Monday, May 28, 2007

The Black Boxes-Westlake, Block, Hunter etc.

The first time I became aware of Earl Kemp I was fourteen or fifteen and a member of Amazing Stories' Space Club as were Roger Ebert and several others who went on to become professional writers. Earl, on the other hand, needed no Space Club. He was a BNF (Big Name Fan) operating out of Chicago. He was likely in his early Twenties then and already publishing lots of cool fanzines. He became acquainted with William Hamling who'd been an Amazing editor in the Forties and was now, in the Fifties, the publisheof of Imagination and Imaginative Tales, two juvenile-oriented magzines much like Amazing (though they did carry two fine stories by Philip K. Dick as I recall and Milton Lesser/Stephen Marlowe also did good work for them). Hamling decided to try a Playboy-type magazine so he created Rogue. This featured the likes of Robert Bloch, Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison, Frank Robinson (who was also an editor there) and many many others. I always prefered Rogue to Playboy because of its sf/suspense orientation. And Rogue led Hamling (if I recall rightly) into soft-core porn. Remember, this was the time when Lenny Bruce was put in prison for speaking the F word on a stage. Soft-core was shameful and even dangerous to publish. The biggest problem Hamling had with the runaway success of his soft-core line was getting manuscripts. So Earl turned to Scott Meredith, who said he could provide all the anuscripts Hamling needed--but all this had to be done very discreetly. By this time Earl was to be a major fiure in the whole operation. I trust Earl will correct any part of this I get wrong. Earl's a fascinating guy and you should log on to http://www.efanzines.com/EK/eI13/index.htm#nobody for not only the whole article about such familiar names as Lawrence Block and Evan Hunter and Donald Westlake but Earl's own take on the world of the publishing world people didn't ant to talk about back then. Hell--they don't nt to talk about it even today.

Here's Earl:

Scott Meredith was terrified at the prospect of being identified as the
major supplier of pornography in the US in the 1950s so, when his
business began picking up because of popular demand, he devised a plan
to hide his involvement. He had Henry Morrison (aka Moskowitz), one of
his employees, set up a fake operation out of a Grand Central Station
post office box. Then he ordered a supply of plain black manuscript
boxes (Meredith's were gray at the time) to use for mailing those porn
manuscripts to the various publishers who were using Meredith's crew for
their sleazy products.--

(excerpt from long memoir of those days)

The Black Box crew who answered to Scott Meredith in those wonderfully sinful 1960 years was a motley crew at best. Some of them were occasional staffers of Scott Meredith Literary Agency, and others were writer new-hires, signed on with great expectations as Future Great Writers To Be.

Hal Dresner was one of the gang, and Donald "Ed" Westlake. David Case, Evan Hunter, John Jakes, Arthur Plotnik, and Milo Perichitch. Also Lawrence Block, Dave Foley, William Coons, and…. William Knoles, my personal favorite, was a latecomer to this group.

And they were right, they were certainly Future Great Writers To Be. Only if you could have looked on, watching them without their knowledge, you would have picked them as a bunch of high school jocks or college frat brothers, always joking, pulling gags on each other, trying to set each other up with sure things, the more unattractive the better. Stealing from each other in a good-natured way. Stealing pseudonyms, characters, plots, chunks of manuscripts…loose items. Like good buddies sharing a great big locker room together and drinking each other's drinks and smoking each other's cigarettes.

The early years crowd did quite a bit of socializing together, as well. They held regular meetings every Friday night allegedly to play poker, but in reality they just liked being around each other, joking about the agency, talking shop, and psyching themselves up to starting that big ominous thing lurking over them all known as Next Month's Manuscript. It would take at least that much to keep Henry Morrison happy and to keep Scott Meredith at bay. [There were women writers as well, like Marion Zimmer Bradley, but most of them were kept rather well hidden. It was essentially a male thing to write those books, or so people assumed. In reality, the women wrote much better quality pornography than the men.]

The yokels at Midwood and Nightstand Books would just have to wait their turn, nothing could interrupt "The Happy Pornographers" at play. That was the group name they gave to themselves in those halcyon days.

In "The Men Who Wrote Dirty Books" in Books Are Everything, Lynn Munroe asked Hal Dresner, "Were some of your Don Holliday books written by committee? …Block says he collaborated with you and with Westlake. And didn't you all meet for a weekly poker game?"

Dresner answered: Circle Of Sinners (Bedside Books 1220) "was an example of a collaboration that appeared under the Holliday name. Other collabs rotated among existing pen names. The weekly poker game produced one book written mostly in a ten-hour stretch: one writer at the machine while six others played cards. The purpose was to provide some funds for the widow of [Dave Foley who had recently died. Ed had a special interest in this project; Foley's widow, Sandy, became the second Mrs. Westlake.]…. The final manuscript needed some reworking as speed was a higher priority than consistency. I recall that the lead character was, at various times, called by different names; his military history was, depending upon the writer, a stint in the Marines, Air Force and Navy; and during one 24-hour period there were two sunsets and three sunrises. Still the final product was salable and, legend has it, Scott Meredith even waived his commission. If true, that is the most remarkable aspect of all."

Everyone who worked near Scott would second that in a heartbeat.

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1 comment:

Arthur Plotnik said...

Ah,those heady days. I was a member of the stable, as you note, but not of the poker set (I was writing from Albany---doing 22 of the novels under various pseudonyms.) One felt like a writer for about three books. Then, having exhausted one's best plots and all personal sexual experiences, one came to dread the monthly task. In my ELEMENTS OF AUTHORSHIP, I describe the whole adventure, including a nervous visit to agent Henry Morrison's office. He was on the phone with Norman Mailer when he waved me in. I felt like pigeon droppings.
Seven legitimate books later, I look on those days with a mixture of nostalgia--and relief that I escaped early enough to keep my sanity. Or something like sanity.
Keep up your amazing writing output, and thanks for the memories.
Art Plotnik