A Tarnished Legacy: The End of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress

Cover of Sword and Sorceress 34 (title only)

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress, the once-influential anthology series that was founded in 1984, saw its thirty-fourth and final instalment this year. The series managed to survive a number of significant setbacks: one was the death of original editor Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1999; another was publisher DAW dropping the series with the 2004 volume, after which Sword and Sorceress was published by the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust.

There was still another issue faced by Sword and Sorceress on top of these; one that raised an ethical, rather than practical, aspect to the anthology’s continuation. It arose in 2014, with a scandal that ruined Marion Zimmer Bradley’s posthumous reputation.

2014 was the year in which author Deirdre Saoirse Moen ran a series of posts on her blog discussing Bradley’s involvement with child molestation. These posts pulled together information that had been published previously but escaped widespread notice — such as evidence that Bradley had enabled the crimes of her husband Walter Breen, a child molester with convictions going back to 1954. After writing on the subject, Saoirse Moen received an email from Moira Greyland, daughter of Bradley and Breen, whose testimony described Marion Zimmer Bradley not merely as an enabler of molestation — but as an active molester herself:

“Walter was a serial rapist with many, many, many victims (I named 22 to the cops) but Marion was far, far worse”, wrote Greyland. “She was cruel and violent, as well as completely out of her mind sexually. I am not her only victim, nor were her only victims girls.”

The revelations spread quickly. The Guardian ran an article entitled “SFF community reeling after Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter accuses her of abuse”, and the following year, Deirdre Saoirse Moen’s blogging earned her a place on the Hugo Award longlist for Best Fanwriter. Marion Zimmer Bradley, an author once counted alongside the likes of Anne McCaffrey and Ursula Le Guin, was now bracketed with Jimmy Savile and Gary Glitter.

Yet, despite this, the anthology that Bradley founded has carried on, even bearing her name as part of its title: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress.

The first and last instalments of Sword and Sorceress, published in 1986 and 2019 respectively.

The anthology’s rosy portrayal of Bradley continues beyond its cover. Elisabeth Waters’ editorial introduction to Sword and Sorceress 29 — published in late 2014 — makes no reference to the scandal that occurred just months before. Instead, it discusses the feminist themes of recent Disney films like Frozen and Maleficent in relation to Bradley’s fiction (“I wonder if Marion Zimmer Bradley actually started a new trend or was simply early in picking up on a change in the world”). The following year’s instalment again opens with Waters expressing her fondness for Disney (“I like Disney movies–they’re one of my guilty pleasures”).

At the start of the 2016 anthology, Waters quotes some of Bradley’s advice on fantasy writing, presenting her as a sagacious editor who knew what made a good story. In her 2017 editorial, Waters discusses fantasy role models for little girls — like Rey in Star Wars or Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy — and expresses pity that Bradley would not have had such figures to look up to in her own youth (“Marion Zimmer Bradley, who started these anthologies, was born in 1930, and I shudder to think of the role models available to her.”)

Acknowledgement of alleged child molestation, meanwhile, is conspicuously absent from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress.

Sword and Sorceress: The People Responsible

Elisabeth Waters, who edited Sword and Sorceress from the twenty-second instalment in 2007, maintained a close working relationship with Bradley. She acted as Bradley’s assistant, and when the author was incapacitated by health problems, Waters wrote significant portions of her novels.

At times Waters’ closeness to Bradley has prompted serious criticism. In 1997 Kenneth Smith, who had been one of Walter Breen’s victims as a child, attempted to sue both Waters and Bradley on the grounds that they had been complicit in allowing Breen to molest him. A legal document from the California Court of Appeal summarises this accusation:

Almost four years after Breen’s death, in January 1997, Kenneth S. filed a personal injury action against appellants Marion Z. Bradley and Elizabeth [sic] Waters, alleging, among other matters, that they aided and abetted in Breen’s molestation of him and seeking damages under various legal theories. Kenneth S. alleged in part that he was not aware of appellants’ complicity in causing his injuries until February of 1996, because of repressed memory syndrome related to the childhood sexual abuse.

Waters and Bradley responded with an attempt to countersue Kenneth Smith’s mother, Mary Mason, but without success. In 1999, the same year that Bradley died, Kenneth Smith’s stepfather Stephen Goldin assembled a website with details on the case. One of its pages is a blow-by-blow timeline that runs from Walter Breen’s first conviction in 1954 through to Bradley’s death; towards its end, the timeline describes the result of the late-nineties legal battle:

Aug. 1999: Settlement reached in favor of Ken & entered in court. Countersuit by MZB & Lisa Waters against Mary is dropped permanently.

Goldin also published the deposition that Waters made during the legal battle, highlighting a number of excerpts that he found significant:

By the way, here are some other bits of horror that Lisa Waters swore to in her deposition:

Lisa reported that Marion said if Walter ever did this again, she would divorce him. Marion was a professional writer. She knew what the word “again” meant — that it had happened previously. Marion had prior knowledge of past incidents of child abuse by Walter, and did nothing to stop him.

