RIP: SFWA Author Emeritus 1999 William Tenn

William Tenn, the pen name of Phillip Klass, died at home on today at the age of 89. Tenn was named Author Emeritus by SFWA in 1999.

Primarily known for his humorous short stories and essays, he wrote only two novels both published in 1968. Theodore Sturgeon said of his fiction:

It would be too wide a generalization to say that every SF satire, every SF comedy and every attempt at witty and biting criticism found in the field is a poor and usually cheap imitation of what this man has been doing since the 1940s. His incredibly involved and complex mind can at times produce constructive comment so pointed and astute that the fortunate recipient is permanently improved by it. Admittedly, the price may be to create two whole categories for our species: humanity and William Tenn. For each of which you must create your ethos and your laws. I’ve done that. And to me it’s worth it.

He leaves his wife Fruma and his daughter Adina. Our thoughts are with them both.

6 Responses

  1. Kevin Riley

    Phil Klass was not only a great writer, he was a fantastic teacher. Phil left New York City in the mid 1960’s and went to teach at Penn State University, eventually becoming Professor of English and Comparative Literature. He taught many wonderful writing and literature courses, including a hugely popular lit course on science fiction. I used to think of him as a missionary to the mundane masses. I got to know him there when I was president of the Penn State SF Society and he was our faculty advisor.

    Upon his retirement from PSU he and Fruma moved to Pittsburgh–I was able to get to know Phil much better, and it was a delight. They both became cherished members of the Pittsburgh SF community, attending our club activities and becoming perennial program participants at our local conference, Confluence. Phil and Fruma are great storytellers and having them at any event made it much more fun.

    It was very gratifying to witness the William Tenn revival of the last several years–SFWA Author Emeritus, a Noreascon IV GoH, and GoH at several regional and local cons. People in other parts of the country were getting to know the Phil we in the ‘Burgh knew and loved. Perhaps best of all, having his stories and essays back in print through the NESFA Press books Immodest Proposals, Here Comes Civilization, and Dancing Naked gives many people the chance to know the fabulous writing talent Phil possessed. I’m proud to have played a small part in that endeavor by having designed and laid-out the dust jackets for those books.

    Good-bye Phil, I’ll miss you. Fruma and Adina, you’re in my thoughts.

  2. Laurie Mann

    Phil Klass and the Meaning of Chutzpah

    I’m not sure when, exactly, was the first time I met Phil Klass (aka William Tenn). I think we met at one or two cons in the ’70s or ’80s. I was familiar with some of his writing, especially “Child’s Play” and “On Venus, Have We got a Rabbi!” But, by 1993, I turned out to have a fairly close connection to Phil and Fruma — my husband Jim and I bought a house about a half mile away from theirs in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mt. Lebanon. And their daughter, Adina, was only about four years older than our daughter Leslie. Over the next few years, we’d run into each other at various science fiction club events and at Confluence, the local SF con.

    I’d often run into people who’d had Phil as a teacher at Penn State. Many of these people were in fandom, but I’ve probably met a dozen people at various companies in the Pittsburgh area who weren’t SF fans but still remembered Professor Klass very fondly.

    By the late ’90s, Jim had an idea — NESFA Press should reprint all of Phil’s fiction. Since most of his fiction hadn’t been reprinted in years, this would help expose more of his writing to more readers. It took a few months to develop the contract to Phil’s exacting specifications, but the results by the early ’00s were two terrific volumes of all of William Tenn’s fiction: Immodest Proposals and Here Comes Civilization.

    So we started working with Phil and Fruma a little more closely. He’d greet me with “Hello, Laurie. And why
    do they say all those terrible things about you?” The first time he did that, I wasn’t sure how to react. I’d just
    laugh nervously and we’d go on from there. But, gradually, I noticed he only said that to people he liked,
    so that was fine by me!

    When the Nebula Awards Weekend was in sudden search of a new site, I suggested bringing it to Pittsburgh, and SFWA took me up on that. SFWA also made William Tenn the Author Emeritus for the 1999 Nebula Awards Weekend. So there was Phil, resplendent in a tux, speaking to all the assembled writers, signing autographs for many of them.

