Harlan Ellison Cops a Feel

Ron Hogan over at Galleycat reports that author Harlan Ellison groped a woman’s breast as she was presenting an award to him…and that later Harlan argued on his website that she was asking for it. At least Harlan wasn’t in his bathrobe and pjs at the time (he once came to a WGA meeting like that). Ron writes:

You know, for the most part, we like to maintain some sense of
journalistic objectivity on this blog, but I feel reasonably
comfortable going into outright opinionating: Ellison’s gone way over
the deep end on this one. For years, people have been encouraging him
in his self-righteous, self-indulgent schtick, excusing away
his most outrageous behavior as manifestations of some sort of
uncensored passion for justice and creative expression, and years of
believing his own hype reflected back to him by both his peers and his
fans have finally worked their toll. With his boorish behavior and
subsequent outbursts, Ellison has become nothing more than a sad,
pathetic spectacle..

I’ve had a few run-ins with Harlan myself over the years. The one I remember most fondly had to do with an interview I did with him for Starlog Magazine. We were both speakers that year at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, so we did the interview there. Knowing that Harlan bites everyone in the ass, I decided to protect myself a little bit by doing a straight Q&A…unedited. I met him in his bungalow at the conference, gave him the tape recorder and let him go. I then transcribed the tapes and added a brief introduction. Easiest article I ever wrote. The article was published in two parts in Starlog. Naturally, Harlan said some things that offended people and, instead of taking the heat for his own opinions, he accused me of altering his words. So I sent him the tape and asked him to point to even one instance in which his words were altered or taken out of context. I’m still waiting.

That incident clearly pissed him off, because a few months later, he tried to get back at me. At the time, there was a radio talkshow here about science fiction (I think it was called HOUR 25). They were discussing the new TV series version of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which Harlan briefly wrote for. One of the guests who was criticizing the show was a woman who may, or may not, have been an old girlfriend of Harlan’s. I don’t know. But some listener called in saying that the only reason she was trashing the show was because Harlan kicked her out of his bed. The caller identified himself as "Lee." The host hung up on the guy. Well, as it turns out Harlan was, unbeknownst to the listeners, in the studio, too. Harlan grabbed the microphone, said the caller was Lee Goldberg, and went on to trash me as a sleazy, lying, scumbag masquerading as a journalist.

Of course, the caller wasn’t me. I was out-of-town at the time, on assignment for Newsweek, and came home to find my answering machine smoking with phone calls from people furious at me for calling the radio show. I contacted the radio station, got a copy of the tape, and listened to it. I was more amused than anything else, but I wanted Harlan to be held accountable for his actions for a change.  So I sent the station a letter on Newsweek stationary pointing out the irresponsibility of naming me as the caller and trashing me on the air. I demanded an on-air apology from Harlan within one week…or else. The station acknowledged they were at fault and agreed to immediately comply.

So, a week later, Harlan called into the show and apologized….and then said something like "the caller wasn’t Lee Goldberg, but you can’t blame me for thinking it was him, because he IS a dishonest scumbag whose articles aren’t worth wrapping a dead fish in," and on and on he went, basically repeating everything he’d said about me before. I wasn’t angry…in fact, I found it very funny and pure Harlan Ellison.

I later served with Harlan for a few years on the Editorial Board of the WGA Journal, where we frequently disagreed with one another. He’s a great writer, who deserves respect for his work, but I’ve always found his act tiresome and silly. Which reminds me…

When I was a student at UCLA, I remember taking the bus to campus and seeing him sitting in the window of a science fiction bookstore and writing like some sort of animal on display in a zoo. A writer at work in his natural habitat. I guess you could call it performance art…maybe that’s what his grope was, too.

37 thoughts on “Harlan Ellison Cops a Feel”

  1. One of my clients (I’m a publicist) has known Harlan for many years and has also had the misfortune of working with him on a TV project or two. Everyone I know that knows Harlan tells that he’s a great writer but also a miserable p***k who seems to enjoy saying and doing things just to get a rise out of people. The shtick is amusing for a while, then folks just shake their heads in disgust and dismay.

