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March 01, 2008


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Apropos of Doheny, there's an old journalist's maxim: follow the money. Let's! First some clippings.

From Time Magazine, April 12, 1937: Married. Lucy Estelle ("Dicky Dell") Doheny, 21, granddaughter & heiress of the late Oilman Edward Laurence Doheny, and Waldemann Van Cott Niven, 25, Los Angeles attorney; in Beverly Hills, Calif.

There's a typo here; it should be Waldemar. They had a child, Laurence, born on April 30, 1938.

From Time Magazine, October 31, 1949: End of an Empire. Since the Teapot Dome scandal 25 years ago, the oil empire of Edward L. Doheny has been in & out of the headlines. Last week the holdings of Doheny, who was acquitted of bribe charges, made news again, perhaps for the last time. The Los Nietos (literally, the relatives) Co., owned by Doheny's five grandchildren,* sold the empire's last oil-producing property. The holdings have oil reserves in the U.S. and Canada of at least 48 million barrels. The buyer: Union Oil Co. of California. The price: $22.4 million plus 600,000 shares (current value: $15 million) of Union Oil stock.

* Timothy M., 23, Patrick A., 26, William H., 30, and E. L. ("Larry") Doheny, 32; and Lucy Doheny Niven, 34. [Time's footnote. -- CY]

Young Laurence entered the California Institute of Technology in September 1956. He dropped out in February 1958, "after discovering a book store jammed with used science fiction magazines."

There follows a short period of honest employment: gas station attendant in the summer of 1960.

Tumty-tumty-tum. First story publication, "The Coldest Place," about Mercury, in Worlds of If magazine, December 1964. First Hugo, for the short story, "Neutron Star", 1966. Y'all know the rest. Later retconned the idiot hereditary Secretary-General in his Svetz stories to be named Waldemar.

You might ask, what sort of name is Waldemar Van Cott? That's a different sort of American story. John Van Cott was an early Mormon, cousin to the Pratts -- you may have heard of one of Orson Pratt's namesakes -- who went on a church mission to Denmark, returning on the ship Waldemar. His third or fourth wife, nee Laura Lund, was Danish, and their first son was named Waldemar.

Waldemar became one of Utah's most famous lawyers, chair of the Board of Regents of the University of Utah, and apparently converted to Christian Science. The name apparently stayed in the family: there's a Big Ten college wrestling champion with that name in 1950, at Purdue.

How the name was grafted onto a different family tree, I don't know. There are several plausible routes.


I vaguely remember Niven writing something about how money made it possible for him to write, because he could stay alive until his stuff was good enough to support him.

That four-year gap is interesting. (Gas station attendant?)

I still wonder what happened to him. You can see his writing get steadily better, fast, from "The Coldest Place" to some point in the 1970s. Then the long long decline.

If you look at those first 10 years of stories, you can clearly see the social milieu he was moving in. Not gas station attendants, but not old money either. Hum.

April 30... wait, Larry Niven is almost /seventy/. Damn.

Doug M.


I left out his B.A. in math from Washburn University. Kansas plays a big role in early Niven. Characters named Jayhawk, sunflowers, highway hypnosis, the Menninger Institute, et cetera. The math shows up a little, too: "Convergent Series", of course, but also a little differential geometry in "The Soft Weapon", an interesting view of probability in "All The Myriad Ways". His psychology minor does as well.

I remember that passage a little differently. I don't think he was ever only living off his sales; I think his increasing sales meant that his family began to accept his talent. Though there is a passage from "Relic of Empire" where a formerly rich character talks about learning to live on a budget.

The beginning of his decline parallels his association with Pournelle, who was drinking heavily then. Coincidentally, in this period he starts talking a lot about Irish coffee (and Pimm's Cup) and writing characters who are bartenders.

NB: I'm not implying anything about Niven's physiology here; having a close friend and collaborator who's an alcoholic, in a subculture filled with alcoholics, must suck the creative energy right out of you. I could probably omit those last seven words.

The lower later equilibrium, my guess is, comes from living within too insular of mental communities. No sparks from flint meeting steel. He _reads_ Tom Wolfe with admiration; he doesn't follow Tom Wolfe's example. (And Tom Wolfe himself has become uninteresting in a similar way.)


Addendum: since I know you're thinking about Paul Fussell's Class in connection w/ Niven's milieu, I should tell you I found a copy of Betty Fussell's My Kitchen Wars, and hoo boy. Paul was a real piece of work. Twisted, rigid, closeted, and ultimately, stupid.

You also find out all sorts of 1960s Princeton gossip: Kingsley Amis, drinking and swiving his way through New Jersey; Philip Roth's first wife, the model for Mary Jane Reed aka "the Monkey" in Portnoy's Complaint, who the Fussells knew, who was all that.

Noel Maurer

Switching to Wolfe, for I have a grand lack of things to say about Niven, other than that I loved him as a kid.

I enjoyed "A Man in Full." Then came that college piece, the one that wasn't inaccurate --- in the sense that the story /could/ have happened and the characters /could/ have existed --- but it didn't feel real either.

The characters in "Bonfire" and "Full" represented real archetypes even when they themselves were caricatures ... while the characters in "Charlotte Simmons" were just, well, unrepresentative. So any deeper social commentary was lost.

Which is why I'm simultaneously eager for and dreading Wolfe's new book. It's about immigration in Miami, and I know Miami. It could be great, or it could be terrible.


Agreed on Wolfe, though in retrospect you can see him revving up his motorcycle for the shark tank in A Man In Full. By the next book, he was just pushing paper dolls around.

(But I was really kind of hoping for a snarky comment about Doheny in the Porfiriato.)

Doug M.

I don't know about the stupid part -- there's some good stuff in "The Great War and Modern Memory", and also in his first wave of essays. There's some careful craftsmanship at the word-and-sentence level... I'm remembering the line in "Thank God for the Atomic Bomb" about "I don't hold it against these men that they didn't get their asses shot off...", but there are others.

That said, it leaked away. I remember reading _BAD_ and thinking "/this/... is bad." And I long ago decided that anyone who self-identified as "curmudgeon" was automatically deducted a full letter grade.

Closeted, hm. That's interesting. I should read _Kitchen Wars_ sometime, I guess.

Googling, I'm mildly surprised to find that he's still alive.

Doug M.

Doug M.

_Charlotte Simmons_ came out while I was at Yale, and inspired a certain amount of reaction among the undergrads. Interestingly, most didn't have much trouble with the theme of the book (which IMS was that undergrads at prestigious universities are mostly interested in sex, fun, and good jobs after graduation), but the actual writing was pretty roundly panned.

"Swiving through New Jersey": One thing Kingsley and Martin Amis seem to have in common is an incredible knack for pissing people off. There's a difference in emphasis, though... with Amis _pere_ it's more 'wow, what a memorable asshole', with _fils_ it's more 'oh my god, I hate that man so much'.

Niven again: the point about mental communities is well taken. Other hand, it's striking to me how many SF writers had an explosion of good work c. 1965-75 that they never could match again later. Roger Zelazny is the type specimen here. Something in the air?

Doug M.

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