The Harlan show

“He often felt the need to deliver the performing Harlan, which meant that everyone who came up to get something signed also got a wisecrack.” — Bob Hadji

Sci-fi author Harlan Ellison was a larger-than-life character, and that was intentional. It is clear he enjoyed a good argument and a little controversy and was not about to back down from an opinion, but the pugnacious face he showed to the world was not necessarily who he really was. It may have just been part of the show.

Harlan Ellison signs an autograph for a fan. Ellison is left handed and smoked a pipe.
Photo by Joseph Aspler

Ellison was one of many guests at Toronto Star Trek ’76 and yet his name came up more than any other in my interviews for this series. And the opinions — varied widely. We’ll start with Michael Zarrillo.

Harlan Ellison was a terrible human being. In Boston, he was there with his girlfriend. He was divorcing his wife and he eventually married his girlfriend, and he spent all his time in his room. I had to go knock on his door to tell him to get downstairs and do what he was supposed to be doing. He got pissed at me and told me he wanted a royalty because The City on the Edge of Forever was being shown at the convention. I said, first off, you’re not entitled to a royalty, and second, you’re already being paid to be here.

Debra Pearse Hartery and David, her husband at the time, were tasked with collecting Ellison and his new wife from the Toronto airport just before the convention. And the writer made an impression right away. 

Harlan Ellison was in a heck of a mood when we picked him up. We were waiting at the gate and this suitcase comes flying — just flying — across the floor and David said, ‘It looks like Harlan has arrived.’ There was some problem with him bringing his typewriter through customs, so he hurled his suitcase across the floor. This baggage guy recognized Harlan and offered to help him, but Harlan was quite rude to him, because he was in such a bad mood.  

Later, he told me his favorite wife was the one who kicked him in the nuts. When he went down on the floor, she stepped over him and he said ‘Boy, I love that woman!’

The next 24 hours offered more encounters, positive and negative. Keith Williams was one of the two people running projectors at the con. 

I had to show the other guys how to run the two projectors. We were watching Forbidden Planet in our room and there was a knock on the door and I opened it and it’s Harlan Ellison. He had just arrived from England having spent seven or eight hours sitting at Heathrow. He was not in a good mood because he just wanted to go to bed, so he said, ‘Please turn down the movie.’ He was very polite. Contrary to popular opinion, he wasn’t nasty at all. We turned it down. Who wants to get Harlan mad?

Peter McGarvey was staying in the same room, and he met Harlan a few hours later. 

Harlan had the next room to mine, and he was not a good sleeper, so at 4:00 on Saturday morning he banged on my door. I dragged myself out of bed and Ellison was standing there: ‘You got any carbon paper?’ ‘No!’ and I slammed the door. He apologized the next morning: ‘I’m sorry. I work on a different schedule.’ 

Harlan was deep into his aggressive-as-hell stage. Later, someone said something about The Starlost series and I thought Harlan was going to punch him. That was how he was.

Doug McGarvey was the other con projectionist. “I ran into Harlan Ellison in the hallway. He asked what I did and I said I like drawing and I wanted to be an artist or cartoonist or something, and we got talking about that. He was a very nice guy.”

Of the people I interviewed for this series, sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer knew Ellison best, and he’s extremely fond of the guy. 

Harlan was wonderful, but he did not suffer fools gladly. And Harlan worked in an industry that was filled with fools. But to me, he was a saint, he was absolutely wonderful. I was president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America during a tumultuous and difficult time in my life, and Harlan would call regularly to see how I was doing. He would say ‘Hang in there, you’re doing the right thing, don’t let the bastards get you down.’ That meant the absolute world to me. I have nothing but praise for Harlan Ellison.

So, what are we to conclude?

Peter McGarvey invited me to a barbeque at his Toronto home, as a number of people who had volunteered at or attended the con would be there. One guest was Bob Hadji, who helped out in the Bakka rooms. His take: Harlan put on the show that he felt people expected. I think that nicely reconciles the varying opinions on the man.

Harlan Ellison speaks at a panel discussion, framed by members of the audience.
Photo by Joseph Aspler

People would typically want…the Harlan show which, if he had an audience, he was quite happy to do. Well, not always happy, but he felt obligated. There were a lot of facets to the guy. The performing Harlan was the understanding that he had to be larger than life and he had to be an asshole. 

He often felt the need to deliver the performing Harlan, which meant that everyone who came up to get something signed also got a wisecrack. But he was not always an asshole. He was, in fact, often not an asshole but, when he felt obliged to perform and put on the Harlan show, then the full asshole appeared, because he felt it was expected.

I regret that I never had the pleasure of meeting Harlan Ellison.

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