  2. Harlan Ellison has always thought it witty to exhibit a streak of casual cruelty toward others, even his friends.
    One of the things that is lost in this whole gropegate is the amazing hypocrisy of Ellison unfailingly picking up every Hugo and Nebula award he’s won, and now this award and then railing about being labelled a science fiction writer.
    The photograph on Galleycat (and I’ve seen another on another blog) is unpleasant. Ellison looks grotesque, like one of the Morlock’s from George Pal’s version of The Time Machine.
    I first became aware of and enamored of Ellison as a teenager through his appearances on Hour 25, where he put on some classic performances.
    Over the years my respect for him as a person AND as a writer has eroded significantly.

  3. I was a faithful listener to HOUR 25 during its entire run and clearly remember the episode you refer to. The woman criticising the CBS Twilight Zone was Jessie Horsting, who wrote for a long gone magazine called Fantastic Films. Harlan did know her-I don’t know if they had a prior sexual history-and Harlan was at the time HOUR 25’s host, having taken over the reins from Mike Hodel at his request before Hodel died from cancer.
    Ellison had actually asked Horsting to come on the show and air her disatisfaction with the new Twilight Zone. I think Alan Brenner was also a guest.
    Somewhere I think I may still have a tape of part of that broadcast.

  4. Although I haven’t had the misfortune, or fortune, of running into Harlan Ellison, he strikes me as one of those writers that has, over time, become more famous for his personality than his writing. Kind of like Norman Mailer or Truman Capote.

  5. Like many people involved in this ridiculous situation, Mr. Hogan has taken Harlan’s remarks a bit out of context in his article. He’s not the only one to do it, certainly, as many others have taken a lot about all this out of context.
    Did Harlan do something that was over the top? Yes, he did. And he apologized repeatedly, but that wasn’t good enough. Connie has not made ANY public statement whatsoever to Harlan or anyone else about this.
    But here’s the thing – it was a joke gone wrong, folks. He and Connie were doing an act, and Harlan took it too far. That’s it. He apologized, but people want to make it into not only a HUGE thing between Harlan and Connie, but to make it a social statement about the state of SF and how women are treated in general.
    There is little doubt that Harlan can and has offended many people throughout his life. There is little doubt that when he chooses to be, Harlan can truly be an asshole. Just like anybody else, but with perhaps a sharper verbal dagger than many of us could claim. That said, Harlan was also an major supporter of the ERA and women’s rights, and I can say from personal experience that he’s never been anything but polite and kind to me personally – when he didn’t know me or have any need to treat me as anything other than another very minor cog in the publishing machine.
    This entire thing has been blown way out of proportion, and articles like this one aren’t helping the situation. Harlan made a mistake, he apologized and that should have been an end to it. I’m not saying what he did was right – I am saying that how people have responded is out of line with the offense.
    For Harlan and Connie’s sake, I wish the whole thing would be let go. They’ve known each other for half a century – as friends – so maybe, just maybe, we should let them work it out themselves.

  6. So on the one hand, I can see the whole “it was a joke, and he apologized, and we should let it go” comment. On the other, basic common sense says that you don’t go running around being nasty to people for years if you want people to overlook your own foibles and treat you kindly. Ellison’s Enfant Terrible act over the years has never once struck me as being about anything other self-indulgent bad manners and proving that his great gifts make him somehow above personal accountability–an attitude I despise when I encounter it in my fellow faculty. So I’m not wasting any sympathy on poor Harlan if he’s not getting the benefit of the doubt he might even deserve here. As the intellectuals would say, he squandered his social capital.
    As to letting them work it out themselves, nice try, but no. Had he groped her at a cocktail party off Park Avenue, then your comment might hold water. It happened at an awards ceremony. Awards are given to people in public, as a way of saying “good job, awardee!” Public behavior and private behavior are different, usually for good reasons. I often don’t wear pants at home, for example, but I suspect this would be frowned on at my 350-person lecture.I wear pants at the lecture not because I like wearing pants, per se, but out of decency and politeness to the audience who would probably not want to be subjected to the sight of me sans pants. And I’m thinking that if I did show up without pants, it might–just maybe–invite comment. If he doesn’t want people to comment…maybe he should…just not do this stuff. Just a wacky thought.

