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A SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF STANLEY G. WEINBAUM

 

                                            

 

 

 

Stanley Grauman Weinbaum was born on April 4, 1902, in Louisville, Kentucky. He  died on December 14, 1935, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, of complications from throat cancer. During the years 1934-1936 the bulk of his work was published in Wonder Stories and Astounding, and his popularity as an author of SF was second, if only, to the legendary Edward E. "Doc" Smith.

 

Weinbaum was of Jewish heritage, although he seems not to have been overtly religious or even much concerned with religion.  His family connections were such that he was related to the Jessels and the Graumans; noted comedian, performer and toast-master Georgie Jessel was a cousin, as was Sid Grauman of Grauman's Chinese Theatre fame. Per Weinbaum's widow, the family was large and SGW didn't have much to do with the more famous members of the extended clan(s).

 

Weinbaum attended Riverside High School in Milwaukee, and then the University of Wisconsin. He began his writing career with aspirations of being a poet. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in the Fall of 1920 as a chemistry major. He continued to write poetry, making the acquaintance of Horace Gregory and Maya Zatureska (later husband and wife, both celebrated poets). In 1921, he joined the staff of The Wisconsin Literary Journal, (TWLJ) began contributing poems, and switched his major to English. His poems appeared from April, 1921, through June, 1923.

 

Gregory, in his autobiography "The House on Jefferson Street: A Cycle of Memories" (Holt Rinehart 1971), remembers Weinbaum:

 

"...Another boy who was "odd man out" at the university was Stanley Weinbaum, a rosy- cheeked, curly-haired, rather plump freshman, who introduced himself to me in the smoking car of a Madison-bound train out of Milwaukee. His good humor was instantly contagious, and as he sat down next to me and lit a cigarette, I found myself smiling back at him, fascinated by almost everything he said. On a charming easy level, he combined the merits of young Joseph with those of David and his harps.

 

"Stanley had a number of 'ruling passions'; these included playing his guitar as though it were a lute, alliteration in writing verse and chanting it, mathematics, Turkish coffee, the invention of scientific gadgets, and cigarettes. In his speech, he had great purity of diction, and a love of entertaining everyone around him - this last with an artless air that seldom failed to please."

 

        Weinbaum did not graduate from the University of Wisconsin. In early 1923, before his last poem was published in TWLJ,  Weinbaum agreed to take a friend's place at a final exam; he  was caught and expelled from the school. His widow, Margaret Weinbaum Kay, said that he did this as a lark, to help a friend, but mainly because he believed he could pass the exam without having attended the classes. Alain Everts (Lunaria) has said that the friend had bet Weinbaum that SGW couldn't pass the final, and that Weinbaum not only passed but he got good marks as well. Gregory notes another issue that may have contributed to (or been indicative of) Weinbaum's troubles with the university:

 

        "...His one hatred was military drill, and he exerted all the skills of his inventiveness against participating in it.

 

        "The offices of the R.O.T.C. were in a formidable Victorian Gothic red-brick Armory, where basketball games were played, setting-up exercises performed, and on the second floor, files of drill attendance stored. Unless one had a permanent medical excuse (which I possessed) non-attendance at drill meant expulsion from the university. It was the crime of crimes. Stanley had made up his mind to cut drill nine-tenths of his stay at the university. He carefully noted how the drill sergeant marked attendance on a card - he then assembled a kit for picking locks, and thereafter, at midnight, once a month, the locked doors of the Armory would give way to Stanley's craftsmanship; trembling, he would mount dark stairs to the files, and mark himself 'present' for each of his absences at drill. Both his courage and ingenuity were admirable - but the preparations for these excursions, and the excitements, fears, and sense of victory after them, were so tremendous that when he turned up at my room, at two in the morning, he would be in a state of near collapse. We would then rush out to an all-night lunch counter and order cups of the blackest and hottest coffee we could get. Within a few minutes, he would start singing verses he had composed in the manner of Omar, or of Swinburne, or his own latest version of a French villanelle. The more demanding a verse form was, the more it delighted him, and he played with it as though it were an intricate and prismed.

 

        "But the university and the town of Madison were not made for Stanley Weinbaum, not for a boy who would forget his classes from one week to the next, who would strum his guitar all day and made a habit of writing all night five or six days a week. It was, I think, near the end of his sophomore year that he left the campus not to return. His instructors were less displeased than baffled, for he belonged to a world that was other than theirs. He was like a cherub floating far above the campus. Distance and a thin rain of mist obscured him from view."

 

After leaving school, from the mid-1920s through the early 1930s, he worked in a variety of fields, ranging from jobs in early radio, a stint as a sales rep for a large chemical firm, and, ultimately, to managing a movie house in the mid-west.

