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I Remember Joe Heller -- Part 3

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Continued from Part 2

"When I moved to Venice, I realized my address was my dream." -- Marcel Proust

Six weeks into Joseph Heller's playwriting class, the student editor of an excellent Yale magazine the New Journal recruited my professor husband. I interrupted and boldly asked to write about Joe Heller. I told the editor, Dan Yergin, that I'd written down every single word Joe Heller says in class. They're all about Joseph Heller.

Danny gave me the go-ahead, so I cornered Heller after class. An expression of fear widened his eyes after I insisted on accompanying him on the train back to Manhattan to interview him.

At first he refused to take me seriously because I was a young, inexperienced woman. He was, I now think, far more comfortable in the company of men. Worse yet, I admitted I wasn't being paid to write about him.

You're lying, he said sarcastically. Somebody's gotta be paying you a lot of money to follow me around.

Opening his New York Times and lifting it high in front of his face, he asked, "Tell me again why you're writing this article. You're probably a crazy person."

I raised an eyebrow: "Could be."

From behind the newspaper he whispered, "Sometimes I sit in the dining car and ride for free. Follow me and cross your fingers."

Not the sort of lofty lesson I expected from a highbrow literary icon, I thought, smashing my pages of unanswered questions into my pocket book.

When we arrived in Manhattan and I pressed, he reluctantly allowed me to trail him to a quick meeting with his witty, precocious editor Bob Gottlieb who'd cut a third of the Catch-22 manuscript.

Don't talk, Heller warned me beforehand, maybe you'll learn something.

That night I woke up at 2 a.m. to write our halting train conversation as a funny scene in a play. Endorphins abounded.

Interviewer: Isn't it a funny feeling that so many people you don't even know were so moved by your book?

Heller: No, no, not a funny feeling. It's a good feeling. See that guy over there (He points to a man across the aisle of the dining car drinking soup and engrossed in a paperback.) When my book first came out in paper, I'd get into the subway and look at the books people were reading. If the paperback had blue edges, it was Dell. My book is published by Dell, so then I'd try and see the cover. If the guy was reading my book, it was a good feeling.

Interviewer: Can I ask about your war experiences?

Heller: I'll say this and only this. When I was a bombardier in the army, I was so high in the clouds that when we hit a bridge, you couldn't tell if there were people on it or not. It was surreal. It's still surreal.

Interviewer: How do you feel about the rehearsals of your play.

Heller: (blurts nervously) Who's nervous. I'm a veteran of the theater now. After two weeks experience, I've learned to suffer excruciating torture without making a sound while they blow my play.

In the weeks that followed, I was so scared to confide my thoughts about Heller to paper that I got under my down comforter to write in longhand on a legal pad. Somehow, in my bed, my private turf, I worked up the nerve. I still treasure things he said in passing like, I'm gonna live forever or die in the attempt.

Enriched by my observations, classroom notes, as well as interviews with copywriters now doing Joe Heller's former job at McCall's magazine, I wrote and re-wrote a piece that's been reprinted in anthologies.

Days after the article was published, I met Heller by accident at Yale's Sterling library checkout desk. His voice shook as he said he liked my article very very much. I was touched. I wasn't surprised that underneath his tough-guy attitude, he was mush.

Please write a letter to the editor, I said, totally surprising myself.

Heller wrote: I found the article by Susan Braudy one of the most interesting and thorough articles I ever read about anyone, especially me.

Joe Heller remains the rare person who told me he liked what I'd written about him.

His letter launched me. Many editors in Manhattan were Yale graduates who admired the New Journal. New York magazine eagerly bought my piece on Joe Heller ($350) and the New York Times Magazine gave me a fistful of assignments.

Thus, I jumped to writing about other culture heroes like James Taylor. I was cast as a celebrity journalist. I chose my subjects, interviewed family and friends, and read everything ever written by and about each subject. I analyzed their work and hung around each of them inconspicuously, eavesdropping, occasionally chatting with them, and absorbing their gestures and utterances.

The payoff was sweet. I confided my innermost hunches, feelings and judgments in my articles. I also lived vicariously through my subjects -- as does the public, but I had amazing access. It's akin to the joy impoverished people must have felt building magnificent cathedrals.

Being a reporter required developing new psychic muscle. I figured I was probably smart enough. But I had to try not to fall apart at rejection from my article subjects and their fierce managers.

My mother liked to say that I was afraid of my own shadow. I longed to prove her wrong.

Studying Heller had made one other thing clear: I had to get myself to New York. I dreamed of a city populated with blunt, tough talking idealists like Joseph Heller.