"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." Said Samuel Johnson. My father, the author Joseph Heller, who wrote Catch-22, which turns 50 years old today, was tired of neither.
He died in 1999, at the age of seventy-six. To say that he was a complex man, is akin to saying that the Empire State Building is tall. He was sometimes brash, sometimes coy, disturbingly cryptic, but about the UK he was none of those things. In fact, he may have loved England more than any place on earth.
After serving as a bombardier in World War II and flying sixty missions over Italy, he came back to New York, met and married the girl of his dreams, although he didn't know she was. (She had red hair and freckles and he claimed, before he met her, to dislike both.) But he took one look at her fragile beauty, her flamingo's legs, heard her rueful laugh, gleaned that she was witty, a rare verbal match for him, and knew at once he didn't have a prayer. Writing, and my mother, would turn out to be the great loves of his life. After they married, he enrolled in college on the U.S. G.I. Plan, went to New York University, received an M.A. in English from Columbia University, and then won a Fulbright scholarship and attended Oxford the year of 1949--1950.
My parents lived that year on very little money and I still have a sweater of Mom's from that year, the thickest, itchiest sweater I've ever seen, but she said if they didn't wear at least several of those to bed at night, each one's teeth would chatter so loudly, they'd keep the other one awake.
One night my father's Oxford don and his wife were invited to dinner, as I recounted recently, in my book, Yossarian Slept Here, When Joseph Heller Was Dad and Life Was a Catch-22. My parents were on a very strict budget and my mother went to great trouble to make sure that the meal she was preparing, spaghetti and meatballs, would be up to her guests' predictably high standards. Unfortunately, lost in a compelling conversation with the don about T.S. Eliot while she was cooking, she neglected to realize that she was stirring her madly boiling sauce with a plastic spoon and at some point, it simply disappeared. Dinner was moved to a favorite pub down the road, but this was a story my father told well and often, and when he did, it was easy to see that at the time, he was crazy about Mom and crazy about Oxford.
In Dad's later years, under my mother's patient tutelage, he came to favor Turnbull & Asser shirts. He loved Beyond the Fringe. His favorite television show, ever, was Jimmy McGovern's Cracker. But not just Cracker. The almost scarily talented British journalist and author Robert Chalmers, who interviewed me recently for The Independent about my book and first interviewed Dad in 1993, wrote to me that: "I was very surprised (though I shouldn't have been) at the way he instantly understood and loved the first (and only) BBC Radio Four Series of Knowing Me Knowing You, the comedy written by Steve Coogan and Patrick Marber ... they were wholly unknown then, and the character of that satire on a chat show was so realistic that the BBC received many letters from listeners complaining about host Alan Partridge [Coogan]'s behaviour on air: taking cocaine, punching an eight year old child prodigy, and gambling away his wife's car etc etc.
Joe recognised it as a classic instantly." Dad claimed that nowhere on earth could one find a martini superior to those he found in London, and since he traveled widely to publicize his books, (Catch-22 is has been published in something like 93 countries), I for one will have to take his word on that.
Late in life, Dad was given a chair at St. Catherine's College and he and his second wife would travel, to Oxford and live there for a time each year. He couldn't get over his luck. He loved those times and couldn't get over the fact that while at Oxford, so little was required of him, mainly that he be accessible to students.
"People change and forget to tell each other," wrote Lillian Hellman.
My parents divorced in 1981. Not every marriage is meant to last a lifetime and not every man has the character to withstand the circus of fame and fortune and celebrity and emerge with that character intact.
I have never read Catch-22, not all the way through, although I have tried more times than Yossarian flew missions. I am actually determined to read the whole book now and have begun, yet again, with the sturdiest intentions. I am overwhelmed each time, literally, by its mordant, scathing humor, its brilliant play of language, the span and scope of its powerful message. Dad was not a political person per se, and yet he saw it all, the hypocrisy, in government, in corporations, in the mightiest and meagerest of exchanges between people. The phrase Catch-22 entered our language and our dictionaries and I believe it will stay there. That alone is remarkable.
Chalmers said: "Heller remains deeply treasured here, possibly more than in his own country." The feeling was mutual.
When my father was growing up in Brooklyn, very poor, and still in grade school, his mother, a Russian immigrant, told him that he had a twisted brain. But who can say what constitutes twisted?
To the first book that emerged from that twisted brain, I say Happy 50th Anniversary, Catch-22. Long may you live and continue to dazzle twisted brains everywhere.
And may my own finally be among them.
You can buy Erica's book Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller was Dad and Life was a Catch-22 by clicking here.
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