My father, Joseph Heller, had literary and artistic friends. But Joe's crowd was not, shall we say, exactly Gertrude Stein's Parisian Salon, either in real life or as recreated recently by Woody Allen in his dreamy cinematic bonbon Midnight in Paris. Nor was it The Algonquin Roundtable, the literary lunch and boozy barbfest held at the New York hotel, from 1919-1929.
My family memoir, Yossarian Slept Here, When Joe Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22, revolves around stories dealing of growing up around a literary father, and ever since it came out, people have asked me, genuinely curious, about what other famous authors we used to have in our orbit when growing up. Who did Joe hang with? How did he have fun? Did these writers constantly talk shop; deconstruct their own work and grouse about current projects? Well, certainly not. If the Algonquin lunches were nicknamed "The Vicious Circle," I have a feeling my father's club, dubbed by its own members The Gourmet Club, with Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, Mario Puzo, George Mandel, Speed Vogel, Joe Stein, Carl Reiner and select others, might have been called the "Delicious Circle."
These guys met weekly, ate in Chinatown, seated around a big round table, laughed a lot and ate gargantuan portions (mostly my father), but the rest of their adventures were shrouded in an elaborate, deliberate secrecy befitting the Masons, only in this case, I have a feeling they had more in common with Jackie.
Of course, the basis for this can only be what I've heard and read since, unlike Gertie's Gang and the Algonquinites, the Gourmet Club was decidedly not a coed collaboration. All wives, mistresses, kids, girlfriends, pets, anyone else were banned. The locations of these meetings were deliberately kept secret. The routine was said to never vary. Then again, who knows? This is only what we were all told. It was rumored once, that one of the members' wives had followed her husband to a meeting, an actress with regal comportment and not a shy tongue, and since she was there already, was allowed to stay and eat. But halfway through the feast, bored and exasperated, she looked around the table and asked all the men: "Is this all you do? Eat and make jokes about each other?" My father was said to have looked at her as if her head were on fire and then, without missing a beat, asked her to pass the duck sauce.
Thanks to the Gourmet Club, more often than not, Dad's evenings of recreation and creative amusement ended more as Midnight at the Rickshaw Garage than Midnight in Paris. This was because his pal, artist Irving, aka Speed Vogel, would pick up Dad, George and Julius, aka Julie Green, all Upper West Siders, in his Jeep, drive them to Chinatown and park in the Rickshaw Garage on the then seedy, now posh Bowery.
As I wrote in "Yossarian Slept Here," this weekly gustatory extravaganza started when Dad's artist friend Speed Vogel met fellow artist Ngoot Lee. Both men had studios in the same small walk-up building on West 28th Street. One day, Speed followed the aroma of Ngoot's cooking and was invited to supper. Soon Zero Mostel, another tenant with a painting studio in the building, ate with them, too. Eventually Dad was invited along with Mario Puzo, writer and artist George Mandel, Julie Green, theatrical writer Joe Stein, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Different members were accorded differing status. Finally, Ngoot complained that all these guys ever did was come and sit at his table and eat all his food, week after week, and had never once thought to take the poor guy out to dinner and give him a night off. From then on, the moveable feast moved to Chinatown.
In later years, the hard-core, inner circle of the Gourmet Club had mostly all moved out to the Hamptons year-round. They met and worked out at a health club in Southampton a few times a week and then all went out to lunch, flirted outrageously with the waitresses, vowed not to discuss their encroaching ailments or current medications, but word has it that they always ended up doing it anyway.
So, what do famous writers talk about when they're together? My father loved George Mandel, Kurt Vonnegut, James Jones and Irwin Shaw, but when they gabbed or kibitzed together somewhere, did they talk about literature? I wish I knew. With Mario, what I remember most is them talking about food. The one time I happened to be at a cocktail party with my father, in Sag Harbor, where many other writers had also been assembled for the occasion, each writer struck me as faintly annoyed by the presence of all the others. They stood around awkwardly, markedly irritable and distracted by each other. I did manage that night to overhear some chatter, but it was all about the high cost of gas, how lousy the president was, and the indecent cost of Hamptons real estate. Nothing especially literary or highbrow there.
Although he took well to the trappings of celebrity, Dad seldom lost his footing. He labored hard at his work like any dedicated, disciplined worker. He stayed, mostly, grounded. When he didn't, there were always good old friends around, the kind who tell you the truth, to drag him immediately back from the firmament to the fundament. He ate well, drank well and talked well. An evening with the Christophers, Buckley and Hitchens, or with Kinky Friedman and Don Imus, for instance, was not to be missed. He looked forward to such times as a child does Christmas morning, but his Christmases had two Santas.
Today, few members of the die-hard Gourmet Club are still around and those who are, aren't talking. So we are left to wonder, still, about the jokes, the hilarity, the bon mots that must have ricocheted around that table like bullets spitting off tin.
No, it wasn't Paris or the Algonquin, Picasso wasn't there brooding and Dorothy Parker wasn't there quipping, but oh, what I wouldn't give to have been there just once to see what those brilliant, gabby, kvetchy rapscallions were up to, even if I had only been there to pass around the duck sauce.
And speaking of poultry, an occasion which perhaps best describes the fact that fun for Joe never needed to be necessarily intellectual or pretentious, consider an occasion in East Hampton, in the late 70s. My parents were at the home of an author friend and were out that night with Arthur and Barbara Gelb; good friends, Apthorp neighbors, Eugene O' Neill aficionados. (Oh, and in his spare time, Arthur also managed the New York Times.) As their host, a Southern bon vivant, prepared dinner, following the group's guzzling of mucho margaritas, he regaled his company with risqué tidbits about growing up on a farm, mentioning certain dalliances d'amour he'd permitted himself with various barnyard stock.
"Tell me, is there much foreplay with a chicken?" my father, Joe Heller asked, with an aptly puckish grin.