 

According to his widow (Pioneers of Wonder), when the movie house that they were running was shut down due to the effects of the Depression (circa 1931-32?), they found that they had enough money for Stan to try writing for awhile full-time. Within the year he had sold "The Lady Dances" (a romance story) to King Features Syndicate, which serialized the novel in several newspapers nationwide. Weinbaum shopped a number of other romance stories around the pulp and slicks markets, without  success. Sometime during this period, he began to try his hand at a genre that he begun his career with - SF. One of his earliest published stories was a short science fiction/imaginative piece in his high school's publication, The Mercury, in 1917. Entitled "The Last Battle,"  it envisioned the end of WWII in 2001. 

 

During this period, Weinbaum joined a local writer's group in Milwaukee. Calling themselves The Milwaukee Fictioneers, the group met regularly at the home of its members, where they would discuss story ideas with each other. According to Robert Bloch, a member, no one was allowed to bring written drafts or spouses to the meetings. The idea was not so much as to work on actual drafts but to kick ideas around with a group of like-minded writers. Along with Weinbaum and Bloch, members of the Fictioneers at that time included Lawrence Keating (a noted western writer of the day), Ralph Milne Farley (pseudonym of Roger Sherman Hoar, former Wisconsin state senator and mathematics professor), Raymond Palmer (SF writer and future editor of Amazing Stories and other magazines), Arthur Tofte, and others.

 

Weinbaum submitted several SF stories to the market magazines, again meeting with rejection. Then, in January, 1934, one of the stories landed on the desk of Hugo Gernsback, then editor/publisher of Wonder Stories. Gernsback was a pioneer SF and Fantasy publisher and the  grand old man of SF magazine publishing. The story that Gernsback found before him that day was, "A Martian Odyssey."  Gernsback liked the story, so much so that he wrote to Weinbaum personally and requested more stories in a similar vein; in fact, the editor's side-bar from the original publication of "Odyssey" in July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories states that the editor (Gernsback) had already asked Weinbaum for more of such tales.

 

What caught Gernsback's eye, and the imagination of SF readers everywhere, was Weinbaum's handling of the aliens in the story, especially an ostrich-like being, part plant and part animal (on Weinbaum's Mars life had never differentiated into flora and fauna, remaining simply life) named Tweel. Weinbaum had discovered a way to present an alien who, as John W. Campbell would later demand of his writers (in homage to the impact of "Odyssey"), could think as well as a Man, or better, but not in the same way as a Man.  Believing that an organism's thought processes had to be intimately related to the organism's biology, Weinbaum created a series of  life forms that were totally and completely alien, in both mind and body, yet who were also entirely self-consistent and  believable. To this, Weinbaum added more than a dash of warm humor (a quality sorely lacking in most writing of the period), the results being characters and stories which were fresh and memorable.

 

In August 1934, after the publication of Odyssey, Weinbaum was contacted by Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger of the Solar Sales Service, who wanted to act as literary agents for the new author. Schwartz and Weisinger had made a name for themselves in early SF publishing and fandom as a result of their work with Science Fiction Digest/Fantasy Magazine. This was one of the first SF/Fantasy fan publications, and it usually contained high quality material from the publishers and noted authors of the day such as H.P. Lovecraft, A. Arthur Merritt, Ralph Milne Farley (pseudonym for Roger Sherman Hoar), and a young Robert Bloch. Weinbaum agreed to Solar Sales becoming his agents, and they proceeded to handle all of Weinbaum's literary sales from that point until well after his death. 

 
Over the next year and a half, Weinbaum produced roughly two dozen short stories, ranging from hard-boiled detective pieces to science fiction. First appearing in Wonder Stories, he later found acceptance at Astounding as the demand of the readership was heeded. By mid-1935, he was almost a regular, monthly contributor to one pulp or the other. Around this time, he also worked on several other projects, including a novel, The New Adam,  which he had been working on for some years. During a routine check-up with his physician, it was discovered that he was suffering  from throat cancer. It is unclear whether Weinbaum himself ever knew his exact condition; per his widow, he was not told anything other than that he had a bad case of tonsillitis/sore throat, and that he passed without knowing the true nature of his illness. However, it seems doubtful that someone with such a gift for observation would not see what was happening to himself; in addition, in several letters to Julius Schwartz he references making trips to Chicago for radiation treatments. In any event, on December 14, 1935, Stanley Grauman Weinbaum succumbed to his illness and passed into immortality. His death at the age of 33 deprived us of the joys of what we could have rightfully have expected from the pen of so gifted a story-teller. In the mere span of 18 months, he left us a legacy that endures to this day.
 
(Copyright 2014 by Thomas J. Rogers, Jr.)
 
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