  7. One more thing, and then I’ll shut up. As a curvy woman, I’ve had more than my fair share of this groping assholery. Nothing, nothing, nothing,nothing hurts my feelings more or makes me feel cheaper and more objectified than having somebody do that to me in either public or private. It’s *highly* gendered, highly disrespectful behavior–so people are not just making a big deal out of nothing. Even if she didn’t mind it, I and many other women do. Watching an audience twitter away at that was *painful*. And the fact that Ellison was willing to do that to a longtime friend just to get some laughs reinforces my earlier impression–that he’s a selfish, small man who would humiliate a friend just so that he could could feel like a clever boy.

  8. Yes, Jesse Horsting, that was her name. Whatever happened to her? I met her a few times in the 80s when I was writing for Starlog. For a while, she was editing a horror magazine…I haven’t heard about her in years.

  9. Chaser,
    I agree with you. There is no excuse for that kind of behavior…or treating your “old friends” in such a boorish and inconsiderate manner just to get a laugh. It says a lot about Harlan that he doesn’t see that. Then again, that kind of cluelessly rude conduct is common with anyone who thinks they are the center of everything.

  10. Lee, just a quick correction: The woman who was fondled onstage was Connie Willis, and she was receiving the reward, not presenting it to Harlan. In fact, Connie Willis has won more awards that any other sf/f writer, living or dead. She’s big time–certainly bigger than Ellison–which is why it’s especially galling to see her demeaned by someone playing baby and grabbing her breast.

  11. Harlan Ellison is definitely from the old school (albeit, a freaky old burlesque school where he likely hogged the limelight whilst learning the danse macabre) and has always been his own worst enemy. But it seems to me that an awful lot of people in the blogosphere are overly eager to grab their torches and pitchforks, believing they’ve finally treed Frankenstein’s monster.
    Just last year or so, Harlan Ellison was on the cover of the WGA journal “Written By” and was hailed for his contributions and eccentricities. Next thing you know, he’s allegedly grabbing boobs in public–and a gazillion bloggers are posting second and third-hand “reports” in their rush to burn down the mill.
    I wasn’t there, I didn’t see anything. If it happened, it is a sad and pathetic thing, born of limelighted hubris. When the mighty grandmasters become grandmonsters, I wonder if (instead of lighting torches) it might be better to just extinguish the spotlight, exit the theatre, and leave them alone in the dark…
    I met Harlan once, and he was (mostly) a riot. After his talk (in which he ranted about Star Trek and Hollywood producers–but also spoke poignantly about his inability to write for a long time after a friend’s death), he stepped out of the limelight and became a regular guy, very much down to earth. He even mentioned his famous-writer-in-the-window stunt, in which he was trying to prove he could write a publishable story under the critical stare of anyone. He’s human, he makes mistakes, and if he’s gone too far, he’ll be left standing alone in the dark… with the rats.

  12. That was groping? It looked as if he laid his hand flat on her chest way above her breast and if she hadn’t reacted the way she did probably no one would have noticed, as they were hidden behind that stand.
    When I first read this I wondered, “Why is it *I* have never been groped?” But seeing this, I think I just wouldn’t recognize groping if it bit me in the you know where.
    Why is it you folks have to exagerate (sp?) everything so out of proportions?

  13. I did a lot of writing/reporting for Newsweek when I was in college and for some time after I graduated. The system at Newsweek then was that reporters gathered the quotes which the writers in NY would craft into an article. That worked out fine for me until the quotes I gathered for lengthy piece on STAR TREK were taken wildly out-of-context by a particularly smug and condescending “writer” in NY. I gave him hell and complained to my bureau chief that miss-using the quotes would reflect on my reputation, not the “writer’s,” and if the article went into print as written, I couldn’t in good conscience continue to work for Newsweek. The article wasn’t changed and I left.

  14. I just read the above comments and then watched the video of the alleged grope. What nonsense. If that’s a grope Ellison needs anatomy lessons, not censure.

