Thursday, January 7, 2016

The messy death of WSFS Inc

Early in 2016, a number of mystery photos clearly of the 14th World Science Fiction Convention (NyCon II) held in 1956 were posted to Flickr with a call for fandom to step up and help identify those pictured - as I posted here, quite a few of the faces have already been identified.

As I was going through those photos and picking out the people who had been identified for my collation post, I recalled the two scandals which were at the root of the death of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS), Inc, one of which I mentioned in passing the other day.

I should hasten to say that I wasn't there (indeed, wasn't anywhere as far as I know in the 1950s, which was roughly when my parents were preparing for their O-levels) and nor am I particularly involved with Worldcon matters beyond lining the Hugo committee's pockets with silver for the privilege of voting, so much of this is hearsay or gleaned from a variety of online and print sources over the years, but for the benefit of those not initiated I thought I'd summarize what seems to have happened here - I think this is topical for Worldcon matters right now because the ill-feelings that arose from this case caused acrimony in fandom that lasted 50 years and I often wonder if the memory of some of the things that some have speculated lie beneath the acrimony might be playing into the hostility between certain factions today.

And so, the tale:

WSFS, Inc.

Our story begins with the ill-fated establishment of WSFS, Inc., a name that still causes furrowed brows in some quarters.

WSFS, Inc. as an entity actually began at Philcon II in 1953.  Up until that point, the convention organizing committee was very much a grassroots, cooperative fan affair and there was some talk about the risk to individual fans in the event of cash shortfalls - the incorporation of an entity to handle business matters was intended to make things "safer" in that a corporation could declare bankruptcy.  As things had previously been organized, individual fans could theoretically be sued for shortfalls in the event the con ran out of money to pay service providers, and of course as always the average participating fan wasn't so wealthy that this sort of risk was insubstantial.  For context, there was a movement at the time to try to build conventions up, and larger conventions would mean higher costs - a shortfall of just a few percent could leave the organizing fans with a sizable private debt to pay, so going forward the financial risk was very real.  After several years of establishment and growth in support, WSFS, Inc. was actually voted into authority over the whole Worldcon deal at NyCon II in 1956 - the very con from which these new photos come from!

Now, despite the promises made by the whole incorporation movement, history tells us that in fact the two largest Worldcons that were organized under the WFSF, Inc. banner - NyCon II in 1956 and LonCon in 1957 - both ran in the red, with no involvement from WFSF, Inc. to "protect" the organizing fans. Which brings us to...

NyCon II

NyCon II was a big affair for WFSF, Inc. in that this was the con at which the corporation was voted into authority as the enduring entity of SF fandom as originally promised in the years since 1953. That said, the matter was by no means without question - in fact, society bigwig George Raybin reportedly "threatened" that if the ordinary business meeting (where all attendees could vote) failed to pass the motion then the Society would get together a group of pro voting con-committee members who would do it anyway.  Fannish community being what it is, this was naturally resented and given that one of the main features of having such an entity at the heart of Worldcon affairs - the financial security - didn't even materialize when NyCon II went into the red and couldn't reimburse certain organizers (notably Frank Dietz (pictured!), Belle Dietz, and George Raybin) who went out of pocket it's unsurprising that ill-will was generated.  Indeed, this is one of the events that planted the seeds of the accusation of empire building that still plague Worldcon fandom today.

But wait!  The scandal isn't finished yet!

The Plane Trip

Now, NyCon II was chaired by David Kyle [1] (also pictured!) - this will become relevant shortly, however for the time being perhaps the most relevant dimension is that he stepped forward to assist in organizing the USAian contingent's travel to LonCon in 1957.  In order to facilitate travel, the idea was that a plane would be chartered, and Dave Kyle volunteered to organize it.  In the process, it became clear that the airline wouldn't accept the risk of chartering to an individual on the promise of future payments by other individuals, so to handle the issue Dave presented himself as "President, London Trip Fund, of the WSFS Inc." and this is where things started to get complicated.

Other members of WSFS - mainly the Dietzes and George Raybin were concerned that this put WSFS, Inc. in the position of being legally responsible, so they insisted on coming in on a committee with Dave Kyle to oversee the fund, though in practice Dave apparently continued to do all the main work along with Ruth Landis (then serving as secretary of the Fund).

Further complication arose when the LonCon organizers sought a list of those who had paid at least in part for the trip to the 1957 convention in the UK, and recieved no reply from Ruth Landis.  This led to them contacting other members of the committee, who extracted a partial list from Ruth in what Dave Kyle would later characterize as "an infamous inquisition" - and the inter-personal tensions raised over these events further led to them insisting that Raybin be listed as co-signer for the bank account at which the funds were being held - "in case of emergency"

Frictions increased, but the trip went ahead - though in the end there was also bad feeling because of the number of non-con-goers who ended up on the flight...and also because, as the LonCon trip was also serving as Ruth and Dave's honeymoon, there was a movement to gift them the $5 deposits (which had been supposed to be refunded) each passenger gave to secure seats on the flight as a wedding present.  No doubt the number of travellers who left the con early and stiffed the organization for the cost of their guaranteed hotel bookings was no small part of the acrimony either.

