Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue with His Century
Volume 2, 1948â"1988 The Man Who Learned Better
By William H. Patterson Jr.
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2014 William H. Patterson, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Half Done, Well Begun
"I cried at the altar, and Ginny cried when we got outside and, all in all, it was quite kosher."
October 21, 1948, was a beautiful, crisp fall day in Raton, New Mexico, just over the Colorado border. Snow gleamed on the distant mountaintops. Robert and Virginia Heinlein were finally married.
They had settled in Colorado Springs until the divorce from Leslyn was finalized, and they both struggled through the tumult of deciding on this new commitment, discovering that they both wanted this new life together.
Ginny, whose entire life had been spent in big cities, fell in love with that clean, mountain resort town, and they began putting down roots. Their social life had been somewhat constrained by the need to keep a low profile—which is also why they went out of state for the wedding. Now, with the holidays coming on, in addition to working with a local radio station they joined a figure-skating club. Ginny, a national ice-skating semifinalist, was asked to star as a featured performer in the Broadmoor resort hotel's Christmas-week Symphony on Ice program—an ice-dancing version of The Nutcracker.
Heinlein was sleeping well for the first time in years, his only health problem being a persistent sinusitis. Even his ex-wife Leslyn—now a long-distance problem—seemed to be straightening out after a very messy period of her life. Six months earlier, she had lost her job at Point Mugu—"compulsory resignation because of refusal to do work the way her boss wanted her to do it," their mutual friend Bill Corson wrote after talking with Buddy Scoles—"complicated to unknown extent by liquor." And then she disappeared. Not even their lawyer—Sam Kamens represented both Robert and Leslyn in the divorce action—had heard from her in more than a year. By September, Heinlein learned from friends, Leslyn had turned up in a sanatarium in Long Beach, "taking the cure." Her own letter to Robert had kindled hopes she would make a full recovery, since she had joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
Reconnecting with friends after his period of self-imposed isolation, Heinlein wrote long letters telling them about the marriage to Ginny, glossing over the timing. He had strict personal rules about telling the truth, always, but sometimes telling the truth selectively helped your friends maintain your privacy—and other peoples' illusions, if necessary.
He had no illusions about getting back to work, especially now that he knew he could rely on Ginny as a helpmeet even with the writing, as Leslyn had been before the dark days (though in her own, different way). Heinlein was uncomfortably aware that the bank balance was dwindling away: Four months of unpaid labor on the screenplay for Destination Moon in the spring and summer of 1948 had put a severe crimp in their finances. He would not let Ginny go back to work. Heinlein's Navy pension and a small but steady trickle of reprint requests for his prewar stories almost covered current expenses. The script could potentially put them in the clear. George Pal was shopping the project around Hollywood (though without getting even a nibble of interest).
In the fall of 1948, Heinlein had three books in print: his second juvenile for Scribner, Space Cadet, came out in August—and the first, Rocket Ship Galileo, was still selling briskly. Fantasy Press issued the revised Beyond This Horizon. In five or six months they would have royalty payments that would cover next year's taxes and living expenses; he could feel reasonably confident that he wouldn't dip back into poverty, as they had in Fort Worth at Christmastime a year earlier. Gnome Press, another of the new, small specialty publishing houses, wanted to publish Sixth Column under the Heinlein name instead of the Anson MacDonald pseudonym it had borne when published in Astounding Science-Fiction. John Campbell, Heinlein thought, ought at least to have a coauthor credit, since it had been written from Campbell's (verbal) outline. He wrote to Campbell, and to Lurton Blassingame, asking what sort of fee and credit split would be appropriate. But Campbell did not want either money or credit.
In the meantime, other speculative ventures were falling into his lap—two in one week recently: an offer to do continuity for a science-fiction newspaper comic strip and a request from the A&S Lyons Hollywood agency to develop a science-fiction radio show, with him as the host. Heinlein asked his cowriter of the Destination Moon script, Alford "Rip" van Ronkel, about the agency's reputation. It was a genuine offer, van Ronkel told him. Heinlein was skeptical: He knew he had a good "radio voice"—better on radio than it sounded naturally—but felt he was not "celebrity" enough to carry such a show (though if they wanted to pay him—a thousand dollars a week was about right—he would put his objections aside).
The regular writing was moving along: After thinking about it for a while, Heinlein had come up with a good idea for the scouting story that Boys' Life had been asking for. He originally intended "Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon" as a short story about the first interplanetary Triple Eagle Scout, though it grew uncontrollably in the telling; by early November he had written twenty-five thousand words and struggled through multiple drafts with colored pencils, to cut it to nine thousand words. This produced a manuscript that looked, he said, like "modernist wallpaper."