  15. Lee:
    A fast Google search on “Jessie Horsting” turned this up from Locus’s online index:
    HORSTING, JESSICA, ed.; [i.e., Jessica Horsting Buchanan] (1950- ) (stories)
    * * *Midnight Graffiti (with James Van Hise) (Warner 0-446-36307-3, Oct ’92, $5.99, 365pp, pb, cover by Martin Cannon) Anthology of 19 horror stories, eight originals, with an introduction about fear by Horsting. (Contents)
    * * _Midnight Graffiti (with James Van Hise) (SFBC #03882, Feb ’93, $8.98, 365pp, hc, cover by Martin Cannon) Reprint (Warner 1992) anthology of 19 horror stories, eight originals, with an introduction about fear by Horsting. First hardcover edition. This edition has no price and has the SFBC number on the back jacket.

  16. From actually viewing the YouTube clip, it looks as if this was a play on the “are you going to behave” scthick they’d been running for the last few minutes, and Willis seemed to realize it.
    Seems to me that if anyone’s got a beef about it it should be her, and if she doesn’t speak up, ain’t nobody’s dirty busness, as the song says.

  17. I wasn’t at the Hugo Awards ceremony, but Connie Willis did speak out later at the Con about the incident. You can find the reports if you look hard enough. I’m sure Ms. Willis, the Guest of Honor, isn’t amused at being made the anonymous woman prop in yet another Harlan look-at-me story.
    I was however at World Con and at Harlan’s little rantfest earlier that day. He started by evicting some people from the front row by claiming the Con told him the first 2 rows were reserved for his friends. He then proceeded to relate how he had brought a double amputee to near tears by making fun of his loss of his legs. Also if Harlan can claim to discredit someone because they slept with him, that apparently includes most of the western world since he also claimed he stopped counting the women he bedded at 700, and that his wife once found the day-planner on which he listed the women he slept with by the hour of the day. His implication was that he had gone through most of those first 700 in a six month span.
    Clearly anyone who talks and acts like this in public is asking for whatever verbal whippings he gets. His only defense is that he’s a smarter, wittier, meaner SOB than you are, and he carries a grudge forever, so you’d best leave him alone.
    What a sad contrast with Ray Bradbury, the greatest American writer of the 20th century, who gave a heartwarming valedictory later at the same Con. Mr. Bradbury is 86 and summed up his life with a series of stories about how loving life and people passionately and truly all his life had led to great good for himself and others his whole life long. I look forward to meeting Mr. Bradbury in his next life if he does “live forever!” as Mr. Electrico urged him, but certainly his writings will long outlast his life and like his life will continue to be a force for good in the world.

  18. Well, I actually went to Harlan’s message board and here’s what I saw:
    “despite my only becoming aware of this brouhaha right this moment (12 noon LA time, Tuesday the 29th), three days after the digital spasm that seems to be in uproar …YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!!!
    iT IS UNCONSCIONABLE FOR A MAN TO GRAB A WOMAN’S BREAST WITHOUT HER EXPLICIT PERMISSION. To do otherwise is to go ‘way over the line in terms of invasion of someone’s personal space. It is crude behavior at best, and actionable behavior at worst. When George W> Bush massaged the back of the neck of that female foreign dignitary, we were all justly appalled. For me to grab Connie’s breast is in excusable, indefensible, gauche, and properly offensive to any observers or those who heard of it later.
    I agree wholeheartedly.
    I’ve called Connie. Haven’t heard back from her yet. Maybe I never will.
    So. What now, folks? It’s not as if I haven’t been a politically incorrect creature in the past. But apparently, Lynne, my 72 years of indefensible, gauche (yet for the most part classy), horrifying, jaw-dropping, sophomoric, sometimes imbecile behavior hasn’t–till now–reached your level of outrage.
    I’m glad, at last, to have transcended your expectations. I stand naked and defenseless before your absolutely correct chiding.
    With genuine thanks for the post, and celestial affection, I remain, puckishly,
    Yr. pal, Harlan
    Did I fail to mention, I am 100% guilty as charged, and NO ONE should attempt to cobble up mitigating excuses for my behavior? As with everything else I REALLY DO (as opposed to the bullshit that is gossiped third-hand by dolts), I am responsible for my actions 100% and am prepared to shoulder all consequences, instead of shunting them off to Vice-President ScaryGuy.
    And then for page after page after page, we see people who absolutely will not let go, parsing every word and demanding further apologies in a form more pleasing to them.
    Jesus, no wonder Harlan got pissy after that, especially after Willlis apparently refused to return his phone calls. I probably would have been less temperate.

