When legendary science fiction writer Harlan Ellison died on June 27 at his home in Los Angeles, the Chicago Tribune and many other media outlets featured his obituary, but none of them mentioned the fact that he once lived in Evanston. Perhaps that is because Mr. Ellison hated Evanston so much he quickly left it twice. He was miserable in his short time in Evanston (in 1959-60 and again in 1961), and his first two marriages fell apart here.
In April 1959, Mr. Ellison was released from the Army after spending two years as a draftee, and he needed a job. Famed Evanston publisher William Hamling, who had founded Greenleaf Publishing with his wife Frances in 1950 in their basement at 1426 Fowler Ave., hired Mr. Ellison and brought him to Evanston to run his men’s magazine, Rogue.
Mr. Hamling had turned down Hugh Hefner’s offer to become a half-partner in what became Playboy magazine. Realizing his mistake, Mr. Hamling created a Playboy imitator in 1955 and called it Rogue. By 1958, it was enough of a success for the Hamlings to move to Highland Park and shift Rogue to a one-room office at Dempster Street and Sherman Avenue. There, Mr. Ellison wrote stories for Rogue and also hired Lenny Bruce and Alfred Bester to write columns. Mr. Ellison also edited Mr. Hamling’s new racy book-publishing line called “Nightstand Books,” which published Mr. Ellison’s early book (written under a pseudonym) called “Sex Gang.” But Mr. Ellison hated Mr. Hamling and hated his life in Evanston.
Mr. Ellison recalled, “It was a rotten time of life for me; I’d divorced Charlotte; I was working for a publisher I despised; and I was hanging out with a lot of collegiate mooches from Northwestern. And I hadn’t written a book in a while.”
Mr. Ellison wrote, “I didn’t drink or do dope, but I started trying to wreck myself in as many other ways as I could find. Endless parties, unfulfilling sexual liaisons with as many women as I could physically handle every day, dumb friendships with leaners and moochers and phonies and emotional vampires, middle-class materialism that manifested itself in buying sprees that clogged my Dempster Street apartment with more accoutrements and sculpture and housewares than the [expletive] Furniture Mart could hold.”
Mr. Ellison remembered that his friend Frank M. Robinson “saw that I was going down the toilet. And one night, in the middle of a party at my home on Dempster Street, filled with freeloaders and adolescents whose names I barely knew, Frank grabbed me by the collar and pulled me into the big walk-in pantry, and he put me against a cabinet and looked into my idiot face, and he said, ‘You’re turning to [expletive], kiddo. This isn’t your way of living. You know even half those creeps out there, breaking up your furniture and puking on your carpet? Get back to the writing. It’s the only thing that will save your ass.’ And I threw them all out, and I went into my office, and I sat down at my Olympia manual office machine [and] I started writing ‘Spider Kiss,’” one of Mr. Ellison’s early novels.
Mr. Ellison soon left Evanston behind, returning to New York in 1960. But by 1961, he had remarried and needed money, and Mr. Hamling was able to entice Mr. Ellison to return to Evanston to edit a new line of edgy, mainstream, high-priced (50-cent) novels called Regency Books, which published books about incest, homosexuality, race, religion, drugs and corruption under the slogan, “Regency Books Mean Controversy.” Regency eventually published Mr. Ellison’s Gentleman Junkie and “Memos From Purgatory,” along with works by notable writers such as Robert Bloch, Algis Budrys and Lester del Rey.
It is not clear why Mr. Ellison hated Mr. Hamling so much, but he did reveal one anecdote: “I’d banked on selling a book of stories to the very man for whom I was working. He took considerable pleasure in waiting till we were at a business lunch, with several other people, to announce he was not buying the book. (The depth of his sadism is obvious when one learns he subsequently did buy and publish the book.)”
Mr. Ellison recalled, “It was as though someone had split the earth under me and left me hanging by the ragged edge, by my fingertips. I went back to the tiny, empty office he had set up in a downtown Evanston office building, and I sat at my desk staring at the wall.” He noted, “Soon after, I left Evanston and Chicago and the human monster.”
“I was too deep in my own grief at that time, and I didn’t have much pity left for anyone but myself,” Mr. Ellison recounted later. “I decided I not only had to divorce my second wife but had to flee Chicago-Evanston entirely.”
As Evanston author Jay Bonansinga, one of Mr. Ellison’s friends, put it in an obituary: “Ellison was the Jackson Pollock of anger and the Henny Youngman of veracity.” Mr. Ellison may have hated his short time in Evanston, but it helped establish his credentials as an innovative writer and editor in the early stages of his career.