the same variety but of inferior grade…The late William Sheldon, a preeminent classifier, cataloguer, and collector of large cents, lived near the ANS until 1973. During that time, Sheldon spent much time at ANS, unguarded, examining the Clapp collection. In 1973-1974, the ANS catalogued its Clapp collection and discovered that some of the coins had been switched for inferior coins of the same variety.

In 1991, a collector published a book, United States Large Cents, that included photos of coins that had been acquired from Sheldon. After closer scrutiny, they were identified as the coins that had been stolen from the Clapp collection—and Sheldon also appears to have pilfered coins from at least four other private collectors, switching them out in each case with inferior examples of his own.

Sheldon’s thefts evidently took place during his research for Early American Cents and its successor, which was titled Penny Whimsy. The revised edition was prepared by Sheldon in collaboration with Walter H. Breen, a much younger numismatist whom he had met while teaching at Columbia University. The two men worked together on what become known as the Sheldon-Breen rarity scale, which rates a coin’s scarcity on a scale from 1 to 9. And much as in Sheldon’s case, Breen’s interest in coins was mirrored in his fascination with unusual human beings, particularly those of high intelligence. Breen was an early member of Mensa, and he evidently attempted to start a program for gifted children that may have involved Sheldon. Our primary source here is Jack Sarfatti, a controversial physicist with ties to Uri Geller, who has made some unusual claims about this project:

I was part of a group of super kids, these genius kids that were being studied at the Columbia University Laboratory of William Sheldon, and one of his assistants, a Walter Breen—we’re talking like 1953…It was also connected to the government.  It had something to do with what later became Sandia Labs in New Mexico…There were experiments, and they would just sit with the kids, you know, trying to get them to move objects.  We never moved anything, but there was a whole program going on about this.  Also, they talked about aliens and flying saucers, trying to figure out how they fly, and all that kind of stuff, it was a lot of science fiction.

In the same interview, Sarfatti claimed that Alan Greenspan had been involved, and that “it was all connected somehow with Ayn Rand,” which is more plausible than it sounds. Sarfatti also stated that Breen often took the kids to science fiction conventions, and he added: “Oh, and I met Isaac Asimov at that time.”

Whether or not we take this seriously, it’s obvious that Breen was interested in fringe aspects of psychology, often with a paranormal or mystical element, which he later called “biological humanics.” (Breen said in an interview that he investigated various subcultures as a sociologist, “including not only the Beat Generation groups on both coasts but also some of the very earliest hippies, finding out incidentally that some ideas that the bunch of us had developed in science fiction fandom had gotten into the hippie subculture and were being paraded around as their own inventions.” He also said that he had broken away from Sheldon after becoming concerned by his antisemitism.) And another side of his work wouldn’t become widely known for some time. In the critical anthology Before Stonewall, the scholar Donald Mader writes:

Walter Henry Breen (also known under his pseudonym J.Z. Eglinton) was the most important theorist of man-boy love to appear since the German figures…in the first third of the twentieth century…Breen independently affirmed, as they had, the distinction between what he termed “Greek love” (pederasty, or intergenerational homosexual relationships) and “androphile homosexuality” (eroticism between adult males)…He himself argued that androphile homosexuality had usurped the “true” tradition of homosexuality which belonged to Greek love.

Writing as Eglinton, Breen published a book on the subject, Greek Love, which he dedicated to his wife Marion Zimmer Bradley, who became famous decades later as the author of The Mists of Avalon—and it eventually became clear that both Breen and Bradley were guilty of offenses that far outweighed Sheldon’s thievery and deception. I’ll talk more about this in a concluding post tomorrow.

The Bad Pennies, Part 1

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For the last couple of months, I’ve been trying to pull together the tangled ends of a story that seems so complicated—and which encompasses so many unlikely personalities—that I doubt that I’ll ever get to the bottom of it, at least not without devoting more time to the project than I currently have to spare. (It really requires a good biography, and maybe two, and in the meantime, I’m just going to throw out a few leads in the hopes that somebody else will follow up.) It centers on a man named William Herbert Sheldon, who was born in 1898 and died in 1977. Sheldon was a psychologist and numismatist who received his doctorate from the University of Chicago and studied under Carl Jung. He’s best known today for his theory of somatotypes, which classified all human beings into degrees of endomorph, mesomorph, or ectomorph, based on their physical proportions. Sheldon argued that an individual’s build was an indication of character and ability, as Ron Rosenbaum wrote over twenty years ago in a fascinating investigative piece for the New York Times:

[Sheldon] believed that every individual harbored within him different degrees of each of the three character components. By using body measurements and ratios derived from nude photographs, Sheldon believed he could assign every individual a three-digit number representing the three components, components that Sheldon believed were inborn—genetic—and remained unwavering determinants of character regardless of transitory weight change. In other words, physique equals destiny.

