Joseph Heller was a Coney Island kid, the son of Russian immigrants, who went on to great fame and fortune. His most memorable novel took its inspiration from a mission he flew over France in WWII (his plane was filled with so much shrapnel it was a wonder it stayed in the air). Heller wrote seven novels, all of which remain in print. Something Happened and Good as Gold, to name two, are still considered the epitome of satire. His life was filled with women and romantic indiscretions, but he was perhaps more famous for his friendshipshe counted Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, Carl Reiner, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Mario Puzo, Dustin Hoffman, and many others among his confidantes. In 1981 Heller was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a debilitating syndrome that could have cost him his life. Miraculously, he recovered. When he passed away in 1999 from natural causes, he left behind a body of work that continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year.
Just One Catch is the first biography of Yossarian's creator.
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1. Domestic Engagements
SAN ANGELO, TEXAS, in April 1945 was home to over five million sheep, and considered itself the inland wool capital of the United States. It was among the nation’s largest mohair producers, served by the Santa Fe Railroad, which hauled the city’s wool products across the country and brought in over one million dollars in annual revenue. Though automobiles were still a luxury for most people, traffic snarled San Angelo’s streets. The downtown area—in a city of just under fifty thousand folks—was booming. Men came to buy Prince Albert tobacco—at sixty-seven cents a can, an easy path to personal style and sophistication. Women shopped for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, whose newspaper ads in the San Angelo Standard promised to “help women who on occasion feel nervous, fidgety, irritable, tired, and a bit blue.”
If they felt nervous and tired, it may have been because more young men than ever, just back from fighting in Europe, thronged San Angelo’s eateries, alleyways, and movie theaters—along with the wool trade, the cause of the city’s boom. “There was a ‘Western Craze’ … after the war that was sweeping the nation. We were making decorative spurs and buckles and even had traveling salesmen who went all over Texas wholesaling our goods,” Chase Holland III, owner of Holland’s downtown, told a local reporter in 2007 when asked about the “good old days.” The store was one of eleven jewelry shops that opened to serve returning soldiers eager to surprise their sweethearts with engagement rings, put the war behind them, and move ahead with careers. In their stiff uniforms and spit-shined shoes, the young men would mill around the glass counters, shyly, standing aside when slammed by the smell of wool. Now and then, a “pretty grubby” fellow, someone who looked “like he had just finished shearing a thousand sheep,” in Holland’s description, would push forward, determined to examine necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. Unlike the soldiers, most of whom were starting from scratch, the ranchers were doing just dandy. They knew what they wanted, and they could afford the best baubles.
Many of the servicemen were biding their time in Texas, assigned here while waiting to be discharged under the military’s impending point system, whereupon they would join their families or fiancées in other parts of the country. Goodfellow Field, occupying over a thousand acres four miles southeast of downtown, and consisting of a pilot-training school with three paved runways, seven auxiliary landing fields, extensive housing facilities, and a circular concrete swimming pool, was their home. The field had been named for a local pilot who had died in turbulent skies over France in World War I.
For those who had never previously visited West Texas, the dry, flat landscape came as a shock. Often in the late afternoon, mournful thunder rolled south across the plains, accompanied by heavy winds. Without warning, sand could kick up, whip about the treeless terrain, and make the day go dark. Flying particles swelled the air. (Within a few years, a sudden swift tornado would kill thousands of sheep and severely damage several planes at Goodfellow.) Still, most of the boys were happy to stroll at leisure across the solid ground, stretch their arms, and breathe, even if occasionally it meant filling their mouths with grit.
Just a few months before, the boys had had more reason to appreciate Goodfellow Field: Its Instrument School and Post Operations arm employed seventeen Women Airforce Service Pilots. They served as flight trainers and inspected aircraft that had been repaired after being red-lined for serious malfunctions, to see if they were fit once more for students. Some of the male pilots “were quite dubious whether or not we were capable of flying anything larger than a kite,” said Jimmie Parker, one of the WASPs. But Maj. John Hardy, the base’s director of flying, said the girls always compared favorably to the boys. The WASP program was disbanded at Goodfellow in December 1944 because the attrition rate among combat pilots had proven to be lower than expected, leading to a surplus of male pilots. Nevertheless, under the command of Col. Harold A. Gunn, Goodfellow maintained an easygoing, cordial atmosphere; on the base, the worst behavior was likely to come from the weather.
