Thursday, December 5, 2013

Forrest J Ackerman – Editor and Superfan

Some memories by J. D. Crayne

Perhaps it would be better to put the designation "fan" first when talking about Forrest J Ackerman.  He always thought of himself, first and foremost, as a science fiction fan. Born in 1916, he was one of the founding members of organized fandom, which grew out of the letter columns of early pulp magazines.  As the readers of those early magazines began to correspond with each other and gather for weekend discussions and general conviviality, they created an entire fannish social structure, and Ackerman was at the hub of it.
Based in Los Angeles, Forry (as his friends called him) was an active member of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society.  His talks on publishing and cinematic news were a regularly scheduled feature of the weekly meetings and were called "Forrest Murmurings," a word play on Franz Listz that delighted Forry,  who was an inveterate punster.
Forry's public face at the time was mostly that of editor and primary writer of Famous Monsters of Filmland.  It was a slick-stock magazine aimed primarily at horror movie enthusiasts in their early teens, and had a high percentage of movie monster photographs coupled with articles on special effects, interviews with technicians, behind-the-scenes information about the construction of rubber masks and prosthetics, and anecdotes about the film industry – all spiced with many groan-producing puns.  Famous Monsters was not only entertaining, it inspired  many young men and women to enter the special effects field. Forry could always be assured of a devoted group of admiring young fans at any conventions that he attended.
I met him in 1961, when I was a newcomer to science fiction fandom and he was a dark-haired, good-looking man of about 45.  He was then living in a pale green stucco house on Sherbourne, in West Hollywood.  The house, a small two-story place surrounded by a matching stucco wall, was very noticeable on a block where all of the other houses were white or cream colored.  Forry used to claim that every time the house needed re-painting, his neighbors would sidle up to him and whisper "White!" into his ear.  He took pleasure in ignoring the suggestions and the house continued to sport its iconoclastic paint job. 
One of the features of the house's interior was a dining room wall papered with a design of blank book spines.  Guests at his frequent parties – usually given to honor some out-of-town guest – were invited to add their own titles and author names to the spines.  Part of the fun at his parties was to check the wall for new additions.
The house also had a garage, which was infamous for its stacks, heaps, and clutter of science fiction books, magazines, and ephemera. Forry's garage was a byword among his friends for its seeming ability to devour science fiction material that would never be seen again by the eyes of living fans.  Basically, it contained the second-string material, items that were not of sufficient value or interest to merit a place in the house itself. Eventually a friend of his, Walter J. Daugherty, asked for volunteers to move all of the material out into the driveway so that he could put up shelves.  We did that on a Saturday, punctuating our work with
delighted cries upon finding real treasures among the debris. (Walt was kidded a lot about starting projects that he never finished; the term "Daugherty project" was a pejorative phrase in local fandom, but this was one project that he actually did complete.)  Once the shelves were in place, we volunteers returned to put everything back in the garage.  It was an awful hodgepodge, without any order, but we had to leave it to Forry to sort and arrange everything.  At least it was all up off of the asphalt floor.
He had a marvelous library, with a lot of rare science fiction and fantasy books.  I remember one party where I spotted a copy of "The King in Yellow" by Robert W. Chambers on one of the shelves.  It has since been reprinted, and is available on Project Gutenberg, but at the time it was both collectable and expensive. I asked Forry if I could borrow it.  "No."  So, I asked if he would mind if I read it there.  No, he didn't mind.  I spent most of the party curled up in a chair, reading that particular rarity.
Besides his books, Forry owned a large collection of film props, and the jewel of his collection was a piece that he had especially commissioned: the robot from Fritz Lang's film, "Metropolis."  He used to tell Wendy that the robot was her only competition. 

He was a fluent speaker of Esperanto, attended weekly language meetings and was ardent about wanting a universal language throughout the world. He often called his female friends by Esperanto nicknames.  Forry was quite prone to using nicknames, including one that he invented for his wife.  She was German by birth and her given name was Tilly.  He decided, even before their marriage, that her name ought to be Wendayne, and from that time on she was known as Wendy. 
Remarkably liberal for his time, Forry was a proponent of women's rights and for several years he hosted a monthly lesbian meeting at his home.
Eventually Forry ran out of room in both the house and garage, sold the place on Sherbourne, and moved to a larger house in the Hollywood Hills that had once belonged to the actor Jon Hall. Here he, Wendy, his elderly mother, and aunt settled down amid his museum-like collection. It was a large
house with two stories plus a multi-roomed basement that housed his extensive collection of movie artifacts, posters, and memorabilia.  (He owned some remarkable bits of memorabilia, including a signet ring with the letter "D" that was worn by Bela Lugosi as "Dracula.")  While Forry lived there, the house was always known as the Ackermansion.

J. D. Crayne is the author of the zombie spoof, a laugh out loud walking dead novel, How to Bonk a Zombie.

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