His professional life was flourishing, just as the demands of his personal life escalated: When Ginny was in Washington, D.C., during the war, she had been diagnosed with thyroid deficiency. In the fall of 1948 her medications were adjusted, and Robert was helping her keep to her medication schedule. "She takes a grain and a half a day and is repulsively energetic, unless she happens to forget to take her pills. I have posted a chart and award her gold stars for taking her pills." Nobody else would recognize and validate that small-girl part of her personality—but Heinlein had quite a lot of small boy in his own makeup, which he rarely showed to anyone but her.
As she regained her full energy, Ginny took on the task of getting Robert's health in order. He had been sick the entire time she had known him, and when he was in Los Angeles working on the script for Destination Moon, his right leg began to bother him. Dr. King, the Los Angeles orthopedist he saw, had him doing stretching and strengthening exercises with orthopedic devices, to improve a postural imbalance he had picked up from fencing. As their financial crisis eased, Ginny devoted more time and resources to the housekeeping and meal budget, stretching her talent and skills to make his meals sophisticated, flavorful, and sustaining. Robert had grown up on the heavy and undistinguished cooking of the Midwest: Vegetables that were not boiled to a limp mess and beefsteak rare and à point —not gray and overdone and tough—were new to him.
But her program was derailed almost before it began. The doctor Heinlein was consulting about his sinusitis tested him for allergies. He tested positive for—well, nearly everything: "Seems I'm allergic to milk (ice cream, cheese, cream soups), corn (but not corn liquor), and lettuce. Why lettuce? Why not spinach? Ginny is beside herself trying to figure out how to feed me." Heinlein took it in stride: "Me, I don't worry—anything is worthwhile to get the full use of my schnozzle again—and a little dieting will help my waist line. Ginny is such a swell cook that I have a strong disposition to over-eat."
As they settled into their new life together, they began to take up their political interests, as well. They had moved to Colorado Springs too late in the year to register to vote: For the first time in Ginny's adult life, she would not be able to vote in a presidential election (Robert had filed an absentee ballot in California). There was a good chance that President Truman might lose to Republican Tom Dewey (neither Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond nor Henry Wallace's Progressive Party stood any real chance in this election—but they both weakened Truman's support).
Robert had come to respect Truman's strength of character—particularly after his handling of the Democratic Party's racism at the nominating convention that summer:
What I do like is the fact that Truman stood up to the southern "gentlemen" white racists and told them to go pee up a rope, and most especially the fact that the convention backed him up on it. If the convention had pussyfooted on civil rights I would have been strongly tempted to vote the vegetarian ticket. But it didn't ... this was a time to stand up and be counted, and the count came out on the side of human decency, which made me happy and proud.
Ginny was less enthusiastic about Truman.
On election night, Robert stationed himself by the radio and stayed awake, tallying the overnight results as they came in. In the morning, he told her with great satisfaction that Truman had won—much in advance of the official count.
With the elections out of the way, Heinlein returned to the problem of his annual boys' book for Scribner. He had intended to build a story around undersea agriculture—a family of sea-farmers, since his editor, Alice Dalgliesh, wanted a prominent girl character this time. She had found his outline notes for Ocean Rancher "thrilling"—but he needed to get in more suit-diving to finish off his background research. Ginny put her foot down: She had almost lost him last year. Ocean Rancher was out.
Heinlein always had a hard time coming up with ideas for these boys' books. He had to invent something adventurous that boys would be interested in, without needing excessive background explanations. And it was always a problem to get the boys out from under the thumbs of their adult "protectors," because adventures were what they were being protected from. Targeted at a general readership, these boys' books could not use the genre conventions of the science-fiction magazines—but he could use ordinary science.
His approach to the science-fiction juvenile was evolving. When he wrote Rocket Ship Galileo in 1946, the form of the juvenile was dominated by the Tom Swift/Motor Boys formula. Space Cadet, in 1948, was built around a group of teenagers, and so is still fairly close to the formula. His third book, however, would depart further.
His core idea came out of a story he remembered that Jack Williamson had cowritten with Miles J. Breuer in 1930, "The Birth of a New Republic"—"A very, very solid piece of work, one of my favorites, and miles ahead of the stuff ... of the period." A story began coming together in his mind, about a revolution on Mars against a distant Earth colonial authority. He wrote up a synopsis of the story as an outline-proposal and sent it to Alice Dalgliesh, by way of Lurton Blassingame.