Joseph Heller arrived in San Angelo in early March. The base no longer has a file on him, but his personal flight records clarify the chronology. His last combat mission was on October 15, 1944, a bombing raid on railroad bridges at Ronco Scrivia, Italy, amid “scant, inacc[urate]” flak, according to the military report. Heller left Corsica for Naples on January 3, 1945. From there, he was shipped to the States, arriving in Atlantic City on January 28. From October to January, he’d had a lot of time to fill in a wet, muddy tent. Transportation home could be delayed for many reasons, including incomplete paperwork, bad weather, difficulties arranging passage back to the States, and the military’s insistence that men in line for awards, including the Air Medal for number of missions flown, with clusters for additional missions, hang around to receive them.
“I pretty much enjoyed [Texas],” Heller recalled. Those spring months were far better than the “deeply depressing, incapacitating winter … into which I was harshly plunged on my furlough after I’d returned by steamship to the States from Corsica in January and found myself back in Coney Island,” where he’d grown up, he said.
Nearly twenty-two, he was a slender, big-boned man just under six feet tall, with a dimpled chin and dark hair, whose short military cut could not hide its tendency to curl. Years later, a journalist, describing a photograph of him taken at about this time, said “his large nose and his eyes sit uneasily on a dark, skinny face. He looks scared and underfed … the eyes seem to stare directly outward and directly inward at the same time.” Easy in his body, self-contained yet friendly, he was well liked in spite of feeling, later on, that he did not make much of an impression on anyone with whom he served in the military (his speech alone, swift and plentiful, peppered with personal tics and a Brooklyn accent, would have left its impress on boys from other parts of the country, with hard t’s at the ends of words, r’s slipping almost into w’s, and swallowed final phrases). His perception that few people noticed him says more about the intensity of his inner life, and his focus, than it does about his capacity to socialize and accommodate himself to just about any situation.
He had “almost nothing to do” at Goodfellow, he wrote in his memoir Now and Then, but that was okay because “I am generally not a hard person to please.” It would have been just fine with him if Jimmie Parker and her fellow WASPs returned to oversee flight training and airplane inspections on base. After completing sixty missions in Europe, and especially after believing he was doomed on his thirty-seventh mission, he wanted nothing more to do with flying craft. Hence, the steamship home from Italy. “I was so terrified on my last few missions, I made a vow that if I ever got out of [the] war alive, I would never go up in an airplane again,” he said.
His base pay at Goodfellow would have been half again as high if he had agreed to the required four hours of flight time a month, but upon first returning to the States and undergoing a medical exam in Atlantic City, he told the military doctor that the memory of gasoline fumes inside a plane was sickening to him. At the time, Heller believed he was merely lying to the doctor, just looking for a way to dillydally until he had earned enough points for a discharge, but the more he talked to the medic, he said, the more he realized the lie “turned out to be true.”
His nerves weren’t helped by the number of training accidents that occurred at Goodfellow while he was stationed there—as many as twenty-two per month, owing to “wing tip[s] [being] dragged; faulty technique; hard landings; [and] collision with parked aircraft,” according to reports. (BT-13s, known as Valiants, were used in training; they had a ceiling of 16,500 feet, and were called, by wary pilots, “Vibrators.”)
None of the accidents was fatal, but they were all noisy and frightening. Heller kept his head down, writing PR for the base in a low-slung wooden room clacking with typewriters. He was a pretty fair typist. One of his tent mates, during his last weeks on Corsica, freshly arrived to replace a man who had finished his tour of duty, had brought with him a portable typewriter. The kid harbored literary ambitions, but he was too busy getting in his flight time to do any work; meanwhile, in the afternoons, Heller, who had completed his missions and was waiting to leave, hunkered down alone in the tent and made use of the kid’s machine. Heller, who had been keeping a diary of his missions, typed up a chronology of his experiences. He toyed with the idea of writing short stories about war in the bare-bones, dialogue-heavy manner of Hemingway. He had also been reading William Saroyan and John O’Hara, writers who, like Papa, appealed to him because of their colloquial dialogue and lean descriptive passages. The U.S. government published a series of books for servicemen, the Armed Forces Editions, paperbound collections, which made available to Heller, among other classics, Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” a story of shipwrecked sailors, written with a powerful, hypnotic rhythm and lulling, repetitive dialogue. Impressed by the story’s rocking, wavelike style, he imagined a similar tale, updated to the present time: a terse back-and-forth conversation between a bomber crew in trouble and a Corsican air base. He thought of calling the story “Hello, Genoa, Hello, Genoa,” after the title of a one-act play by Saroyan, Hello Out There. Finally, instead of attempting this story, so close to his undigested experiences, and therefore hard to articulate, he began to draft a piece about a married ex-serviceman adjusting poorly to life at home—a projection, perhaps, of his fears about settling down once he returned to the States. Emotionally, he distanced himself from the subject by using a spare, slick-magazine style reminiscent of O’Hara, who, like similar writers (Saroyan, Irwin Shaw), expressed what Heller later admitted were “hard-nosed, sexist attitudes … embodying … implicit assessments of materialism, wealth, Babbitry, and ideals of masculinity and male decency that I … accepted as irreducibly pure.”
