Juanita Coulson's Reminiscence of Fandom in 1953

by Juanita Coulson
Adapted from Noreascon Four's Introduction to the Retro Hugo Awards for 1953.

1953 was a critical year for fandom in a great many ways. The SF magazine boom had passed its peak. Fanzine editorials and fan correspondence were filled with worried speculation that if the collapse continued there wouldn't be anything left for us to read. Such concern was valid. Remember: in 1953 the SF and Fantasy magazines drove our entire subculture; there were precious few hardbacks or paperbacks around. And fans in those days, even fannish fans, were thoroughly addicted to reading science fiction. Media SF, for the most part, just didn't exist. By and large, fans were a pretty serious bunch, still infected with leftover viruses of the technocracy-loving fandom of the 30s and 40s.

In 1953 another aspect of fandom that's now taken for granted—the convention—was even more rare than hardbacks and paperbacks. We had Midwestcon, Philcon, Westercon, one or two others, and the all-important annual Worldcon. The last was the highlight of the year—for those fans who lived close enough geographically or were well enough off financially to attend. Travel and salaries during that decade didn't even come close to what the 21st Century regards as "normal".

Let's look at Philcon '53, the 11th Worldcon. James Williams, the chairman, had died early in the year and was replaced by scientist Milt Rothman. Bob Madle, still active today as a bookseller specializing in SF, was treasurer. Willy Ley was GoH. The con was held at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel—and fans made kilotons of jokes about the first part of that name.

Registration cost a dollar, the banquet, $5.75. Nearly every male fan who attended wore a tie, and most wore a suit. Females, then less than 1/10th of the fannish population, wore dresses, and not only to the banquet. I can prove this, because professional photographer "Zinni", using a fish-eye lens, took a picture of the entire banquet assembly. As it happens, I own two copies of said photo; Buck Coulson and I weren't yet married and we both bought one. Time has faded the color to sepia, but most of the faces are still recognizable.

Pros, and pros-to-be, galore: Robert Bloch, Julie Schwartz, Isaac Asimov, Willy and Olga Ley, Tom Clareson, Sprague de Camp, Gordy Dickson, John and Peg Campbell, Phil Farmer, Doc Smith, Lloyd Eshbach, Judy May and Ted Dikty, Evelyn Paige Gold.

And fans. The Detroit Mob: Fred Prophet, Ben Jason, et al. The Cleveland Gang: Harlan Ellison, Honey Wood, etc. The Cincinnati Bunch: Doc Barrett, Don and Margaret Ford, Ben Kiefer, Stan Skirvin. Chicago: Earl and Nancy Kemp. Oh yes, and a smattering of Indiana fans and their friends: Lee Tremper (now Lavell), Gene DeWeese, Buck Coulson, Bob Briney, later to write texts for NASA, and Sid Coleman, who in his current career as a physicist has rubbed elbows and discussed abstruse subjects with Feynman and other world-famous colleagues.

For someone who was active in fandom at the time, it was disappointing that certain well-known fans weren't able to attend the convention. Where, for instance, was Joel Nydahl, editor of Vega? In the previous year he burst upon the fannish cosmos like a supernova. Vega's annish (anniversary issue) was 100 pages—absolutely unheard of in that era. And it was chock full of both fan and pro contributors. If there had been an award for fanzines, Joel certainly would have rated a nomination.

Unfortunately, the "Hugos" were brand new that year, and there was no category for fanzines. Also unfortunately, Joel's annish was his fan swan song. He'd gone deeply in debt to produce that beautiful publication, and his father bailed him out solely on the condition that he quit fandom forever. So Joel did, alas, and fandom lost who knows how many more brilliant demonstrations of his skills. And the kid was only 14!

Hugos. That designation was still unofficial in 1953. A number of fans had already begun agitating in favor of other nicknames for the miniature rocket ships—"Vernes", for one. But "Hugo" eventually won out. Asimov, as he was to be at many a subsequent Worldcon banquet, was Philcon's Toastmaster. Astounding Science Fiction (it wasn't Analog, yet) and Galaxy tied for the top award. Campbell and Evelyn Paige Gold accepted their rockets jointly. "Best Interior Illustrator"—I believe they were making up award names as they went along—was, justifiably, Virgil Finlay. "New Discovery of the Year" was Phil Farmer, for, naturally, "The Lovers".

And that was it. No fanzine Hugo. No Fan Writer Hugo. No Semi-Pro Publication Hugo. All of those came later. Much later. If there had been such awards in 1953, which names would have risen to the top? Harlan, for Dimensions? Probably. Lee Hoffman, for Quandry? Probably. Fantasy-Times, as the "Newspaper of Fandom"? Maybe. The content was informative, but the style made for dull reading. Then there were all those other fanzines out there, either being published or in the planning stages. And many of those fanzines were edited by future pros such as Robert Silverberg, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Terry Carr.

Fifties' fandom was marvelously incestuous; well-established pros were not too proud to contribute to fanzines "for the usual" —a free issue or wow! a free sub! And there were still more fans in '53 who were already in the process of honing their writing skills and preparing to make their leaps on up to paying markets.

