Forrest J. Ackerman: Science-fiction magazine editor and collector of movie memorabilia
Wednesday 31 December 2008
It was as though he had planned it. The last act of Forrest J. Ackerman, the P.T. Barnum of sci-fi and horror, was not to die. The announcement of his death in early November 2008 was premature. He is said to have enjoyed the plaudits of friends and fans. He was able to take a final bow and then died peacefully, in the Los Angeles bungalow he called the "Acker-mini-mansion", several weeks later. But even this was jumping the gun; he had planned to live to 100, like George Burns.
Forrest James Ackerman was born in Los Angeles as the first film studios were beginning to flourish, and never really left his spiritual home; he was the city's great collector. His obsessively accumulated private museum – manuscripts, magazines, books, movie posters, stills, junk – was much less heterogeneous than it seemed, because in the end it was all about showing off the City of Dreams. Some material was, all the same, "imported". He retained, for instance, the seminal first issue of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, the first English-language science-fiction magazine, which he had bought at the age of nine, in 1926. But most of his energies as a collector were focused directly on the dream world coming to maturity as he did.
The energy involved in assembling – and the heavy financial cost of maintaining – a comprehensive record of the Hollywood film industry never fazed Ackerman, until recent years. For a long time, he kept the 300,000 or so items of the collection in an 18-room house he called the "Ackermansion" (he was an incorrigible punner and coiner of slogans).
At one stage, the Smithsonian Institution designated it one of the 10 most significant private collections in America, but this did not save it in the end. In 1987, financially strapped at last, Ackerman disposed of some highlights. In 2002, in order to cover the devastating medical bills sick Americans so often incur, the Ackermansion was sold and its contents dispersed, almost at random, and an important record of American life was lost.
Though much of his life was spent collecting and showing this material, Forrie Ackerman's own personal career as science-fiction fan and movie buff was exceedingly active. He seemed to know everyone in Los Angeles. As a teenager, he had helped found the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, and as editor of its journal he published the teenaged Ray Bradbury's first story (they remained friends for 70 years).
He edited an army newspaper during the Second World War and afterwards became a literary agent, representing fledgling writers of science fiction. He also wrote soft porn and bad pulp under many pseudonyms; he was central to the fan subcultures which became the reader and viewer base for popular media in 1950s America and later. He invented the term "sci-fi" in 1954, never guessing it would become a derogatory nickname for the genre he loved. He received a Hugo Award in 1953 for fan activities, the first of several honours bestowed on him as the single greatest showman of the science-fiction world.
But Ackerman was probably even more influential in the larger world of Hollywood itself. He had always loved B-movies. The magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, which he created in 1958 and edited until its demise in 1983, inspired future writers like Stephen King, who submitted a teenage story to it, and future film-makers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Ackerman loved everything about movies and movie culture, from schlock to Fritz Lang's Metropolis; and he became part of the saga which obsessed him through dozens (some say hundreds) of cameo appearances in movies from 1944 until shortly before his death.
He was loud, garish, lovable, fertile. He was a booster, a blowhard, and something of a genius. Sometimes he signed his name "4e", or "Forjak", or "The Ackermonster", but no one was fooled, or was meant to be. Everyone who knew anyone in Los Angeles knew it was Forrie.
Forrest James Ackerman, writer, editor and collector: born Los Angeles 24 November 1916; married 1957 Wendayne Wahrman (died 1990); died Los Angeles 4 December 2008.
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