Harlan Ellison recalls the day he assaulted his publisher

This is the story Harlan Ellison tells of that day in 1982: He had just assaulted his publisher. Before anyone could think to call the police, Ellison’s editor sneaked him out of the building in the freight elevator. He jumped into a cab and 15 minutes later walked into a studio to tape a talk show with Isaac Asimov, Gene Wolfe, Calvin Trillin and Studs Terkel.

“I have just come from physically assualting the CEO of Grosset & Dunlap,” he recalls telling them. That didn’t get captured on tape -- see the video of the show here -- but he did mention being frustrated with his publisher. When I reached him by phone to ask about that day, he told me this tale of the assault, with no small amount of glee.

First, try to picture it: Harlan Ellison, 5-foot-5, leather jacket, with the growly attitude of an angry author who’s just come off a redeye from L.A. His publisher was 6-foot-2, with the bearing of a Boston blueblood, wearing a suit and tie, of course. He was exiting his corner office in a New York skyscraper.


“I breezed past all the impediments and got to the inner offices,” Ellison recalls. “We met in the aisle where the typing pool was.”

Ellison was upset about one of the books the publisher had recently reissued: His 1961 rock ‘n’ roll novel “Spider Kiss” had mistakenly been labeled science fiction, which he knew would be misleading to readers. There had been an acrimonious exchange about it -- but only by mail. In person, Ellison says, his publisher “didn’t know me from a pissoir.”

“I put him in a hold that I had learned from Bruce Lee. I took him to his knees. Then I duck-walked him back to his door,” on his knees all the way, Ellison recounts. The typing pool, all women then, stopped work and watched the show, he says, “with enormous pleasure.”

When they got back to the man’s office, the publisher on his knees, Ellison says he banged the man’s head into the door until he opened it. They went inside -- the publisher, Ellison and Ellison’s editor, a woman he remembers fondly, who soon was huddling on a couch.

“I picked up a chair and threw it,” Ellison says. Rather than shattering the windows, “it bounced around the room.” The publisher had scrambled behind his desk and was dialing the phone.

“I jumped onto the desk and ripped the phone out of the wall,” Ellison says. Back in 1982, that’s how phones worked -- they had cords, attached to walls. “He tried to crawl through the desk’s kneehole. I grabbed him by the collar and threw him across the room.”

It was then that his editor’s condition -- “crunched in a fetal position in horror” -- started to get through to him. “I realized, ‘My god, you’ve gone mad,’” he says. He thought of the Tombs, New York City’s notorious detention center. “I’ve been in jail -- I don’t like jail,” Ellison thought. He followed his quick-thinking editor, who headed for the freight elevator. “We ran for our lives.”

And then Ellison went to the video taping with Studs Terkel and Isaac Asimov and Gene Wolfe and Calvin Trillin. “I loved Studs,” he said when I reached him by phone. “I had a wonderful day.”

Is 31 years long enough for the statute of limitations to run out on causing a ruckus in a publisher’s office?


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