I was very flattered to be asked to attend the Nebula Award Weekend this year as a special guest, though there was really no need for SFWA to have done that–I’ve been going to the Nebulas every year since 1982. This year was special, though. It marked the fiftieth anniversary of SFWA. Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the first Nebula Awards, which will be in Chicago, too, so it’s an historic occasion to be a part of, and SFWA has gone all out, including inviting its Grand Masters, to make it a great celebration!

It was, starting with the fact that it was held in Chicago, which is one of my favorite cities. Lots of people attended, and it was great to see everybody–from Nancy Kress and Greg Bear and Ellen Datlow to Joe Haldeman and Laura Mixon and Cat Rambo and Beth Gwinn and Gary Wolfe and Steve Gould and…oh, gosh, lots of people.

I got to spend time with Cynthia Felice and John Stith–yes, I know they live in Colorado, but we seem to only see each other at conventions–and whine to my agent and eat pizza with my webmaster Lee Whiteside and have lunch with Sheila Williams and attend the Asimov’s Awards breakfast and meet lots of the Nebula nominees.

I also got to talk to Larry Niven, who was just named a SFWA Grand Master. If you’ve never read his wonderful book, RINGWORLD, you should take this opportunity to. It’s both hard science fiction and Wizard-of-Oz-like magical journey as the characters explore an immense artificially-constructed ring created by an alien race, and it’s got great characters like Speaker and Teela Brown (who’s my favorite.) Congratulations to Larry!

The whole weekend was made better by the fact that it took place at the Palmer House, one of Chicago’s oldest and most beautiful hotels. It was built as a wedding gift for Potter Palmer’s bride in 1871, which turned out to be a terrible time to build. Thirteen days later it burned to the ground along with everything else in the Great Chicago Fire.

It was rebuilt and then expanded, and along the way became the first hotel to have electric lights and telephones in the rooms. It also invented the chocolate fudge brownie–for the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1892–thank you, Palmer House! And it hosted everybody important, from President Harding to William Jennings Bryan of Scopes Trial fame, and Edna Ferber used it as a setting from her novel, Showboat. Everybody stayed there: Ulysses S. Grant, Harry Truman, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, L. Frank Baum. And now it can also claim the science fiction writers who were at the Nebulas.

The Palmer House has kept all its original charm, from the revolving doors to the marble registration desk and the photographs lining the walls of all the stars who’ve played the Empire Room: Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Liberace. Sophie Tucker was right outside our room, and there was a charming photo of Jimmy Durante rehearsing a number in the corridor by the elevator.

The Palmer House is an absolutely gorgeous hotel, with golden-peacock doors designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, curving marble staircases, and an elegant central lobby with a painted ceiling by Rigal. It’s easy to imagine Magnolia and Ravenal from Showboat walking through the lobby or sitting at the bar.

Rudyard Kipling apparently hated the place. He called it “a gilded and mirrored rabbit warren” and complained that the lobby was “a huge hall of tessellated marble crammed with people talking about money and spitting about everywhere.” He sounds a lot like a modern reviewer I read on Expedia who sniffed that it has “too many tourists,” though you have to wonder who else you’re going to find there. It is, after all, a hotel, guys.

And it’s only a block from the Art Institute, two blocks from the Bean (about which more in my next post), and just a few blocks from the old Public Library and Giordano’s, which may well be the best place for pizza in Chicago. So what else could you want, really?

The Palmer House was the cherry on top of a delicious weekend and Nebula celebration. Congratulations to all the Nebula winners, to all the finalists, and to our new Grand Master, Larry Niven!

Connie Willis

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