Kay Tarrant

(d. March 1, 1980)

Kay Tarrant is a somewhat enigmatic figure who seems to have had a substantial indirect influence on SF, but whose role has been consistently misinterpreted by fannish legend (and prosish legend as well.)

Tarrant was John W. Campbell's assistant at ASF. She stayed in the background: Campbell selected the fiction and the art and was the visible leader, while she oversaw production, proofreading, copyediting, and the like.

Stfnal legend held that Kay Tarrant was a prude who scrubbed anything remotely risque from Astounding and who could even overrule Campbell on this. (There are many stories of writers trying to slip things past her, making it sound like was a widespread game. One writer had bragging rights for years by successfully using the term "ball-bearing mousetrap" to refer to a tomcat in one of his published stories.)

This impression of Tarrant seems to be untrue. Alec Nevala-Lee, in his excellent book Astounding, says that

she occasionally took it on herself to remove bad language from stories—and her prudish reputation also provided Campbell with a convenient excuse whenever a writer objected to any changes. Throughout their partnership, she saw "Campbell," as she always called him, as an oversize boy who would never get the magazine out on his own, and in all the anecdotes from those years, she was the unacknowledged presence in the room, seated a few feet away from the editor and the authors whom he was transforming into his kind of writer.

But her "prudishness" seems to have been entirely professional. A few years before her death, she told a group of writers:

"Personally, I don’t give a f*** what you write, but we have teenagers who read the magazine."

She probably deserves to be remembered as Campbell's partner (albeit junior partner) in shaping modern SF.


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