“Wanted: Assistant Editor for two retail magazines,” read the ad in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was the mid-1970s, I was in my mid-twenties, and I figured that if a job involved putting words on paper, I could do it.
But would the editor agree? It didn’t seem likely the morning I met him in his office. Robert Frier might have stepped out of the Thin Man movies: in his sixties, as courtly as Nick, as charming as Nora, with a twinkle in his eye that reminded me of Asta. He was dressed in an overcoat, a three-piece suit, and a fedora. The cane I might be adding out of a faulty but admiring memory.
Very gentleman-of-the-old-school was Mr. Frier.
I, on the other hand, was wearing a maxi-skirt, a crocheted vest, love-beads, and a pile of ungroomed hair.
The fateful interview
The office was a big room with desks for Mr. Frier, his assistant, the illustrator, and the two publishers, a husband-and-wife team. From the room next door issued the clackety sounds and hot-metal smell of the letterpress, manned by two blokes called something like Butch and Matey. (My memory is slightly less admiring here, though no less faulty.)
“I’m Mr. Frier,” said the old-school-gentleman, as he doffed the overcoat and hung up the fedora. “That’s ‘free-er,’ not ‘fryer.’” He chuckled, and I chuckled too. I really wanted the job.
We sat down at his desk and he invited me to discuss my relevant experience.
This consisted of editing my high school paper, proofreading for my college paper, and not quite finishing a degree in Journalism at U.C. Berkeley. However, my gaze was fixed on the wall beside me. There, in several illustrations taped to the plaster, was the famous profile of the great English detective.
“Who’s the Sherlock Holmes freak?” I asked. (“Freak” was hippie for “fan.”)
“That would be me,” said Mr. Frier, bowing slightly. “I am a founding member of the San Francisco branch of the Sherlock Holmes Society.”
“Oh!” I said. “You mean the Scowrers and the Molly Maguires?” I had read every word of Baring-Gould’s The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, including the annotations, and in those days my memory was not faulty.
Next day I started the job.
With the Scowrers & Molly Maguires
Like Holmes and Watson, Mr. Frier and I made a good team. He courted our advertisers and did half the writing. I did the other half, proofread, and copy-edited. He taught me how to do layouts. I admired his work ethic, his unfailing courtesy, and his loyalty. He was a widower, and although he was seeing a lady of about his age, he kept a photograph of his late wife in his desk and looked at it from time to time.
One evening, a few months after I started the job, Mr. Frier invited me to a meeting of the Scowrers & Molly Maguires. He had established the group in 1944 with Anthony Boucher, Joseph Henry Jackson, and Clint Smith. It was a “scion” of the Baker Street Irregulars of New York, the first one west of the Mississippi and the first to welcome women members.
It was a heady experience for me. We shared a table with Poul Anderson, the award-winning science fiction writer, and Peter S. Beagle. I’d read all of Beagle’s books. In fact I loved them so much that I no longer owned them. I’d lent them to friends (“You have to read this!”) who never returned them: A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn, and I See By My Outfit.
When I confessed that I too wanted to be a writer, Beagle gave me some advice. “When you’re not writing, read,” he said. “And don’t be afraid to imitate.”
I went straight home and wrote something and imitated like mad. I still didn’t sound like Peter S. Beagle. Eventually, though, many years later, I did start getting published.
“My marriage had drifted us away from each other” (to quote from Watson)
I went on being assistant editor for just over a year. Then I married an Englishman, and Mr. Frier gave us two small silver cups engraved with the word “Cheers.” A few months later, when I quit the job to move to England, he gave me a fountain pen. Again the old-world touch.
Although we stayed in touch for awhile, I never saw him again. He died in 1998. But I’ll always be grateful to Sherlock Holmes for getting me the job and the chance to work with Mr. Frier.
“‘It is a loyal friend and a chivalrous gentleman,’ said Holmes, holding up a restraining hand. ‘Let that now and forever be enough for us.’”
Cheers, Mr. Frier. (Pronounced “free-er,” not “fryer.”)