Sam Moskowitz' SFcon Reminiscence

1954SFCon, San Francisco: Convention Politics
by Sam Moskowitz
From the Noreascon Three PB

Sir Francis Drake Hotel, San Francisco, September 3-6, 1954. Run by Lester and Esther Cole, assisted by Ben Stark, Anthony Boucher, Gary J. Nelson, Poul & Karen Anderson. Held in conjunction with the annual Westercon, with John W. Campbell Guest of Honor of the world convention and Jack Williamson Guest of Honor of the Westercon.

The story of the San Francisco Convention really started in Chicago in 1952, when the sponsors put on the finest convention party of any bidder to elicit support, a party jammed with celebrities. It was there I first met Philip Jose Farmer, and Raymond A. Palmer. William Lawrence Hamling and Rog Phillips were circulating around.

This was the first convention at which something close to 1,000 people had attended, and most of them were from the eastern part of the country and knew nothing about fan politics. When the bids were put in, it was obvious that an eastern city, like New York, would win it no matter what San Francisco did. But the problem was there were two bids for New York. One from the Hydra Club, a group of professionals, and the other from the Queens Science Fiction League, headed by William S. Sykora. The two were at each other's throats and the attendees had no way of distinguishing between them. In order to prevent the convention from going to the Queens Science Fiction League, members of the Hydra Club and the Eastern Science Fiction Association of Newark, N.J. (which I headed and which was the largest club on the east coast at the time), went into collusion. We talked Jim Williams, a Philadelphia book dealer who also was a partner in Prime Press, a specialty fantasy book publishing firm, as well as an officer in the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, to get Philadelphia to make a bid, even though they had no such plans. Then, when the voting was about to begin, we had David Kyle get up and announce as one would at a political convention: "That New York withdraws and throws its vote and support to Philadelphia!" Now the audience never stopped to think that there were two New York bids. They assumed that New York was out of the running, and since Philadelphia was an eastern city, easily accessible to them.

Philadelphia won, but in the voting at Philadelphia, The Hydra Club, The Eastern Science Fiction Association, and The Philadelphia Science Fiction Society united to push San Francisco into the winning spot by 30 votes, thereby expiating their ploy of the previous year.

San Francisco was great fun, but expenses had far exceeded expectations. In those days, memberships were only about $1.00 and not a major source of income. The auction was the prime source of income. I was the auctioneer and I auctioned hour after hour, as the convention committee wrung their hands for fear they would not be able to cover expenses. Every hour I would ask Les Cole how we stood, and every hour he would tell me "We're still in the red." Fortunately my voice and items for auction held out, and when Les told me they had broken even I quit the auctioneer's stand and let someone else take over.

While the convention was in progress the hardcover edition of my The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom arrived by air express from the Atlanta Science Fiction Association, which were the publishers. There were 25 copies, selling for $5.00 apiece, and I immediately began peddling them. I sold them all before the end of the convention, the most enthusiastic immediate reaction coming from Willy Ley, rocket expert, who with his family was in the room next to mine. "I got no sleep last night," he said as we both left our rooms for breakfast simultaneously the next morning. "You kept me up all night reading your damn book and now I find it needs a sequel!"

One of the most unusual programs at the convention was an "opera" made from Ray Bradbury's short story "A Scent of Sarsaparilla" with avant garde music by Charles Hamm and an impressive chorus. The play was very well done, with professional narration by Anthony Boucher, but the music has remained unmemorable. It was the world premiere and it was performed twice. Bradbury was not present at the convention.

One fascinating aspect of the publicity of the convention, which could only be realized many decades later with the advantage of hindsight, was a write-up which was written by local fan William J. Eisenlord and which appeared in the October 1, 1954 issue of the San Francisco weekly magazine The Argonaut. In 1980 Donald M. Grant issued in two volumes my book Science Fiction in Old San Francisco. The first volume was subtitled "History of the Movement." At the heart of the movement was the story of the old weekly The Argonaut, started in 1878 with Ambrose Bierce as the first editor, and which published hundreds of science fiction, fantasy, supernatural, and horror stories at least up to the earthquake of 1906. It was, during that early period, the leading source of regular science fiction and fantasy in the United States. Now here was that same weekly in 1954, publishing an account of a science fiction convention. Its pivotal role had been buried with the rubble and fires of 1906 and would not be revived until the results of my excavations appeared in 1980.

The most disappointing aspect of the convention for me had nothing to do with anything on the formal or informal program. A fan approached me and asked me if I would be interested in buying five copies of the legendary pulp Thrill Book. He said they were owned by a friend of his, who had bought them decades ago, and now was willing to sell. A price was agreed upon and I was supposed to meet the individual with the Thrill Books in the lobby of the hotel the next day at 6:00 pm. He didn't show. The individual I had negotiated with contacted me and said something had come up, the man would meet me the next day. He didn't show. It was another 15 years before I was able to pick up a good run of the Thrill Book.