H. Beam Piper: A Biography

John F. Carr wrote two biographies on H. Beam Piper, this one and, later, Typewriter Killer: H. Beam Piper. (Thus, he has to write another book on Piper to comply with Robert Silverberg’s Law of Research.)

Review: H. Beam Piper: A Biography, John F. Carr, 2008.

A biographer of Piper has a challenge. Piper was a man of habitual secrecy, compartmentalization, and deceit. A habitual diary keeper, he burned years’ worth of diaries prior to his marriage late in life. And why did he divorce his wife? Was she really a golddigger who married him for a vacation in Paris? What did the convivial, hard-drinking Piper do for a living before he became a professional writer? His writing acquaintances variously thought he was a railroad detective or railroad engineer. He really worked for decades as the night watchmen in the yard of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona, Pennsylvania. His friends didn’t even know what the “H.” stood for – Horace?, Henry?. It was really Herbert.

And why did he, on November 6, 1964, put one of his guns to his mouth and pull the trigger?

Carr met the challenge and presents us a biography of an interesting and fatally flawed man who produced some outstanding works of science fiction, a biography that surprised Carr associate Jerry Pournelle, a friend of Piper’s, with its revelation and the lies his old friend told. The sources are the reminisces of friends – sometimes as preserved by their children, Piper’s letters and diaries, letters from John W. Campbell, and the work of Piper friend and abortive biographer Mike Knerr. (Abortive because Knerr turned down the finder’s fee from Ace Books for turning over Piper’s lost manuscript of Fuzzies and Other People in exchange for them publishing the biography. They never did.)

Piper was born in 1904, the only child of poor parents. He would live at home until 1956 after he married. His father worked at the railroad yards in Altoona. (At one point, Piper claimed his father was a minister, another Piper lie.) While Piper said little of his grandfather and namesake Dr. Herbert Piper, who died in 1895, his distinguished service in the American Civil War inspired a lifelong interest in the conflict which resulted in Piper’s only nonfiction publication, “John Mosby – Rebel Raider”.

Piper picked up a love for firearms early and his first book publication was an inventory of the gun collection of local antiquarian and folklorist Colonel Shoemaker. While he did occasionally hunt, he seems to have been more of an outdoorsman as were many of his friends. In an introduction to Piper’s sole published mystery, Murder in the Gunroom (dedicated to Shoemaker), Fred Ramsey notes Shoemaker was a con man of dubious scholarship though that was not known to Piper who regarded the Colonel as a mentor.

But Piper also started writing fiction early. We don’t know when exactly, but it seems to have been as a teen according to “Typewriter Killer”, an article about Piper published in 1952 in the company newsletter by the Pennsylvania Railroad. His early interest was in fantasy and science fiction which shifted to historical fiction and history later.

At some point in his youth, Piper picked up a taste for expensive clothing. More than once, when funds were tight, he would make the questionable decision to buy a new, custom-tailored suit. His dark suits and cape made him look, to the local kids, like a vampire. Piper would even wear formal clothes when writing.

The best friend of the young and theatrical Piper was Ferdinand Coleman. They both shared an interest in writing, agnosticism, and evading Prohibition. (Carr notes that Piper straddled the line of being an alcoholic. Jim Beam was, of course, his public signature drink though he preferred Meyers Rum.) Unlike his other friends, Piper could talk to Coleman about his literary aspirations.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Piper wrote numerous crime and gangster stories. We know next to nothing about them. Piper would usually burn a work after it completed its round of rejections, a practice he would also follow in his collaborations with John J. McGuire. There are no “trunk” Piper works waiting to be found. Carr speculates that Piper’s lack of sentimentality and realistic characterization were out of step with publishing trends of the time. Piper was trying to discover the “formula” for success even looking at writer’s magazines which he normally despised. As you might expect from a theatrical, historical-minded writer, Piper’s letters to Coleman reveal a man concerned with posterity and his future reputation. His early stories were written under a pen name as to not sully what he presumed would be his eventual reputation as a more mature writer.

It would not be until 1947 that Piper would see his name in print. He does seem to have written a few free pieces for Coleman’s Shopper’s Guide, one of America’s free shopping newspapers, which Coleman founded in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Piper’s friendship with Coleman cooled a bit in 1927 after Coleman critiqued a story of his. But they remained friends until Coleman’s death in a plane crash in 1952. Piper made visits to Williamsport and was fond of Coleman’s wife Freida and their children. (He never owned a car, depending on his fringe benefit of free railroad tickets to travel.)

In fact, the book is full of the fond memories of “Beam’s kids”, the Coleman and McGuire children. Piper seems to have treated them as little adults, teaching girls to shoot and reading Shakespeare to them.