* * *
“HE TURNED OVER on his back and stared at the ceiling, feeling unhappy, wanting something and not knowing just what it was,” Heller wrote, fiddling with the piece he’d begun on Corsica. He returned to it, now and then, between banging out memos and press releases for Goodfellow Field. At night, in his bunk, he’d lie awake, listening to music on the local radio station, KGKL, wishing instead to catch a one-act drama, the kind he’d loved in the evenings as a kid in Coney Island.
Sometimes, on a day pass, he’d ride up a wide, dusty street into downtown San Angelo with some of his comrades, going to the Texas Theater for a Frank Sinatra or Dorothy Lamour movie, or to watch the town’s fidgety women shop for Vegetable Compound. Heller recalled himself as a “boyish and ravenous satyr” at this time in his life, but “in depth of experience still almost a virgin.”
Teenaged girls and boys milled in front of the Cactus Hotel. Inside the hotel’s glamorous Crystal Ballroom, an armed forces recruiting film, Baptism of Fire, played regularly. As Heller passed the unsure youngsters, excited and confused about their futures, and as he observed servicemen, home from their tours, hoping to shut their pasts behind them with the purchase of an engagement ring, he considered how far he had come in a short time: Just a few years ago, he’d been as aimless, but as gung ho for a fight, as these boys in front of the Cactus, and now he was a man about to be married, maybe, and embarked upon a career just as soon as he received his discharge.
In the short story he’d been working on, he had the young husband say to his wife, “I married you because it was part of the dream … [t]he sugar and tinsel dream of life.” It was, he says, “the thing to do.” On some level, Heller may have been as skeptical of the “Reader’s Digest beautiful panorama of a beautiful life” as his fictional husband, but in another sense, he did believe it was the thing to do (if nothing else, as a way of channeling his sexual urges), just as he both pitied and understood the naïveté of the teens in front of the Cactus, who dreamed the glory but could not imagine the reality of a baptism of fire.
In January 1945, when he’d received his orders to vacate Corsica, he was flown to Naples along with Tom Sloan, another bombardier from his group, who was also scheduled to return to the States (throughout the flight, Heller kept his fingers crossed, on both hands, for safety and luck). Sloan was married, with a one-year-old at home, and had never been tempted, like his buddy here, to sleep with prostitutes or other available women on R & R trips to Cairo and Rome. On the flight to Naples, Heller was impressed with Sloan’s eagerness to return to wedded bliss.
When offered transport home by air or sea, Heller chose to sail back with several thousand other boys on a troopship, the former SS America. The ship sailed alone, without naval escort. Heller spent most of the ten days at sea trying to sleep in the cabin—outfitted with two tiers of bunk beds—he shared with six others. The ship docked at Boston; from there, he took a train to Atlantic City for his medical exam, routine processing, and reassignment.
On furlough, he returned to his family apartment in Coney Island as something of a glamorous war hero. The role—for it did feel like an act—embarrassed him. “I don’t want to sit in a room filled with people who are all beaming at me as if I were some marvelous mechanical toy, and play the modest hero. I don’t want to tell anybody what it was like and smile shyly as they tell me how wonderful I am,” the husband informs his wife in the story he’d been writing. He was thinking of calling it “I Don’t Love You Any More.”
