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A daughter's loving tribute to her famous father and the iconic Manhattan apartment building that housed their family's joys and sorrows.
Copywriter Heller's (Splinters, 1991, etc.) family memoir brims with warm reflections right from the opening chapters, in which she describes the genesis of her parents' fiery, robust marriage abetted by the author's persistent grandparents. Together, they not only prevented Heller's mother Shirley from succumbing to her premarital "crumbling courage," but, in 1952, they also secured a surprisingly available apartment inside the grand Upper West Side tenement, the Apthorp, where the Hellers would live out the duration of their marriage. Heller notes that her father and his willful mother-in-law might have locked horns more often had they not had the familial bond uniting them, since she'd supported the newlyweds early on in their marriage until the author was born. The author sprinkles intermittent snapshots throughout the book, as she offers a succession of anecdotes and memories of summers on Long Island with her "inveterate fabulist" Grandma Dottie, family holidays and her father's friendships with artist Irving Vogel, Mario Puzo and Swedish publisher Per Gedin. She traces his nine-year progression while composing his defining work, Catch-22, "hunt-and-pecking his way to more opulent times," and reaping the notoriety and upgraded lifestyle the novel and its movie version would bring his family. Heller chronicles the family's various residences and histrionics inside the Apthorp as it became a much-revered, eccentric celebrity roost, and she is generously candid and evenhanded aboutthe family's happier days, her father's later novels and the darkness of her parents' marital discord and their separate, debilitating illnesses. Closing personal recollections offered by authors Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Buckley are entertaining, but Heller gets the last word in a surprising disclosure that she has yet to read Catch-22.
An affectionate family scrapbook crafted with a bittersweet blend of humor and pathos.
A Jewish wife will forgive and forget, but she’ll never forget what she forgave.
“Joe who?” my mother asked without guile from her hospital bed. She’d just read a card that had been tucked into a glorious bouquet of freshly delivered flowers.
“Joe Heller,” I told her. I was flabbergasted that she didn’t know or couldn’t guess, but then we were in Sloan-Kettering. It was 1995, she was dying, and although my parents had been married for thirty-eight years, they had had a particularly acrimonious divorce twelve years before and had not spoken since. So perhaps the fact that she was scouring her brain for non-Hellerian Joes she might know was not really all that startling. I reached over for the card and read aloud: “My darling Shirley,” it began, “I am so sorry. Joe.” I handed it back to her.
When I told her who’d sent the flowers, she spoke slowly and without rancor. “Well, he is a sorry soul,” she pronounced wearily, crumpling up the card and dropping it into the yellow plastic trash bin on the floor beside her bed. “But he sent you flowers,” I pushed, somehow hoping for more. “Th ey’re from Dad. Don’t you think they’re nice?” I pestered, leading the witness. She stared at me, unruffled and unimpressed. “I get it. I understand,” she said. “But really, how wildly would you like me to celebrate this? Should I hire jugglers?” Then she muttered something that I made her repeat twice because it was said so faintly, she closed her eyes and we never spoke of the flowers or of my father again.
By then my mother was bald and terribly frail. After her initial diagnosis a year and a half earlier, I’d moved back in with her at the Apthorp, the apartment building where I’d grown up, decamping from the Upper East Side to properly care for her for as long as was needed.
From the day I moved back in, whether my mother was home or, as she was with increasing frequency, in the hospital, my father was too stubborn and too shaken by the gravity of her illness to call or speak to her. Instead, he called me. Night after night he inquired about her with an array of questions that never varied: Had she eaten? Had she gotten fresh air that day? Was she able to sleep? What were the doctors saying? Had she taken all of her medications and had I remembered to give her all of her vitamins? What was her mood? Every night I answered him, increasingly baffled by his persistent interest and concern, but not, I suspect, as baffled as he himself may have been.
As my mother got sicker, had brain surgery, lung surgery, chemo, and radiation, I could hear how much more difficult it was for him to keep the fear from creeping into his voice. He knew we were going to lose her. It was only a question of when. Officially, they had lost each other many years before, of course, but it was obvious how deeply he was tied to her. They were still uncannily connected.
Even after years of silence, the truth remained that there’d never been anyone who’d known or understood each of them better than the other. There never would be. With Mom’s death, this aspect of my father’s life would be obliterated, and I sensed that fact very strongly during that time. To me, it could easily be seen lurking just beneath the surface—a surface customarily guarded and closed and, for the most part, ineluctably indecipherable.
When my father called me those nights he was not the blustery, famous author; the gruff, arrogant big shot; the smug, cocky fellow who sometimes showed up to friends’ cocktail parties for the sheer fun of insulting them. He wasn’t the caustic, clever master of the verbal arabesque who for years had answered the question “How come you’ve never written a book as good as Catch-22?” with the sly, Talmudic response to put any other to shame: “Who has?” he’d ask, genuinely wanting to know. He was not bombastic or self-satisfied during those nightly calls. He was only sad. He just wanted to talk, and I let him.
Then, about a month before my mother died, when she had gone into Sloan-Kettering for what seemed as if it might be the last time, one night when Dad called I was simply too exhausted to hold everything back that I’d been wanting to say to him ever since she’d first been diagnosed. I had never found the courage or the proper words to use with him before.
