They are leaving us too fast. I’m speaking of the writers of my generation or the one just before me. Not long ago it was Ed Bryant. (Happily, we were able to chat with him for an hour in MileHiCon, just a few days before he died. Damn it, he seemed fine.) Then it was Ursula K. Le Guin, then our friend Mary Rosenblum, then our friend Kate Wilhelm. Yesterday it was one of the giants.
Harlan. That’s all you really needed to say. It’s one of those names where only one name is necessary, like Oprah, or Elvis, or O.J., or Madonna.
I’m not going to say much about his career, his bibliography or filmography, his triumphs, his feuds, his many lawsuits, his mercurial personality. There are literally hundreds of obits you can read, some of them even reasonably accurate. I will say that if you were his friend, he would go to any length to help you. But lord help you if you made an enemy of him.
Likewise, you can easily find a lot of amusing or scandalous stories about him, from the time he decked Sinatra to the time he grabbed Connie Willis by the breast. Some of the stories are even true. What I want to do is just share one story about Harlan. It’s mostly true.
He was my friend, but I can’t claim him as a close friend. I wish I could. We were seldom in the same room together. Oddly enough, the most time I ever spent with him was a week at the Metz SF Festival, in France. Can’t recall the year. We were able to get to know each other pretty well. There were many lunches and dinners along with a dozen or so of our hosts where we stuffed ourselves with fine French food and guzzled wine and obscure and interesting liqueurs. Of course, Harlan dominated any room he ever entered, but that was okay. I’d rather listen, anyway.
Other than that, our relationship was largely over the phone. When I started getting involved in screenwriting in Hollywood we had long late-night conversations where he gave me good advice, things he had learned in the constant war that was his life in the movie business. He steered me away from less obvious pitfalls, told me what to look for, and what to look out for.
At some point (I’m terrible about dates) my wife and I were traveling from Eugene, Oregon, to Phoenix for a convention where I was to be the professional Guest of Honor. I hadn’t done all that many GoH gigs at that point, and was quite nervous about the whole thing. Then a late arrival at LAX meant that we reached the gate for Phoenix just as the plane was pulling away. United Airlines managed to wedge us onto another flight … leaving in eight hours. We had a lot of time to kill, and no money for a taxi to go anywhere interesting. So just for fun, I called Harlan on a pay phone, intending to have a bit of a laugh at how we were in the same town and just missing each other.
He never hesitated: “Rent a car. I’ll pay for it.”
Well, okay. I went to the Hertz counter. Understand, I had never rented a car, had never even entertained the idea. We were pretty poor. I drove piece of shit hoopties that we paid $200 for, if that. I hadn’t realized you needed a credit card. Which I didn’t have. So I retreated from the Hertz desk, tail between my legs, a bit embarrassed by the whole thing.
Called Harlan back. Told him it was a no go. He gave me his credit card number and said give it to the guy at the counter, and everything would be all right. (Please note, I had never met him, never even talked to him. He did all this on the strength of having bought a story from me for The Last Dangerous Visions.) So back I went. The guy at the counter was actually a girl. Who informed me, not without sympathy, that Hertz would never, never, never rent a car without an actual imprint from a credit card. Never had, never would, couldn’t even entertain the notion, company policy, carved in stone, written in the blood of virgins, yea verily, world without end, amen.
So I called Harlan back with the bad news. “Give me her name.”
So I did, and we waited at the counter until her phone rang. She directed the people in line to another line, and began talking to Harlan. “No sir, never have, never would, couldn’t even …” Then she stopped talking and just listened. I’d have given as much money as I had on me to overhear that conversation, but it was not to be. Soon she called over her superior, the manager of Hertz at LAX. He started talking. “No sir, never have, never …” And he stopped talking and started listening.
It took about fifteen or twenty minutes. Finally the woman beckoned us over. She had a slightly bewildered expression on her face. Not unhappy, but a little stunned. She handed us the papers and the keys to a brand-new Ford. I don’t think I had ever driven a brand-new car before. Don’t they smell good?
I followed Harlan’s directions. When you get to Ellison Wonderland, there is no possible mistaking that structure for any of the bland homes around it. It’s like someone dropped a section of an Aztec temple right into the San Fernando Valley hills. Except that bas-relief looks more like the second cousin of Cthulhu or a bad dream by H.R. Giger than an Aztec deity.
To the right is a balcony … protected by coils of razor wire! Harlan’s enemies were numerous, and even his fans could be a bit crazy. He almost backed over one adoring idiot who had rolled out his sleeping bag and was sacked out behind his car! There is afabulous wooden front door carved by (I believe) Leo and Diane Dillon. One night somebody drove by and threw eggs at it. It left permanent stains. People had strong opinions about Harlan.
