E. E. “Doc” Smith is one of my favorite science fiction writers. I began indulging in the thought-provoking pleasures of reading his books in high school when I noticed one of my classmates hiding Children of the Lens inside a history textbook. He was reading it in class. This author must be good, I thought! O how right I was! Once I dipped into Triplanetary — the first in the Lensman series — I was hooked.
Smith was a terribly intellectual guy, with a Ph.D. in chemistry. He also happened to be an expert in—of all things—donuts and wheat-based foods. Whether he consumed a lot of wheat (which can influence the mind like a narcotic, according to William Davis, M.D.) is unknown. But what I’d like to talk about today is a topic that has been neglected in the review of the man and his work, namely, the wardrobe he affected.
It is my contention, which I intend to prove in the next few paragraphs, that Smith was hampered in his career by the way he dressed, and that if he had chosen his attire and hairstyle with more care he might have made a bigger splash in the literary world.
The first book series he tackled was the Skylark quartet. One of the most exciting incidents in the initial book, The Skylark of Space, occurs when Marc DuQuesne kidnaps the beautiful Dorothy Vaneman and accidentally blasts off at faster-than-light speed in a rocket whose propulsion system was designed by his rival, Dick Seaton.
Smith was good at writing about space travel and machines. Less sure of himself when it came to human interactions, especially love scenes, he didn’t even include any in the book. In fact, after the manuscript was rejected by numerous publishers, he turned to his neighbor, Mrs. Lee Hawkins Garby. “Can you help me by writing some boy-girl scenes for the book?” he asked. Before long she had done so, and he inserted the material where necessary and sent the book out again. The manuscript was still rejected.
For some time it languished on the shelf in Smith’s office. Then one day he went for a walk to pick up a newspaper. On the newsstand was a new pulp magazine with a fantastic looking cover featuring UFOs and aliens. Emblazoned across the cover was the title Amazing Stories. Not one to pass up an opportunity, Smith promptly sent out the manuscript to the magazine’s editor and it was accepted at once. It appeared in the magazine in 1928. The rest, as they say, is history.
The readers ate up Smith’s words and demanded more. Who was this scientific prodigy with the imagination of a Dumas? Where had he come from? What was he writing next? They clamored for more, and Smith was urged by his editor to produce more of the same.
Happy to comply, Smith got to work on a sequel, Skylark Three, followed shortly thereafter by Skylark of Valeron and Skylark DuQuesne. The author of the first book was listed as Smith and Garby. But in the sequels, Smith wrote the love scenes himself. Most people say he did a pretty good job at it, too. I guess he learned a few things about romance writing from Mrs. Garby. In fact, there is actually quite a bit of romance in Smith’s later books, especially in the Lensman series and in the standalone novel Spacehounds of IPC.
SMITH’S PLAID SHIRTS
In these early days, Smith was not particulary concerned about his wardrobe. He can be seen in various photos from this time wearing plaid shirts (Fig. 1 and 2). In these shirts Smith looks more like a plumber than a Ph.D. In one photograph (Fig. 1.) his wife is sitting in the background, while Smith talks with some friends. Even his wife was unable to get her husband to change his ways. Either she didn’t see the risk of dressing like a failure, or she didn’t know better. Evidently she had no effect on the man, for he continued with this ineffective garb for many years.
Not long after this, Smith can be seen wearing his favorite style, a plaid shirt, underneath the conservative pinstripe jacket of a suit (Fig. 2). His shirt is open at the neck and the collar is spread in a gauche manner over the lapels of the jacket. Instead of a scientist and successful author, he looks like a homeless loafer. The saddest part of this story is that the look on Smith’s face is one of wry humor, as if he is proud of himself and the look he is sporting. But how could a man be proud of such a wardrobe mistake? There is only one way this is possible, and that is if the man has no idea he is making himself look ridiculous.
As he got older, Smith would sometimes wear a white shirt and a tie with dark suits in an attempt to look more businesslike and professional. But even in doing this he made serious wardrobe errors. His ties were never conservative and appropriate, instead they displayed bizarre patterns, not unlike huge slices of macaroni and cheese on toast. The look is totally appalling.
Eventually the world started to begrudgingly take notice of Smith. Not for his sartorial splendor, but for his novels. He slowly developed a reputation in the science fiction community and he found himself being invited to book conventions and speaking engagements. At these affairs he often reverted to his plaid shirt, or worse. In one of the conventions he can be seen wearing a plasticine jacket and a bomber helmet with goggles. His eyeglasses are nowhere to be seen and the seriously myopic Smith looks blind. In his hand is a ray gun, connected by a wire to a power pack on his belt.