Sheldon’s work carried obvious overtones of eugenics, even racism, which must have been evident to many observers even at the time. (In the early twenties, Sheldon wrote a paper titled “The Intelligence of Mexican Children,” in which he asserted that “Negro intelligence” comes to a “standstill at about the tenth year.”) And these themes became even more explicit in the writings of his closest collaborator, the anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton. In the fifties, Hooton’s “research” on the physical attributes that were allegedly associated with criminality was treated with guarded respect even by the likes of Martin Gardner, who wrote in his book Fads and Fallacies:

The theory that criminals have characteristic “stigmata”—facial and bodily features which distinguish them from other men—was…revived by Professor Earnest A. Hooton, of the Harvard anthropology faculty. In a study made in the thirties, Dr. Hooton found all kinds of body correlations with certain types of criminality. For example, robbers tend to have heavy beards, diffused pigment in the iris, attached ear lobes, and six other body traits. Hooton must not be regarded as a crank, however—his work is too carefully done to fall into that category—but his conclusions have not been accepted by most of his colleagues, who think his research lacked adequate controls.

Gardner should have known better. Hooton, like Sheldon, was obsessed with dividing up human beings on the basis of their morphological characteristics, as he wrote in the Times in 1936: “Our real purpose should be to segregate and eliminate the unfit, worthless, degenerate and anti-social portion of each racial and ethnic strain in our population, so that we may utilize the substantial merits of the sound majority, and the special and diversified gifts of its superior members.”

Sheldon and Hooton’s work reached its culmination, or nadir, in one of the strangest episodes in the history of anthropology, which Rosenbaum’s article memorably calls “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal.” For decades, such institutions as Harvard College had photographed incoming freshmen in the nude, supposedly to look for signs of scoliosis and rickets. Sheldon and Hooton took advantage of these existing programs to take nude photos of students, both male and female, at colleges including Harvard, Radcliffe, Princeton, Yale, Wellesley, and Vassar, ostensibly to study posture, but really to gather raw data for their work on somatotypes. The project went on for decades, and Rosenbaum points out that the number of famous alumni who had their pictures taken staggers the imagination: “George Bush, George Pataki, Brandon Tartikoff and Bob Woodward were required to do it at Yale. At Vassar, Meryl Streep; at Mount Holyoke, Wendy Wasserstein; at Wellesley, Hillary Rodham and Diane Sawyer.” After some diligent sleuthing, Rosenbaum determined that most of these photographs were later destroyed, but a collection of negatives survived at the National Anthropological Archives in the Smithsonian, where he was ultimately allowed to view some of them. He writes of the experience:

As I thumbed rapidly through box after box to confirm that the entries described in the Finder’s Aid were actually there, I tried to glance at only the faces. It was a decision that paid off, because it was in them that a crucial difference between the men and the women revealed itself. For the most part, the men looked diffident, oblivious. That’s not surprising considering that men of that era were accustomed to undressing for draft physicals and athletic-squad weigh-ins. But the faces of the women were another story. I was surprised at how many looked deeply unhappy, as if pained at being subjected to this procedure. On the faces of quite a few I saw what looked like grimaces, reflecting pronounced discomfort, perhaps even anger.

And it’s clearly the women who bore the greatest degree of lingering humiliation and fear. Rumors circulated for years that the pictures had been stolen and sold, and such notable figures as Nora Ephron, Sally Quinn, and Judith Martin speak candidly to Rosenbaum of how they were haunted by these memories. (Quinn tells him: “You always thought when you did it that one day they’d come back to haunt you. That twenty-five years later, when your husband was running for president, they’d show up in Penthouse.” For the record, according to Rosenbaum, when the future Hillary Clinton attended Wellesley, undergraduates were allowed to take the pictures “only partly nude.”) Rosenbaum captures the unsavory nature of the entire program in terms that might have been published yesterday:

Suddenly the subjects of Sheldon’s photography leaped into the foreground: the shy girl, the fat girl, the religiously conservative, the victim of inappropriate parental attention…In a culture that already encourages women to scrutinize their bodies critically, the first thing that happens to these women when they arrive at college is an intrusive, uncomfortable, public examination of their nude bodies.

If William Herbert Sheldon’s story had ended there, it would be strange enough, but there’s a lot more to be told. I haven’t even mentioned his work as a numismatist, which led to a stolen penny scandal that rocked the world of coin collecting as deeply as the nude photos did the Ivy League. But the real reason I wanted to talk about him involves one of his protégés, whom Sheldon met while teaching in the fifties at Columbia. His name was Walter H. Breen, who later married the fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley—which leads us in turn to one of the darkest episodes in the entire history of science fiction. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2018 at 8:35 am

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