Kurt Vonnegut taught me a lot. Joe Heller, too. They taught me the value of friendship by sharing their hearts when they offered me the opportunity to interview them. They were witty, candid, and open about their experiences with war, love, Hollywood, sex, critics. So I wrote My Friendship with Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller (Amazon) in memory of these great literary figures. Kurt gave me three interviews and I felt like one of his students, humbled at his knees.
Why an 84-year-old Kurt Vonnegut, a national treasure, died walking a dog -- not even his dog -- makes me angry. Smoking, drinking and his obstreperous ways did not deliver the coup de grace. The leash wrapped around his leg and he fell down the stairs of his Manhattan brownstone. He didn't die instantly, but suffered internal hemorrhage for weeks. Why wasn't someone caring for him? I would have walked that dog. But he was a married man. He was living in a cocoon. He chose his life to be this way.
There was nothing sexual in our friendship. We shared a love of the written word. Joe Heller was his close friend who also felt protective of Kurt. In my interview between them, Joe covers for Kurt who does not feel comfortable talking about sex.
Joe welcomed the opportunity to talk about love, about women. Joe was more open then Kurt about these matters, but together they were a loving combination of wisdom and openness to discussing the challenges to becoming great writers.
On February 13, 1945, "Quartered in a slaughterhouse" built for pigs Vonnegut survived the firebombing of Dresden in which 135, 000 Germans burned to death, the largest massacre in European history. A prisoner of war who was awarded a Purple Heart, Vonnegut dug graves for their charred remains; those black memories haunted and inspired him. He has been called one of the few contemporary writers who can make you laugh despite the circumstances -or rather, because of them. Slaughterhouse Five was his esteemed novel which he wrote about these events.
Joe Heller was another veteran who gave us the ability to laugh at bleak circumstances. He gave us the phrase Catch 22 based on the title of his bestselling novel. Futility of war. Futility of many things, except laughter.
Longing to hear them talk about women and recalling the famous question posed to Jimmy Carter, with irony I asked, "Is there anyone for whom you lust in your heart?"
"My goodness!" Kurt said.
"Madonna. Madonna!" Joe said, pounding the table.
"Seemed to me the sexiest woman I ever saw was Ava Gardner," Kurt said, lowering his eyelids.
"Rita Hayworth. I took it hard when she came down with Alzheimer's."
"Joe, were you serious about Madonna?" I asked.
"No," Joe said.
"Could we talk about Hollywood and your experiences with it?" I asked.
"I love it," Joe said.
"Kurt, I gather you're less enthralled in dealing with Hollywood?" I asked.
"No... I say -- and this is one of my shticks. I say there are two novelists who should be very grateful to Hollywood. Margaret Mitchell is one for Gone with the Wind and I'm the other one for Slaughterhouse Five. What did you think about the movie Catch 22?" Kurt asked Joe.
"I loved the idea of the movie, but I can't judge it objectively," Joe said.
"Well, you must have liked it or not liked it," Kurt said.
"I liked it each time I saw it, but I don't know if I'd like it if it weren't mine. I go to few movies. Thelma and Louise is the first movie I've seen in years. I liked it. Well, a year ago I saw that Italian film I liked, Cinema Paradiso. I usually don't like the movies," Joes said.
"Aren't Thelma and Louise different from the women you knew growing up? Haven't you seen women change a bit?" I asked.
"A lot of women are finding out it's impossible to be super moms. That you really cannot hold a job and spend much time mothering," Kurt said.
"If you're asking us about women... if you're going to pick Madonna as representative of anything... Madonna is Madonna. Thelma and Louise are two fictionalized characters in a motion picture script. But that's not a real murder. No more than watching Germans being blown in the air in Guns of the Navarone," Joe said.
Proud of my Playboy interview, I sent it to some friends in the media. Diane Sawyer wrote, "I loved the rap session with the boys..."
And I loved the opportunity to have a friendship with Kurt Vonnegut and Joe Heller.