The weather in Coney Island was gray and oppressive. Not even a hot dog from Nathan’s could cheer him up. While he had been overseas, Luna Park, one of the area’s great amusement centers, had burned down, leaving smoke and char. Few of his old friends were around. Some were still overseas; in the last couple of years, many had gotten married, and most of the others were planning to marry. It was the thing to do.
Heller went to movies by himself, walked around town (he had not yet learned to drive), and generally moped, realizing with a shock that he missed the military, where he had been kept plenty busy. His brother Lee, fourteen years his senior, told him to get off his rear and take a vacation: Why not go to Grossinger’s, a famous resort hotel in the Catskills, well known not only as a place of fun and relaxation but as a place for men to meet women? Heller had never heard of it. Lee kept insisting, telling him he could afford it. The family had been saving the allotments from his Air Corps pay, which he’d sent home every month. When his kid brother stalled some more, Lee made the arrangements, reserving him a spot on a van that would leave from Brooklyn and eventually twist along mountain roads on the old Route 17, up the Wurtsboro Hills, to the city of Liberty. It’ll be great, Lee said. As a war hero, you’ll be fawned over. Look at you, look how tan you are from all that Mediterranean sun.
Heller put on his green winter flight jacket, with its thick fur collar and his silver first lieutenant’s bar, and boarded the van. His fellow passengers stared at him admiringly.
Grossinger’s had begun as a private seven-room farmhouse in 1914 and developed over the years, along with hundreds of other hotels in the area, into a Jewish resort catering to thousands of guests at any given time. Acreage in the Catskill Mountains, just under a hundred miles northwest of New York City, had been cultivated by Eastern European immigrants, beginning in the late nineteenth century. Jews had not been allowed to own land in Russia; for those who came to the United States, buying property was an assertion of identity and freedom. Many of the families who settled in the Catskills knew the basics of raising livestock from the work they had done in Russia. Other families came from European ghettos. The area was remote enough that it provided an enclave for preserving culture: The music, food, and language of old-world shtetls flourished here, along with urban rhythms underpinning rural necessities.
In time, financial need forced many of the farmers to use their land for alternative businesses. Opening up their kitchens, barns, and small lakes to travelers proved lucrative and increasingly popular. Jewish laborers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, discovering the novelty of having a little spending money in their pockets for the first time in their lives, and looking for a pleasant escape during the hottest days of summer, took to the mountains in bigger and bigger numbers. This was a new phenomenon: vacations for the working class. An individual earning, say, thirty dollars a week could stay at Grossinger’s for five days, sharing a “country” cabin with two others, for around $39.50. By the mid-1940s, the Catskills were known as “the Jewish Alps,” and the hotel resorts had become destination points for people of all classes—lower, middle, and upper, with more and more celebrities to boot—looking to play.
The “mountains had everything,” said Sam Levenson, a resort entertainer, “girls, bedbugs, handball, chicken … milk hot from the hot cow, swimming in a pool about the same size as in the picture postcard, and nature—manure at [your] window.” Joyce Wadler, an essayist who called herself a “survivor” of Catskill retreats, wrote, “This is what it was like, in the Borscht Belt [so called because of the endless servings of the beet soup, topped with sour cream, in resort kitchens]: full of noise, full of Jews, and the jokes grew on trees.”
Heller had never given much conscious thought to Judaism, but his family was Jewish. This was another role he could play with confidence. It was the off-season when he arrived at Grossinger’s. Skiing, ice-skating, basketball, and dancing were the popular weekly activities. He had never skated, but he was blessed with strength and good physical coordination, and he learned quickly. Besides, he knew he cut a striking figure in his flight jacket. He was also a novice dancer, but buoyed by the attention his evening attire brought him—his officer’s dress with wings and the silver oak-leaf clusters he had earned for completing his missions—he moved smoothly across the ballroom’s wooden floor as the “orchestra” (consisting of no more than five or six musicians) blatted out rumbas.
Lee had been right. Heller was enjoying himself, but he was sorry there were not dances on Friday nights also. As an observant Jewish business, Grossinger’s staged no entertainment on the Sabbath. Within a few years, to stay competitive with non-Jewish resorts, the hotel owners would begin to conduct a weekly shtar m’chirah, a sale to a “Shabbos goy” for twenty-four hours, for the sum of one dollar. If the goy put on a show, no religious rules would be broken. At sundown every Saturday, he sold the hotel and its eight hundred acres back to its Jewish owners.