However, there was a darker side to 50s' fandom as well, just as there had been in earlier eras during the "exclusion act" days at previous Worldcons. In 1953, fandom, like the rest of the US, was being dragged, often kicking and screaming, into more modern attitudes. That's ironic, given the nature of science fiction, with its interstellar outlook. 50s fandom sometimes was prone to follow the patterns of the larger society around us. Voting for the site of the next Worldcon, for example.

There was no Rotation Rule in 1953. Nor had there been the previous year. At Chicon II in 1952, nominations for the site were thrown wide open. San Francisco, enthusiastically backed by The Elves, Gnomes, and Little Men's Science Fiction, Chowder, and Marching Society of Berkeley, assumed that it would be the west coast's turn to host the con in '53. They came to Chicago expecting that, and rightly so.

It didn't happen. Down and dirty politicking took over. Most of the attendees—and everyone sitting in the meeting hall could vote, as many times as it took to get a majority—made a choice on the basis of "can I get to the con in 1953?" Since the majority of the fans attending lived in the Midwest, they voted for Philly. Afterward, following considerable rehashing, recrimination, and bitterness expressed in fanzine lettercols, second thoughts and guilt set in. By the time Philcon rolled around, the fans felt they were duty bound to vote for San Francisco in '54—even if we had no real chance of attending a west coast con. So that's what we did.

The movement that was to become the Worldcon Rotation System began there. That powerful aftermath feeling of "San Francisco was gypped" helped change fannish opinions. Later the rotation plan was taken for granted, and now it's gone again. Fans can now spend their time arguing over far more important subjects like whether it's obligatory to hold a NASFIC in the US any time the Worldcon goes overseas. Ah, progress!

Nevertheless, the rotation plan was a change for the better, and Philcon was, for a small chunk of fandom in the Great Lakes, a major change for the better in quite another way.

Consider the times. Earlier in the year, Midwestcon was held in the Indian Lake district of Ohio, at a resort hotel Bob "Hoy Ping Pong" Tucker dubbed "Beastley's On the Bayou." Actually, the owner's name was "Beatley," but Tucker's version suited the proprietor much better.

Harlan held court in his inimitable fashion. Arthur C. Clarke also was in attendance; he'd been touring the US, and showed the fans some beautiful color slides he'd taken on his trip. That was the highlight of Saturday evening's "programming". Randall Garrett got in a fight with the House Dick—the proprietor's son, actually, and showed up later on with a black eye. The banquet was rubber turkey, enlivened by Tucker tossing barbs at all his friends and Ray Beam stabbing himself with a couldn't-cut-butter cheap table knife, and getting an emergency patch job off stage, courtesy of Doc Barrett.

But three would-be attendees didn't get to enjoy any of that. They arrived at "Beastley's" and were told that one of their reservations had evaporated; the whites in the fan group could stay, but a black fan friend accompanying them could not. The whites volunteered to sleep in the car and give their black friend the room. At which point, quite abruptly, nobody had a reservation. Other fans, having overheard this outrageous exchange, gathered around the hotel registration desk and argued hotly with the proprietor, to no avail. Harlan promised that he'd expose "Beastley's" bigotry to all of fandom, using his fanzine as a platform. Though as far as I can remember, that never happened.

None of the protests had any effect. And in 1953 there was no legal recourse whatsoever for the situation. The hotel proprietor, in effect, was the law. The three disappointed—and furious — fans were forced to get back in their car and drive home without ever enjoying a single con function.

Later in the year, Philcon was coming up. Once badly burned, now very wary, the fans and their friends wrote to the Bellevue-Stratford to ask about their racial policies. A hurt reply returned: "This is the city of Brotherly Love. Of course everyone in your party will be welcome." And they were. The first sight those Midwestern fans saw when they arrived at the hotel was a huge banner stretched across the lobby reading "Welcome Urban League". Indeed, the lobby was filled by a veritable rainbow coalition of humanity.

The second sight that greeted them was Harlan rushing across the lobby to embrace just-arrived Robert Briney and scream, "My Old Pal! You made it!" Fans established friendships largely through correspondence, in those days, and face to face contact was, indeed, a cause for delight. But it did make for an extremely odd scene. Briney is well over six feet tall. Harlan is very much not.

One final detail about Philcon '53, one that may make today's beleaguered concoms feel better. Fifty years later, how many concoms have discovered at the last moment that their printer blew up, the disk drive died, and nothing that's supposed to be ready for the inrushing horde of fans is ready? When we arrived at Philcon in 1953 and walked up to con registration, we were given "Hello, My Name Is_" badges, and told: 1) The "real" badges would be ready as soon as possible, and 2) The programs would be ready as soon as possible. Harlan and others suggested a collating party. After all, a lot of us were fanzine editors. We'd had plenty of practice with this. So why not? We could sit in the lobby and assemble our own program packages, and program packages for everyone else.

Fandom being what it is—and was then—that suggestion became swift-flying rumor and eventually was stated as fact in a number of fanzines, though most of the editors of those fanzines didn't actually attend the con, of course.

But when did having all the facts in hand ever stop a fanzine editor, or a science fiction writer, from concocting a good story?

Rest assured, though, none of the above is concocted. The memories are still vivid, and they're confirmed by my dusty file of EISFA / Yandros and those fish-eye banquet photos from Philcon. Honest to Ghu, I vas dere, and that's the way fandom was in 1953.

Editors' Note: You can also read Robert Silverberg's recollections of his 1953 fandom as he reflects on Coulson's article.