I blurted out that he simply had to communicate with her again now, or he would never forgive himself. “How will you live with yourself if you don’t? How will you sleep at night?” I asked in an uncustomarily loud tone. He listened silently, and I could picture him sitting in his lemon-yellow study out in East Hampton where he lived, seething at the very notion of being scolded by his daughter. “Call. Write to her. Send flowers. Do something. There isn’t much time left, and if you don’t, I think you’ll always be sorry,” I fumbled, suddenly aware of and horrified by my own stridence. Now, understandably, there was angry silence. When Dad finally spoke, he was petulant, childlike. “I don’t need you to tell me what to do,” he growled, hanging up before I could respond.
It was the very next day when, sitting in my mother’s hospital room, there had been a knock at the door, and an orderly had entered with the exquisite bouquet of flowers for Mom. From Dad.
When I arrived home that night the phone was already ringing. He wanted to know if she’d gotten the flowers and if so, had she liked them. I assured him that they’d arrived and had been magnificent. “Well, what did she say?” he asked with some urgency, and then it was my turn to be silent.
After the divorce, for years my father had begged, cajoled, and finally actually offered me a hefty bribe of ten thousand dollars in cash if I would only tell him my mother’s secret pot roast recipe. It was handed down to her from her mother, my grandmother Dottie, and the meal was for him like kryptonite. It always made him groggy, feeble, and positively stupid with glee, turning his knees to jelly.
When my mother had closed her eyes in the hospital after receiving his flowers, what she had muttered to me, in fact, was: “No matter what, don’t ever give him the pot roast recipe,” and with that, she’d drifted off to sleep. I did not share this with him, take a sorrowful moment when he was so uncharacteristically humbled and vulnerable and make it even more difficult.
On the other hand, he never did get that recipe.
© 2011 Erica Heller
Part 1 Apartment 2K South 1
Starting small: In at the Apthorp, but there was a catch 1952-1962
Part 2 Apartment 10C 39
Across the courtyard and up in the world 1962-1989
Part 3 Apartment 5B South 163
Bittersweet on Broadway/Shirley goes solo 1989-1997
Part 4 Apartment 6LE 223
And then there was one 1997-Present
All is forgiven: The recipe for Dottie Held's $10,000 Pot Roast
Posted August 19, 2011
We all like to read about the lives of great creative artists. Our brains are wired to respond to stories about other people's lives and we always feel that we just might get a glimpse of the mysterious creative spark that made them great. There is always the hope that we might uncover the secret and make use of it to achieve our own greatness. We are always ultimately disappointed. The creative process is too well hidden and mysterious. However, one thing is clear; creativity does not arise from joy and contentment. It comes from a darker place. Erica Heller has given us a jewel of a memoir about her life as the daughter of perhaps the greatest novelist of the last half of the 20th century. Her prose is crystal clear and she stays tightly focused on her subject. She has a master's touch when writing about her wacky family members and their foibles, and she has the eloquence to wring every last drop of humor and comedy out of their doings with just a few deft phrases. This is not an exposé or 'tell all' book. Ms Heller takes a very realistic if not objective view of past events. She is truthful, direct and does not try to paint herself in a favorable light. She owns up to her misjudgments and does not try to gloss over unpleasant facts. Her father was always difficult to gauge. He could be in turns very generous and considerate, or if the winds of his inner emotions were blowing in the wrong direction, he could be bitingly caustic and seemingly unfeeling. His barbs struck to the quick and were very, very funny...as long as you were not the target. Joseph Heller and his wife Shirley had a great love affair during their 30+ years of marriage. During that time they lived at the venerable Apthorp Apartments on Broadway. Erica paints a loving portrait of the Apthorp, where she lives even today, and makes it almost a living character in the history of her family. She tells of her parents first meeting and struggles until he managed to publish what became known in the family as, "The Book." The Book brought them fame and fortune. Erica recounts dozens of anecdotes about many of the great creative minds of the century who dropped in and out of her life. This book is a 'must' for anyone with an interest in Joseph Heller. It is also a 'must' for anyone who has an interest in the human heart. It teaches us about the resilience of the heart and the unconditional love of a daughter for her father. .
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Posted September 20, 2011
Imagine, as a visual image, balancing with one toe (the big one of course) on the head of a pin -- one arm reaching forward and the opposite leg extended backward in a perfect arabesque. That's the kind of balancing act Erica Heller has pulled off with Yossarian Slept Here, her insightful, totally honest memoir about her life as the daughter of renowned writer Joseph Heller and his wife Shirley. She makes sure you know that her father does love her, in spite of his insensitivity, frequently bordering on cruelty, and almost complete lack of parenting skills. As Blake Bailey points out, in her review of Yossarian Slept Here (New York Times Book Review, Sunday, August 28, 2011), "The miracle of this memoir is that it never seems less than fair: Erica Heller's worst grievances are mentioned more in sorrow (or levity) than anger, and she's careful to give her own shortcomings their due."
She also writes with affection and empathy about the many other colorful members of her unique family.
Erica Heller has a powerful story to tell and the ability to make the reader want to hear it. She's a wonderful writer -- smart and funny (her analogies are hilarious). It would be great to hear more from her, in the form of a novel next time. She could probably write a great screenplay as well.
Posted November 27, 2011
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Posted October 24, 2011
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Posted January 6, 2012
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