  19. Here is HE’s last post on his message board (as of Monday morning):
    – Thursday, August 31 2006 21:21:38
    …AND MARK:
    Would you be slightly less self-righteous and chiding if I told you there was
    NO grab…
    there was
    NO grope…
    there was
    NO fondle…
    there was the slightest touch. A shtick, a gag between friends, absolutely NO sexual content.
    Would you, and the ten thousand maggots who have blown this up into a cause celebre, be even the least bit abashed to know that I apologized WAY BEYOND what the “crime” required, on the off chance that I HAD offended? Let me ask you, Mark:
    1) Were you there?
    2) Did you see it?
    3) Are you standing on your soapbox to chide me via 3rd/4th-hand reportage by OTHERS who weren’t there?
    4) Do you also buy the infinite number of other internet brouhahas that turned out to be misreported?
    Here it is, Mark; and for any others who fit the shoe:
    In the words of that great American philosopher, Tony Isabella,
    “Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved.”
    Does not anyone READ WHAT I WROTE within fifteen minutes of learning of this? Does not anyone wonder why, if it was such a piggish thing I did, as one of those jerkwad blogs calls it, Connie Willis hasn’t, after twenty-five years of “friendship,” not returned my call on Monday … or responded to the Fedex packet of my posting here on Monday, which Fedex advises me she received at 2:20 pm on Tuesday?
    Can the voluble and charismatic Connie not even pick up a phone to tell the man whose work she “admires deeply” that he has gone a bridge too far? Is she so wracked by the Awfulness of it that she is incapable of saying to his face, you went too far? No one EVER asked her to “bell the cat.” She decided that was her role toward me, long ago. And I’ve put up with it for years.
    How about it, Mark: after playing straight man to Connie’s very frequently demeaning public jackanapery toward me — including treating me with considerable disrespect at the Grand Master Awards Weekend, where she put a chair down in front of her lectern as Master of Ceremonies, and made me sit there like a naughty child throughout her long “roast” of my life and career — for more than 25 years, without once complaining, whaddays think, Mark, am I even a leetle bit entitled to think that Connie likes to play, and geez ain’t it sad that as long as SHE sets the rules for play, and I’m the village idiot, she’s cool … but gawd forbid I change the rules and play MY way for a change … whaddaya think, Mark, my friend, am I within the parameters of brutish pigginess to suggest if she WAS offended, then I apologize … even if you and a garbage-scowload of asinine pathetic internet wanks get up on their “affront” and tell me how to behave?
    I’ve sat here for four days, quietly, having done as much forelock-tugging and kneeling as I feel — as I — I — not you — not fan pinheads in far places who jumped and bayed and went after me in a second — but I –who is responsible for my behavior — as I feel is proper. And for four days I’ve waited for Deeply Outraged and Debased Connie Willis — an avowed friend and admirer of my work for more than a quarter century –to get up off her political correctness and take her pal off the gibbet.
    I spent more hours traveling this benighted country, for eight years, state after state after state, lecturing in defense of women’s rights and passage of the ERA than any of you have spent mouthing your sophomoric remonstrances.
    As the Great American Philosopher Tony Isabella has said, “Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved.”
    My last word on this clusterfuck. If Willis wants in, she knows where you all are. She knows where I am.All the rest is silence.
    Harlan Ellison
    P.S. Including Mark’s post that precedes this one, I URGE YOU all to post this everywhichwhere, and let the poison drip where it will. Gloves come off now, onlookers.”
    I would say that annuls his earlier “apology.” Can we honestly claim there was no malice in what he did, and that he feels sorry?

  20. “I would say that annuls his earlier “apology.””
    I’d say his earlier statement and attempted apology to Willis were annulled by the continued baying of the pack and by Willis’ refusal to respond in any way.
    > Can we honestly claim there was no malice in what he did, and that he feels sorry?>
    Yes, we can. When someone becomes angry that his apology was spurned, that doesn’t make the original apology less sincere.
    I mean good lord, how long did people expect to keep poking the man with sticks until he snarled for them to cut it out?
    I particularly like this part: “Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved.”

