Trap Door Spiders
The Trap Door Spiders are a literary male-only eating, drinking, and arguing society in New York City, with a membership historically composed of notable science fiction personalities. The name is a reference to the reclusive habits of the trapdoor spider, which when it enters its burrow pulls the hatch shut behind it.
History and practices
The Trap Door Spiders were established by author Fletcher Pratt in 1944, in response to the June 7, 1943 marriage of his friend Dr. John D. Clark to operatic soprano Mildred Baldwin. The new Mrs. Clark was unpopular with her husband's friends, despite their participation in the ceremony (Pratt's own wife Inga Stephens Pratt was matron of honor, and L. Sprague de Camp served as Clark's best man). Pratt reasoned that the club would give them an excuse to spend time with him without her. The presidency of the club rotated among the members, the president for a given evening being the member who had volunteered to host the meeting by giving the dinner and supplying a guest. Over the course of its existence the Trap Door Spiders has counted among its members numerous professional men, many of them writers and editors active in the science fiction genre, along with some prominent fans such as Dr. Clark.
The get-togethers of the Trap Door Spiders followed a set format, which remained consistent through the years; a dinner, given by the host for the evening, to which he would invite a guest who would be grilled by the others and form the focus of conversation for the evening. The grilling was traditionally begun by the host for the evening enquiring of the guest "How do you justify your existence?" or some variation, such as "Why do you exist?" Jack Coggins remembers that an editor for Reader's Digest went home from a meeting in tears after a brutally personal grilling. Coggins once invited Worthern Paxton, art director of Life Magazine, to a meeting. As of 1976, the club met roughly one Friday a month, eight or nine times a year, and maintained a membership of thirteen, among whom the privilege of hosting the meetings rotated. The host of a given meeting selected the restaurant, wine, and menu for the evening, and had the option of inviting one or two guests he believed might prove interesting to the other members.
The group remained active through at least January 16, 1990, when its members attended a party given by Doubleday for Isaac Asimov at Tavern on the Green in New York City. The event commemorated Asimov's seventieth birthday and the fortieth anniversary of the publication of his first book. According to L. Sprague de Camp, the club was "still thriving" as of 1996.
Membership of the club was by invitation, and varied as some Trap Door Spiders died or moved away (or in at least one instance was dropped by the consensus of the other members) and as others were admitted on the nomination of existing members. People known to have been members of the club include:
- John Ashmead (1917–1992), author, English professor
- Isaac Asimov (1920–1992), author
- Don Bensen (1927–1997), editor
- Gilbert Cant (1909–1982), editor
- Lin Carter (1930–1988), author
- Lionel Casson (1914–2009), archaeologist
- John Drury Clark (1907–1988), chemist
- Jack Coggins (1911–2006), artist, author
- L. Sprague de Camp (1907–2000), author
- Lester del Rey (1915–1993), author, editor
- Kenneth Franklin (1923–2007), astronomer, educator
- Martin Gardner (1914–2010), math & science writer
- Richard Edes Harrison (1901–1994), cartographer
- Stefan Kanfer (1933–2018), journalist, author
- Charles H. King (1934–2017), novelist
- Caleb Barrett Laning (1906–1991), admiral, writer
- Willy Ley (1906–1969), science writer
- Jean Le Corbeiller (1937–2010), math professor
- Fletcher Pratt (1897–1956), author
- George Scithers (1929–2010), author, editor
- L. Roper Shamhart (1926–2017), Episcopal minister
- George O. Smith (1911–1981), author
- Harrison Smith, publisher
- John Silbersack (b. 1954), publisher, agent
- Theodore Sturgeon (1918–1985), author
- Donald Wilde (1926–2015), ad executive, playwright
- Robert Zicklin, lawyer
According to magician and skeptic James Randi, other prominent figures attending Trap Door Spiders meetings included authors Frederik Pohl and L. Ron Hubbard, as well as Randi himself. All three appear to have attended as guests rather than members (Pohl in particular has written he was never a member), though Randi did consider himself an "honorary" member.
Owing to the writings of Isaac Asimov (see below), those most closely associated with the group are Bensen, Cant, Carter, Clark, de Camp, del Rey, and Asimov himself.
The Trap Door Spiders in fiction
The Trap Door Spiders are fictionalized in L. Sprague de Camp's historical novel The Bronze God of Rhodes (1960), as "The Seven Strangers," a social club holding symposia in the ancient Greek city-state of Rhodes. Such Spider elements as the rotating presidency and the question put to guests are faithfully represented in the practices of the Strangers.