But this deal was not in place in 1945. Instead, there was a Friday-night lecture by a rabbi. Heller sneaked into the woods to smoke a cigarette—also forbidden on the Sabbath.
Heller gorged himself with food. He had never eaten like this, with such a flavorful array set before him, and he didn’t know when he’d have the opportunity to eat this way again. Where would he be assigned? How long would he have to wait for his discharge? Pot cheese, jumbo potatoes, cold fish, boiled chicken, chow mein, challah rolls, eggs and onions, the plentiful borscht, and blintzes folded as carefully as an American flag at twilight.
What had seemed awkward at home—playing up his soldier-boy status—was pleasant and rewarding here. No one knew him. He didn’t have to explain himself, or worry that someone would accuse him of puffing himself up (“Nah, he ain’t really nobody; that’s just Joey”). He liked receiving the frank admiration of strangers, especially attractive young women, many of whom were here with their parents for the clear purpose of sussing out promising male prospects. Lee had told him everyone knew girls went to Grossinger’s looking for marriage material.
Their eyes followed him as he strolled through the woods, or passed through the Main House, where the social director led guests through a game of Simon Says (“Simon says turn and hug the person next to you”), or as he stepped out on the ice in his skates while Irving Jaffe, a former three-time Olympic skating champion, now Grossinger’s house pro, gave lessons in another part of the rink. Heller smiled as he watched the girls watch him. He’d circle the rink slowly; in the middle of the ice, some young lady or another would spin as swiftly as a storm, whipping up white vapor.
When a girl’s mother or father thanked him for his service in the cause of freedom, he’d grin modestly and thank them in return. He felt as pleased—and amazed at the ease of it all—as he’d felt in school, as a kid, whenever teachers praised his writing ability. He was just doing what he’d been told, fulfilling his assignments. But it seemed that sometimes he was able to fulfill them a little better than others.
Every night at dinner, the hotel’s mimeographed daily bulletin, the Tattler (the name suggesting childishness and indulgence, as well as titillation), announced special events or gala balls, which, all the guests knew, were occasions for singles to get together. There was, for example, the Champagne Hour, where wives could show off to their husbands the dance steps they’d learned in classes all week, or, more to the point, where those on their own might find a partner, on and off the dance floor. In the Catskills, the “air was redolent of grass, flowers, ozone, and sex,” wrote Abraham Cahan in his novel The Rise of David Levinsky. If, in the off-season, the smell of grass and flowers was replaced by the odor of burning pine and the sharp, moist no-scent of snow, the deeper trace of physical need and longing remained. Unmarried men and women in their thirties and forties did their best not to schlump around in despair and defeat. “I learned to spot a single woman,” Tania Grossinger wrote in her memoir about growing up at the hotel. A single woman “brought four or five suitcases up with her for a three-day weekend.… She borrowed her married sister[’s] … mink stole and her girlfriend[’s] … rhinestone earring, necklace, and bracelet set.… She hoped to find a man who would drive her back to the city and would not find the fact that she lived in the Bronx or Brooklyn GU (Geographically Undesirable). She changed her outfit a minimum of four times daily.… She really wasn’t looking for someone to sleep with in the country. What she was looking for was someone to marry in the city.”
Then there were the parents of young women seeking to secure their daughters’ futures. Men who went to Grossinger’s were “good people”—not necessarily because they were financially secure, but because by going there they exhibited a desire for betterment and assimilation in the broadest, most flexible sense of the word—not turning away from Judaism, but integrating more fully into American culture. As Phil Brown, who also grew up in a Catskills resort, puts it, “[G]oods and entertainment that were previously unavailable to these largely immigrant people were now accessible” in places like Grossinger’s. To partake of these luxuries “represented an acculturation to American life—the immigrant was no longer a greenhorn but a citizen of the New World.” To take a vacation suggested it was normal for a Jew to be a regular wage earner, an American. At the same time, the insular Jewish character of these resorts reinforced tribal solidarity. Simultaneously, one could wear and drop the mask of mainstream acceptability, or, perhaps more accurately, wear a mask of utter transparency.
