December 1, 2009
Among my most congenial memories are those of the mid 1970s, when I knew Ed and Leigh Hamilton during the last few years they were alive. Edmond Hamilton was one of our earliest science fiction writers; his first story was published in 1926, and he was among that small coterie of writers for the magazine Weird Tales who, in the 1920s and 1930s, laid the foundations for the science fiction and fantasy adventure fiction so commonplace today. Leigh Brackett began her career writing hard-boiled detective fiction, worked off and on in Hollywood with Howard Hawks on some of his best movies (such as The Big Sleep), and was one of the first women to write science fiction. She completed the first draft of the script for The Empire Strikes Back just before her death.
Mr. Hamilton was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and raised in Kinsman, just north of where I was raised in Liberty Township in Trumbull County. I didn’t realize how nearby they were, however, until Leigh was profiled in the Youngstown Vindicator in January 1974. I still have the article, of course, written by Emily Webster: “Two Share Joy of Writing: Hamiltons Like Quiet Life in Kinsman.”
The profile of them was done to coincide with the release of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, for which Miss Brackett wrote the screenplay. My mother urged me to write to them; surely, she thought, because I was an aspiring writer, I would want to contact them. But I procrastinated until that fall, hem-hawing around (as the phrase goes in Trumbull County) because I felt intimidated. I was quite the small fry compared to the likes of Leigh Brackett, the “writer of science fiction, mystery and western stories, aside from her work in the movies,” as Emily Webster put it—as well as said writer’s world-famous husband.
In rereading Webster’s article now, 35 years after it appeared, I’m reminded how relaxed and self-effacing the Hamiltons were. Remarkably so. And especially kind, as well, to a 22-year-old just out of college who was desperately eager to write imaginative fiction and perhaps learn to write it tolerably well. A week after I wrote them in mid October, asking if my pal Dave Clement and I could visit them sometime, I received a gracious note from Mr. Hamilton—from California. They wintered in Lancaster every year, but Mr. Hamilton promised to get in touch once the two of them were back in Kinsman come April: “We would be happy to see you and David Clement any time that you can get up to Kinsman…we see very few people there with fantasy interests, and you would both be welcome.”
Welcomed we were, and welcomed I was on the several visits I made over the next two years. They lived in a remodeled farmhouse originally built by one of the founders of Kinsman, and their home was virtually one endless library, with thousands of books neatly shelved to take tasteful advantage of as much free space as possible. But the visits were pleasant punctuation marks in what became a consistent correspondence between Mr. Hamilton and me. We traded a lot of books back and forth through the mail. In a couple of our letters, for example, we refer to two books about old German films; probably those were the Lotte Eisner and Siegfried Krackauer histories, which I had in paperback. Leigh lent me Tanith Lee’s first novel, a DAW paperback (The Birthgrave, I believe), because she thought so highly of it. Ed lent me a single-volume copy he had of Tyl Eulenspegel—then later borrowed a two-volume translation that I found at a book store in St. Paul, Minnesota. I bought de Camp’s Doubleday biography of Lovecraft as soon as it appeared; they hadn’t read it yet, and so borrowed mine.
They had the most tireless minds of anyone I had ever meant, including even several very bright college profs I’d known. It wasn’t until I became a medical editor and worked with neurosurgeons and academic orthopaedic surgeons that I met people of equivalent brainpower. Ed and Leigh were interested in everything, and they brought intense focus and clear insight into all of the topics we discussed. The movies, naturally, were a shared interest, particularly silent cinema, a great interest of mine. Mr. Hamilton had seen many silent pictures when they’d first appeared, which impressed me mightily: but he had never seen Kriemhild’s Revenge, the second half of Lang’s Nibelungenlied. As many times as it had been shown at science fiction conventions over the years, he said, he had always managed to miss it, although he’d seen Siegfried. I had a library at that time of perhaps two dozen silent feature films, including the Lang epic, and I felt very proud to be the person to show Ed Hamilton, after all those years, Kriemhild’s Revenge, albeit in a somewhat washed-out 8mm print. One regret of mine, though, among many as I cast back, is that I didn’t know enough about a wide range of movies, or of movie history, or of Leigh’s career, particularly her work with Howard Hawks, to converse with them intelligently about a great deal of cinema. Imagine what I could have asked her about the making of Rio Bravo, for example.