The club was also the inspiration for Isaac Asimov's fictional group of puzzle solvers the Black Widowers, protagonists of a long-running series of mystery short stories beginning in 1971. Asimov, a Boston resident who was often an invited guest of the Trap Door Spiders when in New York, became a permanent member of the club when he moved to the area in 1970.
Asimov loosely modeled his fictional "Black Widowers" on six of the real-life Trap Door Spiders. He gave his characters professions somewhat more varied than those of their models, while retaining aspects of their personalities and appearances. Asimov's characters and their real-life counterparts are:
Other real people, including members of the Spiders and others, also occasionally appeared in the series in fictional guise. These included Fletcher Pratt (albeit deceased and offstage) as Widowers founder Ralph Ottur in the story "To the Barest," and (as guests) Asimov himself (in a humorously unflattering portrayal) as arrogant author Mortimer Stellar in "When No Man Pursueth", James Randi as stage magician The Amazing Larri in "The Cross of Lorraine", and Harlan Ellison as writer Darius Just (a character who first appeared as protagonist of Asimov's 1976 mystery novel Murder at the ABA) in "The Woman in the Bar."
The remaining member of the Widowers, the group's waiter and unfailing sleuth Henry Jackson, was completely fictional, though Asimov did liken the character to that of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves from the Bertie Wooster novels.
- Asimov, Isaac. I. Asimov, a Memoir, New York, Doubleday, 1994, page 377. ISBN 978-0-385-41701-3.
- Sullivan, Walter. "Willy Ley, Prolific Science Writer, Is Dead at 62," in The New York Times, June 25, 1969, page 47.
- De Camp, L. Sprague. Time and Chance: an Autobiography, Hampton Falls, NH, Donald M. Grant, 1996, page 196. ISBN 978-1-880418-32-1.
- Asimov (1994), pages 376-377.
- "Mildred Baldwin Bride: Opera Singer Wed to Dr. John D. Clark in Ceremony Here," in The New York Times, June 8, 1943, page 24.
- Miller, Ron. "Jack Coggins," interview and article in Outre Magazine No. 23, 2001 pages 42–49.
- Asimov (1994), pages 538–539.
- Asimov (1994), page 378.
- Asimov (1994), pages 377–378.
- Gardner, Martin. Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2013, page 147.
- Albers, Don. "The Martin Gardner Interview Part 4," on fifteen eightyfour: Academic Perspectives from Cambridge University Press (blog), October 10, 2008.
- Gardner (2013), page 148.
- Levy, Claudia. "Decorated Rear Adm. Caleb B. Laning Dies," in The Washington Post, June 8, 1991, page B6.
- De Camp (1996), page 362.
- De Camp (1996), page 265.
- "Fletcher Pratt, Historian, Dead," in The New York Times, June 11, 1956, page 30.
- Scithers, George. "George Scithers," in "Editorial: In Memories Yet Green by Isaac Asimov, George Scithers, Kathleen Moloney, Shawna McCarthy, Gardner Dozois, and Sheila Williams," Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2007, p. 4.
- Glyer, Mike. "Martin Gardner Dies," on File 770: Mike Glyer's news of science fiction fandom (blog), May 25, 2010.
- "The Amazing Show: Isaac Asimov and the Trapdoor Spiders (at 3:40)". iTricks.com. 11 October 2007.
- "James Randi talking about the Trap Door Spiders (starting at 1:48)". YouTube.com. 13 February 1999.
- Asimov (1994), p.468.
- Pohl, Frederik (2009). "The Trap Door Spiders", TheWayTheFutureBlogs.com. "Although Wikipedia appears to think I was a member, I never was."
- "The Amazing Show: Isaac Asimov and the Trapdoor Spiders (at 3:13)". iTricks.com. 11 October 2007.
- Asimov (1994), p.373.
- Asimov, Isaac. "To the Barest, Afterword" in Casebook of the Black Widowers, New York, Doubleday, 1980.
- Asimov (1994), pages 378-379.
- Asimov, Isaac. In Joy Still Felt, New York, Doubleday, 1980, chapter 41, section 19.
- Asimov, Isaac. "The Woman in the Bar, Afterword" in Banquets of the Black Widowers, New York, Doubleday, 1984, page 36.