I Remember Joe Heller: My Introduction to Manhattan

“Zabar’s deli in Manhattan sells the best fresh orange juice in the world.”
– Joe Heller

“When I moved to Venice, I realized my address was my dream.”
– Marcel Proust

 In autumn 1967, my life turned a sharp corner. I impulsively decided to audit Joe Heller’s playwriting seminar at Yale Drama School. His mordant new novel Catch-22 was suddenly as relevant as Bob Dylan, whose music I would learn he loved.

Although Catch 22 is about Heller’s experiences back in World War II, his novel was a bible to young and old people who opposed our participation in the Vietnam War.

I was elated as I waited for him on the first day of class.

I was dying to study him.

I wanted to figure out how to be a writer.

I wanted a clue about a triumph of the human spirit.

I wanted to be in the same room with a man who touched so many lives in a good way as a result of digging down deep into his own feelings and making the masterwork Catch-22 from his hellish World War II experiences as a very young bombardier.

In His two-hour class, instead of teaching playwriting, Joe Heller complained about such things as the fake orange juice at Yale’s cafeteria. He bragged about fresh orange juice at Zabar’s deli in Manhattan—the best in the world and only four blocks from his apartment.

He also bragged shamelessly about earning big bucks–$100,000–to polish the script of the so-so movie Sex And The Single Girl. (In Philadelphia, my hometown, and in New Haven, people didn’t discuss salaries.)

I kept re-reading Catch-22. Trying to connect the man to the novel.

After the first rehearsal of his new play being performed at the Yale Drama School. Heller announced he was a wreck. He told his playwriting students about tossing and turning in anguish at the Midtown Motor Inn over what he’d seen at rehearsal. All night long, maniacs on either side of his room banged walls and played radios. Then the punch line: at 5 a.m. a distraught Heller discovered that, in fact, the radio built into his own night table had been playing all night.

To increase his anxiety even more, he’d learned that the actors wouldn’t be able to rehearse on stage with props and correct spacing until four days before opening night, because the stage was being used by undergraduates. And Stacy Keach, the star of Heller’s play wouldn’t be attending the first week and a half of rehearsals.

They’ve been rehearsing a different play all this week, Heller moaned. It’s called Waiting For Stacy.

Heller added that he was having trouble remembering the reasons he’d brought his play to Yale.

I wrote down every word he said. And even tried to write his unreconstructed Coney Island accent phonetically. The word daughter, for example, was dawtah.

He was so refreshingly blunt, even impolite, especially when compared to Yale English professors who I ogle at monthly sherry parties. I am invisible, a department wife.

Joe Heller would have wreaked havoc at one of these parties. I sat open-mouthed in his presence.

His first words to our class one day were an example. As he sauntered toward us in the gloomy hallway of the Yale Drama School annex, he announced, Today’s Rosh Hashanah, a religious holiday, right? No classes on Rosh Hashanah, right? So what’re you doing here. Hah-hah-hah, he added insincerely to indicate he was joking. I smiled painfully to myself. He was pushing back against New England waspy Yale, a self-satisfied universe of worn oriental rugs, pale green walls and blond preppies wearing loafers without socks in winter.

Unfazed by the fact that he was the only person laughing albeit insincerely at his Rosh Hashana joke, Joe Heller shifted his gum massage toothpick from the side to the front of his mouth, sighed and said to us, okay, okay, you convinced me. We’ll have our class.

Heller’s humor was aggressive. Sometimes cruel. Who the hell are you? he asked me a few weeks later.

The playwriting students twisted their necks to stare.

… auditing, I squeaked.

What gives you the right to take my class for free?

My throat closed.

Sometimes I think somatizing should be my middle name. I feel everything too strongly, and this frequently becomes a physical problem. But luckily I have little visceral memory for pain.

After a pointed silence following my answer to Heller’s question, first-year acting student Henry Winkler piped up, Susan’s a faculty wife.

Henry was my favorite student. He was the least pretentious one in the class and he made me laugh.

Hmmm, Heller said, staring at me. Then he said, Just kidding, you’re welcome here, I guess. He added his insincere, hah-hah-hah.

Seven days later, it was pure chutzpah that made me step back into Joe Heller’s classroom, after the way he’d singled me out as an outsider, but I was spellbound. I took the seat next to Henry.

Joseph Heller was such a proud New Yorker! He mostly called it ‘the city’ as New Yorkers do no matter where they are. He bragged that everyone in the city is kind of Jewish, kind of Irish, kind of Italian and more than a little black. He told us a psychoanalyst helps him dig down to find his deepest pain. He joked that he was only in therapy to gather ammunition for fights with his wife. This way he could always lie to her and say, My therapist thinks it’s all your fault.

I never heard anybody talk like Joe Heller about subjects that were taboo in my hometown, genteel Quaker Philadelphia, where seeing a psychiatrist is sickening humiliation, almost as awful as going to jail. (Not that I’d met a Philadelphian who admitted to having been incarcerated or god forbid to have been supine on a shrink’s couch.)