Lisa saw a letter from Walter to his therapist in which Walter claimed that being around a certain teenage boy made him feel horny. This was years before Ken appeared on the scene, but Lisa did nothing about it.

Lisa asked Walter about Ken, and Walter said Ken didn’t care, and anyway Ken wasn’t a virgin.

Marion’s daughter Moira told Lisa that Walter had raped her when she was 5 years old. Lisa never bothered to find out the truth; she just assumed Moira was lying.

Moira also told Lisa that her mother had groped her breasts in the shower when Moira was 9. When Lisa asked Marion about it, Marion never denied it, merely made some bizarre comment that girls that age didn’t have erogenous zones.

Moira also told Lisa that Marion had tied her to a chair and threatened to pull out all her teeth with a pair of pliers. Marion admitted doing it as a way to punish Moira.

Marion’s son Patrick told Lisa that Marion had molested him. Lisa did nothing to check into this.

I presume Lisa doesn’t think any of these things are despicable, because she ardently defends the people who did them.

Having covered the above details, Goldin’s conclusion is uncompromising:

And as for myself, I feel Lisa Waters is a disgusting excuse for a human being, a woman who leeched off of Marion for decades and will take the most outrageous, pointless and petty actions to try to preserve the value of the Bradley estate so she can continue to leech off it even after Marion’s death.

The depiction of Elisabeth Waters in Moira Greyland’s 2018 autobiography The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon corroborates that on Goldin’s site. “Elisabeth spent two decades at Marion’s side and in her bed, and helped her cover up some of Walter’s crimes”, writes Greyland. “When Lisa first arrived, I had been so full of hope that she would be more like a real mother […] Instead, she followed Mother into every bizarre fad, and behaved like an empty-headed nincompoop when there were people all around her who needed saving.” In Greyland’s account, Waters was responsible for two main evils:

I have described the first evil in detail: Lisa manipulated my mother and laid the groundwork for her eventual theft of a [publishing] empire, but the second evil dwarfs it. The first is only money, where the second is blood and souls. Lisa feigned ignorance, refusing to stop my father from molesting children no matter how much I pleaded with her.

Greyland states that her father molested two underage prostitutes, 13-year-old Gregg Howell and 12-year-old Barry Austin, after they were procured for him by a group of predatory clergymen led by Archbishop Mikhail Itkin. She accuses Elisabeth Waters of failing to protect these two boys:

Lisa completely denied the reality that my father was having sex with both Gregg and Barry, possibly because she was afraid that legal action against Walter would compromise her meal ticket.

Another of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s former co-writers involved with Sword and Sorceress is Deborah J. Ross. In 2014, following Deirdre Saoirse Moen’s exposé of Bradley, Ross responded with a comment on Twitter: “Only half the story is being told. Please be careful about believing sensationalist rumors online.” After facing a backlash for implying that the testimony of Bradley’s own daughter constituted “sensationalist rumors,” Ross apologised on her LiveJournal:

In the early days, when I was very upset, I posted an ill-considered Tweet. I was wrong about the story, and I was wrong to say what I did. I am deeply sorry for the pain I caused. I was shocked and appalled by the story as related by Marion’s daughter. I had no prior knowledge of any misdeeds by Marion, and it was completely inappropriate for me to comment.

Nothing I have said should be taken as a justification or defense of child abuse. As for Walter Breen, like many others, I was misled into believing that he had not acted on his proclivities. When I found out the truth, I was horrified, and I assisted the police in the investigation of the second set of charges that resulted in his incarceration. I ask for your understanding and patience with me for the time it has taken me to respond. I offer the victims my wholehearted support and prayers for healing.

But in her introduction to 2018’s Sword and Sorceress 33, which she co-edited with Waters, Ross makes no mention of these developments. Instead, she continues Waters’ practice of casting Bradley as a benevolent mentor:

My very first professional fiction sale was to Marion Zimmer Bradley for the debut volume of Sword and Sorceress, so I’m honored to now be entrusted with carrying forward what has become an iconic series. Marion looked for stories that featured strong women characters with talents in both physical and magical arts […] Marion had a gift for seeing into the heart of a story and choosing stories that spoke to her…

The Death of an Icon

Elisabeth Waters is unusually terse in her introduction to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress 34, much of which is given over to announcing her retirement and the closure of the anthology series. However, she also finds room to reminisce about Bradley for one last time: “Marion loved reading slush; even if a large portion of it was dreadful, she was always thrilled to find a new gem. She was much more interested in nurturing the next generation of writers… than in making money.”

Since 2014, there have been two distinct images of Marion Zimmer Bradley competing for the public eye. One image is of the depraved and heartless sexual predator who molested her own children; the other image — maintained by Elisabeth Waters and Sword and Sorceress — is of the saintly editor who helped new writers with her straight-talking advice and gave role models to fantasy-loving little girls.

With the end of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress, it looks as though the latter impression will be finally dead, along with it the last remnants of Bradley’s tarnished legacy.

Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.