One cold spring day in 2005, I was alone in the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, setting up the exhibits for the museum’s twelfth anniversary season. The fax machine (the museum’s only phone) rang. Mind you, nobody calls me when I’m off in the Finger Lakes region doing museum setup unless it’s an office emergency.
“This is Harlan Ellison,” the caller said. And he was off.
I’d met Ellison at the Fourth World Skeptics Conference in Burbank, California, in 2002. He gave a spellbinding talk looking back at the 9/11 attacks, which became one of Free Inquiry’s two Fall 2002 cover stories. (Then-editor-in-chief Paul Kurtz paid Ellison for the piece—the amount was generous for us, chicken-feed for Ellison—because he was famous for crusading for writers to get paid for their work.)
Which was why Ellison had phoned me, there in the middle of nowhere. We were planning our second feature titled “Will Secularism Survive?,” for which we’d mailed invitations to every prominent person we could think of, asking for brief replies to that question. (“Will Secularism Survive?” headlined our October/November 2005 issue. Among those who replied: Frederick Crews, Johann Galtung, Mario Bunge, Wendy Kaminer, Daniel Pipes, Lionel Tiger, and Thomas Szasz.)
Ellison had been invited too, and he made it clear that he would not be replying. Did he ever.
His complaint? We were not offering to pay for responses. In his view, if Don (“Sea of Faith”) Cupitt wanted to dash off a hundred or so words on future prospects for secularism, it was outrageous that we should ask him to do it for free. “Academics may be willing to write for nothing, but real writers earn their living by their words,” Ellison thundered. “I’m one of them.”
There followed a twelve-and-a-half minute tongue lashing. (Of course I timed it.) Ellison probably thought he was turning me to quivering jelly. Instead, I was struggling not to sputter with glee: I’m getting reamed by Harlan Ellison. He’s done it to Gene Roddenberry, he’s done it to James Cameron, and now he’s doing it to me!
Without warning, Ellison’s “I have this mouth and I must scream” episode reached its climax.
He got very quiet, drew a breath, and asked in a matter-of-fact voice, “Was I civil?”
“Harlan,” I said after a long moment. “You were you.”