Saturday, April 4, 2015

Fred Pohl's portrait (but the wrong Fred Pohl)

When my wife, Sydney, and I visited the main branch of the New York Public Library in January, we were impressed by, well, pretty much everything, but my favorite discovery was in the first-floor reading room of the Map Division. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

It’s a small, framed and matted illustration of a library interior and its inhabitants. On the left, a man and woman loom dramatically in the foreground. She’s seated at a long table, he’s standing just behind her, and they’re looking in opposite directions, away from one another; they look furtive, perhaps worried someone will see them together. In the middle distance, at a second long table, a man in what may be a protective jacket handles a long sheet of paper. At the end of that table, to the far right of the illustration, stands a bald man in a black overcoat or raincoat; he’s looking away from the viewer, toward the fifth and most distant person in the room, a seated, bespectacled man who seems to be rolling paper into or out of a typewriter.

Taped to the bottom of the frame is this typeset paragraph:
For the mystery lover, the June 9th, 1951 issue of the Saturday Evening Post contains Morton M. Hunt’s “The Secret of the Vanquished Explorer.” There you will see a two-page color spread, an illustration of the Map Division reading room, when it was located on the third floor, Room 312. If you look carefully, you might recognize Gerard Alexander, former Chief of the Map Division, and Frederick Pohl, the “hero” of the piece. The framed picture hung in the Map Division office for years, until the current chief grew tired of the angst eminating [sic] from the artwork.
Peering more closely at the guy at the typewriter, my nose nearly touching the glass, I said aloud, “Well, there you are, Fred!” I was sure I had identified SFWA Grand Master Frederik Pohl, making a cameo appearance in the library. I even snapped his photo, to prove it. True, his first name had been misspelled, but wasn't it always?
"Well, there you are, Fred!" Er, not quite.
Googling when I got home, I found the first three sentences quoted above were written by Alice Hudson, then chief of the Map Division, for a short 1998 article commemorating the division’s centennial. “Some fun things have been written about the map collections at NYPL,” she begins. But the full article contained no new information about Hunt's Saturday Evening Post piece.

Still, I was very pleased to find, among all the august portraits on the walls of the Main Branch, this almost-hidden little sketch of a writer I actually knew personally – and a science fiction writer, at that!

Alas, it was not to be. As I was formatting this post, I stumbled upon one more reference to Hunt's "The Secret of the Vanquished Explorer" -- as a footnote in the Google Books preview of Ancient Stone Sites of New England and the Debate over Early European Exploration by David Goudsward (McFarland, 2006). Turns out Hunt's was a non-fiction article about an archaeological controversy, and his Pohl was one Frederick J. Pohl (1889-1991), a prolific writer on alleged pre-Columbian European exploration of North America.

Serves me right for seeing sf topics everywhere I look! But I post this anyway, as a warning to the curious. And I bet I'm not the first person to have confused the writer Frederik Pohl with the writer Frederick J. Pohl.

Source: Hudson, Alice. “The Map Division in Press: More Than Fifteen Seconds of Fame.” Meridian 13 (1998): 61-62. The complete issue is here.

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