RARA-AVIS: Memories of S.A. Lombino

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 28 Feb 2003

In a message dated 2/28/03 12:03:09 PM Eastern Standard Time, owner-rara-avis@icomm.ca writes:

 Date: Fri, 28 Mar 2003 16:51:33 -0000
 From: "John Williams" < johnwilliams@ntlworld.com>
 Subject: Re: RARA-AVIS: "Evan Hunter" et al ...
 He doesn't like to be reminded of his birth
> name, as I think Richard Moore can attest. I believe
> Richard asked him about it at the Omaha Bouchercon.
> Bill Crider
 I too can attest to this - a quick search for Lombino in the archives will
 find the story of how McBain came to accuse me of anti-Italian-Americanism
 (and immortalize my name in an 87th precinct novel)

Sorry that I sent a message before writing it but it has been a long week in the blizzard capital.

I understand what you went through John! Bill, my experience was long before the Omaha Bouchercon. I was on my best behavior there, having learned my lesson before and also I wanted nothing to prevent me from getting my copy of...certain rare works by Evan Hunter autographed.

It was at a lecture in Washington sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute and the year was (I think 1981). The latest was 1982. A little background. The Smithsonian has an organization called the Smithsonian Resident Associates. The members pay a fee and are offered a wide variety of special tours, lectures, and behind the scenes looks at all sorts of neat things. I joined when I moved to Washington in 1981 in order to go on their Civil War battlefield tours with a favorite historian.

So it was in their monthly mailing that I learned of a series of lectures on the mystery hosted by Michele Slung, then with Washington Post Book World. I can't remember but there were about eight evening events in the series. I had corresponded with Michele because she had selected one of my short stories for an anthology she edited.

So I signed up, introduced myself to Michele and from then on she always introduced me to the guest prior to the meeting. Remember that in 1981 there were maybe two mystery bookstores in the world, both in New York. Bouchercons had memberships below 200 and the field was not exactly dominating the best seller lists. Knowledgeable fans were few and far between.

And the authors were far from courted, they were positively ignored. An invitation to the Smithsonian Institute, by God, was a big deal in their lives, an affirmation that they had made it. This was the same series, by the way, that Donald Westlake declared the private eye novel dead as a creative form. It was 18 months or more later that a version of this lecture was printed in the Armchair Detective and created a storm.

Anyway, the Evan Hunter evening came and Michele introduced him to me. Hunter seemed painfully shy and ill at ease and (I thought) nervous about his impending talk. I did what I had done on previous evenings, chatted up the guest while demonstrating detailed knowledge of their work. None were as nervous as Hunter and while he did not relax, I helped ease him down closer to the ground.

Michele did the introduction and the audience, a few dozen people who loved mysteries and most knew Hunter was the author of the 87th Precinct mysteries, was dutifully attentive during his talk. Michelle followed up with a few questions and then it was opened to the audience.

I always asked a lot of questions at these things but after my first I never asked a question until a silence had settled and it was up to either me or Michelle to keep things moving.

I ran through my mental list but this crowd may have had fewer questions than most. In any case, a silence fell and I seached my mind for another question. I was curious about the change from his birth name of Salvadore Lombino. But I thought to ask him "why" he changed his name was too personal. I decided to ask it in a way where he could explain or simply acknowledge.

"Was not your birth name S.A. Lombino?" I asked. I asked it this way because I had stories with that byline rather than the full first name.

To my surprise, he reacted like a caught-lying witness in the old Perry Mason television program. He physically reacted and then stammered badly. Recovering he said something to the effect that, yes, that was his birth name but of what possible interest could that be to anyone? He had changed it but that was a private matter. I don't recall exactly what he said but it was along those lines and it was truly embarrassing for me. As they say where I come from, I was suddenly the skunk at the picnic.

I blushed and sat quietly for a time as I brooded on all this and then I got a little pissed off. Less than a year before I had been a reporter. Did this tight-ass writer think I had asked a tough one? By God, if he wanted to see a tough one, I was just the boy to throw him one.

So I did and it was ugly--out of left field, coming out of the lights right to his head. I regret that I did this. Why I didn't have the charity to understand how my other question had appeared to him and let my feelings go, I don't know. Towards the end of his talk, he made a gesture towards me. Before the talk began, while we were chatting, I asked him to autograph my copy of the September 1953 issue of "Manhunt" that had three stories by him under three names. He had not only signed the issue but did so under all three names: Evan Hunter, Hunt Collins and Richard Marsten. So when he was explaining to some questioner about where he originally sold stories, he gave me three queue's to hold up my issue of Manhunt as kind of a show and tell. He didn't ask me. He just looked to me as he described to the group the type of magazine. But I knew what he wanted me to do.

I just smiled at him and nodded but pretended to be oblivious to his unspoken request.

In short, I was an A-number-one asshole. And in my long list of regrets, this episode is not in the top five but it damn sure isn't in the bottom five either. I don't know why he got my goat that night but he did.

Now as for his real reasons, he discussed this in some detail in the New Yorker magazine piece by Pete Hamill. Now Hamill also said he never published a story under the Lombino name but I have the issues of Science Fiction Quarterly to prove otherwise. But I didn't send that into the New Yorker. I had already said too much on the subject.

Hunter had a valid complaint. The complaint, I think, was with American society not the Scott Meredith agency where he worked and where he got the advice to change his name. Was a novel by "Evan Hunter" more likely to be a wide success in 1955 than one by S.A. Lombino? Absolutely. Bad but true. Hell Sandra Scoppetone was saying the same thing a quarter of a century later.

One final note: another Scott Meredith writer, who also worked at the agency for a time like Hunter, did a similar thing. Stephen Marlowe began life as Milton Lesser. He wrote reams of material and not a few novels under the Lesser name--most science fiction. He adopted the Marlowe name for some of his mysteries and that was how he hit it big. He kept the Lesser name as his legal name until he was traveling overseas and set to meet someone at a hotel in some Scandinavian country. He was registered under his Lesser name and his contacts kept calling asking for the room of Stephen Marlowe. That, he told a Bouchercon audience, was when he decided to make the legal change.

Anyway, that's my Lombino story. I still blush to think of it. But now, Bill, you know why when I shoved my copy of THE EVIL SLEEP! at him in Omaha
(and you were right behind me), that I didn't say "You remember me Evan! I was the guy who gave you a hard time at the Smithsonian!"

Richard Moore

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