Joseph Heller was born in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn on May 1, 1923, the son of Isaac Donald Heller, who drove a delivery truck for a wholesale baker, and Lena Heller. The father died of complications from a bleeding ulcer when “Joey” was five. His mother raised her family as best she could, taking in boarders. Joey gained a reputation as a smart aleck adept at delivering acerbic one-liners and a great believer in playing practical jokes on his friends. His mother used to tell him, “Joey, you got a twisted brain.”
Heller attended P.S. 188 and spent a typical Coney Island boyhood looking for mischief on Surf Avenue. He loved to read the “Tom Swift” and “Rover Boys” books. When he was about 10, an older cousin got him to read a children’s version of Homer’s Iliad and that is when he decided to become a writer. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941. Heller worked during his school years, delivering telegrams. He held on to his aspiration to become a writer and he wrote some short stories that were published and well received.
Heller’s first job out of school was as a blacksmith at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia. At the outbreak of World War II he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He did this with some of his Brooklyn friends, who made a grand gesture of taking the oath of enlistment in Grand Central Terminal.
Heller went to a cadet school and became a bombardier, flying on 60 missions. He rose to the rank of lieutenant. After the war he took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights to attend the University of California and later New York University. His education continued with his earning a master’s in literature from Columbia, winning a Fulbright scholarship and studying at Oxford University in England in 1950.
Returning to the U.S. he taught at Pennsylvania State University, worked for Time magazine in advertising from 1952 to 1956 and did the same thing for Look magazine from 1956 to 1958. He also worked for McCalls magazine and in the advertising department of Remington Rand Typewriters.
Through these years he continued to write and his stories were published in Esquire, Atlantic Monthly and Cosmopolitan. It took Heller eight years to write Catch-22. The book’s title, a phrase Heller invented to epitomize his experiences as a bomber pilot, has become the term used to mean a bureaucratic runaround that is a common feature in modern society. It’s now an integral part of American lingo. The novel is an absurdist, antiwar black comedy that became a best seller. The film version made in 1970 starred another Brooklynite, Alan Arkin, as the reluctant pilot Yossarian. Heller’s later writings include the novels Something Happened (’74), Good as Gold (’79) and God Knows (’84), as well as an account of his battle with Guillain-Barré syndrome (a debilitating depressive disorder), No Laughing Matter (’86).
To all his work, Heller brought the sort of street-smart insights and wiseguy attitudes he gained growing up on the streets of Brooklyn — an experience he describes in his 1998 memoir Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here.
Heller’s reputation as a lovable grump with a quick stinging wit apparently was well earned. In his later years it is said that he showed signs of becoming a softie. When he contracted the debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome in 1981, he was nearly paralyzed and feared the remainder of his days would be spent as an invalid. But he fought back, gained strength, and fell in love with one of his nurses, Valerie Humphries, who became his second wife. Heller had divorced his first wife, Shirley Held, in 1984. They had a daughter, Erica, and a son, Ted.
Joseph Heller died of a heart attack December 12, 1999, at his home in East Hampton, where his wife, Valerie, tried unsuccessfully to revive him.
Asked once what his biggest fears were, Heller replied: “I fear death, nursing homes and vaccinations.” But he came to grips with death, he said, explaining: “Everyone else seems to get through it all right so it couldn’t be too difficult for me.”
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“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.” -An excerpt from Catch 22
—Compiled by Vernon Parker