Despite his exotic attitude, Heller felt inordinately familiar. His sighs and grunts, conveyed strong mixed emotions; such as misery/hostility/irony/sadism/humor.

His sounds reminded me of my mother (no less) a provincial Jew, who muffled her ethnicity to fit the unassuming Quaker ethos of Philadelphia. (As an adolescent I died of embarrassment when she glared at large diamonds on strangers’ fingers.)

My mother gave new meaning to frugal. She never shopped at department stores. We ordered underwear and sensible oxfords from the Sears catalogue. She did sew me a red felt circle skirt decorated with a crocheted black woolly poodle. When she died, she left 1.2 million dollars, pinching every penny and nickel she earned from teaching as well as from my father’s do-good public service jobs.

Studying Heller was a revelation. He filled in many silences with which my mother greeted my questions.

The man gloried in being Jewish. (I can’t believe, for instance, that nobody’d told me my father’s Saturday ritual of bagels and salty lox and cream cheese was somehow a Jewish thing — as were my maternal grandfather’s clothing factories.)

I could tell by fleeting unhappy expressions on my mother’s face that she believed living in Philadelphia is somehow not as good as living in Manhattan. Joe Heller made it crystal clear!

Here’s an aspect of my problem: growing up in mid-20th century Philadelphia, the genteel ellipses tortured me. The most important things were simply not discussed: for example, as a pre-adolescent I assumed Tampax and Senator Joe McCarthy were part of the same problem since my mother sighed and refused to answer all questions about them. She also refused to tell me how she voted or if she believed in God. Not your business, she said.

My Jewish parents never told me about the Holocaust but during my senior year of high school a friend’s rich mother, a Holocaust survivor, finally told me how she’d escaped a gas chamber at the last minute by slipping into a locker (she’d lost half her body weight). My mother pinched in her beautiful Cupid’s bow lips and sighed. She said, I’ll get you some library books.

At Bryn Mawr, then the upper class college for very intelligent girls, Quaker liberals pretended there were no quotas on the number of Jewish or African-American students. But there was one and only one unbelievably talented and presentable African-American student per class. The Quaker ethos also mandated that students’ wealth not be mentioned. As a scholarship student, I took my teachers at their word and believed money was irrelevant. I ignored confusing comments by other girls about wild nights after events called deb parties and cotillions.

But Heller’s New Haven classroom was a different story. Joe Heller told many of his truths and fiercely. (I later learned he had a group of male friends who called themselves the Gourmet Club including Mario Puzo and Mel Brooks who ate meals together and shouted true things. Puzo once announced that sexual intercourse was flawed because it leads to kissing.)

By the way here’s a physical description: Heller was a bit too fleshy, his graying curly hair unsuccessfully tamped down, and he had long sideburns. To me he looked like he’d just indulged his appetite for food at the expense of other physical activities. Years later he slimmed down, styled his curling white hair and became, I’ve read, something of a ladies’ man. Susan Brownmiller told me recently that his late wife had asked her if I was having an affair with him. The idea had never entered my mind. It would be like lusting after the haughty stone lions guarding the entrance of the New York Public Library. I told his daughter Erica as much, after she confided that when he died, women called her from all over the country to remember inappropriately romantic nights with Joe.

Since Joe Heller’s classroom persona was street tough, not ivy-league professor, I wasn’t surprised to read his gritty short stories set in poolrooms and on street corners. I discovered the stories in small literary magazines at Yale’s Sterling library.

He did have one taboo.

Funnily enough, he pretty much refused to talk about literature, a holy subject that didn’t fit his street attitude. (He did once mumble awe for Samuel Beckett.) Oh, and he didn’t teach playwriting either.

He had one subject. Himself.

Thus, as I’d hoped, he inadvertently gave me clues about how to be a writer. He said he got his best ideas waking up — that’s why he tried to take two afternoon naps. He said he spent twelve years writing Catch-22, nights on the kitchen table. By day, he wrote dog and pony shows – millions of dollars worth of seductive presentations to lure advertisers to McCalls’ magazine. He bragged that his slide show The Pages That Sell was the main attraction at his last sales convention. He added, I’m a born promotion man. Whereupon Henry Winkler stage whispered, If I wrote Catch-22, I’d bill myself as a born novelist. Heller laughed with the rest of us.

I kept re-reading Catch-22. I admired Joe Heller so much. As an artist, he dared to write the unthinkable: that it’s totally insane to be 22 years old and to see another soldier’s half-digested lunch spill in a bloody mess out of his flak jacket after he’d been pulverized by a bomb.

Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream widly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out…Here was God’s plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared-liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, and bits of stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch….Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of garbage… The spirit gone, man is garbage…

“I’m cold,” Snowden said. “I’m cold.”

