He was kind.
The thing that struck me most about Harlan Ellison was that he was kind. That’s not the attribute most people mention about him, and I don’t think it’s one he probably would have used himself, but in the year or two I knew him, he was very kind to me, and he didn’t have any real reason to be.
I don’t want to give the impression that we were bosom companions, or besties or even terribly close. We didn’t have a walking-through-the-field-at-night-looking-up-at-the-stars-and-wondering-what’s-it-all-about-Alfie kind of friendship. We were never even in the same room at the same time. Honestly, I’m surprised we were friends. He’d called me up to talk about movies or something, the conversation roamed all over the place as it generally did with him, and then he said, “I presume we’re friends?” I said ‘yes,’ of course. You coulda knocked me over with a feather.
Back in 2009, I wrote a massive three-part review of his book about The City on the Edge of Forever, and the infamous clusterfuckery surrounding that. I was the head-writer at a now-defunct Science Fiction website back then. A week or so after I’d posted the last installment, my boss called me up and said, “You made Harlan Ellison cry!”
“Oh, shit, I’m a dead man!” I said.
“No, no, no,” my boss said. “You made him cry in a good way.”
A few days later he called me up, and he was funny as hell, and friendly as hell, and overwhelmingly smart. I mean, you could feel intelligence just boiling off the guy. If you’ve seen him on TV, or read stuff by him, you don’t really get the full sense of it, but, damn, the guy was an effortless, born genius. I’m far from stupid, but I could not keep up at all.
I talked him into an interview for my website, and we spent two or three days on the phone talking about everything and nothing, and joking around, and reluctantly coming back to the topic at hand before going off on a wild tangent. I taped it all, of course. Somewhere in my house I have a recording of him hacking up a lung when the breakfast he was eating went down the wrong pipe.
“Oh, God, [splutter]”
“You ok there?”
“Yeah,” he said, then started joking about how I’d be famous forever as ‘The guy who taped Harlan Ellison choking to death.’
I never posted the interview. It was very long, obviously. I sent him a copy of it beforehand, as I knew better than to risk misquoting him. He thanked me for the copy, said he really enjoyed it and it was very well done, then requested that I not publish it.
Harlan spoke a mile a minute, and he spoke about a lot of obscure things in rapid succession, and he used a lot of words that I don’t know. There were a lot of misspellings, and other problems, all technical. He said the content was good, but that he would appreciate it if I didn’t publish it until all those problems were cleared up. I was disappointed of course, but he reiterated that it was a very good interview, and that I asked him a number of questions that nobody, ever, had asked him before. They weren’t massively insightful or anything, but they were at least new.
Here’s the best example of his kindness. Not the only one, but the best one: He spent the next year and a half trying to get at least some of my interview published in the real press. He did this without even telling me. One night he called me up, and said, “Randy, I thought I had something for you with a magazine in Poland, but I didn’t like their terms, and they wouldn’t budge, so it fell through.”
I told him thanks, but he really didn’t need to waste time trying to get my goony stuff published.
“It’s a good interview. It’s a historical document. I don’t have time to correct it, but you did the work, and you deserve something for it, even if it’s only a couple of kopecks.” I told him to knock it off. A couple months later he called me up saying a website out of New York wanted to run a portion of it. We had a conference call with them, but they irked him, and he said goodbye, and that was that.
Here’s this guy, living legend, on everyone’s short list of the greatest authors of the 20th century, and he’s wasting time trying to help dipshit ol’ me. Not only was he trying to help me, he was expressly trying to make sure I got paid.
Why did he do it? Because he was kind. Again, that’s probably not the word he’d use, he’d probably consider it maudlin, but he felt the need to look out for the little ones. I’m hard pressed to think of an established author who’s done more to help new writers get established. He considered it a moral obligation, and he was often very aggressive about it, but aggressive kindness is kindness still.
He got sick.
Actually, he’d been sick for a while, but he didn’t mention it. To this day I still don’t know what was wrong. It became more apparent the longer I knew him, though. One day he called up to answer some question or another that I’d bugged him with, and he sounded like a ghoul. I asked him what was wrong. He said that he’d spent the night in the hospital, following some kind of attack that almost killed him. I suggested that maybe he shouldn’t be yacking to me after that, maybe he should just try to take it easy. “I’ll be fine, I just need to keep working.” A few minutes later, he said, “Do you mind if we come back to this some other day? I’m not feeling well.” I said of course.
The last time I talked to Harlan Ellison we were both very much aware that it was the last time I was ever going to talk to Harlan Ellison.
I was doing the dishes when the phone rang. He sounded…just awful. At death’s door. His breathing was weird, his voice was quiet enough that I had to ask him to repeat a couple things, and he was clearly terribly sad. I’ve been around it before. This was clearly the voice of a dying man.
In gist he apologized for not being able to get my interview published. I told him (For the Nth time) to forget it. He said that he had really wanted to do it, but he’d failed, and he wasn’t going to be able to now. He said that he wanted to give me something to make up for it. I said there was nothing I wanted, nothing to feel bad about, just getting to know him a little was plenty. He kept saying he wanted to give me something, and it became apparent that what he was really doing was closing out files and saying goodbye. It was important to him. He had started something, and he had to finish it, and if he couldn’t make it work, he had to at least give something. He asked what I wanted.
I named something trivial to let him off the hook. He said, “Ok. Well, I gotta go.”
“I understand. Hey, Harlan?”
I tried to think of something meaningful to say. I almost said, ‘Don’t go gently,’ or something half-assed like that, but fortunately I realized that was just completely inappropriate to say to a dying man. Then I thought, ‘who the hell am I to try to tell him something meaningful?’ I mean, he’s the hyperlexic’s hyperlexic. The man’s toenail clippings have more talent and drive than my entire body. No, it wasn’t my place to even try that.
“Yeah, bye,” he said.
I expected to hear that he’d died a day or two after that. I think he expected that, too.
That was, I think, somewhere in the middle of 2011, maybe earlier. He rallied and held out for another seven years.
It’s impossible to talk about someone famous without coming across like you’re name dropping. It’s worse when you only know one famous person, which is the case with me. I’m sorry for that. I’m not trying to make myself seem great through my connection to him, I’m trying to point out how great he was through his kindness to a less-than-nothing like myself.
Everyone knows Harlan as The World’s Angriest Man, as the sue-happy guy who was always complaining about something, as the outrageous guy on stage, as the hopelessly prolific writer, the raging lefty, as the guy who’d effortlessly cut you down eight ways from Sunday in a debate. He always saw himself as a boy scout. There’s a million different Harlans, and all of them are probably at least somewhat true. I don’t have any great insights, but I just thought I’d share with you a quality he shared with me, and one that I don’t think I’ve heard anyone mention before:
He was kind.