The Trials of 'Last Unicorn' Author Peter S. Beagle

The beloved sci-fi and fantasy writer has chronic money woes due in part to an ongoing legal battle with his former manager, but he says he's in no danger of winding up on the streets.

Published April 28, 2017

 (Gage Skidmore / FLICKR)
Image Via Gage Skidmore / FLICKR

Contrary to Internet rumor, the beloved science fiction and fantasy author Peter S. Beagle (perhaps best known for his classic 1968 novel The Last Unicorn) is neither destitute nor teetering on the brink of starvation.

A cry for immediate financial assistance went up shortly after the writer's 78th birthday on 20 April 2017, in the form of tweets describing Beagle's circumstances as "dire":

Several posts repeated the claim that Beagle, who has been embroiled in a costly legal battle with his former manager since 2015, was having difficulty even meeting basic household expenses such as grocery bills. However, we spoke to Beagle's lawyer, Kathleen A. Hunt of El Cerrito, California, who told us that her client's money woes, albeit chronic, are not as acute as they have been portrayed:

It's true that he doesn't have lots of money, but it's not true that his living situation is dire. Peter does need the help and support of his friends and fans, but it is not the case that he's in danger of being on the street.

We also spoke with Beagle himself, who said he considers himself a lot better off than the average writer:

It's always dicey, but anybody who makes a living as a writer learns to cope with lean times. Compared to so many other people, I'm fortunate.

The impromptu fund drive nevertheless resulted in a welcome infusion of cash, not to mention an outpouring of love and support from Beagle's many online fans. "The response was pretty phenomenal," Hunt said.

The writer's ongoing money woes are due in part to court costs from a 2015 lawsuit he filed against Connor Cochran, owner of Conlan Press, who had managed the author's creative and business affairs for fourteen years. The suit, still pending, accuses Cochran of fraud, defamation, and elder abuse, among other charges:

This Verified Complaint arises from the greed and dishonesty of Connor Freff Cochran ("Cochran"), a publisher, editor, and financial manager who has cheated his partner and client (amongst other acts, by fraudulently depriving him of his own intellectual property), defamed him (by falsely telling family members, fans, and the general public that he is incompetent and/or an alcoholic, amongst other lies), committed elder abuse against him (by withholding funds to which he was lawfully entitled, and maintaining him in a state of poverty for years), and attempted to steal his present and future livelihood.

Cochran filed a counterclaim denying the allegations, and posted a series of statements on his web site alleging that Beagle was being unduly influenced by individuals close to him who seek personal gain from the suit:

Earlier this year, we became aware that author Peter S. Beagle's medical condition and personal circumstances were deteriorating. He had forgotten many key facts and people, and was filling in the blanks with things that never happened. His condition made him exceptionally vulnerable to undue influence by individuals who did not have Peter's interests at heart, but instead sought an immediate windfall for themselves.

Unfortunately, these people have induced Peter to file a frivolous, self-contradictory lawsuit based upon false understandings and credulousness. The lawsuit sabotages everything that Avicenna, Conlan Press, Connor Cochran, and many others have labored to build for Peter for the past decade and a half. Making things worse, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit has chosen to broadcast its frivolous claims through social media and the press, rather than trust that her case will succeed in court.

The claims and counterclaims read like two versions of the same story set in alternate universes, with each party ascribing bad faith and/or undue influence to the other. Particularly troubling to Beagle has been the fact that his own children sided with Cochran, at one point even filing a petition for conservatorship (since dropped) based on the claim that their father's mental competence is in doubt. "It's been very painful," said Beagle, noting that he hasn't had contact with his children since the filing. A neurologist who examined him in 2016 declared him fully competent, according to documents filed by Beagle's lawyer.

For his part, Connor Cochran tells us the claims against him are "baseless," and that he can produce evidence that Beagle's alleged memory problems are "extremely real."

At present, Beagle says he feels fine and endeavors to write every day (with varying levels of success, he admits), focused mainly on a novel he envisions as a semi-sequel to Two Hearts, which itself he describes as "kind of a sequel to The Last Unicorn." He will appear at BayCon, the annual San Francisco Bay Area science fiction convention, in May.

The lawsuit is set to go to trial in January 2018.

David Emery is a West Coast-based writer and editor with 25 years of experience fact-checking rumors, hoaxes, and contemporary legends.