He bought the house sometime in the ‘60s, settled in, and never moved again. He made it his nest, and his refuge. For over fifty years he added on to it and remodeled it extensively, and even gave it a name: Ellison Wonderland. And believe me, beyond that door are marvels far too numerous to describe, but I’ll give you a taste.
Everywhere there were bookshelves. It was all fiction, both SF and mystery and other genre stuff, as well as “mainstream.” Though it looked chaotic Harlan was able to go right to a particular book I told him I had been looking for in thrift shops. (It was Lemons Never Lie, by Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark.) I remember he showed me a closet which was full of copies of the Los Angeles Free Press, where he had been writing a column on television for a long time. Those essays were eventually published in book form as The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. (Shit, I wonder if those books would even be publishable in these politically correct days.)
Literally every square inch of wall space that was not covered by a bookshelf was devoted to art. There was so much of it that it had been fitted together like a puzzle, or as if by a bricklayer or stonemason. It was amazing, iconic stuff, by artists like Richard Powers, Frank Frazetta, Kelly Freas, Vincent di Fate, Ed Emshwiller, Virgil Finlay, and John Schoenherr, as well as many others. These were the original oils and sketches and etchings and so forth, not reproductions, beautifully framed. Any SF fan would instantly recognize many if not most of them from well-known magazine and paperback covers of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Harlan had a great eye for art. There were also little cubbies and niches and display cases and glassed-in alcoves displaying sculpture, all illuminated as in a great museum.
The living room was grand, the kitchen lovely, the rest of the house just packed with interesting things. But the crowning glory was the office. It is very much like the office I would have, right down to the location, if I had that kind of money to spend. Except for the door …
The thing is, Harlan was short. Quite short. I haven’t been able to find a reliable estimate of just how short, but trust me, most men were taller than him. I don’t think he worried about that too much most of the time, but when he had his office built he included something that I think was intended to humble all who entered. The only way to enter it was through a door that was about four feet high. A hobbit door, though it was round only at the top. Harlan himself had to bend over to go through that door. Everyone who entered his office had to bend down. I myself am 6’5”, and had to practically kneel and crawl.
But it was worth the obeisance. Beyond that door was the main reason to call the house Wonderland.
It was on two levels. There was a spiral stair that took you to the top level. The whole very large room was floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. These were mostly non-fiction, a huge reference library. I have been in public branch libraries that didn’t have a lot more books. They were filed according to the Dewey Decimal System, accessed by a card catalog. His secretary had a major job just keeping up with the filing. Down there on the bottom level was a pool table, up on the top level, behind the railing, were more and more books.
There was a quite extensive section devoted to books and magazines which contained stories or non-fiction written by him. I mean, quite extensive. He published well over 1,000 stories. Somewhere in there was his Edgar Allen Poe award, and Hugo and Nebula awards and other brass and Lucite and framed paper. And remember, this was enough years in the past that you could say he was just getting started.
His actual office space was a cluttered alcove with a desk and files and an Olympia typewriter. Not only did Harlan never switch to a computer, he never even used an electric typewriter. He was a two-finger typist. He was very, very fast, and very accurate. He used to regularly sit in the windows of bookstores and puff on his pipe and write stories, so you could see he wasn’t exaggerating. For the last few decades he has stockpiled Olympia typewriters, because they have gotten hard to find, and hard to repair. I heard that he had eight or nine of them. Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
There was a state-of-the-art sound system, with speakers of studio quality. I’d never seen speakers like them, and the sound was fabulous.
He ordered up a big mess of ribs and potato salad and cornbread and so forth from a place down on Ventura Boulevard, and when it was delivered we chowed down and got into all sorts of conversations. It was a memorable night. One of the best I can remember.
There’s not much more that I can say, except to get into the legend. He claimed, to my face, that there was a hidden door somewhere in the office. If you opened it, you gained access to a stairway that took you down to a grotto, a man cave, a woman trap, with a spa and other unnamed erotic delights. But no one was allowed down there except for Harlan and whatever woman he was seducing. No other man had ever been allowed down there.
If such a space actually existed, or still exists, there must be many women who could attest to it, but so far as I know, no one has. It’s either a secret or a fantasy. With anyone else I’d say it was bullshit, and it must be said that Harlan was not above embroidering the truth, or even slinging some bullshit himself. But also with Harlan, the most outrageous things could turn out to be true.
It’s hard for me to imagine a universe that contains a Donald Trump and no longer holds a Harlan Ellison. What the hell are we going to do without Harlan? The world is a much worse place for the existence of the first one, and the absence of the other. My feeling of doom, which has been growing every day since November 8, 2016, just took a quantum leap downward. I can’t avoid the feeling that we are really, really fucked. Really fucked.
July 1, 2018