Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923 in Brooklyn, New York & died on December 12, 1999 in East Hampton, New York, was an American satirical novelist, short story writer and playwright. He wrote the influential novel Catch-22 about American servicemen during World War II. The title of this work entered the English lexicon to refer to absurd, no-win choices, particularly in situations in which the desired outcome of the choice is an impossibility, and regardless of choice, the same negative outcome is a certainty. Heller is widely regarded as one of the best post–World War II satirists. Although he is remembered primarily for Catch-22, his other works center on the lives of various members of the middle class and remain exemplars of modern satire.
Joseph Heller was born in Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, the son of poor Jewish parents, Lena and Isaac Donald Heller, from Russia. Even as a child, he loved to write; as a teenager, he wrote a story about the Russian invasion of Finland and sent it to New York Daily News, which rejected it. At least one scholar suggests that he knew that he wanted to become a writer, after recalling that he received a children’s version of the Iliad when he was ten. After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, Heller spent the next year working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, a messenger boy, and a filing clerk. In 1942, at age 19, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to Italian Front, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier. His Unit was the 488th Bombardment Squadron, 340th Bomb Group, 12th Air Force. Heller later remembered the war as “fun in the beginning… You got the feeling that there was something glorious about it.” On his return home he “felt like a hero… People think it quite remarkable that I was in combat in an airplane and I flew sixty missions even though I tell them that the missions were largely milk runs.”(“Milk Runs” were combat missions, but mostly uneventful due to a lack of intense opposition from enemy anti-aircraft artillery or fighters.)
After the war, Heller studied English at the University of Southern California and NYU on the G.I. Bill. In 1949, he received his M.A. in English from Columbia University. Following his graduation, he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford University. After returning home, he taught composition at Pennsylvania State University for two years. He also taught fiction and dramatic writing at Yale. He then briefly worked for Time, Inc., before taking a job as a copywriter at a small advertising agency, where he worked alongside future novelist Mary Higgins Clark. At home, Heller would write. He was first published in 1948, when The Atlantic ran one of his short stories. That first story nearly won the “Atlantic First.”
He was married to Shirley Held from 1945–1981 and they had two children, Erica (born 1952) and Ted (born 1956).
In the 1970s Heller taught creative writing at the City College of New York. After the publication of Catch-22, Heller resumed a part-time academic career as a teacher of creative writing at Yale University and at the University of Pennsylvania.
On Sunday, December 13, 1981, Heller was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a debilitating syndrome that was to leave him temporarily paralyzed. He was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of Mount Sinai Medical Hospital the same day (Heller 1986, pp. 23–34), and remained there, bedridden, until his condition had improved enough to permit his transfer to the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, which occurred on January 26, 1982 (Heller 1986, pp. 170–174). His illness and recovery are recounted at great length in the autobiographical No Laughing Matter (Heller 1986), which contains alternating chapters by Heller and his good friend Speed Vogel. The book reveals the assistance and companionship Heller received during this period from a number of his prominent friends—Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo, Dustin Hoffman and George Mandel among them.
Heller eventually made a substantial recovery. In 1984, while in the process of divorcing his wife of 35 years, he met Valerie Humphries, the nurse who had helped him to recover, and later married her.
Heller returned to St. Catherine’s as a visiting Fellow, for a term, in 1991 and was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the college. In 1998, he released a memoir, Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, in which he relived his childhood as the son of a deliveryman and offered some details about the inspirations for Catch-22.
He died of a heart attack at his home in East Hampton, on Long Island, in December 1999, shortly after the completion of his final novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man. On hearing of Heller’s death, his friend Kurt Vonnegut said, “Oh, God, how terrible. This is a calamity for American letters.”
In April 1998, Lewis Pollock wrote to The Sunday Times for clarification as to “the amazing similarity of characters, personality traits, eccentricities, physical descriptions, personnel injuries and incidents” in Catch-22 and a novel published in England in 1951. The book that spawned the request was written by Louis Falstein and titled The Sky is a Lonely Place in Britain and Face of a Hero in the United States. Falstein’s novel was available two years before Heller wrote the first chapter of Catch-22 (1953) while he was a student at Oxford. The Times stated: “Both have central characters who are using their wits to escape the aerial carnage; both are haunted by an omnipresent injured airman, invisible inside a white body cast”. Stating he had never read Falstein’s novel, or heard of him, Heller said: “My book came out in 1961 I find it funny that nobody else has noticed any similarities, including Falstein himself, who died just last year” (The Washington Post, April 27, 1998).