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When Fame And My Father Met: Joseph Heller's Own Catch-22

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JOSEPH HELLER

Why on earth would anyone want to be famous? This is a question I have pondered often during my adult life. Although I've certainly not faced the dilemma firsthand, I did have a chance to witness the next best thing, growing up and seeing the spectacular transformation of my father, Joseph Heller, author extraordinaire. No one else I've ever known complained so much about going to parties, then arrived so early and stayed so late. He relished every interview, every opportunity to plug the merch, even if before and afterwards he joked about what a moron his interlocutor was. No PR was bad PR. There was no such thing as a bad meal if the tab was being picked up by a paper or a magazine. And being recognized in the street for your work was not an invasion of privacy, it was a festival.

But did this poor Coney Island schnook -- who ran off to World War II, flew 60 bombing missions over Italy and then came home to marry the girl of his dreams -- have the character to withstand the changes that were ahead when Catch-22 turned this teacher, ad-man, father of two and modest Upper West Sider into a big-shot?

As I wrote about in my recent family memoir, Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22, when Catch-22 was first published, my parents, their excitement uncontainable, would frequently jump into a cab late at night and ride around the city to see the book stacked in displays in prominent bookstore windows, giggling. My own life changed after Catch-22 caught on because from then on, it was permissible to order pricey shrimp cocktails in the Italian restaurant we frequented, near to the Apthorp, where we lived. Before Catch, these much-vaunted, chubby, juicy delights had been deemed far too extravagant. I was also put (amazingly, with my dreadful grades) into private school, and we moved across the grand courtyard of the Apthorp to a far larger, more splendid apartment.

Dad kept writing and for years kept teaching, but along the way he had started to become a celebrity.

My father's editor and great believer in his talent from the outset, Robert Gottlieb, had this to say recently about my father, for whom he's always had great affection: "Nobody ever enjoyed his success more than Joe," and he ought to know, having edited John Cheever, Salman Rushdie, Bob Dylan, Barbara Tuchman, Nora Ephron, Bruno Bettelheim, Toni Morrison, Jessica Mitford, John Lennon and many others.

As for me and my memoir, I wrote my book while holed up in the Apthorp for almost two years, with my frisky, barking terrier, Lola, starting it right after the place had become a bit of a demolition zone. While I was growing up, the Apthorp was buzzing, humming with life, the waiting list for these coveted rental apartments longer than the lines at the Zabar's smoked fish counter. Balanchine lived here. Lena Horne, a mustard heiress and a state attorney general. Miss Americas!

These days, construction men seem to outnumber the tenants, and apartments are only shown to potential buyers after 5:00 p.m., when the day's drilling and crashing and hammering have been concluded. It was here, in this Castle of Apthorpia, where I've been the sole tenant on my floor for the past two years on a floor with five apartments, that I hammered out my pages. Along the way, I was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer, had a striking A-Z catalog of respiratory infections and fungal thrush in my throat for nearly a year. Who wanted to be famous? I only wanted to finish.

Now I am a publicist's nightmare. Not only do I not want to (publicly) discuss my book, I don't even want people to read my book, only buy it. My Dutch ex-husband, not known for his philosophical astigmatism, laughed wryly recently and said, rightly: "But the stories you wrote in your book are no longer your stories. You sold them." And this is true. After midnight on Tuesday, my official publication date, Simon and Schuster will formally take possession of many of my choicest memories.

My telling of these stories, I have no doubt, will fail to make me a celebrity. But apart from their own quality, which I am the least objective about assessing, being a star has never been a goal for me. (Paying my rent has.) I saw up close how much character it requires to withstand the tests involved, and what can I say? I have never done well on tests.

A good, although certainly disturbing, example of this was when, after 38 years -- when my parents had separated, reunited and broken apart for the final time -- several days after my father had left the Apthorp, he took an old family friend to lunch at the Plaza. During lunch, he complained bitterly about my mother to this woman, a friend to them both for over 40 years. "We had a fight and Shirley actually said 'Fuck you' to me, can you imagine?" he asked the friend. Dad was obviously still seething. "I mean, 'Fuck you,' to me?"

"Well, maybe you provoked her, Joe," the friend offered. "When you want to, you know you can drive anyone crazy."

Dad put down his knife and fork and cleared his throat. She had clearly missed the point. "But that's not it," he told her, "You don't say 'Fuck you' to the author of Catch-22," he explained to her, upon which she nearly fell on the floor with astonishment because he had become such a charmless believer in his own schtick.

I wasn't there but can well imagine the scene.

My mother hadn't said "Fuck you" to the author of Catch-22, she had said it to her husband. But by then, they'd become mind-bogglingly intertwined.

And neither one had heard her.

Erica Heller's book, Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22, is out today on Simon & Schuster