During those near 25 years of rejection, Piper seems to have picked up some unhelpful habits as a writer. He would revise stories constantly, get a long ways into a project, and then start over again. He spent a lot of time, even at the end of his life, on historical novels and sequels to Murder in the Gunroom – a mystery that sold quite poorly. He would usually resist calls for sequels and ignore John W. Campbell, editor of his most profitable outlet, and his suggestions for future stories.

And there was his poor money management. While he worked for the railroad, money from selling fiction was “found money” to be spent on clothes, guns, liquor, and what was then much more expensive typing paper. But when left the railroad in 1956, he had to support himself writing. And the 1950s were not a good time to make a living as a science fiction writer. Magazines were disappearing, and Piper was never a prolific writer like Robert Silverberg. Paperback and anthology sales didn’t earn that much. Piper’s best year saw him earn just $3,000 – about $27,000 in current U.S. dollars – from writing. Yet, Piper still retained his rather spendthrift ways even when a professional writer. To Knerr’s great annoyance, he also promptly paid his federal and city tax bills even though it literally endangered being able to buy food. (Since I worked for a number of years helping people in this sort of situation, I winced at this.)

Piper was a canny firearm collector and bought cheap. Towards the end of his life when he became increasingly desperate for money, he sold some guns in New York City – because then the locals in Pennsylvania would not know of his situation.

After Piper published, he became friends with many writers including Fletcher Pratt, the man who had the sort of career Piper wanted, a career spanning different fiction genres and non-fiction. He was a convivial presence at mystery and science fiction conventions.

Carr talks a bit about Piper’s seeming belief in reincarnation and possible time travel that shows up in some of his stories. Jerry Pournelle thought it a sincere belief. Knerr regarded it as another lie by his friend.

Piper’s attitude toward sex and romance seems contradictory. He would criticize works for their prudish depiction of sex and signed a letter to Coleman once with “Yours in Free-Love and Agnosticism”. On the other hand, he usually spoke of sex in a Victorian manner. However, at least once, when speaking of a visit to a prostitute, he spoke in crude terms. He also then declared, however, the heroines of his stories would always be “virgo intacto”.

Before his marriage, Piper seems to have been briefly smitten, in 1927, with a local woman. Later, Coleman’s secretary, 20 years Piper’s junior, was briefly taken with the erudite Piper, but their relationship was strictly platonic.

But, in 1954, Piper was introduced to Elizabeth Hirst by Fletcher Pratt’s wife, Inga. She worked as a teacher with the Council on Student Travel. She was an attractive woman, a divorcee about Piper’s age. Piper began a courtship with her on the weekends, traveling to New York City where she lived.

It is indicative of what Piper termed his “operational secrecy” that he didn’t even introduce Betty to his mother when Betty visited Altoona. The couple were married in March 1955. It was probably because of the marriage that Piper burned his earlier diaries with their record of his visits to prostitutes. He also spent some anxious days wondering if he would pass the blood test for syphilis that his marriage license required.

As Carr notes, it had to have been a love match given their history and ages. Betty was a woman of the world who had traveled to Europe several times and was a fluent French speaker. She came from a family of some means in Carmel, California. She loaned her employer money and left over a half a million dollars to the U.S. government when she died in 1990. She must have known that Piper was not a man of means, a night watchman for the railroad.

1954 was also the year that Piper fell out with John J. McGuire over the latter taking one of his guns without Piper’s permission. McGuire’s increasing hard-drinking was getting too much for even Piper who suggested he quit. The McGuires, when they were told of Piper’s marital plans, tried to talk him out of it. The McGuire children were upset after losing all contact with their beloved Uncle Beam when Piper broke with McGuire. (McGuire would go on to some solo science fiction work, but his alcoholism and probable post-traumatic stress disorder from his days as an OSS operative in WWII eventually made him, according to his son in 1979, the “town drunk” whom it was pointless for Carr to interview.) 

In April 1955, Piper would finally break “security” and tell his 91-year old mother he was married. Piper noted it seemed “quite a jolt” to her, but she seemed pleased. She died a few months later. Though Piper didn’t ever exhibit much grief over his mother’s death in his diaries, he did tell Freida Coleman in a letter that, if he hadn’t married Betty, his mother’s death would have left him “utterly alone”.

In 1956, Betty was offered a position in Paris with the Council on Student Travel. Piper didn’t want to leave Pennsylvania. But what was there to keep him there? His mother was dead. In May 1956, facing a layoff from the Pennsylvania Railroad which was in increasing financial straits, Piper made the mistake of resigning instead. Thus he was ineligible for any pension or unemployment. It would be 13 years before he could collect Social Security or, maybe, a railroad pension. However, that would have been a long 13-year wait for Piper.