  21. So let me see if I’m getting this straight, JDR:
    Harlan Ellison is justified writing what he did because Connie Willis didn’t call him back for a whole three days? Why, the audacity of that awful woman! How dare she not drop everything she’s doing to talk to a man who, as he admits, groped her breast in an act of payback in front of several hundred people! And people said nasty things on his board, too! Why, that explains everything!
    And yes, when someone tries to turn the tables and blame his victim, thereby making his despicable behavior seem justifiable and somehow proper, I would say that makes his earlier “apology” more than dubious. If you’re genuinely sorry about something you’ve done, you don’t backtrack on it when your apology doesn’t get the response you want.
    Connie Willis is the wronged party in all this. She doesn’t owe Harlan Ellison, or anyone else, a damned thing.

  22. It’s clearly a bit (and apparently she was a willing part of it — she hugged him close to her side first) and it was hardly offensive, so I can’t imagine why anyone would care. It seems that she’s the only one with a right to complain and apparently hasn’t.
    BUT, the really important part of this, which no one has brought up… Is the guy a midget or is she an amazon?? Damn, he looks strange standing up there next to her.

  23. Scott: It’s clear you’re more interested in a polemic here than a discussion, as evidenced by your hysterical and dishonest reframing of what I said. So I’ll just let you have at it. In fact, the best quote on that site is this one:
    “I remembered the kindly R. Silverberg at the panel discussion, who said “when someone comes up to me and starts arguing, I just say ‘well, you might be right” and then walk away. It saves a lot of talking.’
    Soo…”well, you might be right.”
    I’m done with you.
    David: I’ve met the man. He’s not quite a midget, but damned close.

  24. A word for the booboisie (to borrow from Henry Mencken): there was no grope. Run that tape a couple of times, pausing each second, and see for yourself.

  25. It’s good to know that assholes can be great writers, because there’s no shortage of them. I don’t know how I’d feel about Mr. Ellison if I met him in person, but I sure admire his work.

  26. I was at the Hugos, in the audience. I was unsure if the “grope” was a pre-rehearsed part of the schtick.
    I don’t want to address the personal beefs various folks have with Ellison. It is true, however, that whenever there is a whiff of impropriety about Ellison’s conduct, the whetstones start whirring and the axes flash.
    I do want to address Mark York’s comment:
    “Ellison had an infringement case a while back. He was represented by http://www.authorslawyer.com/c-ellison.shtml
    Posted by: Mark A. York | Sunday, September 03, 2006 at 09:02 AM”
    The post leaves the impression that Ellison was sued for infringement. As the link shows, Ellison actually sued AOL, another ISP, and a person who posted versions of Ellison’s stories on the ‘Net without his permission. He alleged that AOL failed to take the infringing posts down in a timely manner. The lawsuit settled in Ellison’s favor, but not before a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that made important law on vicarious copyright infringement.
    Incidently, I contributed a few bucks to Ellison’s legal fees for the lawsuit. The settlement included reimbursement for Ellison’s fees; and shortly after the settlement, he sent me a check reimbursing my contribution in full.

  27. Just to clarify a false correction posted earlier by Harry Connolly: Although Willis DID win a Hugo earlier that evening, Ellison grabbed her breast while accepting HIS special committee award.
    Since my opinion concerning the incident is quite well-known, I’m not going to debate it. The people who are rationalizing Ellison’s behavior are simply wrong.

  28. “The post leaves the impression that Ellison was sued for infringement. As the link shows, Ellison actually sued AOL, another ISP, and a person who posted versions of Ellison’s stories on the ‘Net without his permission.”
    Right. That’s why I posted the link. He had an infringment case, and as a writer of record it would indeed fall to others doing the infringing.

  29. Have to say that that video looks pretty harmless to the untrained eye… a bit of touchy feely give and take between Harlan and Connie, ok, Harlan went a bit too far when he brushes her breast, but honestly, this is storm in a teacup stuff.
    Did Connie Willis actually complain? Because they look pretty comfortable with each other in this clip.

  30. I hate to interrupt this important discourse, but if you’re still wondering what Jessie Horsting has been up to recently, check out “Ouvre: Drew Struzan” and her collaboration with Amano Yoshitaka, “Hero,” shipping late next month.


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