And so, we come to:

The Lawsuit

In the end, NyCon II was in the red, with some committee members out of pocket to cover costs - LonCon was in the red as well - and between inter-personal issues and friction over funds surrounding the Plane Trip tempers were high.  In the end, Frank and Belle Dietz and George Raybin demanded to be reimbursed by Dave Kyle for about $100 in unpaid costs from their time working at the 1956 NyCon II (Frank, who was known for making audio recordings of various fandom events, was Recorder-Historian, Belle had been Secretary, and Raybin was Legal Officer that year).  Kyle refused, so the three filed suit and attached his bank account as penalty.

Kyle was, to say the least, annoyed.  He filed counter suit for $25,000, claiming damage to his reputation.  The three were undeterred, however, and counter-counter sued for the same amount.  Harsh words went into print on both sides,   Kyle upped the ante to $35,000.

The thing dragged on, and at last fandom had had enough of it - some did in fact come in on the side of the WSFS and the Dietzes, but the Falascas (also pictured!) brought the legality of the WSFS Inc entity into question and general disgust over both the general offense of bringing legal action into it [2] and the scale the dispute had reached - the sums being claimed were at that time enormous, and likely to put an average fan in debt for many years.

The Death of WSFS, Inc.

The lawsuit contenders were in a bind - there wasn't a way to get out of the situation that wouldn't make everyone look awful.  The Falascas [3] and another group known as the Berkeley Bhoys [4] put on the pressure by linking the fracas to the whole idea of WSFS, Inc. and in the end the situation came to a head in the context of the 1958 SoLaCon - anti WSFS, Inc. sentiment was running so high that the con committee announced via the Chair Anna Moffatt that they would not be associating SoLaCon with the WSFS at all - indeed, at the business meeting where the announcement was made, it was reportedly greeted with cheers.

Now, since SoLaCon wasn't in fact associated with WSFS as a result of this, they couldn't table any motions directly impacting the organization themselves, but the result was a motion that the directors be called to dissolve WSFS, Inc.  According to the Fancyclopedia 3 article on the matter, as of 1959 it was unclear what exactly this meant but it's obvious that WSFS, Inc. was no longer a viable organ at that time, as even then there was comment that it was unlikely to ever again play a significant role in fandom.

And indeed, WSFS, Inc. as an extant "thing" was largely gone six months later.

So what now?

Well, the WSFS itself is obviously alive and well - the corporate organ that was created in the 50s is long gone, and in fact the very idea of such an entity to handle WSFS affairs seems to be a prickly one in fandom - I think this is illustrated by Kevin Standlee's comment in his explanation of the Mark Protection Commitee:

Who owns WSFS's intellectual property? Specifically, who owns the service marks (similar to trademarks) on "Worldcon," "Hugo Award," and so forth. WSFS saw the need to obtain protection for its marks in the 1980s, and had they not done so, anyone could set up their own "Worldcon" or "Hugo Awards." (Sometimes it seems like people are doing just that, but I'm getting ahead of the story.) But who would register and own the marks? Although individual Worldcons are generally run by corporate entities (usually non-profit corporations or their equivalents outside the USA), you couldn't have an individual Worldcon register the marks, because they only have the right to use those marks for a limited period of time covering their own Worldcon. And if you let any particular Worldcon-running non-profit own the marks, you've effectively made the WSFS Inc. by stealth. [5]
So - there is no WSFS, Inc. What happened in the fallout of the WSFS, Inc. fiasco was that SoLaCon operated unassociated, and the next Worldcon location - Detention, held in Detroit - was voted on by attendees to that convention.  As such, that convention was unassociated as well.

And to this day, the mantle of "Worldcon" and membership in WSFS passes from con to con every year, thus the complex web of relationships and ad hoc committees that rely so much on the constant core of the WSFS community.  But I dare say the tremors are still felt when the old-timers talk about certain topics.


1. Interestingly, Kyle was also one of the infamous New York Futurians, who were essentially sympathetic to communist efforts in Spain and intensely anti-Nazi...and who were at the center of some other scandals, including the various Exclusion Acts, which of course is another matter of scandal and long-standing fan feud.  I find this curious considering that Kyle is also the one who tried to prevent the Balcony Insurgents from listening to the guest of honor banquet speeches because they hadn't paid the $7 banquet fee - an odd position for someone who may have been a Bolshevist at the time.

2. People questioned whether "mundanes" could even understand the esoteric world of fandom well enough to render a fair judgement, not to mention the general ungentlemanly tone of such an approach.

3. The Falascas expressed their displeasure in detail in their three issue fanzine Fandom's Burden

4. The fan community of the Bay area, specifically those individuals most involved in producing the FANAC fanzine: Terry Carr, Ron Ellik (pictured!), Carl Brandon, Dave Rike, and Peter Graham are the usual names mentioned.

5. The whole article is here for those interested in the details of Worldcon matters:

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