Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Ray and JFK

You may have seen this post on LitHub. It reproduces a 1962 letter that Ray Bradbury wrote to Arthur M. Schlesinger, the historian who was a special advisor to President Kennedy. Bradbury offers his services - whichever services the president might feel appropriate - in promoting the new space age.

This is another illustration of how Ray's book publication history fails to reflect his "real" interests.
By 1962 - when he wrote this letter - in the public eye he had move far beyond science fiction. He had published The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451 - and that was it for SF. Then he was on to Dandelion Wine, The October Country, The Golden Apples of the Sun, A Medicine for Melancholy - all quite far removed from SF. Plus he had been busily writing the screenplay for Moby Dick, episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and a bunch of one-act Irish plays.
But what wasn't visible to the public was that he was deeply involved in trying to get The Martian Chronicles filmed. He had worked on various script drafts since 1957, and in 1962 he seemed closest to getting the film made. What perfect timing this would have been for him, for The Martian Chronicles: The Movie to have been made just as Kennedy was launching the real space programme.
Despite all the claims that he didn't like being called a science fiction writer, you can see from this letter that he really did want to be known for his SF. The "space age" meant a lot to him. It was vindication of his "silly" childish fantasies about rocketships.
JFK replied to Bradbury, thanking him for the books he had gifted. But he didn't go so far as to invite Ray to become a space advisor. However, around that same time, Bradbury wrote a number of articles about space for Life and other publications. He was determined to be associated, in the public mind, with space. And, indeed, he eventually succeeded. See Jon Eller's Bradbury Beyond Apollo for a full account of Ray's space activities!
Alas, Kennedy's assassination the following year brought a big interruption to everything. In various interviews Ray talked about where he was the day Kennedy died: he was on his way into Hollywood for a script meeting about The Martian Chronicles. He knew that nobody would be able to concentrate on anything, so the meeting was cancelled and he returned home instead.
By 1965, The Martian Chronicles movie was cancelled. Ray had written at least two distinctly different scripts, and was working with the makers of the successful To Kill A Mockingbird. But they couldn't get the movie into a shape they were all happy with, and so the project died. (The 1980 Martian Chronicles TV miniseries was an unrelated attempt to adapt the book; Ray played no part in the scripting of that version.)
Arguably, the death of Kennedy brought a renewed determination to achieve the goal, by the end of the decade, of "putting a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth". And when it happened, Bradbury was prominent in media coverage - as was his science fiction friend and colleague Arthur C. Clarke. On the night of the Moon landing, Bradbury walked out of a British David Frost entertainment show (it was more concerned with showbiz than with celebrating humanity's setting foot on another world), but was also interviewed on national TV in the US.