Erica Heller is a New Yorker in her fifties. In her twenties and thirties she worked in advertising. Then she dropped out of the field and wrote a novel, Splinters – a natural thing to do when one is the daughter of the late Joseph Heller, author of Something Happened, God Knows, Good As Gold, and that all-time bestselling antiwar novel Catch-22.
Splinters was published in 1990 and, unlike most of her father’s books, was not well-received; Publishers Weekly called it “pretentious and self-indulgent.” So Ms. Heller went back to advertising, where she remains. Recently she began blogging on The Huffington Post. Just before election day, she wrote there that her father – who, she acknowledged, never voted in any election in his life, because he was, by his own admission, “anti-political” – would surely have trooped down to the booth, were he still living, to choose Sen. Barack Obama.
(That strikes me as doubtful. Heller, a very shrewd fellow as his many interviews attest, would have likely foreseen that doing so would help bring about the situation this week where Dr. Henry Kissinger, the target of innumerable venomous barbs in Good As Gold, expressed his support for the President-elect’s choosing Sen. Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State.)
This week, Ms. Heller, perhaps like many another writer with an Amazon sales ranking in the low seven digits, is on the warpath about the book deals being rumored for Gov. Sarah Palin and secured by Joe the Plumber. She seems convinced that S. J. Wurzelbacher is receiving a fortune from a small press for his book. In fact, what Joe is earning is probably just a shade above the $1000 or so her dad got for what was then Catch-18 nearly a half-century ago, and far below the advances for every other book he wrote.
Ms Heller also fulminates about the $7 million that’s being tossed around where the Palin book is concerned, bemoaning all the trees that will fall to make it. Well, President Clinton was paid considerably better for his memoirs. And a lot of trees fell to get it to the stores. And, most strikingly of all, that rather soporific tome was edited by none other than Robert Gottlieb, the brilliant editor who helped make Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 a classic. (I should point out Mr. Gottlieb always has my admiration. Imagine being in one’s late seventies and fielding 3 am calls from the man who remains the First Night Owl, not to mention trying to get Robert Caro to finish those last thousand pages of his LBJ saga.)
Most bizarre of all is an aside where Ms. Heller reminisces about the good old days when Catch-22 is published and in which the series Mad Men is set. She reminds us that back when Roger Maris was earning his asterisk, gas was 33 cents a gallon and stamps were four cents. Well, guess what? If her liberal idols in Congress and the White House can’t figure out how to get us out of the recession and deflation sets in, prices may drop to those levels again. The difference will be that you won’t see too many people wearing clothes as good as the ones in Mad Men. On the bright side, there will be plenty of free grass, growing up from the sidewalks, and in some places from the floorboards.
Speaking of Robert Gottlieb, time for me to tell my favorite story about his many quirks. A friend of mine – we’ll call him Hank, because his first name’s the same as Gottlieb’s – was in the early ’60s an up-and-coming editor, as Gottlieb was. One day he got a call from his colleague. “Come over for lunch,” quoth young Bob. His habit, then as now, was always to eat a sandwich at his own desk at Simon & Schuster (and, later, Knopf), so Hank stopped at an Italian deli, got some antipasto, and proceeded to S&S’s offices.
This particular afternoon, incidentally, was a day or two after JFK’s speech announcing the presence of Russian missiles in Cuba. Things were pretty weird in Manhattan all around. Even so, Hank was a bit surprised, when he arrived at Bob’s office, to find it unoccupied. Assuming that the editor was in the restroom, he waited a while in the hallway. Then he asked Gottlieb’s secretary where he was. “In there – he hasn’t left all day,” she replied.
So Hank stepped in and approached his friend’s desk. There came a whisper – from under it. “That you, Hank?” Hank stepped around and found Gottlieb crouched underneath, sandwich in hand. “I talked to my shrink this morning – he sounded kinda worried,” Bob said by way of explanation. “There’s some space here – sit down.” So Hank squeezed in and took out the antipasto. “Just a second,” said Bob. He then emerged from the desk, went to the window, lowered the blinds, and got back under. Thus suitably protected from the threat of The Big One – in an office in the midsection of a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan – the two young editors dined and chatted as usual.
Ah, those wild, crazy days of Mad Men.