Others are writing certain recollections of that July 1939 weekend — for me there's one overshadowing event. The Act! The infamous Act! Who remembers it first hand? Fishing through my memories of Nycon (the original) seems for me like an adventure in another dimension of time and space. The year 1939 is a long time ago. Did it really happen and was I there? Me? Present with 200 others at the creation of the universe of sf fandom Worldcons? Gosh, wow, it's a fact, from a half century ago!
The highlights are obvious: the inimitable Frank R. Paul, our first guest of honor, and all those other professional heroes of mine, the youthful attendees gathering from near and far, the artifacts of artwork and manuscripts, the fannish organizers — and, who can ever forget?, the Great Exclusion Act.
This was the year that the teen-ager Ray Bradbury borrowed the bus fare from fellow Californian Forry Ackerman and came east with a mess of unpublished manuscripts. And as for Forry, he wore a fancy costume similar to that of H.G. Wells' future world leader Cabal (no, he didn't wear it cross country).
That first day marked the successful non-regional beginning of cons for sf fans and pros. It started the traditional "art & artifacts" auction to finance such affairs — and what remarkable items were available for such little money — such a pity most of us were so poor! And there was a banquet, now long gone because of size. That banquet cost a dollar, but less than three dozen fans and pros could afford it.
The second day had less than half of the first day's attendance. Why? Well, the second day stressed science and science hobbyists, but most important, the Futurians were having their own "free convention" "for all of fandom." My greatest regret to this day is that the marvelous speech of Frank R. Paul was not heard by every true fan. The title was "Science Fiction, the Spirit of Youth." He convinced me that he was one of us, a genuine enthusiast, a true believer. And his reference to this "meeting" of "rebellious, adventurous young minds" eager to discuss freely subjects unlimited made me think of This Day of The Act. Had he, too, at that moment been thinking of The Act?
It's The Act which I remember most vividly, probably because I was so responsible. Looking back, it seems utterly bizarre. Behind The Act was the stormy, passionate spirit of early fandom, a reflection of our times of Depression, Controversy, a world at war, and that new thing called "science fiction."
We "fans" bickered and bungled. No wonder there came that overly serious — and juvenile — fiasco of The Act. Remember. Two NY metropolitan groups were in conflict, with adherents around the country. "New Fandom" ran the con machinery while "The Futurians" were out in the cold. Six prominent science fiction fans, "Futurians," were barred from attending that first sf Worldcon in NYC. They were Frederik Pohl, Donald A. Wollheim, Robert W. Lowndes, Cyril Kornbluth, John B. Michel, and Jack Gillespie. Fandom at the time argued about the merits and tended to dismiss the event as some more crazy foolishness by "those New Yorkers." Today, most fans are only mildly curious about that quaint bit of fannish history.
By 1939, fandom was hardly a decade old. "Readers" had become "fans" and the activists were young, very young. Teenagers were the troops and boys in their twenties were the "mature" leaders. In this cauldron of the 1930s, many young sf idealists decided that science fiction not only dreamed of brave new worlds, but offered reality. Fans, therefore, should become activists as well as dreamers. That was why conventions were created. And that was the backdrop for the clash between the Futurians and the New Fandom people. One or the other would shape fandom for the future. That was what bubbled and burned and swirled and festered behind the scene at that very first Worldcon. The adolescent behavior by all parties, myself included, was understandable, if not commendable. We took ourselves seriously, too seriously. Fortunately, the "professionals" at the time didn't play our games.
I, for better or for worse, was the trigger for the banning of those six fans. I published the infamous "yellow pamphlet" which provoked the incident. My Futurian friends didn't know about my handout, but they were blamed, thus "planning to disrupt" the gathering. It reflects the times in so many ways, both fannishly and internationally. The four-page pamphlet, with a cover that read "IMPORTANT! Read This Immediately! A WARNING!", was dated July 2, 1939. I had printed several hundred of them, a bright yellow sheet folded in quarters, and cached them behind a hot water radiator for distribution at the crucial moment. And the message? It was "Beware of dictatorship — " I had written that the convention committee might "coerce or bully" con-goers into taking intemperate actions. I said, "Make this a democratic convention! Be careful. Demand discussion! Hear the other side! We believe that free speech, co-operation, and democratic acts and thoughts must be granted to science fiction fandom."
Sound pretty innocent? Well, that was the way the villain Communists would present things, too, in those days. And that really was the basis for the paranoia exhibited, that the radical elements of fandom would disrupt the convention by politicizing it. Sound crazy? Not to those running the convention. So, the sudden appearance of the first pamphlet on Saturday morning alerted the three leaders. A search discovered the batch of "Warnings" under the radiator. Wollheim, the Futurian spokesman, denied any knowledge, but was disbelieved. I kept my mouth shut. That's why I was allowed into the meeting. I did try to speak up about the banning, but the agenda was well fixed in place, all of which, perhaps, was due to my yellow pamphlet's self-fulfilling prophecy.
I did end my warning, however, with these words: "Despite anyone, or anything, the 1939 World's Science Fiction Convention is bound to be a success! And should the Convention Committee decide that democratic methods are best we will be the first to admit that they deserve full credit and praise for this gathering for the three days. MAY SCIENCE FICTION PROSPER!" — And I must say, prosper it has!