That November he wrote a story of a woman on a space station overcoming male chauvinism, "Delilah and the Space Rigger," aimed at The Saturday Evening Post (which found it too "technical"). Ginny suggested another story idea to work on while "Delilah" started on the rounds of other slicks: In Space Cadet he had mentioned several iconic heroes-of-the-Space-Patrol. She suggested he write the story of Dahlquist, who stopped a military coup at the cost of his own life. During the first two weeks of December 1948, this turned into "The Long Watch"—a "downbeat" story, since the hero dies at the end, but it showed what had inspired those boys about the story: "The narrator is a hero in the mold that Heinlein perfected," Andre Norton later wrote of this story. "That is, he's an ordinary guy who must decide to do the extraordinary because of his belief in the American system of government." Ginny cried when she typed it for submission—and every time she had to retype it. Eventually, she said, her tears rusted out her typewriter.
Heinlein had another writing chore he had been putting off since August: He wanted to do a really good story for John Campbell, as a major "thank-you" for his efforts to get Street & Smith to change its policy of buying and reserving "all rights." Now they bought and reserved only serial and paperback rights, and this allowed Campbell to meet the conditions Heinlein set out two years earlier—rates respectable for pulp, if not as good as the slicks. All he needed was a good idea.
That, of course, is the hard part. Campbell suggested a dodge that would let them talk it over "in person": He had become interested in ham radio and threw himself into it with enthusiasm. There were a couple of hams in Colorado Springs, and Campbell arranged with one of them, Bill Talmaine, to make a connection on Friday, December 3, 1948.32
Astounding 's November 1948 issue had come out the same week Heinlein remarried. In it, Campbell printed a "joke" letter from Richard Hoen—a "review" of the November 1949 issue, a year in the future. It was to be a glorious reunion of all the prewar greats, and Hoen had mentioned a new serial by Heinlein (as "R. A. MacH", referring to Heinlein's "Anson MacDonald" pen name), giving only the title "Gulf," and no other details (except that he implied it was not part of the Future History). It was a good joke, Heinlein told Campbell—and pointed out that he could top it: If Campbell would talk the other writers into doing stories with the titles Hoen had given, Heinlein could write something for the "Gulf" title and make Hoen's "prediction" come true.
At that stage Heinlein did not have any specific idea for the story—he might be able to use some of the Ocean Rancher material, so the title could refer to the Gulf of Mexico, or—he kept turning the notion over in his mind but was getting nowhere. He asked Ginny for a story conference. They scheduled a formal meeting, and he asked her to come with a few story ideas they could toss around.
Ginny's help with the business side of the writing had already expanded well beyond that of a well-trained secretary. Much of her impact on him she could not really be aware of: Her "presence" was simply everywhere in his life, in big ways and little. The most casual remarks from her might spark a story idea, but she didn't even need to talk to inspire a story. One day, when she was putting away the wire recorder (since they were no longer using it for dictation) it squawked, and that gave Heinlein an idea for Willis, one of his Martian characters in Red Planet—that it would repeat sounds back at you, like a living wire recorder. And the rest of his book's Martian biology built itself around that and integrated into the boy-hero's resistance to an attempted dictatorship on the Martian Colony. Ginny later commented, "Robert asked me to make notes when I had story ideas, and I always did. Sometimes they were simply notions for small things, other times they were bigger ..."
For this first story conference, Ginny's best idea was a variation on Kipling's Jungle Books stories—a human Mowgli raised, not by animals, but by aliens and then returned to Earth. It would be a satire, she explained. The boy would be like those goslings that imprinted on duck mothers, and the story built around his figuring out how to be a human being. Heinlein remembers the moment as linked to Red Planet, which he was researching and planning at that time:
Time after time ideas would beget more ideas, and I would have to lay the second generation regretfully away with the thought that the discarded notion was a little too involved and a bit too strong medicine for a boy's book. I collected quite a file of things about these Martians which had been left out of the book. One night, while discussing this Martian culture, I made some reference to Mowgli; Ginny speaks up and says, "There's your 'Gulf' story that you've been looking for."
Heinlein wrote several sheets of notes by the time he ran out of steam for the night, but the core of the book was already clear in his mind: he wrote the first and last chapter.
But for the Astounding serial, this Martian Mowgli was too big an idea to be researched and written in the time he had. They continued discussing the "Gulf" story for the next several days. The Martians he had evolved for Red Planet were elder-brother types, and the boy they raise and use as a spy would probably turn out some sort of warped super-genius, like Odd John. "What makes a superman?" he asked Ginny, spontaneously. "They think better," she replied. This was the germ of the spy/superman novella Heinlein later crafted for Campbell as "Gulf." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue with His Century by William H. Patterson Jr.. Copyright © 2014 William H. Patterson, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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