And as for my own fiction, Mr. Hamilton kindly agreed to read some of my stories. His reaction to one that he particularly liked, “Tellus Mater,” an early horror story, is, I think, about the best description of how a good story works that I’ve ever heard: “It is good, it marches,” he wrote to me. He was too kind in his estimation of my skills at the time, claiming that he himself was not as good a writer at so young an age, but to this day I am proud of his final verdict of my stories: “I can see no reason in the world why you shouldn’t become an established fiction writer if you want to.” Imagine hearing that from someone who’d been in print since the Jazz Age.
Sadly, I notice now, as I go through their letters, how often doctors’ visits and hospitalizations are mentioned. I had no inkling at the time how ill both of them were, and it was a sincere shock to me when Miss Brackett wrote on February 6, 1977: “I’m afraid I have very bad news for you. Edmond passed away on the first of this month, after a fairly brief illness.” He was 72 years old. Typically, she closed her letter with a generous, thoughtful comment: “Thanks for the pleasure you gave Ed with your visits and the films and the good talks.”
Of course, as we know now, her own passing was just a year away. She mentioned in June that she had had “a few nibbles on the house, before it’s even listed,” and had moved into a small apartment “right on Kinsman Square.” I was not able to visit her before she died of colon cancer on March 18, 1978, at the age of 62. Ed’s sister, Edith Hamilton, a columnist at the Youngstown Vindicator (she was the only American woman reporter to have interviewed Hitler in the 1930s, if I recall correctly) devoted her column on Sunday, March 26, to a remembrance of Leigh.
One more reminiscence: Ed and Leigh had made sure that I knew that E. Hoffman Price was going to come by to stay at their home in May 1976 during one of the last of his famous cross-country trips visiting old friends. Price was a man of many parts: trooper in the 15th US regular cavalry who had served in the Philippines and in France, writer and editor who had personally met most or all of the now-famous pulp fictioneers of the thirties and forties, and practicing Buddhist with a lifelong interest in Asian philosophies and with the given Chinese name Tao Fa, in addition to many other vocations and avocations—a life fully lived if ever there was one. I was there for a Sunday afternoon and evening and got the full effect of the boisterous, loquacious, bawdy Ed Price. One result of this was that I decided that I would have to manage to meet the Hamiltons’ and Price’s mutual friend and fellow writer from the Golden Age of the pulps, Jack Williamson. Chance stepped in when, years later, in the mid 1980s, Mr. Williamson was a guest at a science fiction convention held at Kent State University. I was living in Akron at the time, not at all far away, and Williamson was signing books at a bookstore in a local shopping mall. When I heard about this, I was able to make it to the bookstore just in time to meet him. I told him that I’d known Ed and Leigh and had met Price at their house, and now I was very glad to be shaking his hand, too. His response, when I mentioned Mr. Hamilton’s name, was, “I miss him.” The tone in his voice stopped my heart for a second. The sincerity of half a century of friendship came through those words.
I have more admiration than I can say for the popular fiction writers, particularly the pulp writers, of the middle of the last century. They worked in the trenches, mastered their craft by sheer hard work, intelligence, and persistence, and lived lives, really lived lives, as we can’t imagine, through the Depression and the war and the Cold War. They did it with their feet on the ground and with an extraordinary combination of common sense and self-reliance that was typical of their generation. I cannot raise a glass high enough in a gesture of my admiration of them.
This is my first blog…
…on this website and my idea is to update this site at least twice a week, perhaps three occasionally. I am shooting for Tuesdays and Thursdays. I certainly have enough opinions—and words to go with them—to keep this up for a while, and I’ve already started a bank of pieces so that I can stay one step ahead. The pieces taking shape all revolve around writing and storytelling.
Meantime, before I do anything else, I must thank Pete Pollack for his generous help in setting up this blogsite for me. I couldn’t have done it without him. Literally. (I once asked Pete if he were related to Ben Pollack, the famous dance band leader of the 1920s, and he said he wasn’t sure or didn’t think so, but I’d like to think that he is.)