I first met Harlan Ellison in 1977. It was a Friday afternoon in late summer. He was in town for a while, staying at Spinrad’s apartment. I had recently been promoted to Editor of Starlog magazine, and I was there to meet and interview Harlan for a feature story.
My wife’s family had a house out in Ocean Beach, Fire Island. On summer Fridays I would cut out of work a bit early to catch the Long Island Railroad train to the beach. Knowing this, I had made my appointment to meet Harlan, where he was staying, at about three o’clock. That would give me plenty of time to do the interview, get to Penn Station, and catch the train to the Island in time for
Friday night dinner with the whole family. It did not work out that way.
Harlan and I hit it off immediately. I was a huge fan of his work, of course, which made it easier. And one of his good friends was a young writer he was mentoring, David Gerrold, who had a column in my magazine. So we were both pretty comfortable with the situation. And we schmoozed. I got about an hour and a half on tape, and a bunch of photographs. I looked at my watch. That proved to be a mistake. “You got somewhere to go, Zimmerman?”
I explained about Friday night family dinner. Harlan started to walk me to the door but changed his mind. “Say, can I read you something?”
Sure, waddaya’ got?
Harlan says, “I have just finished writing the best short story of my life. It’s going to win all the awards. Can I read you some?”
Of course. But after he had read two pages, I glanced at my watch again. Harlan took it as a challenge. I tried to excuse myself, telling him when the train departed and how long it would take to get from here to there. Again, Harlan walked to the door. This time, however, he took a chair with him and placed it in front of the door, facing me. And sat in it. “There’s not that much more,” he said. And proceeded to finish reading to me the final draft of Jeffty Is Five. Needless to say, I missed dinner that night.
My wife was miffed, but what could I do? I couldn’t have moved Harlan away from that door with a crowbar. (Did I mention that he was taking martial arts instruction from Bruce Lee at the time?)
Anyway, Jeffty Is Five was published in one of the genre fiction mags a little while later. It was nominated for awards, and it won awards. The Hugo for Best Short Story of the Year, voted upon by sci-fi fandom. The Nebula for Best Short Story of the Year, voted upon by the community of professional science-fiction writers. And, eventually, the Locus Readers Poll for Best Short Story of All Time.
And I had heard it first—from the author’s mouth. Whether I’d wanted to or not.