This passage of Catch-22 is immortal. As is the anti-war message of the book. I believe it’s up there with To Kill A Mockingbird and Portnoy’s Complaint as the best American novels of the 20th century.

Six weeks into the class, the student editor of an excellent brand-new Yale student/faculty magazine the New Journal recruited my professor husband. I boldly interrupted to ask to write about Joe Heller. I told the editor Dan Yergin that I’d written down every single word Joe Heller says in class. They’re all about Joseph Heller. (Dan Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is now acknowledged by the Financial Times of London as the expert on the world oil crisis.)

A week after Danny gave me the go-ahead, I corner Heller after class. An expression of fear widened his eyes after I insisted on accompanying him on the train back to Manhattan so I could ask questions for an article.

At first I failed to get him to answer my fifty typed questions. He refused to take me seriously because I was a young, inexperienced woman. He was, I now think, far more comfortable in the company of men. Worse yet, I admitted I wasn’t being paid to write the article about him.

You’re lying, he said sarcastically. Somebody’s gotta be paying you a lot of money to follow me around.

Opening his New York Times and lifting it high in front of his face, he asked, Tell me again why you’re writing this article. You’re probably a crazy person.

I raised an eyebrow: could be.

From behind the newspaper he whispered, sometimes I sit in the dining car and ride for free. Follow me and cross your fingers.

Not the sort of lofty lesson I expected from a highbrow literary icon, I thought, smashing my pages of unanswered questions into my pocket book.

When we arrived in Manhattan and I pressed, he reluctantly allowed me to trail him to a quick meeting with his witty, precocious editor Bob Gottlieb who’d cut a third of the Catch-22 manuscript.

Don’t talk, Heller warned me beforehand, maybe you’ll learn something.

That night I woke up at 2 AM to write our halting train conversation as a funny scene in a play. Endorphins abounded.

Interviewer: Isn’t it a funny feeling that so many people you don’t even know were so moved by your book?

Heller: No, no, not a funny feeling. It’s a good feeling. See that guy over there (He points to a man across the aisle of the dining car drinking soup and engrossed in a paperback.) When my book first came out in paper, I’d get into the subway  and look at the books people were reading. If the paperback had blue edges, it was Dell. My book is published by Dell, so then I’d try and see the cover. If the guy was reading my book, it was a good feeling.

Interviewer: Can I ask about your war experiences?

Heller: I’ll say this and only this. When I was a bombardier in the army, I was so high in the clouds that when we hit a bridge, you couldn’t tell if there were people on it or not. It was surreal. It’s still surreal.

Interviewer: How do you feel about the rehearsals of your play.

Heller: (blurts nervously) Who’s nervous. I’m a veteran of the theater now. After two weeks experience, I’ve learned to suffer excruciating torture without making a sound while they blow my play.

In the weeks that followed, I was so scared to confide my thoughts about Heller to paper that I got under my down comforter to write in longhand on a legal pad. Somehow, in my bed, my private turf, I worked up the nerve.

Enriched by my observations, classroom notes, as well as interviews with copywriters now doing Joe Heller’s former job at McCall’s magazine, I wrote and re-wrote a piece that’s been reprinted in anthologies.

Days after the article was published, I met Heller by accident at Yale’s Sterling library checkout desk. His voice shook as he said he liked my article very very much. I was touched. I wasn’t surprised that underneath his tough-guy attitude, he was mush.

Please write a letter to the editor, I said, totally surprising myself.

Heller wrote: I found the article by Susan Braudy one of the most interesting and thorough articles I ever read about anyone, especially me.

Joe Heller remains the rare person who told me he liked what I’d written about him.

His letter launched me. Many editors in Manhattan are Yale graduates who admired the New Journal. New York magazine eagerly bought my piece on Joe Heller ($350) and the New York Times Magazine gave me a fistful of assignments.

Thus, I jumped to writing about other culture heroes like James Taylor. I was cast as a celebrity journalist. I chose my subjects, interviewed family and friends, and read everything ever written by and about each subject. I analyzed their work and hung around each of them inconspicuously, eavesdropping, occasionally chatting with them, and absorbing their gestures and utterances.

The payoff was sweet. I confided my innermost hunches, feelings and judgments in my articles. I also lived vicariously through my subjects — as does the public, but I had amazing access. It’s akin to the joy impoverished people must have felt building magnificent cathedrals.

Being a reporter required developing new psychic muscle. I figured I was probably smart enough. But I had to try not to fall apart at rejection from my article subjects and their fierce managers.

My mother liked to say, Susan’s afraid of her own shadow. I longed to prove her wrong.

Studying Heller had made one other thing clear: I had to get myself to New York. I dreamed of a city populated with blunt, tough talking idealists like Joseph Heller.

I still treasure things he said in passing like, I’m gonna live forever or die in the attempt.

Check Out Some Great Books by Joseph Heller

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