Similarly, Heller’s military uniform proclaimed his solid character. Is it any wonder he didn’t have to ask anyone to dance? At Grossinger’s, the girls weren’t shy. “There was no time for subtle flirtations,” wrote Tania Grossinger. “The emphasis was on ‘now.’ And if not ‘now,’ at least ‘tomorrow.’” This was an attitude made even sharper, in the winter of 1945, by stories of mass killings that had leaked out of Europe during the course of the war, rumors recalled for everyone by Heller’s dress. Don’t stop moving, don’t let go of each other, don’t think about what lies beyond the trees, the mountains, and the cold, clear moonlight above us.
One night at Grossinger’s, “I met the girl,” Heller wrote in his memoir. Actually, he met the girl’s mother, who then introduced him to the girl. “At a dance contest one night, my grandmother asked my father to be her partner,” says Heller’s daughter, Erica. “They won the contest and a bottle of champagne and went back to my grandmother’s table and met my mother, who was initially underwhelmed. My grandmother had [first] met him while they were checking in, and sensed something special” that might appeal to her daughter.
Shirley Held was a twenty-one-year-old redhead who loved to laugh and joke dryly, a quick, subtle wit. She was svelte, relaxed, and gorgeous. A product of Brooklyn, she now lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her parents, both of whom took to Heller immediately. Like everyone else, they were impressed with his officer’s uniform. “They had each grown up very poor so they had no snobbery,” says Erica. “Dad was ambitious and had a plan.” The Helds liked the sound of that. Heller’s plan was to pursue the writing for which his teachers had always praised him (he’d been considering this more and more seriously ever since co-opting his tent mate’s typewriter in Corsica) and to begin by going to college to study literature, now that the G.I. Bill had put college within reach. To be a literary man was to be something quite respectable in the America of the 1940s, especially among well-read Jewish families, for whom the tradition of biblical study had instilled a reverence for language, and for whom achievement in the arts was a sign of intellectual accomplishment as well as successful assimilation into the culture. (Just a few miles from Grossinger’s, at Grine Felder, a bungalow resort colony, Isaac Bashevis Singer had recently worked with his older brother, Israel, and a man named Zygmunt Salkin to reinvigorate Yiddish theater on American soil by staging plays and forming a conducive atmosphere for literary activity.)
Shirley’s father, Bernard, whom everyone called Barney, was partner in a garment company on Seventh Avenue, specializing in ladies’ sportswear. “He was very handsome, elegant, soft-spoken, a mensch,” says Erica Heller. Right away, he “loved my father.” So did his wife, Dottie, who wasted no time in pushing him toward her daughter. In the heady, urgent atmosphere of this Jewish retreat, with relief in the air after many years of war, but with Hitler still running loose in Europe, plans were made quickly, surely, and without fuss. For the Held family and Joseph Heller, it was love at first sight.
Dottie seized every opportunity to bring the young couple together, with help from the social director, also called the “tummler.” The word tummler is “derived from tumult-maker,” according to comedian Joey Adams, who once worked as a social director in the Catskills. It is “Castilian Yiddish for a fool or noisemaker who does anything and everything to entertain customers so that they won’t squawk about their rooms or food.” Tummlers often worked as waiters. Between meals, they sang and danced, told jokes, mingled with the guests, and worked informally as shadchans, or marriage brokers.
Saturday nights gave tummlers—and, in this case, Dottie Held—plenty of chances to squeeze a girl and boy together in an air of carefree gaiety. At Grossinger’s, Saturday nights were star-studded extravaganzas, featuring big-name entertainers like Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Alan King, or Eddie Cantor. Often, the hotel would engage a vaudeville troupe, and audience members would laugh at their own eating habits, speech patterns, professional anxieties, and sexual attitudes as parodied by the actors in skits that turned self-recognition into self-hatred, self-deprecation, and finally into gentle self-acceptance: the process, itself, a parody of the stages of assimilation, an acknowledgment of the confusion sparked by a desire to remain individualistic yet fit into something larger. This desire was, again, like donning and shedding a mask at the same time. Yiddish theater scholar Ellen Schiff wrote that vaudeville acts in the first half of the twentieth century always “included a whole variety of ethnic caricatures which exploited the traits familiarly associated with … the Irish, Germans, French, Swedes, and … [that] burlesque concoction, the stage Negro. The Jew figured as an ethnic among ethnics,” and was therefore seen by audiences (including Jews) as not quite “white.” In fact, Jewish entertainers performed, with remarkable frequency, in blackface, a mask that let them be in on the jokes along with mainstream America but also marked them as the butt of the jokes.