Yes, it’s true that Smith was only playing by wearing this costume. But by comparison other people at the convention look totally normal. A man in a plaid shirt behind Smith looks like he’s from the planet Earth, whereas Smith, by comparison, looks like he’s a visitor from another world. Another man behind Smith is dressed in a dark, conservative suit. It’s no exaggeration to say that Smith probably made a fool of himself at this convention.
Was there any need for him to dress up like a clown and make people laugh at him? None whatsoever. Not only were people laughing at him at the time, they’re still scratching their heads and wondering why he did such silly things that actually hurt more than helped his reputation.
Smith’s poor wardrobe choices certainly hurt him as an artist. It is clear that he never developed a look at was all his own. Even the plaid shirts were not worn with consistency, and mixing them with suits on occasion only served to make him look like a man from the wrong side of the tracks.
In later years he calmed down a bit and started to try to look serious with his dark suits, but even that did not work. Not only did he wear the wrong kinds of ties, he also discarded this conservative look and appeared garbed as a space man at conventions, complete with fighter cap, goggles, and ray gun. You can see him as C.L. Moore’s interplanetary ace, Northwest Smith, at Worldcon 1962 (Fig. 4).
Even if a reporter happened to like Smith and his work, there was no consistent message that one could see being delivered to the media the way, for instance, Tom Wolfe or Truman Capote delivered a consistent image of themselves to the press by wearing an outfit that was distinctly theirs. Smith’s lumberjack shirts did not say “Smith” the way Wolfe’s white suits said “Tom Wolfe” because Smith did not wear the shirts consistently. And, of course, mixing them with conservative suit jackets did nothing to help his cause.
HOW AN IMAGE CONSULTANT COULD HAVE HELPED SMITH
There is no question that Smith could have been well served by the help an image consultant could have provided. If only to tell him to straighten out his act with those shirts, it would have been a good thing for his career. Someone had to tell him, but his wife wasn’t up to the job. Nor did his friends or editors have the savvy — or the nerve — to speak to the madcap author about his careless attire. As a result, the man went around, as if in a daze, trying first one bizarre look, then another. By the time he had reached his late 60s and early 70s his mind was so focused on the task of being casual and silly that he seemed to give up thinking rationally about his appearance. He traipsed around town in the plasticine spaceman outfit, and things went steadily downhill from there.
An image consultant would have started with his wardrobe. This would naturally be the obvious place to begin to make improvements for the man. As a writer, you want to define yourself in two ways. First, you need to remove any hint of the ludicrous or ridiculous from your image. This means the plaid shirt would have had to go. Then you want to make sure your client never appears dressed as a spaceman, unless he is being paid a huge sum of money to do so. It’s tantamount to showing up in a Mickey Mouse costume, for heaven’s sake! Smith wasn’t compensated for wearing the funny outfit, and his image consultant should have warned him to stay away from such childish games.
It is easy to see how an image consultant could also have helped him with his hairstyle. The man slicked his hair back with pomade and made it look like he had just emerged from a wind tunnel (Fig. 3). This is the look of a businessman, such as George Steinbrenner, not the look of a creative genius. One suggestion, among many possibilities, that Smith could have tried would have been to brush his hair straight back — and up, in the style of Wilhelm Reich. As it is, Smith had more the appearance of the banker rather than the creative artist (Fig. 4).
Another problem that Smith suffered from, and one that plagues many creative people who can’t afford to hire an image consultant, was the issue of the improperly tied necktie. You can see that he often wore a tie, but he rarely tied it correctly. It was either too loose at the neck (Fig. 5) or too gaudy (Fig. 3). A man’s number one status symbol is his tie, and to let it become loose at the neck is a sign of haste and thoughtlessness. We’re not talking about the loosened tie, the tie that is purposefully loosened to give the air of nonchalance so popular with the younger crowd. Instead, we’re talking about a tie that the wearer attempted to tie but failed to get tight up to the neck. This should always be checked in a mirror before leaving the house in the morning, and then once again when you arrive at the office. You might even want to carry around a small mirror so you can check this detail just before meeting someone for an interview.
You may wonder whether Smith even knew what he was missing. Yes, he achieved a measure of success in the science-fiction community, but like H.G. Wells he could have gone on to be considered a mainstream writer — if only he had made more connections with influential critics and with the newspaper reviewers who could have helped propel his books to the forefront instead of the the backlist.