D.L. Stewart: The man who called Dayton ‘ugly’

“Ugly, baby. Just righteously ugly. Dayton, Ohio, I mean.” 

This not-necessarily-true assessment of the city in which I live recurred to me Saturday when I read the obituary of Harlan Ellison, who died at the age of 84. 

Ellison was, The New York Times headline declared, a “Prolific, Irascible (Science) Fiction Writer.” The word “Science” was in parentheses because even though he was best known for that genre, he detested the label. If you call him that, he declared, “I’ll come to your house and I’ll nail your pet’s head to a coffee table. I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die.” 

>> OBITUARY: Harlan Ellison, science fiction master, dies at age 84

Whatever it was that he wrote, no one would dispute the “Irascible” part. 

• He allegedly sent a dead gopher to a publisher. 

• He said he was hired by the Disney Company, but lost his job on the first day at work when he announced he wanted to create a porno film starring Mickey and Minnie Mouse. 

• When an English professor at Ohio State University told him he did not see any writing talent in him, Ellison punched him. 

In a 2013 file image, writer Harlan Ellison speaks with his fans at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles during a book signing. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Photo: Francine Orr/TNS

The prof was a lousy judge of talent. For 60 years Ellison was a prodigious author, writing — The Times noted — work that “often read as if he were punching his manual typewriter keys with his fists.”

He punched out more than 1,700 short stories and articles. At least 100 books. Dozens of screenplays and television scripts ranging from The Twilight Zone to an episode of The Flying Nun. 

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And, in reaction to a previous visit he had made here, an article in 1969 that began, “Ugly, baby. Just righteously ugly. That’s Dayton, Ohio, I mean.” 

In 1977, he returned to town for an appearance at the University of Dayton and we met for lunch. Over coffee, he called Woody Hayes "a pimp of God." And "I can't wait for the cockroaches to take over. . . they can't do any worse of a job." 

But we also found we had a few things things in common. We both grew up in Cleveland. He wrote his first published material for the Cleveland News at the age of 10; I delivered the Cleveland News at the same age.

DL Stewart's column on Harlan Ellison as it appeared in The Dayton Journal Herald, Nov. 17, 1977.

Like Ellison, I had a college English teacher tell me “You’ll never be a writer," although I didn’t punch her for that. I never sent a dead gopher to a publisher, but only because it never occurred to me. 

After lunch I sat in on his writing class to see what he was all about. What I saw was a fast-talking, angry little man (5-foot-5) who reveled in raising hackles. When a young woman in the class dared to question him, he got into her face and screamed obscenities at her. 

I don’t remember much else about that class. But it's hard to forget, “Ugly, baby. Just righteously ugly. That’s Dayton, Ohio, I mean.”

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