In July 1956, Piper went with Betty to Paris, and they returned in October. The Pipers settled in New York City with Piper making trips to Williamsport and Altoona, which, with new eyes, Piper realized was a dying town. It was also in 1956 that Piper took Ken White as his literary agent, a decision that would lead to significant consequences.

In March 1957, the Pipers returned to Paris. For a while, Piper enjoyed his time in Europe. He went to several historical sites in England and France. But he came to resent the place and his dependency on his wife for language translation and income. He also came to resent the, relative to America, primitive circumstances found in post-war Europe.

Things came to a head on September 13, 1957 as the couple argued over prices of a restaurant menu. (It was the wealthier Betty who didn’t want to pay.) Of course, the real reasons ran deeper. Both were resolute in pursuing their goals which didn’t agree at all.

Carr says,

I have no doubt that H. Beam Piper at fifty-three years of age was not an easy man to live with. Charming, gracious, and learned, he was. But he was as stubborn as a jackass, and had been pampered for fifty years by a doting-mother. The Prince wanted it all his way, but so did the Princess – and she had the bigger dowry. Beam, however, was as hard as the flint of his Kentucky rifles when it came to sticking to his guns.

Piper returned to America and moved to Williamsport. There he had few friends since Freida remarried and moved away at the end of 1958.

Piper’s independence and stubborn self-reliance increased with age. In his youth, he had borrowed money from Coleman. He even took money from his wife. But there would be no more of that.

The next few years saw Piper pining over Betty in his diaries and still writing her. They divorced amicably.

By July 1964, Piper was increasingly going hungry. He wondered how he could eat on 15 cents a week and was shooting pigeons for food out his kitchen window. He was in pain from a back injury earlier in the year, sometimes depressed, and increasingly tired.

In August 1964, he got a $530 check. In October, Piper was working on Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. He asked his agent Ken White the status of his story “Hos-Hostigos”. Piper found out that Ken White was dead. Contacting John W. Campbell, Piper found out the story had been returned from Analog Science Fiction with revision notes on September 16th.

Piper wrote Campbell back on October 26, 1964 asking for a copy of the revision notes:

He said

Do you want a revision of the story? If so, I would be deeply grateful if you would write me, giving me a resume of the letter which accompanied it back to Ken, and telling me what needs to be fixed.

I am, with best wishes, and thanking you in advance.

It was the closest, says Carr, that Piper ever came to begging.

At the end of October, Piper had a tax bill due and took all but $2 out of his bank account to pay bills.

Knerr, whom was asked by the police to identify Piper’s body, reconstructs Piper’s state of mind the day of his suicide:

Did he have an agent? Would Ace take Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen? Would Hos-Hostigos” sell, or Fuzzies and Other People? Could he afford, with the little bit of money he had, to hold out until something finally came through? Could he go through another starvation period like the ones in the past? Was there any use to it all? He was sixty. Betty was gone. Ken was gone. He was tired, old and just a bit sick, and completely in the dark as to what had become of his work. The Nifflheim with it!

Piper’s suicide note was brief, proud, and secretive:

“I don’t like to leave messes when I go away, but if I could have cleaned up any of this mess, I wouldn’t be going away.”

In an appreciation of Piper, Jack L. Chalker said:

like the ancient ones he studied and loved, he chose his own time and place of farewell, for reasons concealed from us all.

Piper’s suicide left his friends guilty. If only they had realized the straits Piper was in, they would have helped. But, notes Carr, how could they know and would Piper have accepted help?

Yes, Carr is Piper’s only published biographer, but it’s hard to think how we will ever get anything better about its secretive subject. Clearly written, it’s a work of love and devotion but not sparing of Piper’s flaws. My only very minor complaint is with Carr’s notation of dates. Listing only a month and day flows better when reading, but a full date with a year works better when consulting a book as a reference.

It comes with several photos of Piper and his wife and friends and beloved dachshund (who later appeared in a Bridget Bardot movie). It also comes with an index and appendixes covering Piper’s accounting of sales, discussing Piper’s Terro-Human Future History and giving Piper’s own chronology of its stories, a Piper bibliography, and an inventory of Piper’s weapons taken in 1956 before he moved to Paris with Betty.

Additional Thoughts

It occurs to me that there are some similarities between Piper and H. P. Lovecraft. Both embarked on ill-fated marriages relatively late in their life, marriages which took them from their beloved homes. Also, the work of both seemed to gain from the trauma and temporary dislocation they suffered.

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