    Late 2003 and early 2004 I was consumed by work, collecting of Phil’s non-fiction writing in a GoH book for Noreascon IV. Phil’s non-fiction was full of little gems, especially a wonderful piece about his parents “Constantinople,” and a long and fascinating piece on electronic surveillance in the ’60s, “The Bugmaster.” While we agreed on almost everything, we had two disagreements over the production of this book.

    There were two interview transcriptions — one long and the other very long. I wanted to edit out about 10% of the short interview, and maybe 25% of the longer interview to cut down on the repetitions (there are at least three stories told three different ways in the course of his non-fiction collection). Phil was adamant that nothing be edited, except to correct egregious errors. I finally got him to agree to some minimal editing, mostly removing side comments between Phil and the videographer.

    We couldn’t agree on the title.

    For years, instead of saying “Thank-you very much,” Phil would say, “For that, I’ll dance naked on a table for you.” I loved that phrase from him, and, felt it would be a good title for his collection of non-fiction. Because his non-fiction is quite honest. Also, Deb Geisler, the chair of Noreascon IV, loved it too.

    Perhaps Phil and Fruma felt the title was too undignified or something so they resisted it. I’m not sure they ever came up with an alternative suggestion. Finally, after about a year of back and forth, they agreed to the title. The artist Bob Eggleton did a wonderfully comic take on the title for the cover. Undignified or not, Dancing Naked brought Phil his first Hugo nomination.

    Noreascon IV chose William Tenn as one of their GoHs for 2004. With a lot of help from their old State College friends Kathy and Jim Morrow, and their daughter Adina, Phil and Fruma were able to go everywhere and do everything at the Worldcon.

    In the late ’00s, they were not able to travel as much. They still came out to Confluence every year, and sometimes drove to eastern Pennsylvania to visit Adina. By the fall of ’09, Phil was in and out of several hospitals. He really enjoyed getting cards from people. He was particularly pleased to have heard from a fan from Norway. By late November, Fruma was able to bring him home. While very weak, he appreciated people’s visits, and he was fairly alert.

    Phil (and William Tenn) died on February 7, 2010, at home of congestive heart failure.

    My favorite Phil Klass story took place 12 years before I was even born, at the end of World War II. Phil could exaggerate, but I’m sure this story is close to 100% true.

    Phil was a short man, maybe about 5’2″ or so. But what he failed to have in height, he more than made up for in bravado and chutzpah.

    Phil was in the Army for most of World War II. He had an ear for learning languages, so the Army sent him to learn Bulgarian. Of course, that meant he was sent to the South Pacific for most of the war.

    Late in the war, he was in Europe. Since he spoke several languages, he was one of the people who would translate for the Americans. One of his jobs was to translate for the concentration camp guards.

    So, picture this — a short, Jewish American army soldier from New York City translating for tall, Aryan Nazi guards who’d spent years facilitating the slaughter of Jewish prisoners.

    One of the guards finally asked him, “You speak an unusual kind of German. What is it?”

    Phil looked the guard in the eye and said, “It’s Yiddish.”

  3. Alexandra Textor

    I was a little kid when I first met Phil Klass, and he’s been a figure in my life for almost as long as I can remember.His daughter Adina babysat me a few times and I remember going with others to his house and just visiting and listening to him talk. Even at a young age I thought he was funny,friendly and incredibly smart, though he never made you feel lost in a conversation. Although he would sometimes go off on tangents it was endless fascinating to listen to him talk about whatever topic he’d picked.
    I remember when I was in high school he was giving a talk to some students and my dad got me out of school to take me, I was so excited even though no one in my class had the faintest idea who he was.
    When my fiancee Jon first moved to Pittsburgh 5 years ago, and attending his first Christmas party, Phil wasted no time in talking to him and making him feel welcome and never forgot Jon’s name and made a point of saying hello every time he saw him after that. Jon mentioned how much he enjoyed talking to Phil after every party and always left with a laugh and a smile.
    He will be greatly missed and I feel sorry for those who never got to meet him in person as he was an amazing man, unique and there will never be another one like him.

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