Heller laughed as loudly as anyone on Saturday nights—tickled by Shirley Held’s charming presence—but he couldn’t help but be aware that he was living a vaudeville skit: Back in Coney, his military costume made him terribly self-conscious, fearful of casting himself as someone he was not, a war hero; here at Grossinger’s, the smart dress gave him freedom to play the hero to the hilt among happy strangers, and to win the heart of a girl (after all, this particular skit was a comedy).
And he was determined for it to reach its happy ending. In his spare moments, he worked hard on understanding story conventions, and getting them right. By the time “I returned to the city [Shirley and I] were already going steady,” he wrote. “I had great expectations.”
Shirley’s family occupied a multiroom apartment at 50 Riverside Drive, an elegant sixteen-story structure built in 1930 of light beige brick, overlooking the Hudson. The apartment had wooden floors and French doors. Dottie’s taste was spare and immaculate, and she would pass her flair for interior decorating on to Shirley.
For the next several days, Heller spent more time in the city, courting Shirley, meeting her friends, and enjoying meals at her family’s home, than he did in Coney Island. And then he was assigned to go to Texas.
* * *
SIGNS IN THE WINDOWS of the jewelry stores in downtown San Angelo advertised specials on engagement rings. Heller passed by them, fear and skepticism bumping up against his great expectations. Just what was this “sugar and tinsel dream of life” he seemed to be rushing toward with all these other boys? It had been easier to imagine the dream, weeks earlier, at Grossinger’s, surrounded by laughter, food, and pretty girls. Here on a military base, amid dust and howling wind, with planes lurching unsafely all around him, the dream appeared to be so much hoopla, nothing more than a stage performance.
What do you want? the wife asked the husband in the short story he kept tinkering with. “A pitcher of beer,” the husband replied flatly. Beyond that, he didn’t want to think.
In his memoir, Heller says he corresponded regularly with Shirley while stationed in Texas. These letters seem to be lost.
One afternoon, almost as a lark, he slipped the pages of the latest draft of “I Don’t Love You Any More” into an envelope, which he addressed to Whit Burnett at Story magazine. He had read in some newspaper or army publication that Story was looking for fiction by returning servicemen for a special issue. Heller had never seen a copy of Story, but he thought he remembered an old pal from Coney Island, Danny Rosoff, talking about the magazine. At school, Rosoff used to drop the names of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, though Heller suspected his buddy had only heard of these writers but not read them.
Story had a circulation of about twenty thousand and boasted work by William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Mann, and one of Heller’s favorites, William Saroyan. Burnett had started the magazine in the early 1930s with his then wife, Martha Foley, who went on to edit the annual series Best American Short Stories. In March 1940, the magazine published the first piece by an unknown author named J. D. Salinger, who had taken a writing course at Columbia with Burnett (showing very little promise in the beginning, according to the teacher).
Heller had no idea how long it would take to hear back from the editor. He tried to forget about the story, but on his rides into town, his eyes would stray to the magazine racks in the drugstores. Story was never among the colorful publications—instead, there were Time, Look, and Life, exhibiting in their full-page ads a schizophrenia similar to what he had witnessed in vaudeville shows at Grossinger’s. Everyone knew money was tight and that many products had been rationed during the war, such as tires, bicycles, gasoline, fuel oil, stoves, sugar, coffee, and shoes. And yet the magazines displayed an endless bounty of goods, a frenzy of consumer pleasure. What was being masked here? (In 1942, for both economic and patriotic reasons, the IRS issued a ruling that gave companies a business discount on any ad that featured a wartime theme; as a result, magazine advertising increased more than 60 percent during the war years, despite widespread product rationing.)
Heller left the magazines on the racks and returned to the base to read Stephen Crane.
Sometimes in the evenings, the sky grew dark and green over Goodfellow Field as thunderstorms and the threat of tornadoes moved across the plains. Chilly pockets filled the dusky air, floating about unpredictably like invisible flak. Heller listened to big-band music on his radio, wrote letters to Shirley, and thanked his luck that he still had two good feet and his feet were on the ground. Only his words would take flight now, on planes winging their way to Shirley or to Whit Burnett, in streams of wind made heavy with the murmuring of dust, the lowing of sheep.
Copyright © 2011 by Tracy Daugherty